Friday, January 30, 2009

Seeing the President. . .

From Africa

I had just begun my 8:00 class of 5eme. I was battling my students’ waned interest in language acquisition as usual. They didn’t seem to want to believe that 1. there is difference between object pronouns and subject pronouns (SHE goes to the market with HIM, not HE) and 2. that they had acquired this information in first year English. As I was about to fall to the floor and start crying for my mother, the Surveillant General entered the room.

“Soon the bell will sound. All the students and teachers will walk to the city hall where we will gather to greet our president, Boni Yayi.” After explaining in a few different ways until I actually understood his French, he left and I tried to continue my class. Naturally, the next five minutes were miserable, and I was grateful when the bell sounded.

We walked to the city hall and waited . . . three hours. It seems that there are several things that all head-of-state visits have in common, first world or third. The first is that they are never on time. The second is the presence of paranoid security. I can’t imagine that anyone would have it out for the president of Benin, but safe better than sorry. I was chastised for taking pictures by one of the gaurds. The final commonality is that the crazies always come out and try to steal the show. The only difference here is that here, the police get out their crops and beat them.

From Africa

My host country’s president has a heightened presence in my region, the Borgou, because his “Crawford ranch” is 30 kilometers south in the same commune (Tchauorou, where my post mates Steve and Jaren can be found). He had come to announce that a good deal of money would be given to our village for the construction of new market stalls and a youth center. He made that announcement, greeted important people (Unfortunately, I didn’t get the “show off our token white-person” treatment this time), and left quickly after.

I’m impressed by my community’s ability to throw together a patriotic party in such a hurry. They found out he would be coming last night. They went to the rich people in village and asked to borrow their pleather couches, and put them under a giant mango tree. The ceremony was complete with the official sweeping ladies and a group of drummers and dancers performing traditional Bariba music. They performed for about 2 hours, thinking that the president was “about to arrive any minute” the whole time.

It doesn’t take a lot to get people’s attention here. They have time to absorb every event. A car accident or a brush fire can gather a crowd. Honestly, I barely saw the president. The real joy in an occasion like this is seeing the whole community come together and put on the show – the villagers dressed to the nines in their traditional boumbas and patterned fabric dresses, the dancing and music, the excited students, and crazy folk trying to steal attention from the president. It’s always a fun ride.
From Africa

25 Random Things

25 Random Things

I've been enjoying reading these on facebook and thought I would share mine here as well. :-)

1. After 10 years of working for a churches and getting my masters in liturgical music, going to church on the weekends drives me crazy.
2. I’m worried that when I get back to the states I will just throw my trash on the ground because I’ve gotten so used to it here (it’s what people do – part of my good integration ;-) )
3. After a year of careful weight loss and staring at the scale, I have no idea what I weigh now, save for that it is significantly less than two years ago.
4. Instead of buying real art, I tend to make my own bad art and put it on my walls.
5. I’m supposed to be paid enough so that my living style blends in with the poverty that surrounds me, but I get more than teachers at my school AND don’t pay for my house AND don’t have children.
6. About the children thing, the boy I pay to do my laundry is slowly becoming my own child, and getting lazier and eating more of my food while he’s at it. Pretty soon I’ll never get to use my computer.
7. I have a screen door to protect me from mosquitoes, but I leave it open all the time so my dog can wander in and out and because I’m too cheap to spend the $2 it would cost me to get a carpenter to make it close properly.
8. Because I’m a white person, I’m often offered a prime seat in bush taxis because they think I can’t handle the squeeze, and I’m ok with that.
9. I’ve taken to biting my dog back when she is being mouthy.
10. The aforementioned child wants the dog when I leave, but I’m not convinced he won’t eat her or sell her to people who will.
11. It was a challenge to get used to not sleeping with a sheet or a blanket (because of the heat), and now I wear a jacket if it gets under 70 degrees and complain with the other teachers about the “fraichaire.”
12. At this point, the only time I really miss having a significant other is when it’s cold at night.
13. I enjoy making fun of what other people wear here, including heavy winter coats (I mean MINNESOTA style!), men wearing girls shirts (midriff bearing not excluded), men wearing dresses, and kids wearing shirts sent from America that say things like “Minnesota Vikings” and “Kiss me, I’m Irish.”
14. I teach classes of 60-70 students, and they tend to be well behaved. I’m neither sure why (since I’m a pushover) nor what I would do if they weren’t.
15. I’m thinking about getting my masters in teaching EFL/ESL when I get back.
16. I think choir-directing transferred so well into teaching because it’s all one big performance involving a whole lot of divo.
17. Last weekend I ate my first hamburger in 7 years. I was hoping it would be better.
18. For the sake of my health I’ve begun to eat meat again, and have discovered that it’s the closest to American tasting food you can find here, especially the chicken.
19. Despite my return to omnivorism, I still like to call myself a vegetarian, especially if it’s necessary to avoid being offered organ meat au village.
20. I’m coming home this summer for 3 weeks and might gain back the 70 pounds that I lost. Really people, your food is amazing.
21. I still refer to the “vacance” as summer vacation, even though summer doesn’t exist here.
22. When I go “home,” I’ll actually be staying at Lake Panorama where my parents now live in a condo instead of the familial manor. Weird.
23. I’m really depressed by the fact that I have not gone this long (7 months) without touching a piano since I began to play in 1st grade.
24. I say “Oh no, it’s too expensive,” when people talk about visiting me, but secretly I wish you all would.
25. I’ve seen the Beninese president as many times as I’ve seen the American president.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

It's Cotton Harvest!

From Africa

It's the season for cotton harvest and as a result there are giant trucks traveling by and huge piles of cotton in Katie's front yard, where I believe it is traded.

Knowing my capacity. . .

When I was still working in the church music world, I was responsible for preparing ritual here and there. Naturally, most of what we need in the Catholic Church is already written for us, but there are often opportunities for creativity – reconciliation services, vespers, and so on. I went through a time when I thought I knew it all. I thought I should be the one creating prayers, but Les, my often cited mentor, said something to the effect of, “Use prayers from published resources. You’re a decent writer, but there’s a reason they’re getting paid to write prayers and you’re not.” She was right (as she usually is) and I hated her for it (as I usually do).

It’s funny how themes like this transfer so easily into my work as an English teacher. A few years ago, my host country government decided to stop using a published, well designed, and simple textbook for beginning English in order to use their self-published, poorly organized text book that looks like it was designed by a 15 year old using Microsoft word and a 1980s clip art disc.

It was written to meld in with what is called “The New Program” here, a pedagogical method, which is molded to look more like education in the modern world, alla France and the US. In other words: what most people my age were raised with. Students become “learners,” units become “learning situations,” and exercises become “activities.” It’s sensible, but designed so specifically that the government thinks that it needs to produce its own textbooks for every subject. There are hundreds of well written, well designed EFL textbooks out there with modern, progressive pedagogy in mind. But instead we are left to the devices of office worker somewhere in southern Benin. To make things worse, teachers (most of whom, lack fluency in English) are left to their own devices to write tests (by hand), and a secretary (if you’re lucky she actually studied English in secondary school) is left to type them up.

This all reminds me of my Spanish teacher in high school, let’s call her Mrs. Beakmann (two “n”s, mind you). We had a decent Spanish textbook, but Mrs. B was unwilling to follow it. Her work was impressive – she typed up expanded vocabulary lists (even though there was plenty of vocabulary in the books), included songs and culture, made us write all of the grammar down in our own notebooks (even though it was all clearly explained in the book), and wrote all of her own tests. She was a great Spanish teacher, and before I piled German, Italian, and French on top of it, I could sort of speak it, but she taught us her Spanish, ignoring the wealth of culture and tradition that surpassed her experience of Spanish speaking culture. For example, she thought it unnecessary to teach us the second person plural form, claiming it was not used enough to warrant learning it. Unfortunately for her students, they would all need to know vosotros the first time they took Spanish from another teacher.

Over confidence is a problem in any discipline. What I’m writing sounds a bit sharp. Clearly the “New Program’ is well intentioned here in country, just like I thought out every prayer I wrote for my church in Minnesota. I’m fully supportive of working creatively in any field, be it church work, teaching, or baking. But I can’t help but think, open minded prayers, learners, or taste buds are on the line, one ought to stick with a trusted recipe for success. The truth is that the wealth of resources that exists in any discipline shouldn’t be sidelined in order to boost our egos. There are always pedagogues, writers, and artists who deserve our attention, respect, and, perhaps, our money.

Bush Taxi. . .

The first time I took a bush taxi, our driver hit a man while speeding through a village not too far from what would soon become my post. The story’s old now. We all piled in the back seat and rushed the victim, screaming with his bloody and very broken leg, to the nearest hospital. I swore to myself that once training was over and I arrived at my post, I would just stay there at all costs.

That ended about a week later, when the lock on my door broke. “You must buy your new lock in a different city,” sage trainers told us during stage, weary that some mischievous vendor might keep a copy of a key and rob us blind. (Seven months into my service, I’m starting to realize that a large part of our training was meant to instill a heightened level of paranoia in all volunteers.)

I was amazed by the speed and convenience. I walked the 100 meters to the highway, found one of the drivers based in my village and he was almost ready to go. 400CFA (one dollar), 24 kilometers, and 30 minutes later I was in Parakou in search of my new lock. The car wasn’t too crowded. “I can handle this,” I thought. Worried about my unlocked house back in village, I found the same car back, and after two hours, I had made my round trip. Little did I know that this ride would be one of my most comfortable taxi rides during my time here in Benin.

The next time I took a cab was a week later, when I went to Parakou again. I needed to go to the bank to receive my salary. On my way into the city, I found myself in a minivan with a broken front window propped up by a two by four. I shut my eyes and kept my head low. On the way back I experienced the normal passenger arrangement for the first time – four people in the front seat.

I should backtrack for a second and talk a little bit about the quality of the cars in use. Most taxis here are Peugeot 504s. If I’m lucky, it might be one from the 80s, but in most cases I’m riding in the luxury sedan of the 70s. Condition varies. In the courtyard of my concession, my landlord has a Peugeot that looks like it’s been driven 500 miles in its life. Then there are the more common cars: broken seat backs, hotwired ignitions, get out and tighten some bolt every 10 kilometers. The other day I saw one running that looked like it had been an accident. No glass windows, seats stripped, and put-putting past my house packed full of yams.

Riding conditions are bound to be miserable. When my friends and I are together we compare our rides. How many did you have in your car? You liar, you’re counting the babies, etc. Being a luxury sedan, of course the first row is comprised of bucket seats. The drivers will put swaddle of old fabric on the console. The two people on the right are the most comfortable. The person on the driver’s side, in what volunteers like to call the “bitch seat,” tells a different story. If the driver is skinny they can both fit their feet in on his side – the driver with feet on clutch and pedals, the rider with legs tucked toward the seat. If the driver is any bigger, then the “bitch seat” rider has to straddle the stick shift, making for some very uncomfortable speed shifting (ironically, I recommend that women avoid the bitch seat).

The back seat is a different story, and it doesn’t get any better. Whites are usually sequestered to the front seat. They think we can’t handle the back. I’m willing to accept this form of discrimination, as sitting in the back can indeed be miserable. If there are only four people, I’m lucky, but the normal headcount is more likely to be five or six. the middle armrest is pulled down, and someone sits on it, this allows the middle rider to sort of sit on the hips of the person to her left and right. Only one or two people can comfortable sit back, the rest are packed like sardines in various odd angles, all not very politely, fighting for what little personal space they can acquire.

Now, if you want to count all forms of life, more often then not there is at least one goat and one chicken stuffed in the trunk with all the riders’ bags. Thais is better than when they are tied to the roof, in which case I would recommend wearing a raincoat or avoiding the window seat because, sweetheart, it’s the dry season and that isn’t rain.

I’ve become used to taking these taxis, and in reality the convenience makes up for the comfort. It’s basically organized hitchhiking. Anywhere you are, wave down the next car, and you’re likely to get a ride (if you pay the right price). Part of getting used to transportation here has been trying to think of each trip to come as an adventure. What will happen next time? Wave down a car, and find out.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


From Africa

The Nago choral finishing the procession to the mission from the church after Mass.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Kah weh ruh

At nine o’clock everyone gathered in the Nago market on the edge of town. We waited for the four priests to arrive, vest, and then we processed the 3 blocks to the church. The altar servers first with a cross and incense, then the Nago chorale, then the Fon Chorale, the rest of the people squeezing in where they could, followed by the priests. Each choral singing their own songs, pounding on drums, and dancing as they marched along. A hodgepodge of west-African culture creating a cacophony that brought people out of their homes to watch.

The parish in my village was welcoming a newly ordained priest to the team, now three priests, that care for numerous villages in a 30 kilometer radius and oversee a busy mission with an orphanage, chicken house, library, and home for students who don’t have schools in their villages. I met Arnaud when I arrived and he was still a deacon. He was probably my first friend in village and I was happy to be included in the celebration. The liturgy, which coincided with the Solemnity of the Baptism of our Lord, was like most Masses here, loud and messy. Joyfully organic.

Preparation is not a forte of the people here, and as we, probably 300 of us, tried to squeeze into a little church that seats about 100, chorales still singing and pounding, ushers scrambled to set up chairs and benches and squeeze eight people into a pew that probably couldn’t seat four parishioners in a U.S. Catholic Church.

No rush. The liturgy flowed, one language to another. The Gloria in French, the first reading in Nago, the Psalm in Fon, the second reading in French, and the gospel in French, Bariba, and Nago. After fumbling with the useless PA system for the first twenty minutes, they realized the sound was better unplugged. After communion, there was more singing and dancing. One of my colleagues presented the new priest with gifts from the parish. He started by saying “Welcome, Bienvenue, Ka weh ruh,” and continued with the same word in about five other languages, each language authentically represented by the people of the parish.

After the presentation there was more singing and dancing. Fr. Arnaud circled the church dancing with everyone and finally Père Jean, the pastor of the parish had to give the “cut the music” signal. Two hours having passed since the procession that began the Mass, the blessing was given, and we sang and danced once again.

Then those of us who were invited walked to the rectory, the Nago chorale accompanying our journey with more singing and drumming. The elite invitees ate and drank and celebrated the occasion – a grand welcoming to our new priest.

I would like to say that when I came to my village I felt wanted and welcomed, but anyone can fish through the last 6 months of blog entries to know that is not true. In that respect, it was refreshing to see my parish really roll out the red carpet for the new guy. It was a chance to celebrate, a chance to party, a chance to “ka weh ruh.”


From Africa

From Africa

From Africa

From Africa

From Africa

From Africa

From Africa

From Africa

From Africa

From Africa

Friday, January 9, 2009

The price of life. . .

Learning the currency of another country is always bound to be an adventure. Conversion is one thing – I can always judge the cost of things based 500CFA=$1. This exchange rate isn’t completely accurate, but it’s a lot more convenient then figuring out what something would be in dollars when the actual rate is 420CFA=$1. Close enough for me anyway.

When I first came here, the money really was like monopoly money. The Peace Corps gave us a “walk around” allowance and our host families were paid to feed us (well). It was like being a teenager again – I could spend the money I earned on whatever I want, because Mom would take care of my real needs.

It was a shock, then, to leave Porto Novo and come to my village and be responsible for all of my expenses (save for the house rent and water paid for by school). The living allowance we get every month is around 100,000CFA, which, using the John Mark exchange rate, ends up being $200 a month, so about a 1/7th of my monthly salary as a half time church-worker in the United States. In reality 100,000CFA is plenty if you live and eat like an African (which is what Peace Corps wants – us to integrate, and live like Africans), but it’s not much if you want to live like an American. I’m constantly trying to find a happy medium.

Honestly, I could eat “like an Beninese” on less than 1,000CFA a day, 2 dollars. Their diet consists largely of starch – monstrous, flavorless yams, topped with a little sauce and meat, if you’re lucky. But as I don’t particularly enjoy the food and I do want to maintain my health, my eating habits here involve a constant balancing act. If I go to the under-stocked supermarket Parakou, I am likely to spend huge sums of money. 5000 or 10000CFA. Not because things are ridiculously expensive, it’s because they are as expensive here as they would be in the US. A big chunk of gouda costs 3 or 4000CFA, real milk costs 1300CFA, a box of cookies costs 2000CFA. Spices cost 800-1000CFA.

Then I head to the Marché in Parakou and pick up some other things I can’t get in my village – namely vegetables. There are only two in the villagoise diet, tomatoes and onions (timati and alimasa, if you want to know the local language). Thus I go to Parakou where I can find cabbage, green beans, carrots, cucumbers, and various other treats such as celery, watermelon, and avocados. By the time I’m done in Parakou, I’ve easily spent 5-10000CFA on food alone, especially if I’ve been tempted by a few treats (Vache qui Rite, a Velveeta like cheese 650CFA; canned vegetables for my new favorite pea recipe 750CFA; unpopped popcorn 800CFA).

I get into the city about once a week. I can easily spend less then 5000CFA in my village between trips. In my Marché, I buy onions and tomatoes for sauces and various dishes I like to make. Sometimes I can find the necessities (my morning chocolate milk mix, 1800CFA; powdered milk, 2000CFA; eggs 100CFA a piece, very expensive; bread 50-150CFA).

“Treating myself” is a completely different story in village. Whereas American-style treats are expensive novelties in the city, in my village, they’re cheap and accessible. In the mornings, sometimes I have a few beignets. If you look that up in a French-english dictionary you’ll see something like “doughnut,” but that’s not just. They are very uniquely African deep-fried cakes. My favorite in the morning is bodo bodo, a sweet dough, at 25CFA a piece. In the evening, I like kiyaru, a deepfried bean dumpling with hotsauce. My beignet mamans know me a little too well. My other guilty pleasure is “jus.” Simply put, flavor ices (yes sister, they exist here too, thank God!). Women make juice with available fruits such as oranges and lemons, seal them in plastic sacks and freeze them until they are “bien formé.” My favorite flavor is bissap which is apparently made form hibiscus flowers. It’s dark red and tends to be very sweet. These sacks of “jus bien formé” are only 25CFA and can be found in various stores or carried on the heads of little children that should probably be in school.

Unlike the vendors in Parakou, who are like vultures, the vendors in my village are friendly and quite generous. I won over the beignet Mamans the second I started trying to speak Bariba. Now I almost always get a “cadeau,” usually in the form of one extra piece. Sometimes, when I’m not very hungry, I’ll order a smaller amount. They’ll take the small sum, and still give me as much food as I usually buy. The same goes for the veggie ladies in the Market. Every Sunday I go to the same Maman who greets me in Bariba, gives me a good price, and a few extra onions to boot.

When I first arrived at post I bought most of my food in Parkou, but as time passes, I’ve managed to find more and more of what I need here in my village. The vendors are less likely to stiff me and more likely to be generous because they know that I live in the village, and they know if they treat me well, I’ll be back. Commerce is very personal here, and I like it that way. It reminds me of home.