Monday, December 28, 2009

Adrien's Land. . .

You learn a lot about people by seeing what they come from. That is why I promised Adrien about a month ago that I’d come and meet his family and see Tangueita, his city, along with his ancestral village where several of his brothers work.

Adrien came to my village, about 300 kilometers away, because he thought life would be better. Since the soil is more fertile, he could find money to live on while going to school. The plan worked out for him for a year, and after that I showed up. Three years after leaving, his life is pretty good.

I arrived in the late afternoon on my way home from the safari. Not long after we arrived, I repacked my bags and we headed into the country to see his mother. Night was coming quickly so we decided to spend the night. Now in my village, going “au champ” means taking one of the many well beaten trails into the country. I figured I was in for a relaxing ride on a moto. Wrong. It turned out the ride involved me dismounting and wading through a river, along with getting my shins whacked by bushes and tree trunks.

Adrien is helping push his brother's moto, pig in tow, across the river.

Soon I was in a completely different world. His brothers are farmers, and their houses were surrounded by farms. We stopped to greet his one brother, than continued on to see his other and meet his mother. Their houses were all made with mud brick. Each group of houses was walled in and included a grain cellar. The walls of the houses were up to my shoulders, attesting to the fact that his family is observably short. Livestock was in my face. The oxen were tied up next to the house. Pigs, guinea foul, chickens, and dogs were all hanging around waiting for their next meal.

The house where Adrien was raised.

Most of the time was spent outside. His brother gave us a guinea foul to kill. Adrien performed the sacrifice and his mother began cooking flat bean pancakes for us to eat as an appetizer while is sister-in-law prepared the main course. His mother was old - easily 70 years old. Her presence was quiet. She was shy and didn’t say much. She didn’t speak any French so I had to talk to her through Adrien.

Adrien's Mama

That night, Adrien, his friend Moïse, and I squeezed into a small room and went to sleep. The cold air woke me up in the middle of the night. The season harmattan is especially harsh in this part of the country, and the nights can be very cold. We huddled close for warmth and woke up early because of the cold.

Before leaving we took a series of pictures. Adrien with the cows. Adrien with the family. He wanted proof that we were there together, and pictures of himself with his family. We headed back on moto, taking the same path, crossing the same river, and shortly found ourselves in the city again.

Adrien and his younger brother with a cow.

Adrien with his Mama

We spent the afternoon in Tangueita, where we walked around greeting various family members. I caught myself getting annoyed and impatient as Adrien had to stop and greet every person he saw in his quarter of the city. We borrowed two motos and Adrien, Moïse, another friend Yempabo, and I headed out to see more of the city.

Adrien and his friends

They took me to see a mud structure where rituals of initiation are held. Teenagers are put in tiny mud huts and are left there for ten days. Small holes allow the family to bring food. At the end of the ceremony they are freed and make a sacrifice at a close-by baobab – fetish tree.

Structure used for initiation into adulthood.

After that we went to see the waterfalls. These waterfalls were smaller than the ones I saw in Tanougbou, but by far more adventurous. I knew that we would be hiking, but I didn’t know we would be rock climbing. “Teacher, c’est bon?” Adrien and his friends would say as we mounted are way through the rocks. At certain points, I was so frightened that he and his friend actually helped to lift me up to the next rock. Finally, just before we got to the last and largest falls, I stopped. The boys were about to climb a cliff and I said no. They taunted me and told me I could do it, but I refused. Upon the descent, I reminded Adrien that he didn’t want to say, “I was the one that talked John Mark into climbing the cliff that he fell off of,” to my mother. As we headed back down, we swam briefly in the falls, which were extremely cold.

Me on a cliff.

The boys on a more difficult part of the climb.

In front of the falls I didn't see because of the climbing.

We drank some Tchoukatou, a local alcohol made with sorghum and headed back to his brother’s house. We sat around and waited for night to fall. Sunsets are beautiful in this part of the country. The sun creeps its way behind the tired old mountains and makes the dust in the harmattan air glow pinks and blues. We ate and soon after that I was ready to go to sleep.

The next day we walked around, drank some more tchoukatou, and greeted some of his favorite and most helpful primary school teachers. In the afternoon I took a taxi back to the workstation in Nati.

This was probably one of the most unique experiences of my Peace Corps journey. Never in my life have I ever isolated myself so much from my “white” life here to really experience how the poorest people in Africa live. I’ve never had a more African experience. What is their poverty? His brother seem to have plenty of food (though I hear it’s less so during the off season), plenty of property, plenty of wives and children, but they still consider themselves poor – and they are by my standards. They struggle, but they aren’t miserable.

They aren’t miserable, that is, until the moto breaks or the baby gets sick with malaria. Until the vielle dies or your child wants to marry. Until you see the world and all the good things that exist there in, and know that you can’t have any of it because of your way of life is paralyzing. Their wealth is in the hard work they’ve put into developing land and businesses. Those things can’t pay for much. It’s the risk of self-sufficiency.

I can see why Adrien wanted out of this experience, and I think it’s good for him to go back and see his family, and remember where he came from. His family is all very hard-working. I can see that they love him much and wish he were closer. He’s the only one in the family to go to secondary school. Much of their hope rests in his potential success. I’ve never felt better about what I do for him.

NB: More pictures are available. Just click on one of the pictures above.

Safari. . .

The safari started at 6:00am when the guide picked us up at the workstation in Natitangou in an old Toyota SUV. We left early so we could arrive at Penjari national park around 8:00, when a lot of animals would be out.

Upon arriving at the park, we paid our entrance fee while the driver tied a mattress to the luggage rack on top of the car. We climb up so that we could sit on the mattress. We traveled like this during the safari. Wind blowing dust in our faces and hands holding tightly on to the adjacent luggage rack, we advanced through the park squinting through the morning sun to see animals.

Not too long after entering the park, we saw one of the hardest to spot, the lion. Two lionesses had just recently killed an antelope and were enjoying lunch as we passed. We watched them in awe. She realized we were there and growled at us. Shortly after, she started slowly dragging her prey away.

Over the next few days we saw many animals – hippopotamuses, crocodiles, wild boar, and elephants. The elephants were the most beautiful. They are huge and wild and seem to have such a calm simple life. Birds pick at their dirty skin as they wander aimlessly through the forest, sometimes knocking down trees to get the fruit they’re searching for. Stunning animals. Absolutely stunning.

The hotel in the park was fine. It was isolated and felt like a safari hotel. We were there on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I had decided to join my friends Nora and Katie, and Nora’s brother Danny for this adventure. The hotel managed to “get us good” the first night, with a meal more expensive than anything I would have spent in the U.S. The food was alright but not worth the money. The next day we gave the hotel a hard time about the over-priced meal. “All the French people thought it was quite satisfying.”

There were several French families in the hotel and at several points I caught myself thinking, “Do I really want to live in France.” I think the clear difference between “us” and “them,” was that we were poor volunteers and they were all diplomats or friends of diplomats or crazy Europeans, all with a lot of money free to dump on a safari.

Upon exiting we stopped at the waterfalls in Tonougou. A guide took us up to the falls and we swam and watched the certified “plongeurs” dive from the high cliff above the water. The water was cold – fresh and crisp, and I couldn’t handle staying in it for as long as my friends wanted to. I got out and took the obligatory pictures of them swimming in the waterfalls.

Safari is an interesting experience, especially when you’re doing it as a volunteer. You catch yourself thinking, “If only my friends in village knew what I was spending on this trip.” It’s never a pleasant thought, but what fun is living in Africa for two years if you’ve never been on Safari.

NB: My camera wasn’t sufficiently charged and in the end I didn’t get any good photos. As soon as my friends post pictures, I’ll share them. I like to think of my blog as more word based than photo based anyway. J

Friday, December 18, 2009

Living Poor. . .

What matters. . .

The other day I went to the tailor to drop off some fabric and I had an argument with him, which resulted in my taking the fabric I had bought and finding another tailor. We were talking about the price, and he basically told me that because I am white, I should pay more. I’m used to this sort of treatment, but it’s usually not said so blatantly to my face. The quality of his work for me, he claimed, is better than his work for others – because I’m white.

I was there with Adrien, because we were getting our “même tissue” outfits made. I was outraged that he was willing to say in front of Adrien and other customers, that the quality of his work was better for me because I am white. I think what makes this especially painful at this point in my life here, is that I want to be treated like everyone else. I’ve been in village for a year now. I want the same prices and the same quality and the same treatment that artisans, shop owners, even banana sellers give to everyone else.

The truth is that the Peace Corps gives me just enough money to live how I want to live, but just enough. With the tailor we were debating over the equivalent of 2 dollars. Money I wouldn’t break a sweat over in the U.S., now means that I might not have enough money to get to the bank on pay day.

In discussing the events with Maman Naffi in my concession, I found myself getting more frustrated. She emphasized and thought that I had a right to be angry. I found myself telling her the same thing that I tell many people here – I make less money than professors, the school doesn’t pay me, I can’t work to make extra money, I’m a volunteer. A mixed bag of the truth and white lies. They don’t (can’t) really understand the concept that it’s a sacrifice to come here, because I still have a pretty nice house and a good amount of money compared to a lot of people.

“Even when I travel, the Peace Corps gives me money to travel. I really don’t have that much money,” I told her.

And then she said, “And the 1,000,000CFA to go home last summer?”

Touché. At some point last summer, she asked me how much a ticket home was, and I told her. I explained, as I had before, that it was my family who helped pay to bring me home, because they wanted to see me. “Their money is your money.”

Touché encore. I am a rich American. Not because I’m making big bucks in Africa, but rather because my future is bright and my circle of protection is big. I want to fit in, but I’m white. It really is fair for them to assume that because I am white, I am rich. Naturally, since they are much poorer, I ought to pay more for their goods and services. I ought to give a little too. I do so much for the community in little ways, but I don’t give like they are used to white people giving. I know my students appreciate the unique experience of having an American English teacher, and the various opportunities to go alongside with that, but in the end will my legacy be weak compared to the Italians that built the orphanage or the Swiss that built the school building? Probably.

Volunteering can be selfish too. I came here because I wanted to learn about life in Africa. I wanted to speak another language well. I wanted more stories to tell. I’ve achieved all of these things, so I can’t really complain. On top of that, in the end I will have helped 400+ students to speak English a little better, not to mention to realize that there is a world out there bigger than Benin. I suppose that’s a legacy.

I want the people in my village to think that I’m poor like them. That’s just not real. Even if I am honestly trying to live on a similar budget, every time I hop on the air conditioned bus to Cotonou and every time I take money out from home to travel, they know it’s not true. As my time here rushes to its end, I’m starting to realize that as well integrated as I am, I’ll always be the American. I’ll never be really comfortable. The people will never be really comfortable with me. I might never be seen as the equal that I want to be.

The tailor was a special case. Because of his quick temper, I had a window into what people are thinking but don’t usually say. Either way, we took the fabric to another tailor and saved a dollar after discussing the price. At least now I can get to the bank.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Thanksgiving. . . 2

Thankfully American Thanksgiving coincides with the harvest season in Benin. This means that many delicious things are is in season, from sweet potatoes to watermelon. In a city like Parakou (the closest to my village), you really can have an authentic Thanksgiving Day Dinner. Even in my village I was able to pull off a few dishes.

I went back and forth about whether to invite anyone to my personal Thanksgiving Day dinner, or just share it with Adrien. The problem, of course, is money. When one person hears about it, everyone else is offended they haven’t been invited. In the end I decided to invite three teachers to share the small feast with me.

I’m proud to say everything I made for my personal thanksgiving was found in village. The boutique where I buy most of my food actually has frozen turkey wings, so I bought enough for the five of us. I really didn’t know what I was doing with it. I brined it, than boiled it, than fried it, than baked it. Sorry cooking gods. I made mashed sweet potatoes with sugar, cinnamon, and milk. I then made a stuffing with dried bread and a broth I made from my turkey water with a little help from Maggi cubes (bouillon). Naturally, gravy was included as well. In the end, I was glad to have shared Thanksgiving with a few others. Cultural sharing is a Peace Corps goal!

On Saturday most of my TEFL group gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving together. Since we don’t get to take off American holidays, we had to transfer the feast to the weekend. Last year, we were all together for Thanksgiving. It fell during a week long training we had in Parakou. In a lot of ways, it was when we really melded together as a group. So, it was especially pleasant to gather the second year to keep the tradition running.

We divided up, much as we did last year, to make the meal. Claire and I were on stuffing duty, and also obliged ourselves to make green bean hotdish. Someone had to do it, and being from the upper midwest, it seemed appropriate that we step up to the task.

Task 1. Figure out how to produce cream of mushroom soup. This really wasn’t that hard to do. Every time I realize how easy some processed foods are to make from scratch, I feel guilty about how much money and laziness has been involved in making such products back in the states. We sautéed onions and garlic in a good amount of oil. Then we mixed in flour, to start a gravy. After that, we added milk, a can of mushrooms, and soon enough we had our cream of mushroom soup.

Task 2. Cook vegetables and find something crunchy to place on the top before baking. We found pringles. And task complete!

Stuffing would be easier we thought. It was actually going quite well. We had a nice broth built up with veggies and seasoning. Not enough salt though. We had a giant salt shaker full of salt. I added a little. Tasted. It still needed more. I shook the salt shaker, and the lid fell off, causing a good half pound of salt to fall into our broth. At first I couldn’t stop laughing. Oh my. Then once we regained ourselves, we asked Angelina, one of our food snobs, to come and taste our broth. I think she almost threw up. She was not amused. Anyway, we strained all the vegetables and started over again.

The food, in the end was all fantastic. The truth is that the “dinner of all dinners,” isn’t really about the food. The food is great, don’t get me wrong, but the fulfilling part of the feast is being with people you love. The TEFL girls (remember, 13 girls and me!) have really become my family here. They all contribute so uniquely to our group. When one is missing, we know it (there were 3 missing!). Last year, we talked a lot about our past. Where and what we’ve come from.

This year, it was about our future. The question we’ve all been asking ourselves. Where will we be a year from now? Unfortunately, I think I’ll have many more Thanksgiving away from my family and home. I can only hope that I’ll always be so lucky – to have such wonderful people around me, no matter where I am.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Centre de Sante. . .

Over the last weekend Adrien had a series of really high fevers. When they kept coming back, we assumed in was malaria. Malaria is very common here – sort of like the flu – and it’s not nearly as dangerous for the average African as it is for the American, because their bodies have adapted after hundreds of years of fighting the disease. When he didn’t over come the malady on his own, I decided he ought to go to the health center.

“Ok, let’s go,” he said. I was a bit confused. I figured he would go alone, but it turned out that he wanted my company. So we went there as a family – it’s not too far from my house. Sarah even followed us and patiently waited in front of the building the whole time.

A few (3) words about health center etiquette in Benin: There is none. Really. All the things that I would expect to be normal in such a place were absent. The aid sat Adrien down in a chair in one of the main rooms. She put a thermometer in his armpit and then promptly left us. During this time, five or ten people passed us. Each one asked Adrien what was wrong and wished him “bonne guerisson!”

The people passing by were filing in an out of the room next to us where they were watching two Fulani who had just had an accident. It turns out they were on their motorcycle and hit a cow. Those of you who know Fulani, might understand how appropriate this particular accident is for their culture. Even Adrien peaked in to see what was up. I didn’t look, but it turns out they were pretty scratched up.

After a long wait, all with thermometer in armpit, the nurse came in to consult. Nurses function as doctors here. First Adrien was chastised for not always sleeping under his mosquito net. He had him lay down on an examination table, which looked more like a morgue table to me. It was hard and metal and I’m not sure it was up to hospital cleanliness standards. The nurse poked at Adrien’s stomach and then diagnosed him with parasites after he cringed a little.

In the end the nurse scribbled a prescription on a piece of paper. Here in Benin, you don’t need a prescription to buy medicine, but if you want it at cheap, American-subsidized prices, you buy it at the health center. In the end we were given coartem, the standard, best malaria treatment, some drugs for parasites, and a record book that Adrien is supposed to bring with him every time he goes to the health center. All that and the consultation for 850 francs (2 dollars)! Seriously, thanks first world subsidies!

Sure enough we went to the pharmacy right at 8:00pm. Sure enough, the medical secretary had already left. After spending an hour plus waiting for the diagnosis we expected, Adrien couldn’t even get the medicine he wanted. The next morning he managed to get them, and a few days later, he was back to normal.

The view from up here. . .

The seasons are slowly changing. The bright sun is now covered by a golden haze in the morning, slowing the heating of the earth throughout the days. In the mornings I cover myself with a sheet and remember the good old days when I slept under a comforter no matter what the season was. I love the four seasons back home. Here I’ve had to adjust to enjoy the change of the seasons.

It’s strange how a year ago I was sitting around, waiting for the seasons to pass, and this year I’m not sure if I’ll even have time to check my most recent quiz. Relationships built over the last year are finally flourishing, and for the first time in my Peace Corps experience, I have just enough to do.

My school year started out innocently enough. I was excited to teach again. The students I followed to this year kept me energized from the start. The new students kept me challenged. By the time I gave my first test, I felt like we were finally in sync. Everyone understood my expectations, and a lot of them worked towards them, finding pretty spectacular scores in the end. Just like last year, many students aren’t on the “English learning” boat. I try not to leave them behind, while at the same time, I try not to stall the class because of them. It’s hard keeping that balance when you have 50-60 kids in a class.

Then I was elected chair of the English department. Shamelessly, I suppose, I nominated myself. After last year, a year full of useless meetings, I talked to a few other teachers about becoming the “Animateur Pedagogique,” and they all seemed excited about the idea. So, I ran and I won. That vote of confidence made me happy. The teachers weren’t happy with the “status quo.” They showed that they wanted more from our meetings. A higher quality English experience at my college.

Thinking of something to do at every meeting can be a headache. So far we’ve had sessions about reading, test writing, class discipline, and American Music. The test correcting and writing is the hardest part. Every teacher is supposed to propose a “devoir,” for each grade level that he teaches. I correct them, and choose one to give to all the students of that grade level, a sort of standardized test within the school. When there are 10 classes and 4 teachers of one grade level, it can be a bit of nightmare to synchronize their learning.

For the last year, my colleagues had been talking about starting an English club. Finally my homologue and I sat down and made a plan. It was almost impossible to find a time when several classes were available, and in the end we chose 5:00pm on Wednesdays. I was sure no one would come. Of the 6 classes that were available, who wouldn’t want to go home after hours of school? Wrong. The first session, 90 students showed up. The second was about the same. Finally the third week, only about 70 students came. We’re hoping that numbers will slowly diminish so we can actually do fun, hands on activities without being overwhelmed.

Our sessions have been interesting. Our club involves sharing a lot of English lexicon while speaking in a lot of French. Last week, I brought in nine strange kitchen utensils. We put one at each group of tables and asked the students to guess what the crazy white teacher did with it in the kitchen. These involved: a garlic press, a meat grinder, a measuring cup, a bottle cleaning sponge, a potato peeler, and more. I think the students were more than amused by the strange things we Americans do in the kitchen.

I’ve also “team-taught,” a little bit. This is one of Peace Corps’s clever ideas for transferring skills to local teachers. We plan and teach a lesson together. My homologue and I have been working together in 3eme, which is the superior class in the first cycle of the French system. Working with these students inspires me, because there are some who have worked very diligently to get to this point. They are really dedicated to learning the material. At the same time, there are some clowns that by some stroke of luck, or by repeating previous grade levels many times, finally made it to 3eme. Balancing the two in one class can be a bit of a challenge. I think earlier level English class is by far harder. They have lots of vocabulary, grammar, verb tense to memorize. In 3eme, you can assume they know all that, hopefully.

On top of all of this, I’ve also made a few class visits to have “Q&A” session with History-Geography students. I told my teacher friend that I was available to talk about my life, culture, and country at any time. To my surprise he took me up on it! In one class, we spent two hours talking. They asked very interesting questions for their level (5eme, about 8th grade), about industries, climate, pollution, and even the color of my skin.

I’ve been trying to make myself more available to students. One afternoon a week, I’ve been coming to school to help those who want to come (10-15 students) with homework and review. I feel bad for students in classes of 50-60 students. I know Adrien often doesn’t understand his work until he goes directly to a professor to ask for help. The students are starting to see that I am here for them. That makes me happy.

Last week, I was literally at school every morning and every afternoon. I’m happy when I’m busy. I feel successful when I have something to do. So far the start of my second year has been fantastic. Now my mind is racing. What can I do in the coming months?

Friday, November 6, 2009

A midwife's perspective. . .

My sister, Ann, has been fighting the internal battle of self-expression verses self-absorbtion, and self-expression has finally won out! I'm really excited, because she's a great writer and has some really interesting perspectives on life, midwifing, wifing, and mothering. Check out her new block Heart and Hands. . .

And while you're at it, I might as well give a shout out to Maria, my other sister. She's been blogging for a while about her life as a theologian and mother, and how the two compliment each other. It's pretty catholicky. Check it out TheologianMom

As for my brother, Jeremy. Well, we're waiting.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Dear Class

I just thought I'd share this letter that I wrote to a class in Independence, MO through WorldWideExchange. I'm happy to conduct this kind of correspondence with other classes too, so just send me an e-mail if you're interested!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Dear Class,

Thank you for writing me last spring. I’ve had a very busy summer. In June, I took four girls from my village to a camp. Girls have a very hard time learning here, so I was really excited to work at this camp which taught the girls all kinds of useful things and gave them a chance to shadow a working woman in the city. Overall I think it really encouraged them to persue college and university. I was quite pleased.

In July, I went home! I spent three weeks in the US, traveling from New York City, to Wisconsin, to Minnesota, to Iowa, and back to Benin! In August, I helped to train the new volunteers. Every year about 50-60 volunteers come to Benin, and I was responsible for teaching the new group of teachers (about 12 volunteers) how we teach in Benin.

I hope that your school year has already gotten off to a great start. Mine certainly has! We started in the beginning of October. For the first few days there weren’t any classes. Instead, all the students were required to cut grass with machetes and dig up weeds with hoes! The second week, classes started for real, but my classrooms weren’t full until the third week. Many students have to finish working in the fields in order to have the $20 the need for tuition.

Anyway, I’m teaching four classes this year. The classes meet for two hours two times a week. I’m teaching “Sixième,” which is sort of like 7th grade, and “Cinquième,” which is like 8th grade. Each class has more than 50 students. Once a week I have a faculty meeting with all the English teachers, where we discuss what we’re doing in the classroom and ask questions about the language. This year I'm also the head of the English faculty, so I get to plan the meetings and choose people to present on English teaching.

At the end of last year, you posed a few very interesting questions. I’ll try to answer them best I can.

How is discipline handled?
Each student receives a conduct grade that is equal to the grades of their other classes. If they do something bad, a teacher can give them “hours,” which will take away points from their conduct. Some teachers also punish students with labor (ie, hoeing or cutting grass) and beatings (sad, but true! I never do this, of course.). It’s very difficult to manage a class of 50 students! School is as an open campus here, so when students don't have class, they are free to go home.

What holidays are celebrated in Benin?
The “Premiere Janvier,” New Years Day, is the most commonly celebrated holiday here. There is also a “Voodoo Festival,” that celebrates traditional religions. I live in an area with a lot of Muslims. Every fall they have a month of fasting, called Ramadan, where they don’t eat between sunup and sundown. At the end of this, there is a big festival and everyone eats a lot! Then two months later there is a big holiday called Tabaski. I’ve yet to figure out what that’s all about, but I enjoy the festive atmosphere in my village.

What food do you eat in your village?
Right now I’m eating “soy cheese,” a sort of heavy fried cake made of soy beans. The most commonly eaten food here is yam pilet or pounded yams (see fufu). It’s made with a huge African yam (Amy, google search and show them, they’re huge!), that weigh up for 10-20 pounds. They taste and cook like potatoes. They boil the yams first, and then they put them in a giant mortar and pedestal and beat them into a paste that is a bit thicker than mashed potatoes. When yams aren’t in season, they eat a lot of pâte. This is made with corn flour and water. Usually with their starch they eat a tomato sauce with peanuts or sesame seeds ground into it. In Benin, any meat is fair game. They not only eat beef, chicken, and pork here, but also snake, rat, and sometimes dog! Because there are 40+ ethnic groups here, the foods vary a lot by region.

The hardest part about eating the food here is using my hands! They don’t use silverware with typical meals. They take a chunk of pounded yam and dip it in the sauce to eat it, sort of like a nacho. Also, I’m left handed, and in Muslim areas, it’s forbidden to eat with your left hand!

Study hard this year and do great things! Getting to know your world is a great start! I look forward to your next round of questions!

Peace Corps Volunteer
Benin, West Africa

Pieces of Life. . .

Here are a few unrelated pieces of recent life in my village. . . .

Apparently three robbers were apprehended in my village recently. They were stealing livestock and putting it in a taxi and hauling it off to Parakou in the middle of the night. They were all killed by my village “hunters.” Supposedly they had permission from the police to kill them. I’m not sure how that works. Details are vague because apparently when a “hunter” kills a thief their bodies disappear unless the “hunter” wants the body to reappear.
A few months ago I contracted a taxi driver named Zacherie to drive my girls to Camp GLOW. Ever since then, he has treated me like I am his best friend – his token American. Recently he asked me if we could get our photo taken together. I obliged. After missing each other and going back and forth, we finally made it happen.
- - -

Zacherie came to my house while I was cooking, so he sat around waiting for me to finish and even ate some of my food, pretending not to hate it. Another teacher was there too, so we were switching rapidly from English to French. I was feeling well integrated having such a mix of company. Anyway, as soon as I finished eating I changed into my Sunday best and we walked hand-in-hand (literally) to the photographer.

Getting your portrait done is an interesting process here. First you find a photographer. Photographers are of a varying quality here. Qualifications for becoming a photographer include 1. having a 35mm camera and 2. having 35mm film and 3. if you’re lucky, having cheesy backdrops. Voila! So we went to the photographer’s studio. We had two pictures taken. One was in front of a gaudy curtain and a fake plant. The second was in front of a Chinese made poster of a house by an orchard. The pose is always the hardest part, because people don’t smile in pictures. At the same time, I don’t want to look angry. I try to find a happy balance. A look on my face that says, “I’m having my picture taken. I’m happy about that.”

A few days later you get the photo back. Usually those of a fairer complexion are flushed out by some haphazard light-filling to make black people not look so black. Another oddity.
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Every Monday morning, we have a Flag Ceremony where the flag is raised and one of the classes sings the national anthem. In addition to this, other information and announcements are offered. This week, a very old man came – an envoi of the king of my village. He announced that a student and cut bark from the a Fetish Tree. He reported that the King says that if he does come forward to confess his wrongdoings, he would die within a week.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Care Package Wish List

Haven't received much in the way of mail lately. Not even letters (Except for my sister Ann! Thanks Ann!). Anyway, I love to hear from you and taste America. :-) Here is the updated wish list.

Puppies. . .

So in the land where dogs don't get spayed, some debauchery took place. Not even a year old, Sarah, my dog got pregnant. Three weeks ago, she gave birth to three beautiful girls and two beautiful boys. It's actually been more manageable than I thought it would be. We put cement blocks to frame the corner of my living room. We padded the floor with sand, and that is where the puppies rested peacefully for the first week. Recently we moved them outdoors. Their eyes are all open now and they're starting to gain use of their back legs, which means they can pretty much go wherever they want. In two weeks, we'll sell/give them away, and I think I'll miss them. Anyway, you don't care about me. You want to see pictures of puppies.

From Puppies

These are the puppies as of Today, at almost three weeks.

From Puppies

Sarah want's to sleep not nurse.

From Puppies

Super puppy! More pictures are out there, just click on the album link.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Une anée passée. . .

I’ve been wanting to write about the completion of my first year since my first year ended (September 5th), but every time I wrote something it seemed artificial. Now that the rentrée has come and gone, I remember well why I’m here. I’m much more aware of “my integration” in my village.

Last year my first days at school were awkward. I only knew a few teachers. What more the teachers didn’t show any interest in me – the first blanc to live in this village and to teach in this college. To this day, I still don’t know why. Was it the culture? Are they not very welcoming? Are they so confused by me that they didn’t know how to treat me? Suspicious of my motives?

All but a few professors are still uncomfortable with me, I’m not nearly as uncomfortable with them. They rarely try to make small talk with me, but I often do with them. We always greet each other, often in English. Often during break, I hang out with them in the teachers' lounge and listen to them speaking in Nago.

But the colleagues are not why I’m here. I’m here for the students. How different it is to start a second year of teaching! I’ve done it all one time before. I can speak French a lot better than before. I can better set expectations for the year and make sure they understand how I’ll be teaching. I wasn’t able to follow the classes because they mix them every year, but I was able to follow some of my best students to the second year. Reviewing material from last year, it’s their hands that are flying up for every question I ask, which makes me think that maybe I did something right last year.

My life in village comes alive with the rentrée too. I feel like less of an outsider when my students are back from the farms and greet me while wandering around in village. My favorite frozen juices are back from their vacation hiatus. The village seems alive and vibrant again.

Most of all I'm back into a routine. I didn't realize it until this week, but I crave routine. I feel better. I'm happier and more confident when I have somewhere to be. Now I'm back to teaching four days a week, Parakou on Fridays. I'm back to normal.

And still, there is that end in sight. It’s hard to believe that my second year will be my last. What's next?

Teach . . .

Teach. . .

I hit my Peace Corps service at full speed. Lighting fast – first there was training – no time to do anything – no time to get used to anything. Then I went to post. I was bored at first, but as soon as school started, I had friends and was busy all the time. The first workshop came and went. Thanksgiving. Christmas. Another workshop. Easter. My trip home. Training of the new volunteers. Swear in. Year two. Wow.

What was originally my springboard out of the church world now appears to have an imminent end. I wanted to center myself in the world. To better understand my own existence. Done. Now what? Can I put “well centered” on a résumé?


On the bus back from Cotonou today, I couldn’t stop thinking about school. Yesterday was the “rentrée,” the first day of school. What “conseils” am I going to give the first day of class? How can I set them in the right direction in the world of language learning? It’s a world they know all too well, they just don’t realize it.


I’m excited, motivated. I remember all those summer vacations – I dreaded going back to school. What happened to me? I’m tired of traveling. I’m tired of hanging out with my friends all the time. I want to be back in village, in my routine. I want to teach 4 hours a day and to hang out with my friends at the gas shack on the side of the highway the rest of the time. Read books. Help Adrien with his homework. Keep moving. Towards what end?


It’s a performance. Every class. I put on a happy face and act like the crazy teacher until I have their attention. Then I teach them things they may never use. Learning for the sake of learning. Teaching for the sake of teaching. Mind expanding. 60 kids in a class. 2 hour long classes. If I can do this. What can’t I do? Crowded classrooms in the U.S.? Right. How many? 30 students? Dysfunctional education system? Bring it on.


This is my life now. I’m a teacher. I like that.
I’m a teacher – like my mom. She went far with love and a whole lot of endurance. How far can I go? Will I crash and burn? Another master degree to put in my pocket and forget? For now I’ll just teach. And hope that I can really do this for the rest of my life.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Collines Galore. . .

What I've seen of Benin's landscape so far isn't that fantastically gorgeous. I do, however, enjoy every time that I pass through the Collines (the hills) region every time I go south to Cotonou. Recently I visited super volunteer, Rachel, in a Colline village on her last day at post. I've always wanted to climb a one of these large granite hills, so we did.

From Colline

From Colline

Monday, September 7, 2009

Adrien Au Sud. . .

My two weeks of stage have come to an end in an odd way. Earlier this summer, I told Adrien if he could find the money to come south, I would pay for his return. So, against all odds, Adrien arrived in Porto-Novo Friday night. He stayed at my host family’s house for two nights, and then we spent one night in Cotonou.

What’s the big deal? Take a look at the map of Benin. Adrien had never traveled much further south than Tchaourou (not to far from my village). In other words, he’s never seen a building of more than 4 or 5 floors. He’s never been to a real supermarket, seen an airport, stayed in a hotel, used a modern shower or seen the ocean (or a beach, or a boat, etc). That is until now!

Sharing the south with Adrien has been very rewarding for me. Just as having him around in village helps to open my eyes to the African experience, showing him the south has helped me to realize how small his world really is – and how that must challenge him (and others in school). You can talk about the ocean at school, but if you’ve never been to it, you’re not really going to understand it- the heavy waves, the vastness, the smooth sandy beaches.

Because I was working in Porto-Novo, Adrien wandered around a lot. The first day, we did a tour of Songhai, the agricultural school that promotes new farming ideas and agricultural subsistence. Adrien is a farmer at heart, so this interested him greatly.

As soon as we checked into our hotel in Cotonou, we took a moto-taxi to the beach. He loved it. He was amazed by it. He gets it now. He's even taking a bottle of saltwater and some shells back to show people. Then we went to Festival de Glace and had hamburgers and ice cream.

From porto novo and cotonou with adrien

Before catching the bus today back north, we checked out a few other interesting sights. We went to the Ganhi Market, saw the port where boats were docked and being unloaded, saw the airport and a little bit of an airplane, and went to Erevan, the new Super-Target style store – the first of it’s kind in Benin.

Seeing his eyes open - his world shaken a bit- made all the small sacrifices I made worth it. I wish I could do this for everyone I know!

From porto novo and cotonou with adrien

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Ça va ici. . .

I’m including a few “mini-posts” in this entry to recap my last week. I came south this week to work with this year’s volunteer trainees.

Travelling with two L’s

Last Thursday I went out to the road in my village to catch the bus to Cotonou. I had bought the bus ticket in advance so they would stop to pick me up. I waited an hour and called the bus company. “Oh, no one told you? The bus is leaving at 9:00 today.” I was angered, naturally. As I was waiting for that bus, I saw about 8 busses I could have waved down pass me by. An hour later, I went back out to wait. I waited another hour and called again, asking if the bus had left. “Yes.” They said. I hung up and kept waiting. Then I called back 10 minutes later, knowing that my village was only 20 minutes away from where it leaves. I called back 20 minutes later. “No the bus hasn’t left yet. It will. In the next hour.” Finally, I decided to go to Parakou and take a different bus line, that I knew left at noon and to loose the 14 dollars I had spent on the ticket.

A common frustration with my host culture, is the willingness to lie. Why did they tell me that the bus had left, when clearly it hadn’t? They had already sold me the ticket, only I stood to lose. The same thing happens often with taxis, you say “I want to go directly,” and they say, “Oh yes, get in. It’s fine,” and proceed to do the opposite of whatever they promised.

Awards Galore. . .

This year, one of my secondary projects is editing and producing “En Chemin,” “On the Path,” a quarterly journal produced by volunteers about Gender and Development activities in Benin. I told Liz, the volunteer in charge of Gender and Development activities, that I would be coming down to Cotonou on Thursday to finish up work on the journal. 10 minutes later, I got a call from her. She was looking for another volunteer to present the ambassador with a going away present from the peace corps. I agreed, not really knowing what it would entail. Liz didn’t know either.

So Liz and I arrived at the awards ceremony with the Peace Corps staff, hands filled with a large tapestry and a few lines of congratulatory French to say. We sat through an hour of awards. Things like “Award of Excellence for Gardening at the Ambassador’s Residence,” or “Safe Driving for 10 years,” seemed a little uncomfortable next to awards for “Courage in Response to a Security Issue in March,” which was clearly referring to the murder of our friend.

Funny enough, Liz and I were rehearsed and ready to go in French, and the whole awards ceremony was in English. The presentation did go well. I would give you a picture, but since we didn’t have security clearance, they confiscated our cameras and cell phones. Dommage.

Real World Porto-Novo

Working stage has been an incredibly fulfilling experience. It’s so magical to be on the other side. I see the new volunteers stressing out over the same things – housing, language, if they’ll like their posts – and I can sit back, relax, and know that most of them will be alright.

The peace corps equips volunteer trainers with a semi-furnished apartment not too far from the training sight. I’ve had a lot of quality time with friends I haven’t been able to see for a while. They also gives us a nice stipend that allows us to eat what we want, so we’ve been cooking and going out to eat. If there were hot water water, I might say I felt like I was in America.

We came in at the start of model school, the four weeks of intense English classes given for free to the students of Porto-Novo by the stagaires (trainees). My job is simple. I watch 2-3 hours of classes every day, and give the stagaires feedback to help them along their path to becoming English teachers.

The things I’m just used to – the Beninese style - are all new and bizarre to the stagaires now. The “rules” of board organization, lesson planning, and class discipline seem confusing and senseless before you really get to put them in practice and see how the students learn.

Helping train the new volunteers has really helped me to realize how much I love education and pedogogy/theory. It has also caused me to think a lot about my future as an educator. With a year left in my service, I need to start seriously making plans to pursue a career in education. I think the first thing I want to do is apply to the France Teaching Assistantship program, and hopefully teach English for a school year in France. I’m hoping I could correct my very African pronunciation and ear while I’m there. After that, maybe grad school again. This time, I think I’ve got it - the degree progam, - right.

In general, it has been really fulfilling to be here, to know the city, to know Benin, and to see very vividly how much I have learned in the last year.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Going home. . .

The following are some perspectives gained by going home for three weeks after my first year of Peace Corps service

1. I love my family. My family is unique, gifted, and immensely lovable. I miss them now, more than ever. I’ve also realized, now that we’re all adult, that my family members are my best friends. My last week in Iowa, my sisters called me every day, just to get in as much time as possible before I left, and calling me would cost 25 cents a minutes again. I’ve also discovered that our family is the most happy and free from stress when we gather for the sake of gathering. My cousins wedding was great, but I really enjoyed the days we were on Lake Wisconsin, just relaxing and enjoying each other.

2. That said, I love my friends, too. I got to see almost all of my best friends while I was home. Some made pretty big sacrifices to see me too. They are all very different too – coming from unique backgrounds and having unique interests. I’ve also found all of them at different parts of my life when my needs changed and molded – high school loneliness, college coming out, and grad school soul searching. I’ve also realized that you know a friend is a best friend when you can see them again after a year, maybe two, and you just pick up where you left off.

3. Americans, including myself, are self conscious. My most recent post complains about how everyone commented about my weight loss when I was home. I think the other pole of this issue is that in Africa, I have become use to myself. I wear what I want and do as I like. No matter what, I’ll be the odd-man in my village. Why bother to blend in? Meanwhile, I realized that when I was home, all I wanted to do was blend in. This was remedied the last week when I bought my hat that makes me, at least, a little special.

4. Small airlines are better than big airlines. I had fantastic flight experiences with both Royal Air Maroc and AirTran. I’ve heard stories about both, so maybe I’m just lucky, but the more I reflect on my past travel, I realize the biggest problems (random cancellations, huge delays, etc) have almost always been with big airlines with huge networks. Get this – since I had a huge layover in Morocco (I knew this when I booked the ticket), the airline took me into Casablanca and gave me a hotel room for the afternoon. Go figure.

5. What makes American food special is selection. All the volunteers have been asking me, “What was your best meal?” I don’t have a favorite meal from my trip home. Most of what I ate was amazing, but that could be a meal as simple as Cinnamon Toast Crunch or as complex as gourmet eggs benedict. What’s really crazy, is that even in Guthrie Center, a town a 1/5th the size of my village here in Benin, the selection at the market is huge. Some 30 cereal brands, 20 types of chips, etc.

6. That said, you can get good food anywhere. Thus, I have developed a new system for knowing you’re in the developed world. The question is this: “How many minutes would it take me to have gummy bears in my hand?” I had this realization when I was in a drugstore getting pepto bismo, when I realized I could have gummy bears in my hand in 20 seconds. I did a little hop and skip (no really, just ask Ellen), and a minute later I was eating gummy bears. I’ll be liberal with the guidline, and say 20 minutes. Yes that means some parts of Montana are not in the developed world. . .
6. It was far too easy to slip back into my old lifestyle after living a very different lifestyle in Benin. I probably spent about twice as much in three weeks, as I would have spent in a month here. This doesn’t even count all the money spent on me by beloved family and friends. Anyway, I’ve never been in the business of reconciling the two lifestyles. As Americans, we really are fortunate to live where and how we do. What tugs at my heart is not necessarily guilt that we live too well, it’s that my friends here can’t (and probably never will) live as well as we do. I don’t wish on them wealth, huge houses, and big cars – just those things that Americans all have. A fridge, running water, electricity. Our living simply in America is always a plus, but the truth is, as “simply” as we live in America, it is almost always much, much better than the standard of living here in Benin. Actions of solidarity with the poor may be good for our souls, helping to realize how great we have it, but only direct actions of aid (from organizations and governments) and support (from responsible companies who can bring jobs here) will improve the standard of living in Africa.

7. I was happy to leave Benin for vacation. I was happy to arrive in America. I was happy to leave America. I was happy to be home in my village. So what am I? I’m happy. Some people go home on vacation and terminate their service shortly after they return. I’m just as dedicated as I was the first day I arrived in Benin – July 4th, 2008. My perspectives have changed, but I know that I am where I need to be.

A few details for your amusement:

Number of flights taken: 7
Number of Days it took me to get to get from Iowa to Benin, including ground transport: 4.5
Top Music Selections: Next to Normal, South Pacific, Indigo Girls, Regina Spektor
Number of times pizza was consumed: 3
Largest grocery store: Super Wal-Mart, Baraboo, Wisconsin.
Dollars spent on crystal light: est. $25
Suitcase weight going to the Us: 1 bag, 30 lbs.
Suitcase weight returning to Benin: 1 bag 40 pounds, 1 bag 30 pounds. (Mostly food)

Depuis je suis arrivé. . .

I just can’t take it easy here. My life never seems to “quiet down” and allow me to relax. I think I tend to be happier when I’m busy, but one always needs to balance busy and down time. Since I arrived a little over a week ago, I’ve already had 5 people come through my village.

I’m sure that my house must be one of the more frequently visited stops in Peace Corps Benin. This is caused by both my “on the way” status to various destinations in Benin and the fact that it’s “traveling season” in Europe and the States.

So I pushed myself off the airplane, dragged myself into a taxi, and rolled over into a bed at the Peace Corps Bureau at about 3:00 am. I slept until about 9:00 and then went to get my tickets north on the afternoon bus. I made it on the bus that afternoon, and arrived in a dark and very dead village right before midnight.

There wasn’t much time for adjustment, or even reflection regarding the shift from the developed world to developing. It was clear where I was. As I unpacked before going to bed, the lights cut on and off. I woke up the next morning to the mosque and clanking of pans out the courtyard of my concession. I was, I should say, happy to be back.

I made it back so quickly because my friend Kendra and her fiancé wanted to come to visit the next day. Sure enough, they showed up. It probably sounds boring, but we sat around chatting most of the day. We tend to do this as Peace Corps volunteers. We don’t see or talk to each other quite as much as we’d like to, so we always have a lot of catching to do. As he proposed marriage upon his arrival in Benin, I was eager to plan her wedding. Unfortunately, she would have none of it. I hope it’s not a disaster.

The next day, August 1st, was Fête d’Independence. Benin was celebrating 49 years of being free form colonial control. Kendra, her fiancé, Adrien, and I went into Parakou. The two went straight to the workstation, while Adrien and I went to search out the Independence Day festivities. After wandering around a while, we found where the Parade was to take place.

We waited and waited. The parade looked like it was about to start. A Marching band moved in. Marching bands are strange here. They usually have a bunch of brass playing the same melody with a cacophony of percussion accompanying them. The band moved forward, and then started walking in circles. Circles and circles, not approaching us at all, but rather entertaining the group of dignitaries comfortably seated under a tent, meanwhile the cops were busy crowd-whipping to make sure we didn’t get close enough to see anything interesting.

I’ve been thinking about this lately, because I just wrote an article about dealing with crowds for a volunteer journal that I’m editing. I find that the biggest fault in events here is that organizers make no effort to predict crowd movement. Meanwhile during events, rules change from this, to that, and eventually people hurt one another and/or the authorities decide it’s necessary to use force to keep the crowds in order.

Eventually the military came in as well. They marched in front of the dignitaries, and right before they would be in front of us, they took a sharp right into a side alley. At this point, I gave up, parted ways with Adrien, and headed to be with my friends at our own special Independence Day party. It turned out that the parade really took off just after I left.

The party at the workstation revolved around killing a cow, and spending two days eating the meat. I missed out, fortunately, on the cow-killing part, but spent most of the day sitting around watching people eating beef. Cheap as I am, I didn’t partake. Participation appeared to be pretty expensive. Anyway, I spent the night in Parakou.

Sunday I headed back to village. I had a pretty chill day. Monday, Rachel came to visit. Rachel is one of those crazy 3rd year volunteers. I just got to know her in June at Camp GLOW, and unfortunately, she’s quickly approaching her completion of service date. Sarah especially enjoyed her visit. Rachel has a zoo of animals at her house, and Sarah has managed to get some treats and toys second hand (since Rachel’s dog hasn’t taken to them). More importantly, Rachel has taught her how to sit!

Tuesday was chill, but on Wednesday night, I got a text message from Claudia saying “we’re coming!” Now, I knew that Claudia, my family’s German foreign exchange student some 10 years ago, was going to be coming through, but I wasn’t exactly sure when. I thought it might be the day before, but when I didn’t hear from them. I wondered if maybe their plans had changed. She and her French friend, Anna, flew into Burkina Faso, spent several days there riding camels and such, and then headed south to Benin.

The first night they were here, the traveling caught up with Claudia and she got pretty sick. This meant, the next day, we spent just sort of hanging out. I got to know Anna, and showed her around, while Claudia lay helplessly in my house. After the second night, Claudia was feeling better, so we got a bus and headed south to Abomey, the capital of the Fon kingdom, from which the former name of Benin, “The Republic of Dahomey,” came.

Abomey is a city with a lot of hotels, well pruned lawns, and mud-brick royal palaces. It might just be that it’s French tourism season, but there were tons of white people in Abomey as well. We found a decent hotel for only about $20 a night, that enjoyed showing off their miserable-looking crocodiles (or alligators, which ever is smaller) in a cement cage.

On Sunday, we went to the Royal Palace and Museum of Abomey. Like the palace I saw in Porto-Novo, this one was pretty underwhelming. I guess they were too busy staying alive to build really impressive palaces. This palace appeared to be made of mud brick and was covered with a corrugated aluminum roof.

The Fon ethnic group, from which came Abomey as a royal seat, is the largest group in Benin. In many ways, especially in the south, it serves as a second national language in which the people can communicate and carry on business.

The tour seemed to focus a great deal on the Fon as warriors involved in the slave trade. One building, I think attributed to King Guezo, had various relief scenes molded into it. One was a head hanging from what appeared to be some kind of cork screw. Another was the king beating another man with a dissevered leg. Interestingly enough, the museum carefully documented the role of female “Amazonian” warriors as well. They would fight alongside the men battles against other ethnic groups.

Of course, a museum like this can also help you to see how the culture has evolved. For example, the culture is almost abusively patriarchal, which perhaps explains whythe king would have as many at 4,000 wives. It was also normal for the king to have Eunuchs. I’m not sure what their role was. They got to wear pretty silver jewelry, which in my opinion, doesn’t made up for that which was excised.

It’s interesting to see that sort of polygamist machismo contrasted by the fact that women often fought alongside the men. From what I’ve witnessed here, the women still hold a lot of power and force. I think especially in the Fon group, they’re not eagerly submissive. They are strong women, often very industrious, selling in the market or tending to their own fields. It does seem pretty clear, however, that the husband is in charge when he wants to be.

These tours are always a little hard for me, because I really enjoy getting all the information. With my French nowadays, I catch about 70% of what people say. This afternoon, it was Anna’s turn to feel sick. She went back to the hotel, and Claudia and I enjoyed the afternoon wandering through the Grand Marché. It was fun to share what I know about Benin, but also to catch up. Claudia and I reminisced about our orange fights, Guthrie Center, and family.

Monday, I took a bus back north, which brought me to village where I’m sitting writing this “log.” It’s been a crazy week, and I only have about a week and a half left until I go south to work as a volunteer trainer for the new set of volunteers. I show up just in time for model school. It will be a delight to relive those experiences through the new volunteers, and to share what I’ve learned over the last year. Among other projects, I’m the editor of a quarterly journal for volunteers, called “En Chemin.” Work has begun on my first issue, and we hope to have it out by September. I’m also hoping to get a girls club and an English club off the ground. Between these projects and teaching, I have a busy year ahead of me.

At this time next year, I’ll be packing my bags and moving on to the next stage in life. Time seems to be speeding up – faster and faster. It’s hard to believe that not too far away, my service will end.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Great American Accomplishment . . .

Last year in April, I promised not to talk about my weight anymore on my blog. I don’t want to come across as too cocky or self-assured. If I want compliments, I can go to my niece Maia, who is learning to say “Uncle JM, you’re so handsome!” That said, being in America these few weeks has made me much more aware of my weight loss, which has rounded out at about 90 pounds.

I resolved to change my life at a convention of church musicians in 2008. I was sitting around a table of friends and mentors. A few were talking about their difficulties with diabetes, others were unhappy in there work, and the friend sitting next to me and I were talking about relationship problems. In a way, those few days with friends were the kick in the butt – telling me I need to do something.

So I started losing weight, broke up with the boyfriend, and made the decision to leave church music (maybe for good) and join the Peace Corps. Now here I am, celebrating my year anniversary in Benin. What has happened? How have I changed? I’ve changed in so many ways, but the first thing people say when they see me is, “You’re so skinny!” That’s ok. Every fat-boy wants to be called skinny. At the same time, it’s disheartening, - - as if I’m on some magical Peace Corps Diet. People forget that I worked hard at the YMCA, running, swimming, weightlifting, for a year before I left. I’m happy about my weight loss but it’s the least of my achievements in the Peace Corps.

Body image is very cultural. In Africa it’s normal to be called fat if you are. If you’ve been gone for a while, and you look bigger, people will tell you. It’s good to eat well. People are honest about how you look, but it’s never a negative focus. Since I’ve been back, I’ve become so much more aware again of how I look. It’s vain really.

The truth is that I don’t look that much better. My skin sags, my hair is receding, and my face looks sunken in. Is this really healthy, or is this what Americans perceive as healthy? Is this what we spend millions on every year – the dream everyone’s trying to buy? I’m happy to be skinny for the first time in my life, but I’ll always be me. I’ll always be a fat kid inside.

I'm going to be honest. We talk about it too much. We think about it too much. Our weights are as important to us as our social security numbers. Is it worth it? Is it embarrassing that we (the developed world) live our lives with such excess, but in this one little sector of our lives, we're obsessed with cutting back? What about the money we spend on losing weight? Is it ethical? I don't have the answers. I'm interested to hear what you have to say.

This is Gen and I at the wedding we went to last weekend.

This is after the first year of weight loss.

This is the peak weight.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

America. . . !

Hello Friends,
I've been far too busy to do some writing and unpack my feelings about visiting America while I'm here, so I'll be sure to do that when I'm back in village enjoying my lazy summer holidays. I've already been to New York City and had a really wonderful time with Ellen and Erica. Paul and Jason made it up for a day as well. The highlight so far has been my time with my family at Lake Wisconsin and in Minnesota, especially my adorable nieces! My time here has been more wonderful and relaxing than I could have ever planned for.

For the time being, you might enjoy "25 Things about My Family" by my sister TheologianMom, Maria. It's a bit braggy in parts, but it's all true.


From Blogger Pictures

From Blogger Pictures

From Blogger Pictures

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Camp G.L.O.W

From Camp Glow

This week has been really awesome. Every year, volunteers put on camps for girls throughout the country – CAMP GLOW, girls leading our world. It’s Peace Corps sanctioned, but all of the work is done by volunteers.

I brought four girls from my village. Two were high achievers in my English classes, and two of them were recommended by the censeur. A friend helped me find a mama to serve as chaperon. I was really proud to bring a mix of girls – 2 Fulani, 1 Nago, and 1 Bariba. It was a good representation of the population of my community, and even better, it reminds people in my community and administration that there are bright young girls in every ethnic group.

The week is not close to over, but already they’ve seen and done some amazing things. They’ve gone to the local ancient history museum. They went to the radio station, where the Fulani girls were interviewed in their language for the local Fulani emission, and several other girls were interviewed in French for the news. Finally, they were given a tour of the university. Now that they’ve seen these things, they can set their sights on higher education.

From Camp Glow

In our internal sessions, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about personal health and wellness. I personally have done presentations on drinkable water and electricity. Other sessions include dealing with sexual harassment (specifically from teachers), gender and development, sports (yogo, Frisbee, etc), and computers (for some, it was the first time they had touched a computer).

From Camp Glow

There’s much to come. Tomorrow, the girls will be taken out by “Maman Modeles.” These are mothers who work in the community as government workers, bankers, and so on. Throughout the week, we’ve tried to give them many examples of successful Beninese woman. We want to encourage them – you can be this!

Best of all, I’m looking forward to getting back to the village and working with these four girls to start a girls’ club. I’ve been scared of this, mostly worried about what people will think or assume (as a result of the fact that most male teachers are constantly making advances), but now I am feeling courageous. I think these four girls can make a real difference in our village if I push them along.

From Camp Glow

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Capitol Improvements Chez Jean Marc. . .

In the past couple of days my house has changed significantly. I’m liking it! Outgoing volunteers (See: Steve and Jaren Under the Mango Tree) gifted me a few pieces of furniture that, in my opinion, really complete my house. First of all, they gave me a full sized bed. Because my house is on the highway, it’s a convenient stop for friends, but until now I’ve only had a makeshift cot (“lipicot”) for them. Now, I have my Peace Corps bed for visitors and a nice big bed for myself. With the cot, I could actually sleep 4 or 5 people now!

From Captial Improvements

They also gifted me some shelving, which I really needed (and had been too cheap to buy). Now my grand salon and kitchen are looking fantastic! My kitchen is more organized than ever!

And to boot, the day after my porch was covered! When the landlord built my house for himself, he included a porch space with cement pillars to hold a roof. Maybe because he was saving money to build a nicer house, he never got around to covering it. When it rains, the rain come in the house through the doorway. When it’s hot, there’s no respite. The house bakes like an oven and there’s no shady space to catch a breeze. C’est n’est plus comme ça! Recently I started nagging the director du college about covering it. He’s responsible for renting my house. I wanted him to help pay for a little bit of it, since it’s for the benefit of future volunteers. I didn’t expect him to be quite so generous. He provided 2/3rd of the aluminum and paid for the work, my landlord paid for all the wood, and I just paid for 5 leaves of aluminum (about $25). Actually, it’s funny because even that seemed so expensive to me. Really, the whole project cost about $100, including a a whole day of labor for two carpenters.

From Captial Improvements

My house looks really ugly, huh? It’s funny how I’ve come to just accept it how it is. I didn’t even think about how ugly the exterior is until I took that picture. It’s probably one of 20 houses in a large village (10,000 people) with such wonderful amenities. I can’t complain!

Anyway, I’m waiting for the sun to come out so I can enjoy the shade. Go figure.

From Captial Improvements

En Vacance. . .

My Itinerary. . .

I’m very excited to be coming home for three weeks next month. The stressful part, however, is making sure I get to see everyone I want to see! Eeek. Anyway, here’s my itinerary. I know I wont see many of you, but I hope to at least talk on the phone to everyone!

Thursday, July 9th – Leave Cotonou (Just after midnight), fly through Casablanca, Arrive New York City.

Friday, July 10th – Monday, July 13th – In New York City with Erica and Ellen

Monday, July 13th – Friday, July 17th – Fly in to Milwaukee, immediately leave for Lake Wisconsin (Merimac, WS), to spend a the week with my ENTIRE (!!) immediate family!

Friday, July 17th – Leave for Minneapolis, Rehearsal and Dinner in the evening, then head with Genevieve to St. Cloud. Meet with friend at the Red Carpet, stay at Genevieve’s.

Saturday, July 18th – Morning: Breakfast in St. Cloud, Afternoon: Wedding

Sunday, July 19th – Morning with family, Afternoon: Head to Iowa.

Monday, July 20th – Monday, July 27th – Time at majestic Lake Panorama with frequent trips into Guthrie Center. Spending time with friends (you know who you are!), culminating in the wildest birthday party ever on July 26th.

July 28th – DSM to NYC

July 29th – NYC – Casablanca – Cotonou

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Apreciating Medeocrity. . .

From Life Goes on in Benin

Appreciating mediocrity. . .

At the end of my first year of teaching, I can easily see how quickly I’ve adapted to the education system here in Benin. I did some statistics, and was excited to see 60.1% of my students passed the second semester. Passing here isn’t a “c,”lLike in the U.S. To go onto the next grade level, you need 50%, 10 of 20.

So what’s the good news? There is good news here. I must be doing something right. The success rate among students is usually somewhere among 49% school wide, thus students performed better in my classes (60% success rate) than others. I’m not sure if I’m a good teacher or just easy, but looking through the official grade book, these students do seem to do better in English than their other subjects.

What else? Well, you’ll see in the statistics that girls make up only 32% of my classes. They’re lucky if they get to go to school. If they are students, they often don’t have time to work and study at home. They are still expected to clean and cook, and fulfill all the subservient roles that women are expected to fulfill. But, it turns out, my girls, at a 57% pass rate are not that far away from the average of 60%. Not bad, no?

Another marked difference was between the students of 6eme and 5eme. Both of my 6eme classes had 3 or 4 really high performing students. Some of them had averages close to 20. Meanwhile, in my 5eme classes, the highest was 17, and very few received over 15. There are many causes this could be attributed to. Does it become more difficult? Perhaps. Or better yet, maybe the reforms in the pedogogy, “The New Program,” are starting to settle in and students are benefiting. Then, there’s always the possibility that learning the first year fundamentals from a native speaker has set them ahead, and that the 5eme students were not so fortunate to have a strong teacher in 6eme. Granted they’ve had much less to learn (to forget), my 6eme students are much more likely to conjugate a simple verb such as “to be” at the snap of the finger than those of 5eme.

So how’s that for being positive. Yes, the system certifiably sucks. There’s corruption. There’s sexual harassment (which is really starting to stand out as I see these cocky teachers flirt with their students). There are teachers who can’t and don’t want to teach. Many students are not completely literate. They don't have access to books to become especially literate. It's tough for the students as well as for the teacher. As Jessica’s mom posted on my blog, we endure a lot for our students. I hesitate to call my first year a success, but I put it behind me thinking I must have done something right.

6eme – 1st Year
Highest Grade – 19.58/20 (98%)
Lowest Grade – 01/20 (05%)
Number of Students Passed with 10/20 or more – 42 of 68 (62%)

Number of Girls in the class – 22 of 68 (32%)
Highest Grade of a Girl - 14.86/20 – (75%)
Number of Girls with Passed with 10/20 or more – 13 of 22 (59%)

Highest Grade – 19.53/20 (98%)
Lowest Grade – 01.75/20 (8.75%)
Number of Students Passed with 10/20 or more – 41 of 69 (59%)

Number of Girls in the class – 25 of 69 (36%)
Highest Grade of a Girl - 15.31/20 (76%)
Number of Girls with Passed with 10/20 or more – 12 of 25 (48%)

5eme – 2nd Year
5C –
Highest Grade – 17.06/20 (85%) (A boy)
Lowest Grade – 04.58/20 (23%)( (A girl)
Number of Students Passed with 10/20 or more – 36 of 53 students (68%)

Number of Girls in the class – 16 of 53 students (30%)
Highest Grade of a Girl - 14.36/20 (72%)
Number of Girls with Passed with 10/20 or more – 12/16 (75%)

Highest Grade – 16/20 (80%)
lowest Grade – 03.33/20 (17%)
Number of Students Passed with 10/20 or more – 29 of 53 students (55%)

Number of Girls in the class – 14 of 53 students (26%)
Highest Grade of a Girl – 14.31/20 (72%)
Number of Girls Passed with 10/20 or more – 07 out of 14 (50%)

243 Students Served
Highest Grade – 19.58/20 (98%)
Lowest Grade – 01/20 (05%)
Number of Students Passed with 10/20 or more - 148 of 243 students (60.1%)

Number of Girls – 77 of 243 students (32%)
Highest Grad of a Girl – 15.31/20 (77%)
Number of Girls Passed with 10/20 or more – 44 of 77 (57%)