Monday, December 28, 2009

Adrien's Land. . .

You learn a lot about people by seeing what they come from. That is why I promised Adrien about a month ago that I’d come and meet his family and see Tangueita, his city, along with his ancestral village where several of his brothers work.

Adrien came to my village, about 300 kilometers away, because he thought life would be better. Since the soil is more fertile, he could find money to live on while going to school. The plan worked out for him for a year, and after that I showed up. Three years after leaving, his life is pretty good.

I arrived in the late afternoon on my way home from the safari. Not long after we arrived, I repacked my bags and we headed into the country to see his mother. Night was coming quickly so we decided to spend the night. Now in my village, going “au champ” means taking one of the many well beaten trails into the country. I figured I was in for a relaxing ride on a moto. Wrong. It turned out the ride involved me dismounting and wading through a river, along with getting my shins whacked by bushes and tree trunks.

Adrien is helping push his brother's moto, pig in tow, across the river.

Soon I was in a completely different world. His brothers are farmers, and their houses were surrounded by farms. We stopped to greet his one brother, than continued on to see his other and meet his mother. Their houses were all made with mud brick. Each group of houses was walled in and included a grain cellar. The walls of the houses were up to my shoulders, attesting to the fact that his family is observably short. Livestock was in my face. The oxen were tied up next to the house. Pigs, guinea foul, chickens, and dogs were all hanging around waiting for their next meal.

The house where Adrien was raised.

Most of the time was spent outside. His brother gave us a guinea foul to kill. Adrien performed the sacrifice and his mother began cooking flat bean pancakes for us to eat as an appetizer while is sister-in-law prepared the main course. His mother was old - easily 70 years old. Her presence was quiet. She was shy and didn’t say much. She didn’t speak any French so I had to talk to her through Adrien.

Adrien's Mama

That night, Adrien, his friend Moïse, and I squeezed into a small room and went to sleep. The cold air woke me up in the middle of the night. The season harmattan is especially harsh in this part of the country, and the nights can be very cold. We huddled close for warmth and woke up early because of the cold.

Before leaving we took a series of pictures. Adrien with the cows. Adrien with the family. He wanted proof that we were there together, and pictures of himself with his family. We headed back on moto, taking the same path, crossing the same river, and shortly found ourselves in the city again.

Adrien and his younger brother with a cow.

Adrien with his Mama

We spent the afternoon in Tangueita, where we walked around greeting various family members. I caught myself getting annoyed and impatient as Adrien had to stop and greet every person he saw in his quarter of the city. We borrowed two motos and Adrien, Moïse, another friend Yempabo, and I headed out to see more of the city.

Adrien and his friends

They took me to see a mud structure where rituals of initiation are held. Teenagers are put in tiny mud huts and are left there for ten days. Small holes allow the family to bring food. At the end of the ceremony they are freed and make a sacrifice at a close-by baobab – fetish tree.

Structure used for initiation into adulthood.

After that we went to see the waterfalls. These waterfalls were smaller than the ones I saw in Tanougbou, but by far more adventurous. I knew that we would be hiking, but I didn’t know we would be rock climbing. “Teacher, c’est bon?” Adrien and his friends would say as we mounted are way through the rocks. At certain points, I was so frightened that he and his friend actually helped to lift me up to the next rock. Finally, just before we got to the last and largest falls, I stopped. The boys were about to climb a cliff and I said no. They taunted me and told me I could do it, but I refused. Upon the descent, I reminded Adrien that he didn’t want to say, “I was the one that talked John Mark into climbing the cliff that he fell off of,” to my mother. As we headed back down, we swam briefly in the falls, which were extremely cold.

Me on a cliff.

The boys on a more difficult part of the climb.

In front of the falls I didn't see because of the climbing.

We drank some Tchoukatou, a local alcohol made with sorghum and headed back to his brother’s house. We sat around and waited for night to fall. Sunsets are beautiful in this part of the country. The sun creeps its way behind the tired old mountains and makes the dust in the harmattan air glow pinks and blues. We ate and soon after that I was ready to go to sleep.

The next day we walked around, drank some more tchoukatou, and greeted some of his favorite and most helpful primary school teachers. In the afternoon I took a taxi back to the workstation in Nati.

This was probably one of the most unique experiences of my Peace Corps journey. Never in my life have I ever isolated myself so much from my “white” life here to really experience how the poorest people in Africa live. I’ve never had a more African experience. What is their poverty? His brother seem to have plenty of food (though I hear it’s less so during the off season), plenty of property, plenty of wives and children, but they still consider themselves poor – and they are by my standards. They struggle, but they aren’t miserable.

They aren’t miserable, that is, until the moto breaks or the baby gets sick with malaria. Until the vielle dies or your child wants to marry. Until you see the world and all the good things that exist there in, and know that you can’t have any of it because of your way of life is paralyzing. Their wealth is in the hard work they’ve put into developing land and businesses. Those things can’t pay for much. It’s the risk of self-sufficiency.

I can see why Adrien wanted out of this experience, and I think it’s good for him to go back and see his family, and remember where he came from. His family is all very hard-working. I can see that they love him much and wish he were closer. He’s the only one in the family to go to secondary school. Much of their hope rests in his potential success. I’ve never felt better about what I do for him.

NB: More pictures are available. Just click on one of the pictures above.

Safari. . .

The safari started at 6:00am when the guide picked us up at the workstation in Natitangou in an old Toyota SUV. We left early so we could arrive at Penjari national park around 8:00, when a lot of animals would be out.

Upon arriving at the park, we paid our entrance fee while the driver tied a mattress to the luggage rack on top of the car. We climb up so that we could sit on the mattress. We traveled like this during the safari. Wind blowing dust in our faces and hands holding tightly on to the adjacent luggage rack, we advanced through the park squinting through the morning sun to see animals.

Not too long after entering the park, we saw one of the hardest to spot, the lion. Two lionesses had just recently killed an antelope and were enjoying lunch as we passed. We watched them in awe. She realized we were there and growled at us. Shortly after, she started slowly dragging her prey away.

Over the next few days we saw many animals – hippopotamuses, crocodiles, wild boar, and elephants. The elephants were the most beautiful. They are huge and wild and seem to have such a calm simple life. Birds pick at their dirty skin as they wander aimlessly through the forest, sometimes knocking down trees to get the fruit they’re searching for. Stunning animals. Absolutely stunning.

The hotel in the park was fine. It was isolated and felt like a safari hotel. We were there on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I had decided to join my friends Nora and Katie, and Nora’s brother Danny for this adventure. The hotel managed to “get us good” the first night, with a meal more expensive than anything I would have spent in the U.S. The food was alright but not worth the money. The next day we gave the hotel a hard time about the over-priced meal. “All the French people thought it was quite satisfying.”

There were several French families in the hotel and at several points I caught myself thinking, “Do I really want to live in France.” I think the clear difference between “us” and “them,” was that we were poor volunteers and they were all diplomats or friends of diplomats or crazy Europeans, all with a lot of money free to dump on a safari.

Upon exiting we stopped at the waterfalls in Tonougou. A guide took us up to the falls and we swam and watched the certified “plongeurs” dive from the high cliff above the water. The water was cold – fresh and crisp, and I couldn’t handle staying in it for as long as my friends wanted to. I got out and took the obligatory pictures of them swimming in the waterfalls.

Safari is an interesting experience, especially when you’re doing it as a volunteer. You catch yourself thinking, “If only my friends in village knew what I was spending on this trip.” It’s never a pleasant thought, but what fun is living in Africa for two years if you’ve never been on Safari.

NB: My camera wasn’t sufficiently charged and in the end I didn’t get any good photos. As soon as my friends post pictures, I’ll share them. I like to think of my blog as more word based than photo based anyway. J

Friday, December 18, 2009

Living Poor. . .

What matters. . .

The other day I went to the tailor to drop off some fabric and I had an argument with him, which resulted in my taking the fabric I had bought and finding another tailor. We were talking about the price, and he basically told me that because I am white, I should pay more. I’m used to this sort of treatment, but it’s usually not said so blatantly to my face. The quality of his work for me, he claimed, is better than his work for others – because I’m white.

I was there with Adrien, because we were getting our “même tissue” outfits made. I was outraged that he was willing to say in front of Adrien and other customers, that the quality of his work was better for me because I am white. I think what makes this especially painful at this point in my life here, is that I want to be treated like everyone else. I’ve been in village for a year now. I want the same prices and the same quality and the same treatment that artisans, shop owners, even banana sellers give to everyone else.

The truth is that the Peace Corps gives me just enough money to live how I want to live, but just enough. With the tailor we were debating over the equivalent of 2 dollars. Money I wouldn’t break a sweat over in the U.S., now means that I might not have enough money to get to the bank on pay day.

In discussing the events with Maman Naffi in my concession, I found myself getting more frustrated. She emphasized and thought that I had a right to be angry. I found myself telling her the same thing that I tell many people here – I make less money than professors, the school doesn’t pay me, I can’t work to make extra money, I’m a volunteer. A mixed bag of the truth and white lies. They don’t (can’t) really understand the concept that it’s a sacrifice to come here, because I still have a pretty nice house and a good amount of money compared to a lot of people.

“Even when I travel, the Peace Corps gives me money to travel. I really don’t have that much money,” I told her.

And then she said, “And the 1,000,000CFA to go home last summer?”

Touché. At some point last summer, she asked me how much a ticket home was, and I told her. I explained, as I had before, that it was my family who helped pay to bring me home, because they wanted to see me. “Their money is your money.”

Touché encore. I am a rich American. Not because I’m making big bucks in Africa, but rather because my future is bright and my circle of protection is big. I want to fit in, but I’m white. It really is fair for them to assume that because I am white, I am rich. Naturally, since they are much poorer, I ought to pay more for their goods and services. I ought to give a little too. I do so much for the community in little ways, but I don’t give like they are used to white people giving. I know my students appreciate the unique experience of having an American English teacher, and the various opportunities to go alongside with that, but in the end will my legacy be weak compared to the Italians that built the orphanage or the Swiss that built the school building? Probably.

Volunteering can be selfish too. I came here because I wanted to learn about life in Africa. I wanted to speak another language well. I wanted more stories to tell. I’ve achieved all of these things, so I can’t really complain. On top of that, in the end I will have helped 400+ students to speak English a little better, not to mention to realize that there is a world out there bigger than Benin. I suppose that’s a legacy.

I want the people in my village to think that I’m poor like them. That’s just not real. Even if I am honestly trying to live on a similar budget, every time I hop on the air conditioned bus to Cotonou and every time I take money out from home to travel, they know it’s not true. As my time here rushes to its end, I’m starting to realize that as well integrated as I am, I’ll always be the American. I’ll never be really comfortable. The people will never be really comfortable with me. I might never be seen as the equal that I want to be.

The tailor was a special case. Because of his quick temper, I had a window into what people are thinking but don’t usually say. Either way, we took the fabric to another tailor and saved a dollar after discussing the price. At least now I can get to the bank.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Thanksgiving. . . 2

Thankfully American Thanksgiving coincides with the harvest season in Benin. This means that many delicious things are is in season, from sweet potatoes to watermelon. In a city like Parakou (the closest to my village), you really can have an authentic Thanksgiving Day Dinner. Even in my village I was able to pull off a few dishes.

I went back and forth about whether to invite anyone to my personal Thanksgiving Day dinner, or just share it with Adrien. The problem, of course, is money. When one person hears about it, everyone else is offended they haven’t been invited. In the end I decided to invite three teachers to share the small feast with me.

I’m proud to say everything I made for my personal thanksgiving was found in village. The boutique where I buy most of my food actually has frozen turkey wings, so I bought enough for the five of us. I really didn’t know what I was doing with it. I brined it, than boiled it, than fried it, than baked it. Sorry cooking gods. I made mashed sweet potatoes with sugar, cinnamon, and milk. I then made a stuffing with dried bread and a broth I made from my turkey water with a little help from Maggi cubes (bouillon). Naturally, gravy was included as well. In the end, I was glad to have shared Thanksgiving with a few others. Cultural sharing is a Peace Corps goal!

On Saturday most of my TEFL group gathered to celebrate Thanksgiving together. Since we don’t get to take off American holidays, we had to transfer the feast to the weekend. Last year, we were all together for Thanksgiving. It fell during a week long training we had in Parakou. In a lot of ways, it was when we really melded together as a group. So, it was especially pleasant to gather the second year to keep the tradition running.

We divided up, much as we did last year, to make the meal. Claire and I were on stuffing duty, and also obliged ourselves to make green bean hotdish. Someone had to do it, and being from the upper midwest, it seemed appropriate that we step up to the task.

Task 1. Figure out how to produce cream of mushroom soup. This really wasn’t that hard to do. Every time I realize how easy some processed foods are to make from scratch, I feel guilty about how much money and laziness has been involved in making such products back in the states. We sautéed onions and garlic in a good amount of oil. Then we mixed in flour, to start a gravy. After that, we added milk, a can of mushrooms, and soon enough we had our cream of mushroom soup.

Task 2. Cook vegetables and find something crunchy to place on the top before baking. We found pringles. And task complete!

Stuffing would be easier we thought. It was actually going quite well. We had a nice broth built up with veggies and seasoning. Not enough salt though. We had a giant salt shaker full of salt. I added a little. Tasted. It still needed more. I shook the salt shaker, and the lid fell off, causing a good half pound of salt to fall into our broth. At first I couldn’t stop laughing. Oh my. Then once we regained ourselves, we asked Angelina, one of our food snobs, to come and taste our broth. I think she almost threw up. She was not amused. Anyway, we strained all the vegetables and started over again.

The food, in the end was all fantastic. The truth is that the “dinner of all dinners,” isn’t really about the food. The food is great, don’t get me wrong, but the fulfilling part of the feast is being with people you love. The TEFL girls (remember, 13 girls and me!) have really become my family here. They all contribute so uniquely to our group. When one is missing, we know it (there were 3 missing!). Last year, we talked a lot about our past. Where and what we’ve come from.

This year, it was about our future. The question we’ve all been asking ourselves. Where will we be a year from now? Unfortunately, I think I’ll have many more Thanksgiving away from my family and home. I can only hope that I’ll always be so lucky – to have such wonderful people around me, no matter where I am.