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.