Friday, March 27, 2009

Life goes on. . .

The past couple months have been full of ups and downs, punctuated by poor computer access. Just when I thought things couldn’t get much worse, Kate was murdered. I’m happy to report that things seem to be on the rebound. School is going well enough. I had a fun weekend in Parakou for the yearly Gender and Development fundraiser, an internal fundraiser that helps us to fund our own small projects ($50-$100) that are focused towards education and gender. First I’m going to start with an entry that I wrote before Kate’s death. I tried to upload it for about three weeks, with no luck. At the end, I will share more recent events. Get ready for a long post:

I’ve received a few comments about my lack of blogging recently. I’m charmed that so many read revolutionme so faithfully! Honestly, I wanted something more positive to follow Adrien’s story. But, shortly after I posted, I lost my wallet with a month’s worth of money in it, then I went through a hellish end of semester that involves all sorts of tasks that computers are better fit to do. Instead of resting during our February Congé (post semester break), I was required to attend a teachers’ formation with my homologue (the English teacher assigned to help me out and work with me throughout my two years). This required a 7+ hour taxi ride down to Porto Novo and back. Did I mention that my entire week away I was sick?

Anyway, no attempts at eloquent narrative this post. Here’s my life for the last month:

Losing my Wallet:

So I needed to go to the bank before our teachers’ training. I went and took out 100,000CFA (roughly $200) from my bank account. That night I was with my friends Katie and Nora, and we decided to go to our favorite chicken and fries place. We ate, had a couple beers, paid and took off. The next morning, I realized I did not have my wallet. I had either dropped it on the way home, or someone got their hands on it. Either way, it was returned to the Police sans $200.

Fortunately, the Peace Corps is well equipped to deal with these sorts of situations. If money is lost or stolen, they will give you allowance equivalent to the weeks that are left until the next pay period. In this case, it was two weeks, thus they gave me about 40,000CFA. This was more than enough to get to the training and back (fortunately, since I couldn’t have gone otherwise!).

End of Semester:

The end of the semester was pretty miserable. Sometimes I think they sit around here, trying to figure out excuses not to teach. Meetings are stretched out, and a variety of administrative tasks take the place of class time.

First of all, you’re supposed to figure your grades in front of your students, to ensure you don’t give better grades to the students you sleep with, and worse to the students who won’t sleep with you.

Then there was a two hour meeting to decide how to compute the conduct grade. This mark is averaged in with the same weight as all the other classes, so it can make or break the students. Some teachers wanted to be really hard on the students, and other wanted to make it easier. This didn’t concern me too much, since I average in a conduct grade in to my own grade book, but I still had to waste two hours of teaching time.

The actual meeting ended up revolving around appropriate punishment. Someone brought up beatings as punishment, and the director brought up that I had talked to him personally about how the beatings bother me (it’s against the law here, but oh well), and everyone had a good laugh at the silly white man who doesn’t understand.

The next day, we were paired up and sent to classes to calculate the overall grades for each student. Again, out loud, in front of the whole class. I calculated a 3eme class, the final class before the BEPC test. A very small percentage received a score of 10/20 or more. No one received more than 14/20.

We completed the semester with the Conseil du Fin De Semestre. All 40+ teachers and the administration meet. It’s all very formal. The director gives a speech, we review the overall statistics (48% of the students in the CEG received a passing score of 10/20 or +), and each professor is given a chance to comment on the semester’s activities. A literal translation would be “Council on the End of the Semester,” whereas a looser translation might be “6 hour bitch session.” On the bright side, they fed us at the end.

That afternoon there was a football game between the Responsables (the delegates from each class who do attendance, and oversee punishment) and the Professors. No, I did not play, but I enjoyed watching. The group of teachers that played were quite impressive (I couldn’t imagine a bunch of teachers back in the states successfully taking on students in any sport), but the final score was a tie – 0 to 0.

Visiting Kendra

In celebration of receiving some of my lost money, I decided to visit my friend Kendra in Gouka. It wasn’t exactly on the way to Porto Novo, but I figured a side trip wouldn’t hurt me. We met up in Dassa, where the Blessed Virgin Mary appeared. Kendra’s a Methodist from Georgia, so I was suspicious of her interest, but she seemed happy to join me in my pilgrimagette.

That afternoon we went back to her village and passed the evening cooking and eating and talking a whole lot. Kendra likes to cook. Last time she visited me, we made chili and donuts. At her house (which is lavishly furnished on account of her being the second volunteer there), she made raisin cookies and chicken pot pie (her mother had sent a chicken breast in the mail, it’s crazy what you can preserve now adays).

That night I started to feel sick, and that morning I was popping pepto. I managed to settle my stomach for the long ride to Porto Novo, but remained sick for most of the week.

Suite at Songhaï

It’s easy to complain about not getting a much needed week of rest, but it was nice to go south for the first time since swear-in. Since Kendra and I arrived together, we ended up rooming together. The formation was at a bizarre compound devoted to agricultural subsistence called Sonhaï, founded by a Dominican priest.

The highlight of our stay at Songhaï? Air-conditioning! A close second? Modern bathroom facilities! It was really nice to bask in cool air, to cover myself up at night, and to stand under a shower head and watch 6 months of dirt peal off my skin. Did I mention the amazing food? Hot breakfast every morning, and a huge lunch at noon with salad and fresh juices to boot! We even got snacks during our morning break – cookies, cashews, juices and soymilk. Since the complex is dedicated to agricultural subsistence, much of the foods we consumed were raised within feet from where we were eating. They produce a variety of juices, soy products, soaps, vegetables, meats, and jams for the community. It is also a sort of school for farmers to come and learn new farming practices to increase their yields.

The formation was alright. It was an interesting combination, because our homologues where there as well. There were a few cultural differences that came up along the way, and as the only male TEFL volunteer, I was frustrated by some narrow conversations about harassment. I would like to have returned energized and ready to teach, but honestly, the week didn’t leave me with much inspiration. Perhaps being sick made it less worthwhile for me.

It was strange being in Porto Novo again, the place where it all began. The city wasn’t new to us, so we could get around well enough. The pace is significantly faster and the streets are more dangerous, but we’ve all learned to negotiate. I went to visit my Maman two times. It was wonderful to see her and my host brother again. I felt myself freed from the bonds of language learning, and for the first time, I was able to communicate freely with her. I understand most of what she said, and I could say everything on my mind. I even took the opportunity to ask a few questions about things that I didn’t understand before, like the work of her NGO, or what she did before she was retired.

Of course, best of all, was spending time with all my TEFL girls (sometimes jokingly referred to as my “tefl harem”). We’re so well distributed throughout the country, that trainings like this are the only time that we end up together. It’s hard to be so distant from so many of the close friends that I made during stage. With Easter break, then summer vacances coming, I think we’ll get to see one another more often.

To return, several of us headed to the same area rented a taxi. It was nice to travel together, but I think next time I have to go that far, I’ll take the bus!

Kate. . .
The TEFL director called me on Thursday, telling me that Kate had passed away. The staff was on its way to her village, so they didn’t want to say she had been murdered until they had confirmed it with their own eyes. That afternoon, the news hit the radios, and before the Peace Corps could inform me, a teacher at my school said, “I heard about your friend, slaughtered like a muton.” They’re not the most tactful people. As you can imagine, this information hit me really hard, especially coming from a secondhand source.

That night Katie came to stay with me, neither of us wanting to be alone, and the next day we went into to Parakou. Finally we received the call from our director with more information. Upset and confused, we prepared to make the journey south again for Kate’s memorial service - barely a week after IST. I went to the bank to take out some money from the ATM using my newly acquired debit card. Katie went first, and retrieved her 50K cfa with ease. Then it was my turn. The machine rolled and squeaked, and spit out a receipt saying that it had given me 50K cfa, when in fact, it had not.

I went into the bank, and they asked me to sit and wait. I started to get impatient, as did Katie. I’m starting to learn that they only way you can really get the assistance you need at the bank here is to make a scene. I started saying to the person I was waiting for, “Madame, I had 50,000 and now it is gone. Until you do something, I’m considering it stolen by your bank.” Then she told us that I wouldn’t have access to the money for 5 days, because they’d have to send the chip to Cotonou to be read. We got louder, and soon we were shuffled into the office of the Chef D’Agence.

Mr. Chef told us that this happens all the time. It has to do with the connection being lost. He said that he had been to US, Canada, and France, and that this happens all the time there too. We then proceeded to get in an argument, in which he insisted to know the state of ATM machines in the developed world better than us. Anyway, it turned out I had no choice, I had to wait for my money. Fortunately there was still some in my account, so I was able to take out another 50k for the weekend.

For this trip, we took the bus. I’m never taking a taxi such a long distance again. For a dollar or two more, it was air-conditioned and comfortable. Considering our state of mind, it was probably better not to deal with taxi drivers and crowded vehicles. The highlight of our trip was an hour delay caused by jack-hammered truck carrying thousands of plastic canisters of vegetable oil. They tried to pull it off the road with a rope and another semi – a gas tanker actually. Luckily that didn’t tumble. The locals were scrounging for spilled oil, using sponges to sop it up and squeeze into basins.

This was the first time I had been to Cotonou with any freedom to do as I pleased. They put us in State Department and Peace Corps officials’ houses, and as a result, I enjoyed a lot of air conditioning and hot water for the weekend. I suppose since Benin is considered a “hardship position,” they make an extra effort to make the living situation better for their employees. Or maybe it’s the norm and it is just so fantastic considering my current living conditions.

While in Cotonou, I had two “American style” dinners at restaurants. Both times it was a hamburger and french-fries. I guess I’m trying to make up for my 6 years as a vegetarian. Of course, we pay enormously for this luxury, but it’s worth the price. At one place I ate, DFC (to be confused with “KFC), they had a fast food style atmosphere. You order at the counter (still paying high restaurant prices), and they bring the food to you.

Peace Corps sent a Special Services person to Benin to help us get through the hard times. We had a meeting Monday morning. Some of us were upset at the Peace Corps for not handling the situation differently. Some of us just wanted to know more about the crime to judge our own safety.

That afternoon was the memorial service. Peace Corps Staff, Facilitators, and Volunteers spoke about Kate. A group of singers, myself included, sang “Your Long Journey,” a bluegrass song that was really touching. I love the song now – a perfect fit for Kate. There was a long slide show, that was touching as well, and we ended by singing Amazing Grace together.

The next morning Katie and I were headed back to the north. I think we both felt that the best way to “move on,” would be to avoid lingering in Cotonou. The next day, I was teaching and preparing for the next series of tests.

GAD Fundraiser

The next weekend, we got together again for the yearly GAD Fundraiser. This involved a date auction one night, and the second night a silent auction and expensive dinner of lasagna or steak. Here and there alcohol was consumed and far too much fun was had by all. All three nights 5 girls and I stayed in a hotel. I was with Kendra and Claire, and Angelina, Katie, and Naima were in the other room. We were happy to have air conditioning and running water yet again.

Honestly, the last few weeks I’ve had more air conditioning then I know what to do with. This is perfect timing, as we are in the hot of the hot season, with dry desert heat of 100f +. I’m lucky to have a fan in my house, so I don’t get to hot. Honestly I got pretty cold sleeping in air conditioning.

Around the Corner

Part of what keeps me focused and happy in Benin is that there’s always something around the corner. There was Christmas, Inservice Training, and the GAD Fundraiser. Now I’m quickly approaching the one year mark. Soon it will be Easter, then school will finish a month after. Days after the one year mark, I’ll be traveling home for a three week vacation (get ready to eat, people!) to New York City, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. After that, the new year of trainees will come in (I’m hoping to be involved in that), and my second year of teaching will be well under way.

Africa on 8 dollars a day. . .

In a recent conversation with Jason (pirohi.com), he referred to the life I live as “1945 with cell phones.” Though perhaps a bit harsh, I can see where he’s coming from. However, thanks to this modern marvel- my internet ready Nokia phone, I am able to read the New York Times, or at least skim it, on a daily basis. Recently, I ran into an article entitled “New Status in Africa Empowers Ever-Eccentric Quadaffi.” It speaks of Quadaffi’s newly found reign over the African Union as chairman. His dreams of grandeur involve creating the United States of Africa, with of course, his humble self as ruler.

I’m amused by how my perceptions of the world have changed. I remember coming here, thinking that places like Libya and Dubai are corrupt places, run by oil money – and that immigrants flock there in search of better opportunities, and end up being enslaved and abused. By our standards, I suppose they are. Now I can see how these places might become beacons of hope to impoverished Africans. The article says: essay

“Two million Africans have flocked to Libya believing that they would find warm receptions, good jobs, and perhaps, an easy path to Europe. . . All over this capital city (Tripoli), illegal African immigrants line up along roadways, across bridges and at traffic circles hoping to be selected for menial day jobs that pay about $8. They call the areas where they congregate “the hustling grounds,” which are always crowded with desperate faces. . . ‘They call us animals and slaves,’ said Paul Oknonghou, 28, a Nigerian who lives with about a dozen other Nigerians in a house under construction that lacks glass in the window frames, running water, a bathroom or a kitchen.”

A year ago I might have read this article and thought, “how horrific!” Now I read it thinking, “You mean most people in North Africa have running water in their houses?” I can’t help but imagine that for the west-Africans that travel to Libya, these conditions might be considered pretty spectacular. How does the New York Times think that Africans are living? My house, approved of by the Peace Corps, sounds about the same – no kitchen, no running water, no glass windows. And trust me, for many people in my community, my house is perceived as being top of the line. Clearly the author wants to make an impact, but describing the injustice with these sort of living conditions just doesn’t make much of an effect on me anymore.

I’ve never been a fan of sweat shop or slave style labor, of course. I think the industrial world should pay fair prices for their goods and the workers of the developing world should receive just pay for their efforts. At the same time, I know a whole lot of people who would love to make $8 dollars a day. Even I could get by on $8 a day in Africa. In fact, $8 a day isn’t far from my monthly stipend, and I live quite well. A days work in the fields here, can it be found, is much more likely to yield $2 or $3, depending on whether or not you are big and strong or own a team of oxen.

I think this happens often – that the media lacks the immigrant view: The life of people from the poorest countries in the world. If you were working a job for $40,000 a year, and someone offered you a job, perhaps easier, for $80,000, would you take it? The truth of the matter is this - $8 dollars couldn’t buy me two mochas, but for the people here in Benin, many see $8 a day as a two or three-fold increase. Why wouldn’t you smuggle yourself through the Sahara for that?

Africa on 8 dollars a day. . .

In a recent conversation with Jason (pirohi.com), he referred to the life I live as “1945 with cell phones.” Though perhaps a bit harsh, I can see where he’s coming from. However, thanks to this modern marvel- my internet ready Nokia phone, I am able to read the New York Times, or at least skim it, on a daily basis. Recently, I ran into an article entitled “New Status in Africa Empowers Ever-Eccentric Quadaffi.” It speaks of Quadaffi’s newly found reign over the African Union as chairman. His dreams of grandeur involve creating the United States of Africa, with of course, his humble self as ruler.

I’m amused by how my perceptions of the world have changed. I remember coming here, thinking that places like Libya and Dubai are corrupt places, run by oil money – and that immigrants flock there in search of better opportunities, and end up being enslaved and abused. By our standards, I suppose they are. Now I can see how these places might become beacons of hope to impoverished Africans. The article says: essay

“Two million Africans have flocked to Libya believing that they would find warm receptions, good jobs, and perhaps, an easy path to Europe. . . All over this capital city (Tripoli), illegal African immigrants line up along roadways, across bridges and at traffic circles hoping to be selected for menial day jobs that pay about $8. They call the areas where they congregate “the hustling grounds,” which are always crowded with desperate faces. . . ‘They call us animals and slaves,’ said Paul Oknonghou, 28, a Nigerian who lives with about a dozen other Nigerians in a house under construction that lacks glass in the window frames, running water, a bathroom or a kitchen.”

A year ago I might have read this article and thought, “how horrific!” Now I read it thinking, “You mean most people in North Africa have running water in their houses?” I can’t help but imagine that for the west-Africans that travel to Libya, these conditions might be considered pretty spectacular. How does the New York Times think that Africans are living? My house, approved of by the Peace Corps, sounds about the same – no kitchen, no running water, no glass windows. And trust me, for many people in my community, my house is perceived as being top of the line. Clearly the author wants to make an impact, but describing the injustice with these sort of living conditions just doesn’t make much of an effect on me anymore.

I’ve never been a fan of sweat shop or slave style labor, of course. I think the industrial world should pay fair prices for their goods and the workers of the developing world should receive just pay for their efforts. At the same time, I know a whole lot of people who would love to make $8 dollars a day. Even I could get by on $8 a day in Africa. In fact, $8 a day isn’t far from my monthly stipend, and I live quite well. A days work in the fields here, can it be found, is much more likely to yield $2 or $3, depending on whether or not you are big and strong or own a team of oxen.

I think this happens often – that the media lacks the immigrant view: The life of people from the poorest countries in the world. If you were working a job for $40,000 a year, and someone offered you a job, perhaps easier, for $80,000, would you take it? The truth of the matter is this - $8 dollars couldn’t buy me two mochas, but for the people here in Benin, many see $8 a day as a two or three-fold increase. Why wouldn’t you smuggle yourself through the Sahara for that?

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Peace Kate. . .

You don’t know how safe you are in your surroundings until something horrific happens to someone close to you. At this point, what really changes is your perception of your security, not your actual security. It would be better if I could spend my entire life never having said “my friend was murdered.” I can’t now.

Kate was sleeping outside of her house in a village about five hours away from me. They say it appears that she never woke up. Details are vague because of the investigation. With no sign of theft or rape, the motive is unclear. Even the bravest of us are frightened.

Kate was not one of my close friends in Peace Corps Benin, but she was a friend to me. She was a friend to everyone. I first met her during training. As a second year volunteer, she was chosen to be a trainer during our pre service learning in Porto Novo. She arrived about the time that we were starting model school, our 4 week long crash course in teaching English.

When Kate was working with us, it was never “maybe not.” It was always “Yes, try it! See how it goes!” or “Good idea, lets work with it.” She made no claims of being an expert after teaching her first year in village, but she ably helped our facilitators to guide us through our integration into the Beninese system. She was always calm and down to earth. She was an absolute sweetheart, but not afraid to say what she thought. I think Kate was one of the best Peace Corps Volunteers. She was dedicated to her work, her community, and her friends.

After I was sworn in and went to post, I often texted her with silly little questions. How do I use the oil I found in the market? I’ve been forced by a chauffer I don’t like into a taxi, what should I do? When I saw her again three months into our service at Thanksgiving, she joked that she missed my random text messages. That was a memorable Thanksgiving. The TEFL girls and I spent a lot of time sitting around and talking about our families. They were on our mind - we are so far from them.

I told my students about what had happened the day I got back school. I wanted to explain why I missed class, but I also wanted them to understand our sacrifices better. Not to guilt them into treating me well, but to help them to realize that I need them, and that our relationship is one of mutual sharing. I could quit at any minute. I could call the office right now and request early termination, and they would give it to me. I don’t. I place my trust in my community. I trust them to keep an eye out for me, understanding that I really am far from home.

May perpetual light shine on Kate. May her Creator bring peace to her family, her friends, and to the world that she spent her life serving. Peace Kate.