Sunday, April 26, 2009

Packing List for Incoming Volunteers

I thought I might put together a list to help my future colleagues. These lists helped me a lot last year, but there are a few things that I wish people had stressed. Here I go.

I am a man, so this list might reflect my unbearable/undeniable/imperturbable masculinity.

There are different ways you can look at your Peace Corps service. Some people spend their whole service trying to be villager. You can try, but every time you get on that air conditioned bus to Cotonou, or leave for a 3 week trip to wherever, everyone's going to know that you are not a villager. No matter what you bring, you are sacrificing to come here. You are leaving behind your friends, family, maybe a car, maybe a house, maybe a dog. You don't need to take a vow of poverty to boot. You’re going to have some hard times as it is, don't feel like you need to rough it for 2 years. Bring things you love and enjoy, but remember, they are just things. They'll get stolen, beaten up, and destroyed.

You aren't going camping for two years. You might end up in a remote village where you can't even find the staples of your diet. At the same time, you will still be going to a decent sized city occasionally, if not monthly (I go weekly, but I’m close). You can find the things you need. Honestly, I wish I hadn’t packed as much and saved money to spend here on the things I need. Especially in Cotonou, you can find almost anything you want or need (including burritos).

Finally, since I am an English teacher, I'll be able to offer some advice regarding what you might need to inspire the little ones' minds.

Core Items:

Leatherman Knife (Most used extensions: can opener, knife, saw for cutting bread, phillips and flat edge screw driver, and wrench.)

A kitchen knife (I have a 6incher, wish I had brought two, one smaller)

Headlamp (LED is best. I have electricity, but outages happen. Cooking with a flashlight in your mouth, on your shoulder, etc is less than comfortable. The PC gives you a kerosene lamp, and candles are easy to find as well.)

Laptop (I'm typing this up in my village, while connected to facebook. I watch movies, prepare blog posts, and in general amuse myself with my laptop regularly. If you don't have electricity, you will still want to use your laptop when you are at a workstation or at a friend’s house.)

IPod/Ipod Speakers (I'm a music person. Can't live without the IPod)

Camera (don’t be too cheap, they break! If yours is old, think about getting a new one before leaving)

Pictures (Looking at the smiling faces of my family and friends cheers me up on a rough day.)
Backpack (I brought a medium sized hiking back pack. Some people get a long fine with wheelies, but I prefer to be able to throw my possessions on my back.)

Clothing:
You're not going to know if you like the local clothes until you try them. There are some I like and some I don't, but I don't wear them very often. Teachers here wear traditional dress, but also really ridiculously preppy polo shirts and funny washed jeans. The jist of clothes packing is that you should bring the things you love. The newer, the better, but know that they will be comfortable. Here's what I would bring if I were doing it again:

2 Polo Shirts (dark colors, things don't get as clean with hand washing)

2 Trousers (I brought a few pairs, honestly, now I wear the dress pants I commissioned here mostly, but you can’t have a whole wardrobe tailored the first week of stage.)

4-5 T-shirts ( I recommend threadless.com :-) They never get old)

10+ Underwear

1-2 Pairs of Jeans
1-2 Pairs of shorts (something comfortable to sleep or work out in)

2 pairs dress socks
2 pairs athletic socks

1 pair of really comfortable sandals that support your feet (Ok here it is. Don't buy keens because I think they suck. Hiking shoes are great and all, but think about all the sand that's going to enter the shoes through the various holes? Not to mention, every time I put them on they give me blisters again because I don't wear them enough. Get Tevas or Chacos. I can't wait to go home this summer and buy a pair.)

1 pair of really good flip flops. (There will be lots of flip flops here, but they are of a crappy quality.)

1 pair of athletic shoes for hiking, running, walking

1 pair of dress shoes (more important if you're a teacher)

1 Towel (yes, people do use pagnes, but that first night when you take your miserable cold shower and realize that you don't have a towel, and you use your nasty sweaty shirt to dry off, you'll wish you had one.)

Raincoat/Poncho and Umbrella


School supplies - The peace corps, throughout your service, will give you folders, paper, pens, etc. You can also find them on the street.

Large index cards (you need big enough cards so that 60 kids are able to see the words you've written on them!)

Sticky putty stuff for putting things on walls/chalkboards

Magazines (to look for pictures for visual aids)

A World Map or blow up globe (kids really have no clue, it's great to see their minds expand!)

Stickers/Stamps (for rewarding good grades)

Pens (I bought pack of 20 bics that I'm going through. I don't like the pens here, maybe you will.)

Books (The peace corps will gives you loads of grammar books. Don't bother finding anything like that before you come. Same with a French-English dictionary. Bring a few good books to read and share. Our library is getting outdated. Most people bring books and share them in work station libraries. )


Foodstuffs - again, bring what you love. Some people dig beninese food, somepeople (pretty successfully) try to produce the taste of America. Most spices can be found in cities (Oregano, cumin, curry, etc). Before I came here, I was kind of an elitest about the kitchen and readymade packets. Now I think they're swell:

Ranch/Italian Seasoning Packets
Stirfry Packets
Taco Seasoning Packets
American Candy alla starbursts and skittles to share with PCVTs
Drink Mix Packets (Alla Crystal light, gaterade)

Medicine & Toiletrees - The Peace Corps’ number one priority seems to be keeping you alive. Any medicine that you need while you're here (You are supposed to come with a few months of prescriptions), they will get to you. This includes head-ache medicine, pepto, antibiotic cream, hydrocortisone cream, antifungal cream, cipro, chap stick, bug spray, condoms and lube, etc. That said, think about bringing:

Good Sunblock - I don't even use the stuff that the PC gave me.

Multivitamins - the multivs I got from the Peace Corps are tiny and unlabeled. 'nuf said.

Shampoo and Conditioner - Didn't last long, but I enjoyed it for a few months.

Mach3 Razors - they're so expensive, get them now while you're not thinking about money.

Nail Clippers - Never seen them here otherwise. Bring your own.

Gifts: I brought a bunch of junky crap for my training host family last year. As it turns out, they were pretty wealthy, as were most of the families. You could bring pretty things with English writing on them (alla target), a nice pen for your host father or mother, a good knife for the mother, candy for the children (or junky target toys). You might also want to wait until you arrive and see what your family might need or like.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

New Pictures

I've uploaded some photos to my Africa album. They're at the end of the slide show. Enjoy.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Reflections on Holy Week

This one goes out to all my Church ladies. :-) I know it's a bit dorky. Having left the world of "church work," I still enjoy thinking about, reading, and writing about liturgy. For those of you who get Pastoral Music, check out my recent essay on Multi Cultural Liturgy.

“Alors Seigneur, pas seulement les pieds, mais aussi les mains et la tĂȘte.”

Holy Thursday

Tonight we gathered at eight o’clock to commence our Triduum, the three days. As usual, Mass began in a hectic manner. Who would sing what part? Who would read what reading? How to do the foot washing? All of these things seemed to magically (and successfully) unfold throughout the Mass. Before washing feet, the priest said, “What would you do. . . if you knew that you only had 2 days left to live?” His homily was fantastic, but these were the words that stuck with me. I couldn’t help but think, “I probably wouldn’t washing any stinky feet.”

The foot washing had new meaning for me this year. During my time at St. John’s, some classmates and I fell in love with the idea of foot washing as sacrament. Were it to be a Sacrament, it would fit in nicely with one of my teachers favorite things to call to mind: Sacraments are messy! (Oil, Water, Emotions, etc)

I remember when I was doing music for my home church back in Iowa. One of my mother’s friends was asked to have her feet washed at Mass and she said, “Of course! They look so good, I just had a pedicure!” Isn’t that how foot washing often works in the U.S.? The liturgist calls the week before. You were chosen (though they probably don’t tell you this) because you fit a certain demographic that might show that the parish is diverse. Before you go to church, you wash your feet and neatly tuck them into your shoes, hoping to avoid the unpleasantness of Father washing dirty feet.

My experience in Africa is so radically different and it gives me more perspective on the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ actions that night. Walking around a village with only one paved street and wearing sandals to keep cool, my feet are constantly dirty. Most people, even the kids, have a ritual of washing their feet several times a day. As soon as they are clean, you walk out the door and they are dirty again. There’s nothing neat and clean about foot washing on Holy Thursday in Africa.

Baptism cleanses, bringing the catechumen into new life with Christ. Now to me, Holy Thursday foot washing reminds us of the dirty work Christians have to do after baptism. Our liturgy, especially in the US, might be clean and neet, but loving the other is not always neat and tidy.

Good Friday

On Good Friday, the Catholics joined together at 1:00 PM. “Come,” the vice principal said, “It’s good, because it is hot and there’s too much sun. We sweat and we suffer like Jesus!” Obviously, I could think of more appealing things to do on the second day of my Easter Break, but at the same time I didn’t want to miss out on anything.

We started at the Evangelical Mission on the north side of the village. Then station by station, we worked our way to the heart of the village where the church is. He was right about one thing, we suffered. At every station, we knelt while the station was read, usually in a language I couldn’t understand. The hot, African sun beamed down on us, and on the pavement. We sweated, our knees and toes burned on the hot pavement. Maybe not quite as much as Jesus, but there was some suffering involved.

After arriving at church, the Good Friday service took place as expected. The gospel was read by three men with the priest. The universal prayers were well done, with the intention in local language and the collect in French (which meant that everyone could at least understand one or the other, if not both). Oddly enough the “Here is the Wood of the Cross” was recited. The priest venerated the large cross, and then invited the faithful to come forward to venerate the cross. At that point, two porcelain crucifixes a la precious moments were brought out for the faithful to kiss. So we all came forward, literally walking right by the wooden cross, and kissed the porcelain white Jesus.

Music was subdued, but well done. Usually singing here is a heterophonic mix of drums, chimes, and other indigenous instruments. Cutting out all of this in favor of a simple melody line solemnized the occasion.

I’ve never been a big fan of integrating stations of the cross or a live passion play with Good Friday. I like my ritual more austere and less maudlin, but I can’t deny that the procession with the cross through town had quite an effect, not at all unlike the procession with palms the previous Sunday.

Easter Vigil

Easter Vigil began at 7:00 PM, just as the sun was setting. A huge fire was lit behind the church. The fire was blessed. We who brought candles processed to church with our Easter lights. At the door the Exulstet was read by the priest and we all entered the church. They rushed through all the readings, rotating languages and chorals as usual. All the readings were read completely by the light of the Paschal Candle. At the Gloria, all the candles were relit and at the Alleluia, the artificial lights were turned on as well. At the beginning of the homily, there was a lot of loud, rousing singing.

The Baptismal liturgy was odd, because several babies were to be baptized. They didn’t follow much of the rite and left out the litany. The rest of the Mass was fine. I would say, out of the various liturgies I attended this year, this liturgy was the least meaningful and most tiring. This was disappointing, as usually it’s my favourite.

Easter Day

There was no liturgy on Easter Sunday in Tchatchou. This was due to our priest being sick, and the other priests needing to be in villages where they were not able to celebrate Triduum as fully. I ended up going to one of those villages because my colleague’s firstborn was being baptized.

I like going to Mass in smaller villages. As much as I appreciate the multicultural liturgy at St. Rita’s, it’s nice to go somewhere every now and then where the community is homogeneous, and everyone is able to sing well and participate in the local language. Again there were several baptisms, done using a wash basin and a plastic cup.

The Post-Event activities were a bit tiring. In the culture here, a party means two things: 1, a lot of eating for the men, and 2, a lot of cooking and eating for the women. In other words, the women have something to keep them busy, and to enjoy doing together. The men literally sit around, sometimes barely talking, waiting for the next round of food to show up. So I spent my entire day in this village and in the end, found the boredom quite fatiguing.

Conclusion .

It never feels completely “right,” being in an unfamiliar community for a major celebration, especially after spending much of my life dedicating my life to making liturgies like these go well. It was relaxing, but stressful at the same time. I saw so many mistakes that could have been avoided, so many rubrics missed, so much lack of preparation. At the same time, there were some high points – the foot washing, burning my feet on the pavement, the Easter fire – that will most likely stick in my memory.