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.