Sunday, December 26, 2010

Christmas at work!

The idea of doing something for Christmas seemed almost impossible. We debated whether or not it was worth it. Only in our 2nd month of existence, surely it was too early to showcase our work in Ouidah, but at the same time, people might expect us to do something.

In the end, we settled on a little Christmas Camp. It was three days long and on the last day the students produced a 45 minute variety show with traditional and modern song and dance. It turned out to be a lot of fun.

We brought in four local artists, one traditional dancer and singer, two percussionists, and one artist who dances, sings, and plays the guitar. We selected a group of 8 dancers and invited the choral that was already in place to do the singing. We had some minor attendance problems, and by the time we actually had our variety show our presence was down to 20 (this is mostly the result of communication problems with parents, we’re working on it!).

Wednesday and Thursday morning, we divided up time between the different activities. The dancer, Stanislas worked with the dancers to teach two dances, and the choral to teach the accompanying song. Sim D, a local artist and student, worked on choreography to “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” and I worked with the kids to prepare Il Est Né (unfortunately, the soloist didn’t show up the day of the concert, so I had to sing the verses) and Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen (not all of the music was Christmas music).

Working with children on a performance always causes frustration here and there, but the real trophy is the time of the performance, when the children become 100% serious and really pull off the event. I’m including a few pictures here of the show. Happy Holidays to everyone with love from CIAMO.

Here are a few videos:

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Kaleta Videos. . .

I'll try to write more about the huge success of our Kaleta workshops. In the mean time, here are some videos I thought everyone might enjoy.
John Mark

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Waffel House in Ouidah

Speaking of party tents. . .
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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Every Weekend A Party

Since I’ve been in Ouidah, I’ve noticed a lot of cultural differences between the north where I lived for two years and the south where I am now. These differences are controlled by many variables. In the north they were mostly Muslim, here in the south they’re mostly Christian. In the north, they were mostly Bariba and Fulani, and here it’s mostly Fon and Yoruba. There is a lot more wealth in the south, because there are better jobs in the cities and they’re closer to where all the imports come in.

These differences can be as simple as the way they greet one another or their version of the “white person” chant. But there are also many complicated differences. For example, women are treated entirely differently here and they often tend to be open willing to speak their mind. But never mind serious matters, the cultural difference I want to discuss today is a bit different. I thus present to you the Ouidian’s affinity for a good party. A funeral, a marriage, a holiday, why not?

Every weekend, I hop on my bike and go on a quick ride to the beach, walk, sit, all the while pondering life and its many virtues. I noticed right away on these trips, they are often complicated by huge tents going up in the early morning. These tents (Which incidentally are usually tarps taken from American billboards for companies such as CocaCola or KCCI Live Action News), often block the most important route in town. They put up a sign “Rue Barré” and sometimes even have people there who try to stop you. Once I went through a tent, and I was forced off my bike. I lied and said I was going to the nearby church, and they let me by, telling me to pray for them.

Under these tents are hundreds of plastic chairs and tables a rented sound system. There’s always a DJ, who doesn’t really know how to use the sound board. As every person enters, he finds it necessary to announce their arrival. In my case, the announcement is usually “Welcome ______, and his friend the yovo!” If I’m lucky they might throw in my title – Professor of Music and Artistic Director of CIAMO! When the DJ isn’t talking, he’s playing unbearably loud music that makes making conversation almost impossible.

But conversation isn’t a worry for me, since they’re likely to be talking in local language, so I listen to the music, watch people, and occasionally glance up and admire Live Action Reporter Carry Shorter. Now comes the part where a family shows how much they really love their deceased and/or married couple(s) (One can fete several occasions at the same party, right?). Everyone has to do the tent, the chairs, even the sound system. The real investment is in food in beverages. The meal takes place in multiple courses. These courses could be considered each a meal unto themselves. First you might get a salad usually including fish or hotdogs, peas, cabbage, carrots and a lot of mayonnaise. After that, you might get Riz au Gras (Jollof Rice), with a good sized chunk of whatever animal was killed for the event. If you’re really showing off, it’s a beef, but a big mutton can be equally impressive. If you’re going for max meat for your money it’s, unfortunately for me, fish. There might be a third course too, if the family is doing really well, which usually consists of some kind of pate, remember that’s the corn flour boiled in water, with sauce and more meat (potentially a different animal).

And of course, beverages are essential. Beverage companies in Benin are still on the reusable bottle system, which I think is fantastic. People bring in cases of beer, soda pop, and water for their guests. Here, if you really want to invest, you bring in bottles of liquor and cans of imported beverages. This is where the party goes downhill for me. I enjoy a nice beer and the beer I usually drink here is definitely not a high quality. When the imports come in you start drinking Heineken, Guinness, and Bavarian. Did I mention this is all free for the guest? If they have it, they keep bringing you more, and, of course, it would be culturally insensitive to refuse, so you drink. “_____ has lost his mother in law. You must drink for him!” I might be told.

Just as the alcohol might have warmed you up a bit, you might barely notice a troupe of dancers (traditional or modern) or a band of instruments or a group of drummers, or any combination of those listed. If you’re an important family member and/or white, the artists will surely approach you and play loudly in your face. They probably won’t go away until you give them some kind of money. The appropriate way to give the artists money is to press it against their forehead. If the coin or bill sticks, that means they’re sweating, ergo doing a good job. This concept isn’t so new to me. During Ramadan up north, drummers would come into my concession and play loudly at 4am until the landlord woke up and gave them money.

I love it. I love the traditions that surround every fête. I love that music and dance plays such an important role in their traditions. I really love it. It’s like an Irish wake to the 50th power. On days where I’m tired of being called yovo, tired of people asking for gifts, a good party takes all those annoyances away.

The elaborately dressed gungun, a yoruba tradition that brings back the spirits of ancestors from the dead. They dance around a circle for a period of time. When they're ready for the crowd to disperse, they begin lunging at the crowd. It's bad luck to touch the gungun, so people run screaming.

Another gungun. They come out 8-10 dancers at a time.

This tent is nice!
The local dancers at a funeral I went to. We're not taking off this hat-puff thing until you give us money.
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Monday, November 29, 2010

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Getting Started. . .


“Getting a project started is always the hardest part.” This is something that many people have said to me in French and in English since I made it back on the African continent. This gives me a lot of hope for the future of CIAMO, but unfortunately that hope is no cure. What we’re doing here requires a lot of hard work. The past two weeks have been crazy. I’ve been wearing two hats, one as the Interim Artistic Director and one as the Professor of Music. I like both hats. . . a lot.

On the Artistic side, I’ve been working a lot with our administrator to get the program up and running. We’re starting an association called ArtForceAfrica, an association committed to the use of the arts in development. CIAMO will be a project of this association. The administrator is also doing a really good job maintaining contacts, and forcing me to be a part of that. We’ve had several meetings with people at ministries and in various offices/foundations around Cotonou. I’ve been Cotonou several times a week for the last several weeks. It’s a headache getting back and forth, but I’m getting a lot of work done.

This project requires a lot of dreaming – seeing the big picture in 5, 10, 20 years. The biggest headache is taking all the dreams that everyone in the team has for the project and identifying and simplifying those things so that we can actually make them happen at the center. The building built for CIAMO is already starting to look small for everything we want to do!

Most challenging for me is the teaching aspect. I only get the kids for six hours a week, each class about an hour. I’m learning with them, reading books and doing research on how to teach music to kids. Every class is a big challenge for me. I have the six classes of students. Since they’re all blank slates in term of music education, I have to start from the beginning with all of them. To make things easier, I’m dealing with 3 lessons plans a week, one for CI and CP (Kindergarden/1st Grade), one for CE1 and CE2 (2nd, 3rd grade and one for CM1 and CM2 (4th, 5th grade). They’re all learning similar things, just at different paces.


This week, I put the first musical notes in front of the eyes of my oldest students (CM1 and CM2). I explained the difference between a note and silence. We clapped to simple phrases – We are Beninese (Nous sommes Beninois) – and then I added rests in the sentence and had them try to read it. They caught onto it like they were born to understand. We moved from those simple things to measures of beats, where we clapped and played rhythms using percussion instruments. It’s amazing to see students, in 30 minutes, going from seeing a round circle with a line on it, to seeing a note noire and silence soupir.

This experience was inspiring for me and tells me that I can move a little bit faster with the older kids. I’m looking forward to when they can really read simple melodies so I can start teaching them recorder. With the younger kids, we’re focusing on repeating rhythms, maintaining steady tempos, and recognizing the difference between fast and slow, high and low, loud and soft. The kids seem happy to come to their lessons and greet me with a lot of excitement, even on the street. In the area around the school, I’m no longer “Yovo Yovo” I’m “Teacher! Teacher!”

What’s coming up? In the next few weeks, we’re developing private piano lessons, a chorale, and hopefully by January we’ll have dance and drumming lessons as well. In January Sarah comes, our art teacher, another Peace Corps Response Volunteer, this will start up the whole visual arts portion of the project. Anyway, we’re having fun in Ouidah. Every day is a challenge, but the project is really taking off so I can’t complain!


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

L'Ambassadeur. . .

At my going away party in village, I had to give a little speech, thanking everyone for their hospitality during my two years there. Of course, I had to include Adrien. “He doesn’t just wash my clothes and sweep my floors. Everyone jokes that I’m an ambassador of the US. Honestly, he’s the ambassador, who has helped me more than anyone to understand and accept culture here in Benin.” I’m sure that my relationship with Adrien confuses people. No he’s not my boyfriend, he’s too old to be my child. He’s my best friend in Benin – a relationship that is uniquely itself. Within 24 hours of his arrival, I was making new friends. He was chatting with my neighbors, playing with their dogs, making his way through Ouidah like a star. My quality of life is definetly better when he's around, but now he's on his way back to village where he needs to stay the course and finish the first cycle with a passing grade. He'll be back down for Christmas. That's not too far away.
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Monday, November 1, 2010

Adjara, Benin - The Village of Percussion

Though I brought a lot of materials back to Benin for our project, we certainly didn't need to buy drums and percussion. When I first got back to Benin, I asked someone where you go to buy drums, and he told me about a village near Porto Novo that specializes in percussion.
It's normal here for villages to have a trade - but usually it has to do with a specific crop. This reminded me of when I was in Ghana and there was a brass casting village, along with a village for several other royal crafts.
Anyway, for a small chunk of cash we got about 8 drums! This was a really cool experience and I hope to go back there before I leave to buy some drums for myself. Here are some pictures.

Guitarist Leni Stern, Filmmaker Herve Cohen, and CIAMO Administrator Wilfrid (who got us pretty amazing deals!)

We stuffed the trunk with instruments.

The Village.
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Friday, October 29, 2010

Opening Ceremonies of CIAMO. . .

Friday was an incredible day for me. Since I've been here in Benin, I've attended a handful of ceremonies that are similar. Peace Corps things, Camps, Awards Ceremonies. I can honestly say that I have never seen anything as wonderful as what we produced yesterday.

Authorities came from the Ministry of Culture, of Primary School Education, the Mayor, Peace Corps, and the American Embassy. Usually at these sorts of ceremonies, people talk forever, reading a speech prepared for them, without passion or enthusiasm. For one of the first times, yesterday, I saw a group of authorities that was actually excited about the project. I think it's something new, something different. You get tired of inaugurating school buildings and wells and hospitals (all of which are desperately needed). This is a new idea, new inspiration. A simply worded goal, to improve arts and music education in Benin, is not a simple task. People are excited about it and that gives me energy to push forward.

A delegation of Americans came, the founder and her best friend, amazing electric guitarist Leni Stern, and filmmaker Herve Cohen. During the week, we had a lot of serious meetings about the school and what it will take to get it up and running and successful. What we want to do is so much bigger than our current mission in Benin, but teaching kids art and music is always going to be at the base of what we do. We're hoping to have international artists come to the center to teach the kids and to help professional artists to develop their crafts. We also hope to make arrangements with schools in the US - study abroad, j-term, that sort of thing - to encourage cultural sharing. This is all very exciting and I can't express enough how privileged I feel to be a part of this. Here's the last week in pictures.

This is a display table with some of music supplies we're using.

This is for real.

Sarah helping out Herve shotting the kids doing the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking

Myself with Wilfred our new administrator

This is the entourage.

More pictures to come. I'm having trouble uploading.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The First Pictures. . .

The center I'm working at is just being finished. They did the painting this last week, furniture is on the way, and we'll have our opening ceremony next week. They were originally going to build it at ground level, but than the mayor protested, saying the kids need place to play. In effect, the center is on cement stilts!

Voila the space for children to have sport class. I hope they don't whack their heads on the cement pillars!

We brought in some local artists to teach the kids some song and dance for the inauguration.

They like it a lot

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Floods and 3rd World Coverage

A few of my friends pointed out this article on yahoo. What it reports, from what I've heard, is true. The rains have been a really big problem this year, all over Benin. Adrien even tells me that in my former village, a lot of houses (probably mud constructions) have fallen and a lot of people are looking for houses, which made the cost of renting go up significantly.

One funny thing to note, though, is the picture on this article. Clearly a stock photo, Yahoo took a picture of Ganvie, a stilt village located ON a lake, to illustrate the flooding taking place here. Go figure, they chose a picture of a village that is flooded 100% of the time to show what's taking place. Honestly, maybe they did this because they would have had to go au village to see the flooding.

AP File

You Gotta Know the Territory. . .

You Gotta Know the Territory. . .

I’m going crazy here in Benin, trying to plan the Grand Opening (Inauguration) of our new building. Everything that I’m required to do here is completely against my American, Anglophone, simple sensibilities. What would you do if you were having an event like this? You would print out invitations, and give them to people, including the important people, that you want to come. Simple right? Not in Benin.

First, you have to have the permission of the Mayor of the city you’re working in, especially if he’s invited. No problem right? Dear Mr. Mayor. I’m very happy to inform you that we will be holding our opening ceremony. . . etc. . . Your presence would be very much appreciated. Not so much. . . Try this. . .

“Mister Mayor, I have the honor and the respect to come to you to inform you that the official ceremony of the opening of the Center. . . le 29 Whenever 2010 a . . .. Mister Mayor, the founder of the center personally brings this to your awareness and thanks you in advance for all of the availability that your offices have taken in the creation and the work of the said center. Mister mayor, in hope that we will meet you before the date of the ceremony, I beg you to receive my most sincere salutations and my very high consideration.”

Let the love fest begin! Anyway, after you’ve formally invited the mayor you can proceed to invite other important people to your event. Maybe a minister. Remember, Benin is the size of some large American cities, but you’re still required to treat a minister as a minister, a national head of a national department. You send him a very similar invitation AND a description of the project, so that if he comes, or one of his mignons comes, he knows exactly what project he is supporting, and his people can write a speech for him for the occasion.

If someone can’t make it, you might get a letter back from them, like this:

"Mister, I have to the honor to inform you that we have received your letters, in which you stipulate the opening of your center on the, etc etc etc. Mister, we are in regret that we announce to you that the (insert very important person here) will not be able to honor in his person the ceremony. In effect, the important person is out of the territory until the end of October. We're counting on your understanding, please agree, Mister, the expression of our most distinguished salutations. Signed, the assistant of the very important person."

When you’re done with invitations, you have to get to work planning the actual event. That is to say, which important person will speak first. Usually the most important person speaks in the last place. Who is more important a minister’s representative or the mayor or the director of your organization. . . etc, etc. Every important person comes with their speech, that you pretty much prepared for them by giving them the description of the project, and they are all treated with immense respect. Everyone begins their speech with Cher Monsieur le directeur de corps de la paix, Cher Monsieur l'ambassadeur de belgique, Cher Madame la directrice de circomscription, etc etc, before they actually begin their prepared speech.

I'll be sure to take lots of pictures and keep you informed. This event is going to be exciting! (weak smile).

Monday, October 11, 2010

Back au Benin!. . .

Here we go again. . .

It seems that I’ve developed a bad habit of putting myself in lonely places about every two years. It’s always difficult to go somewhere where you don’t really know anyone. You become an island hoping for the sea of loneliness to recede connecting you with dry land elsewhere. I know that sounds obnoxiously metaphorical, but I’ve learned it’s really true. Pretty much everywhere I’ve gone in live, I’ve put myself in an incredibly boring and lonely situation. The difference is that in college I didn’t realize that it really gets better. In graduate school I had my doubts. In peace corps I was hopeless. Every time, I ended up finding friends that I love, so now I sit here in my bright yellow living room, waiting, knowing it will come in good time.

My time home reminded me how much I love my family and my closest friends. When you’re away so much, you learn to treasure quality time. Sometimes you even get upset at the people who don’t have time for you. Shame on them for having lives and jobs! I enjoyed a lot of time with my mother and father, who are in an interesting stage of their lives, having retired only a year ago.

I enjoyed a variety of activities that I now consider to be quite cultural. Eating out, going to the parade and county fair, boating, shopping in huge stores, just to name a few, all the while accompanied by wonderful people. Mom, Dad, and I drove the minivan across America. We spent quality time with my sister Ann and her beautiful baby, Eliza. We moved on to New Jersey, where I spent time with my other two nieces and my sister Maria. It’s so weird living abroad, and coming to home to see that all of my siblings have such grown up lives with houses and husbands/wife and children.

Thanks to Maria’s stellar location, I was able to see a lot of friends in both D.C. and N.Y.C.. It was quite a challenge to see all the friends I’ve collected from undergrad, grad school, and Peace Corps, but I pulled it off.

I flew out of JFK with five pieces of baggage: two for myself, one filled with recorders, one filled with music stands and tennis balls, and one box with a brand new 88key digital piano tucked inside. I spent a lot of time worrying about whether or not they would accept the luggage, but they did. After a long flight to Brussels, a half a day in the dingy African terminal with no food (go figure the most expensive flights fly out of the worst terminals), I arrived in Cotonou at about 7:30pm. I automatically threw my sweatshirt in my baggage. No more cold! I should mention that I spent a large part of my last 24 hours in New Jersey under a blanket because it was so cold there. I didn’t have the energy or the clothes to get used to it.

After a day of paperwork, a fon lesson, and chasing various people around the office, I was sworn in at Peace Corps staff meeting. I was taken to Ouidah where I met the directrice and directeur of the primary schools and saw the Centre International d’Art et de Musique de Ouidah (CIAMO) which is on the grounds of said primary schools. It’s kind of a crazy building. It’s lifted up on big cement pillars. They wanted to build it on the ground level but in the mayor wanted it lifted up so the space below could be used for sports and activities. It is a nice building, with fans and modern plumbing. In the coming weeks the furniture and painting will be done, just in time for our grand opening at the end of the month.

My house is also really nice. I was very disappointed to see that it was on one of the most travelled highways in Benin, if not west-Africa. This is the coast highway that connects Nigeria to Benin to Togo to Ghana and beyond. I was surprised that they could even put me here with PC regulations, but they did I’m going to live with it. The house is in a closed concession with a big garage door that opens up to the highway. Normally the concession is locked, so it’s not too bad. The bright side is that I have a kitchen with a sink and a bathroom with toilet and shower! It’s weird getting up in the middle of the night and not having to leave my house to go to the restroom!

I am very lonely here, but just like the last couple times I put myself in this situation, I know friends will come along. I’ve also learned that the friends you rush to make are never your closest, so I’m taking it easy and enjoying some down time before the project really takes off and my life becomes busier than I was in village.

Anyway, turn the page. This is a new experience in Benin. I’m practically in a different country. These are different people speaking a language that I can’t even greet in. This project is very new to me. How am I going to teach these kids music? Music like what Miss Morgan taught me in elementary. I remember hating it, but secretly loving it at the same time. I’m excited for the potential that this project has to offer. Now to get started! Stay tuned to my blog for more about life in Ouidah and the project.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

On Aid and Development

Since I've been home, I've listened to two "Speaking of Faith" episodes that reflect heavily my feelings about aid in the developing world. One thing that Peace Corps Volunteers learn really quickly is that there is good aid and there is bad aid. Good aid is helping people in developing countries to make sustainable progress towards their development goals For example, what we do, bringing in a native English speaker to teach and to help teachers to improve over a 6 year time period. Bad aid is the quick fix, where money is thrown at a problem, buildings are built, and the aid is finished. For example, Project Play Africa, who raised funds to bring a shipping can full of soccer balls to Benin, not assessing need, and with no long-term goals or implications. Sure, people loved getting free soccer balls, who wouldn't, but as soon as Project Play left, the volunteers on the ground to teach English, help businesses, and improve health and sanitation, were fielding more requests for free balls than for help in any of our own work. Who doesn't want a free ball? By helping students and teachers, we are hopefully encouraging improvement in English education. By dumping balls in Africa, they're getting lots of smiles, warm fuzzy feelings, and wasting hundreds of dollars.

In the episode, "A Different Kind of Capitalism," Krista Tippet interviews Jacqueline Novograts about her Acumen Fund, which encourages donors to invest money into projects. Investors don't get returns, but rather, returns are reinvested. Ms. Novograts very aptly point out that if a present is given to someone, they'll fuss over it, even if they don't like it. They'll bring it out and put it on the mantel when you come by, and put it back into storage when you're not around. I see a lot of presents in Africa, things that say "From the American People," the Danes, the EU, and others, that are not in use. This could be something as simple as a broken water pump or a locked up and unused outhouse. Surely, when the donors come to see their work, they spruce things up, and make a big scene, but as soon as they leave, these things go back into disuse.

This was especially present at the Catholic Mission in my village. The church had received money to construct a library and formation houses from Italy. They built beautiful buildings and neither of them are really used. The Italians get a warm feeling, and the local Catholics, a sense of pride that things were built, but for what?

Novograts invests money in companies and then sends international consultants to help them to develop plans, and they end up being more successful and even creating jobs. In my time in Benin I've seen various international projects come and go. People get jobs with NGOs, but as soon as these projects are finished, they're out of a job again. Meanwhile telecommunication companies and transportation companies are managing to grow quickly in West-Africa and bringing a lot of jobs along to accompany them. Capitalism is really not a bad thing for Benin. Anyway, listen to this conversation at Speaking of Faith

The second speaking of faith episode was called the Ethics of Aid. It was an interview with a rather pretentious Kenyan, Binyayanga Wainaina. He's a well known author and columnist. He talked a lot about the face of Africa presented in America. He comments that NGOs find pictures of the poorest, hungriest, dirtiest children to help raise money for their projects. In his satirical essay, "How to Write About Africa," he advises:
And dead bodies. Or, better, naked dead bodies. And especially rotting naked dead bodies. Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the 'real Africa', and you want that on your dust jacket. Do not feel queasy about this: you are trying to help them to get aid from the West.
I think this really runs in tandem with the Novograts episode. Africans don't really need pity money, they need investment and good, sustainable aid. Aid that comes from honest, dedicated, and long term relationships between the developed and developing worlds. He talks about how, contrary to the previous paragraphs that I've written, the Catholic Church does a lot better job than other organisations because they are more permanent and on the ground. They have a strong sense of the needs of the community, because they live in the community. If we really want to help we need to be on the ground, living every day life with the host country, and constantly reassessing needs.

Anyway, both of these programs are worth a listen. They're very reflective of my view of development. Check it out.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Some Videos

Some of my favourite students talking about life in Benin. Ignore my atrocious villegoise accent.

Bariba Dancers

Monday, August 23, 2010

Love Languages. . .

In these last couple of days in Benin, I'm trying to reflect on what I like and dislike about Benin and how the two compliment each other. Its a way to prepare myself for another year.

Like: Idle Time

One thing I've really learned to love about life here is that you can spend large amounts of time doing nothing and no one judges you. Often in my house I would get really bored. I couldn't read anymore, I couldn't write anymore, I couldn't watch anymore episodes of whatever it was that I was watching on my computer. After about 3 months in village, I discovered that there are a lot of solutions to this idle time. I often would go and sit with my friend Raouf who sells gas out of liquor bottles on the road or my friend Chijoke who sells motorcycle parts near bye. Sometimes we would chat about life, love, politics, and sometimes we would just sit in silence watching the cars passing by. This was how I really got to know my village, sitting silently and observing.

The walks were good for me too. Taking long walks alone or with Sarah, sometimes with Adrien, were always relieving and fulfilling. I loved the quiet of the orchards, greeting people passing by and meeting their confused looks about what I was doing "au champ," and the indepth conversations I shared with Adrien.

I really enjoy

Dislike: Gift Giving

Il faut me donner. From the minute I unpacked my taxi in village to the minute I stuffed my stuff into the taxi to go to Cotonou to finish my service, people have blatantly asked for presents. Not in a polite way, literally, they say "You most give it to me." It's not necessarily a class thing. Even my landlord, who is filthy rich and who knows I don't like him, asked me for my running shoes twice. I hated to take my camera out to take pictures, ride my bike in village, even go to the market and buy food sometimes, because people would almost invariably say, "Il faut me donner." If it was raining and I had an umbrella, "Il faut me donner." When I had my going away party, people with whom the only conversations I have ever had included, "Il faut me donner," asked why they didn't receive an invitation. When you do give, there's a lack of gratitude, so you really don't feel good about your gift giving. Even the people to whom I'm closest, if I give them something, they might mention the gift's deficiencies.

There are really two reasons. First of all, gift-giving is a part of their culture. If you travel, even if it's just to the local city, you're expected to bring back something. They'll often even say "What did you bring for me?" or "You must bring back good things for me." Secondly, years of free, senseless giving to west-Africa has left many people here with the idea that that is what we (westerners) are in Africa to do. Now that development has changed to focus on sustainability, eg, send me to a village and help students and teachers to learn to communicate better in English, it's really quite a pain that we spent all those year giving. That's what they want. They realize I can do good things in their village, but in the end there's really no "legacy," because I didn't build or give anything.

What I've Learned about Myself

Gift-giving is NOT my love language. I never read the book about love languages, but I'm pretty familiar with it thanks to my mother's and sisters' obsession with it. I don't really like gift giving. If I did, Beninese people would probably like me more (I'm not saying they don't like me, but they must think I'm rude for not giving). At the same time, I AM a quality-time person. Even if there's not a whole lot of communication, I'm happy when I'm with people. During my service, when I catch myself feeling down, I make haste to get out of my house, and find people I enjoy being around. My worst days were when none of those people were available to me.

Saying Goodbye

Saying Goodbye

As I started packing up and ending my village life, I couldn’t help thinking, “here I go again.” What I’m living right now, I think, is the life of a 20something. I’m liminal and unsure but at the same time more active than I’ll probably every be.

Peace Corps puts you in an interesting situation because in the end you end up with two sets of solid friends. Your friends from the country hosting you and your fellow volunteers who support you, hear you out, love you, and hate you throughout the two years. You’re in it together. You end up with a lot of people to home you need to say “au revoir.”

Last week I set out to throw my own going away party. I’ve had a few going away parties in my life, and I see now that having people throw a party for you is the way to go. Here in Benin, if you have a reason to celebrate, it’s you that needs to make it happen.

I sent Adrien to the market where he bought us a sheep to slaughter. The creature baaed unceasingly and even managed to escape right before the slaughter. I was impressed as Adrien and some other villagers reduced the living creature to a pile of meat and bones. I told him that if you put an animal in front of an American and said, “this is your dinner,” the American would probably starve.

There was uniform for the evening, bright blue tissue with bows and hearts, and several teachers bought it so we could have matching clothes, as is the festival tradition here in Benin. I bought the supplies so that Mama could make riz au gras, jollof rice, to accompany the meat. That evening, about 40 people came, many uninvited. They ate well, drank well, said thank you and went home.

Three days later I was packing a taxi with mattresses, my bike, furniture, everything that I wanted to bring to the south for the next stage of my life. Since I had the free taxi, thanks to Peace Corps, Adrien joined me for the trip. We spent two days enjoying Cotonou. Awing ourselves with huge super markets, big houses, and good eats. We went to the beach so Adrien could get his obligatory saltwater to prove that he really did make it, and invited a photographer to take our picture, soaking wet because of the rain, on the beach. Saying goodbye to Adrien wasn’t that difficult, knowing that I’ll see him again.

A lot of my volunteer friends have already left. Now I’m in Cotonou a few of my friends who are left, waiting to close my service (COS) and getting nervous about my trip home on Friday.

See you soon.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Electrifying. . .

As I near the end of two years in my village, I still run into things that are shocking - things that I would never expect. Many of these things I can’t comprehend or really even deal with, at least at first. The other day I took off all my clothes, went in my showering area, and touched the water in a bucket. Ouch! I jumped and quickly got out of the shower.

At this point, I thought I might really be going crazy. I touched it again. Same shock. “Something must be in the bucket,” I thought, “an electric device, an electric eel, an electric something.” So I picked up my shoes and used them to knock over the bucket to see what strange things that spilled out. There wasn’t anything visible, so I decided to at least take a plastic bucket and fill it with water. I figured, “Well, I’m not sure what’s going on, but at least plastic doesn’t conduct electricity.

I jumped in the shower, scared to touch the water. Bravely I dipped my hand in to take the cup, without a problem. “That’s right,” I thought, “I can handle this.” I poured water over myself, and reached to grab my soap. “Ouch!” My soap shocked me too. My feet were also getting a little electricity.

“I really must be going crazy,” I thought, as I grabbed my cell phone and called Adrien, who was working au champ at the time. “Adrien,” I said, “There’s something strange here and I think I’m going crazy. Come home!” Shortly after he arrived, sure to himself that I was losing it. He went in the shower, touched the water, nothing. He touched around, and finally, “oh!” he got a really shock too.

We went outside and were staring at the exterior of the house. Maman was there too and we were brainstorming what we were going to do when a vieux came along and asked why we were staring at the house. Maman explained in Bariba, and he said to her, “The same thing happened to me. It turned out that a loose wire was electrifying the ceiling. Somehow electricity came through the cement and shocked me.”

Needless to say, we called the electrician. He came, claimed to fix the problem while I was out, and took off. It turned out he hadn’t fixed the problem, he had left my house completely disconnected from the electricity. After a few days of calling him, and getting shocked by my house, we finally got him to come. He climbed up into a cubby hole in the ceiling and shortly after the problem was resolved.

Since it’s the rainy season, the walls were especially humid which would explain why they were conducting electricity. Honestly, I have never been shocked in my life as much as I have been shocked in Benin, and I know many others who have other similar and bizarre stories. Just yesterday I was with a friend when a power strip randomly caught on fire. Fortunately, these buildings are mostly made in cement so the risk isn’t that huge. No electric eels, no I’m not going crazy. I’m just living in Benin.

Courage, Jeune Fille - Courage Girl!

Last year when I attended my first girls’ camp, CAMP GLOW, a regional camp that took place in Parakou, the major city close to where I live, I realized that these camps were a really important part of our work here. A really difficult part of living here is seeing the treatment of girls on a daily basis. The mama in my concession, the wife of the richest person in my village, sends her daughter out to sell frozen juices on her head. My teacher friend calls his daughter an imbecile for not greeting me when I entered the house. Sweeping, pulling water, cooking, taking care of babies, these things are the girls’ work. A week of camp not only gives them a chance to learn important information about their health and wellbeing, it also gives them a chance to see what life will be like when they’re in control – when they are on their own.

So with my chaperone from last year, I started planning Camp Courage, and over the past year it slowly came together. Money left in Kate Puzey’s name was donated to the cause of camps. At the same time a local success story who works in Cotonou wanted to help out. Slowly I went from a budget of $100 to $500. I bore most of the load in terms of work, as my chaperone became pregnant and had other things to worry about.

Finally last week, CAMP COURAGE happened. After hours of writing letters, requests for supplies, and planning sessions, it happened. It was a fantastic week! Here’s a run down of the five days of camp.

Day 1.
Too many girls showed up! I had given each invitee a form to fill out and told them to bring it back to me. 4 or 5 girls who did not give the form back to me showed up to the camp, form in hand. I had already replaced them. I didn’t have the heart to turn them down, and I had my fingers crossed that there would be money left in the budget. So, we began our week with 34 girls, 3 chaperones, and 3 volunteers.

We started the day off with typical get-to-know you activities. The girls really enjoyed these. Many of them already knew each other, but it was clear that there were names to be learned on all parts, including my own. Several of my favorite girl students where there, but there were also many I had never seen before I invited them. Their invitation was solely based on their hard work at school.

After, I led a session about clean water. This is a workshop I’ve done about 4 times over the past two years. We emphasize choosing clean sources of water (tap water vs. river water), and the use of purification methods, especially a product called Aquatabs, which is a very cheap pill you put in a 20 liter tank of water to chlorinate it.

In the afternoon my friends Claire and Sarah led sessions. Claire introduced them to the wild world of yoga while Sarah taught them a lesson on drawing using point of view and perspective.

Day 2.
The second day was dedicated to the fight against HIV/AIDs. To start out, though, we took all the girls outside, gave them toothbrushes and gave them a tooth brushing presentation. We lined them all up on the veranda of the school building and they spat together in the dirt after singing the alphabet two times while brushing.

The local midwife led most of the sessions this day and she was excellent. She had the girls jumping, laughing, and crying. She started with a session on reproductive health. The girls were wide eyed, many of them having no idea what their cycle was, that it was coming, and why it happens. Directly after, the midwife talked about STIs and HIV/AIDS. She showed pictures and talked about how it really is possible to fight these diseases. At the end there was a condom demonstration.

In the afternoon, we worked with the girls to design large posters about HIV/AIDS to be posted at school next year. We used the back of empty grain sacks and permanent markers to display our messages. The girls chose messages such as “Let’s be faithful,” “No condom, no sex!” “My diploma will be my husband!’ and “AIDS won’t pass through us.” The idea of this part of the week was to give them a chance to put their knowledge into action, and I think the girls really got it. They’ll be proud next year to see the posters hung up at school.

Day 3.
Nothing went as scheduled on Day 3, but it was still a success. We started with “The Life of a Model Women,” and a university student, a woman who works for a literacy NGO, and another women who works for women’s rights, all took about 20 minutes to talk about their work, the difficulties of being a woman in the work place, and being a working woman at home. The girls were very interested, posing a lot of questions along the way.

After this there was a short session on sexual harassment. The women mentioned in the last paragraph gave this talk, and it was a bit dry. Fortunately we had a plan to rehash some of the ideas on the next day. We took our group photo and had our lunch. That afternoon the girls finished working on their posters and got a chance to play a little soccer.

Day 4
Today we had a variety of sessions which were all very useful. First, my friend Kendra did a presentation on Paludisme, Malaria. She told a story about a child who got Malaria, and along the way, the girls had to deduce what the person did wrong. This was a well planned session, since the girls already know a lot about preventing Malaria. It was a good way to get them thinking about it.

After, the midwife came back to tell her model woman story. She couldn’t come the day before because of work. Her story was deep and touching. She was the daughter of a military colonel who had 8 wives and about 30 known children. She was spoiled as a child and then as she grew, she was treated poorly as the result of jealousy between wives. Even though she was the daughter of a rich man, she often went hungry and suffered at school. She forced herself to stay in school, and eventually got some meager financial support from her father to go to midwife school after she had finished high school. The midwife was often in tears, as were some of the girls, I’m sure. This kind of story is all to common here for the girls, and I think hearing this story had to have given at least one or two of those girls the courage to keep going. That same morning, the midwife did free hiv/aids screening for all the girls. Fortunately, they were all negative for hiv/aids and herpes.

I also led a session this morning on “Strategies against Sexual Harassment at School.” As I’ve mentioned, teachers harassing girls is a real problem here in Benin. Every year there are cases of harassment, rape, and pregnancy at many schools, including my own. We talked about how to avoid teachers advances, for example keeping a distance, not greeting them, not wearing tight uniforms, etc and after we talked about what to do if you are approached by a teacher, or anyone else who makes unwanted advances. It was interesting to let the girls role play and to see that they know exactly what the teachers say, because they see it every day.

In the afternoon we did cultural “exposés.” Because I’m in such a unique spot in Benin, there were about 5 ethnic groups that were really well represented among the girls (Peuhl, Bariba, Nagot, Fon, Ditamari). Each group responded to questions about their culture and presented this information to the girls. Each group also did a dance and/or song. Kendra and I presented on “European-American” culture, which included a stunning rendition of “The Battle Hymn of The Republic.” To the girls’ disappointment, we didn’t dance.

Day 5
The cultural exposés prepared the girls well for a trip to the Museum of Plain Air in Parakou. We packed ourselves in to five taxis, and every girl got a chance to see the museum with a guide. The museum included a lot of things that we talked about the afternoon before – traditional clothing, foods, and ceremonies. The girls really liked it. Most of them had never been to a museum before.

That afternoon, we had our closing ceremony. It was well attended, with the girls there were about 75 people, including the assistant-mayor (chef d’arondissement), the headmaster, many teachers, the president of the PTA, and an assistant director of Peace Corps who is from Tchatchou.

I welcomed everyone and the girls sang their camp hymn. Each important person had a chance to talk. The director gave the girls a very encouraging speech, which is rare here. He congratulated them on their good work, and encouraged them not to let our work be in vain. We finished the ceremony with the girls dancing and singing after which they were given certificates, sodas, and sandwiches.

In a few weeks, I’ll leave Tchatchou, and a new volunteer will come to replace me. Honestly, after having such a successful week of camp, I have no problem saying that this, after teaching, is one of the best things I’ve done here. The most worthwhile. The most impact. My greatest hope for whoever replaces me is that, besides teaching, she manages to make Camp Courage 2011 happen.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010


Camp GLOW - Girls Leading Our World took place last week. Thank to all of you that donated. This is one of the coolest things we volunteers do all year. We bring shy, quiet girls to camp and by the end of the week they're energetic and open.

During the week they learn about reproductive health (they don't even know why their cycle exists), clean water, the environment, computers, and they get to do fun things like go to the musem, the TV station, and play sports. Here are some shots of the week:
From More Africa

From More Africa

From More Africa

From More Africa

These are the 4 girls, 1 junior tutrice, and 1 tutrice that I brought to the camp.

Exit Strategy: Don't Exit. . .

Exit Strategy: Don’t Exit. . .

Despite my education, I’m not a very spiritual or religious person. I do like the idea, though, that “Where God closes a door, somewhere God opens a window.” Whether it’s God or fate or karma, I’m glad that this adage is often a truth.

My heart was broken when I didn’t get into the France English teaching program. That door was shut. The more I think about the job situation, the more discouraged I become. I want to go back to school, but I can’t do that immediately because I missed application deadlines. I would essentially go back to the states, find a job for a few months and then go back to school. It didn’t seem worth it.

When I came down to Cotonou last month for the close of service conference, I had in my mind that I would investigate doing Peace Corps Response. This is a program for returned PCVs that have special skills. They serve shorter terms, usually less than a year. I thought that I could help with a teacher training program in another country or teach English somewhere else. At our first session at the conference the programming manager let slip that there would be a Peace Corps Response position in Benin this year. For what? The Ouidah International Center of Music and Art. What do they need? A music teacher.

Window opened. Go figure.

What now? Ten more months in Benin. Crazy. I was so ready to move on, and then this came along. A completely different opportunity. Music education doesn’t even exist here, and I will be the founding teacher at a music school for primary school kids. The challenges will be many, but I’m really excited about it.

The community along with a donor from the States has built a school on the grounds of a primary school. They have requested an art teacher and a music teacher. If all my clearances go well, I should go back to the states on the 27th of August, and come back at the end of September to spend 10 months here. This way I can go directly back to grad school with no inconvenient in between time.

Ouidah will be a very different place to live. It’s known as one of the oldest slave trading ports on the Slave Coast. It has a museum and one of the first monuments to slaves, “The Door of No Return.” These things combined with it being the center of voodoo make it one of the most popular tourist attractions in Benin. It’s a different language and a different culture. I’ll be leaving “Bature!” for “Yovo yovo bon soir!” If I have the time, I’d really like to learn the local language, Fon. My living situation should be a little bit classier (fingers crossed). Since I’ll be in the 10th largest city in Benin I might even have modern facilities.

Anyway, I’m really excited about this. I’ll share more as I learn more about the project!

Journees Culturelles

It's really cool to see the kids show of their cultures at our yearly cultural days. This year I helped our school organize the days around a theme of girls education. Here are a few photos.

A group of teachers:
From More Africa

Bariba dancers:
From More Africa

Peulh Dancers:
From More Africa

Friday, June 4, 2010

End Times. . .

The English faculty at my school. I'll miss them.
Students, the people in Benin I'll miss the most.
Adrien, naturally, the person in Benin I'll miss the most.

Once again I find myself in a situation where I’m facing a future full of unknowns. First I went to college, then grad school, then Peace Corps. This time it’s very different. This time I really have no idea what I’m going to end up doing with my life and this uncertainty is weighting very heavily.

One thing seems pretty certain is this: August 26th. My official close of service (COS) date. The date I will no longer be a Peace Corps Volunteer and will become unemployed.

Our COS conference was refreshing. Peace Corps put us up in a nice hotel right on the swamp in Cotonou. *** It was our last time together as a group. Two years ago we came here, in fresh new clothes, bright eyed, and ready to move mountains. Now, we have a lot to talk about. Having a COS date makes the end more certain and makes us all a little more nervous, at least those of us who don’t have a concrete plan.

After coming back to post I started catching a lot of “lasts.” I finished writing and editing my last round of exams for my school. I proctored my last exams, had what hope will be my last fight over English in Benin*, today I start to correct my last exams, and in the coming weeks I’ll teach my last classes, say goodbye to my students (my favorite people in Benin), and take girls to my last girls camp. In less than two months, I’ll have to say goodbye to village all together.

Time is going fast too, frighteningly fast. I have two more weeks of school. Then the camp in Parakou. After that, I have to make what will be my second to last trip to Cotonou for my exit medical exam. In July, I need to get really serious about planning my girls’ camp in village. I have the money, which came from the Kate Puzie Memorial fund,** and I’m ready to do it, it’s just been hard to motivate myself early because people don’t think very far in advance. Thus it’s hard to get commitments from various people.

I’ll try to write and post more over the coming weeks. It’s been especially hard for me, because my computer is broken. Before, I did most of my writing at post. Now I have to wait in line for a computer at a workstation, where there are usually people waiting to use it after me. As a result the quality of my blog has gone down a bit. With school finishing, I’ll have more time on weekdays to come into the city. We’ll see how things improve.

*Sometimes English teachers here get ridiculous ideas in their heads and there is nothing you can do to convince them otherwise. There was a small correction on the exam and I was going around and informing the students. This teacher, who was proctoring the exam, pulled me aside and told me to correct the question: “Who always celebrates Christmas on December 25th?” The problem, he says because Christians is plural, we should say “Who always celebrate Christmas on December 25th?” What? I knew he was 100% wrong, but I didn’t know why, so I had to look it up when I came home.

**The family Kate Puzey, the volunteer who was murdered, has started a fund to finance girls’ camps in Benin.

*** I found out the other day that cotonou means “Mouth of the river of death,” in Fon.

Friday, April 30, 2010

RIP My Computer and Send Money Now!. . .

So I've been a little slow on the blog front. When I got home, I returned to a no-longer-working computer. This is especially depressing for me since two activities that give me the most pleasure- writing and watching movies/tv are no longer possible. On the bright side I've turned back to reading. I'm just about done with Harry Potter 7 and then I can move on to finishing "Guns, Germs, and Steel," a book I would really recommend to anyone who is interested in development.
Now about the money, several of my fellow volunteers and I are in the process of planning a large summer camp for girls from our villages. The cost of the camp is several thousand dollars, and we have posted a PCPP request on the Peace Corps website. We really need your help! We still have over $4000 raise and the camp is in next month! I took four girls to the camp last year and it was an excellent experience. Several have gone on to do very well in their third year of College. Anyway, to contribute try to click here . If you belong to church groups, social groups, etc, please consider asking the group to donate. It will be a big help for us! At this point, we might be at risk of canceling the camp! If that doesn't work go to, click on donate now, and search for Benin. We are Camp GLOW Parakou. Thanks in advance. And shoot me an e-mail so I know you contributed. Otherwise I won't know to thank you!
On another note, I wanted to quote a friend's blog. I found this story hillarious.

I ended up leaving the party early and traveling to my friend Kendra’s nearby post for the night, hoping to come back the next day for more funeral festivities. The next morning, I woke up and went to pee in her latrine. It was by far the shallowest latrine I had ever been in, so the sunlight illuminated all the sludge underneath, and I was sort of casually peering in after I had peed, and what did I see? Not a snake, not a scorpion, not a cockroach… no…. a GOAT. He looked up at me and blinked, and I realized I may have just peed on his head. The door on a neighboring latrine had fallen off, so apparently this little goat had just wandered in and fallen down the hole. I woke Kendra up and together we went and looked in at the little guy. Since it was a Sunday, her neighbors were all away at church, and we had to wait several hours before anyone came around to help. The latrine was just deep enough that the goat would be out of reach, so a young man made a noose out of a rope, let it down the latrine hole, captured the goat, and pulled him up by his neck. The poor little goat was tired and covered in muck, and since he didn’t belong to the concession, no one there wanted to wash him. He got himself to his feet and sadly started walking out of the concession; get this, with a piece of toilet paper trailing off his hind hoof. You can check out Jessica's blog for yourselves here.

In general things are going fine. I'm often reminded that my time is coming to an end by people and by events. I think by August, I'll be really ready, though sad, to leave all the stress that accompanies my life here in Benin. My students are doing reasonably well. I'm especially in love with one class of second-years. They are so anxious to learn and curious about what I have to teach. Often people ask for things, gifts, foreign aid, etc, things that I can't give and that I am happy not to be able to give. These excited students remind me that my work here isn't in vain. They seem to "get it." They understand the value of my presence here at their school. Sometimes I'm not even sure my director gets it, especially since he likes to remind me that I'm not building classrooms or bringing any substantial money to village.

Our finals have been pushed back to the beginning of June. I'll probably teach up until the finals, but since I taught during the strike, I won't have to teach after. This is good, since I'll be busy with the girls camp (please donate) in Parakou and a smaller, low-cost girls camp in my village. I

I've also started to look at jobs. I know it's a bit early, but I figure it can't hurt to get my resume out there and start networking. I am really hoping to move to the NYC area. There's the possibility of living with my friends Erica and Ellen, along with being close to my sister Theologian Mom. I still want to pursue teaching, so I figure the best bet is to apply for music teaching positions in charter and private schools along with other positions in the domain of education, for example, non profits that help get students apply for college and monitor their success. That sort of thing. If anyone has any connections or ideas, please send me an e-mail!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Ghana Part III. . .

Where are we? Part III. . .

After a day of brass casting, Angelina and I went and got a tro-tro (mini-van taxi) to Cape Coast. We didn’t have reservations and ended up staying at the standard Oasis resort, which is down the beach from the Cape Coast Castle. It was charming, if not a bit run down, but we still enjoyed having our little cliché round hut that faced toward the ocean.

I was taken aback right away by the aggressive nature of people in Cape Coast. Up until this point, it seemed pretty relaxed. As whites in an African country our presence was pretty much ignored. Now all of the sudden we were at one of the premier tourist spots in Ghana and the obnoxious “I’ll tell you a good lie and you can give me money, and if you don’t you’re a racist” type.

The first night we walked around a little bit and had a good dinner at the hotel. I was very interested by their fishing practices along the shore. The men go out in giant canoes and cast very large nets. After a few hours, what seems like the whole town comes to literally pull the nets in using a giant rope. As the net comes in, you begin to get an idea of the harvest. I assume the fish is sorted later to be smoked and sold.

The next day we went to the slave traditing castle, one of the sites that Obama visited last year. It’s never a very pleasant experience to visit one of these places, but still the history is fascinating. Our guard liked to remind us of the irony – a church placed over a slave dungeon - and of course of the terrible things that were done. In addition to the basic abuses of slavery there’s rape, torture, and mutilation. We saw the dungeons with no light and hardly any air. All the slaves’ waste simply accumulated and our guide told us that in research and excavation they found evidence of what you would expect – bones, blood, vomit, menstruation, urine, and excrement.

The castle was a big, grand building, much nicer than what we saw in Ouidah and much more fortified. It was large and whitewashed, as are many buildings in Africa, so even though I’m sure it was painted for Obama’s visit last year; it’s already starting to look old and tired again. Anyway, as could be expected, the visit served as a good reminder of the atrocities that humans can commit.

That afternoon we took a very air conditioned (this excited us) van to Krokrobite, which is just west of Accra. We spent two nights at Big Milly’s Backyard where we enjoyed the beach and a little bit of pause before heading back to Benin. The resort was nice, but there were lots of westerners. We even went out in the village to get a little street food and to save a little money. It was a good reminder that we were still in Africa.

After two nights in our hut in Krokrobite, we took a tro-tro back to Accra, and a van to the Ghana-Togo border. The difference was immediately noticeable. “It was like a decent into hell,” I joked with Angelina. We exited the Ghana departure customs, which were in a nice air-conditioned building with lots of camera and equipment that you would expect into a hallway where a police was yelling at someone. We passed and walked into what was literally a shack held up by logs and covered by tin. We stood there and waited for a Togolese customs officer to process Visas for some other Americans, that you’re not even supposed to be able to get at the border at a cost about $20 less than we had paid in Cotonou. Finally I got annoyed, and started giving him a hard time. All he had to do was stamp our visas and let us leave. He got a little mad at me but stamped us through. We immediately entered Togo to be heckled with cries of “Yovo! Yovo!” and “Les blancs! Tu es en afrique maintenant!”

We went to get our Taxi to Cotonou and some taxi driver “stole us” from another driver, even though it wasn’t his turn. They started fighting over Angelina’s bag, and finally the driver who stole us won. Shortly thereafter the other driver left with a full car. Had we been in that car we would have arrived in Cotonou before dark, but because of the jerk driver, we ended waiting almost two hours to leave.

Anyway, we rejoiced a little when we arrived in Benin. The officers were nice and much more professional. Just by the difference between Benin and Togo’s borders, I can’t help but think Benin is in much better shape!

Unfortunately, I checked my e-mail in the car as soon as my phone started to work on a Beninese network. I found out that I wasn’t accepted into the France Teaching Assistant program. I’m not sure what I did wrong, because I know people with a lot less qualifications are often accepted and I’ve never heard of a PCV not being accepted. I think I must have messed up my application and/or they didn’t like that I didn’t have any French in college.

This wasn’t a very happy note to end my trip on. I have to evaluate everything and figure out what I want to do with my life. It’s added stress to an already pretty stressful life. That aside, my trip to Ghana was amazing. Angelina was great to travel with and I feel like we saw a lot of the important sights in Ghana. It also impressed me as an example of development in Africa. I understand that Ghana is not that rich, but just the infrastructures of roads, transportation, and taxing seemed really well implemented. Go Ghana!

Check out angelina's blog here.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Ancient Brass Casting Technique, Ghana Part II

When Angelina was at the University of Michigan, she worked with one of her history of art professors to prepare and design an exhibit on the Ashanti Brass Casters of Ghana. Since we began planning this trip, Angelina has made it a goal to visit these artisans in the village of Krofrom just outside of Kumasi.

We had an incredible experience, seeing every step of the process from the forming of the mold to the actual casting. I’m going to try to recount the process and when I have good internet access I’ll include pictures.

First a wax mold is made using bees’ wax collected from bee keepers in the north of the country. Some molds are already made with cement and wood to help give the wax basic form or Ashanti symbols. These casters were working on a frogs and bottle openers with faces on them.

Next, a milky clay made with charcoal powder is used to cover the wax. It’s left in the sun to dry and then shortly after covered with another layer of the same type of clay. When these molds are dry, they put layer of thick mud clay mixed with palm tree fiber in them, leaving strings of wax that connect to the outside.

After the molds are dried, they are held over the fire. The wax melts out; following the paths made by the wax strings, and shortly after the brass is poured into the mold.

After the cast has cooled, they start chipping away at the mud and the charcoal clay until you arrive at the final product, which in our case was a porcupine, apparently the symbol of the Ashanti Kingdom.

This process can take over days and the product can vary from small things such as intricate brass beads (the mold made with wax strings wrapped around cow poop) to big things such as candle holders, masks, and statues. It was a once in a life time experience! As soon as possible I’ll add lots of pictures.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Where are we? Ghana Part 1. . .

April 1st Angelina and I began our trek across West Africa to see what we had been missing over the past year and a half. We had bought our visa to Togo and Ghana in advance, so we waited about an hour for a bush taxi and we were off. Travel was easy enough. The border crossings were strange. It seemed like anyone could just walk across, but not wanting any trouble we followed the protocol. The first taxi was only to the border between Togo and Benin. We didn’t see much of Togo for the 25,000 (roughly $50) we had to spend to get there. The destination was Ghana. We crossed the Ghana border, filled out the forms, and moved on to finding a bus.

It was quite the mess – Togo and Benin both use the West African Franc (CFA), but as soon as we got to the Togo and Ghana border, we were harangued by money changers who wanted to give us pretty rotten conversion rates to the Ghanaian cedi. In addition we were accosted by a variety of taxi and tro-tro (mini bus) drivers and were so confused that a police man came up to us and helped us (in English!) to a bus, which was not our planned method of transportation, but it seemed to work out.

Obviously, the first noticeable difference was the English. We went into the customs office and the two ladies were behind computers and chatting in English about how to speak French. “Where are you going is ‘tu vas ou,’” she informed the other. The second noticeable difference was that there were computers and they were actually entering data that we had given them into them, along with taking our photos. Neither Benin nor Togo seemed to care much about the forms they forced us to fill out.

The four hour drive to Accra was long and tiresome. As we approached the city, our eyes widened. We started traveling on a four lane interstate. Minutes later we started going under overpasses and seeing big modern looking buildings. Everyone was driving cars, lots of official looking taxis, big cars, and little cars. We passed the Mall on our left and headed into the center of what looked like a modern American city.

“Where are we?” we thought, only a few hundred miles from Benin. How could development exist like this so close to where we live? Malls? Movie Theatres? Over-passes? Garbage cans? We found ourselves taking pictures with said objects – Angelina with a Garbage can, John Mark eating sushi. Pictures that will probably make you readers think we’re crazy.

We checked into our hostel, Pink Hostel, which was nice enough – Single beds, private room and bathroom, and AC. We cleaned up after a long day of travel and went out to what some call the nicest restaurant in Ghana, Monsoon. We ate sushi, noodles, Japanese grilled meat, drank frozen daiquiris and almost fell asleep at our table.

The next morning we headed to the Mall. Because it was Good Friday many stores were closed, but hundred of people were there – walking, eating, and browsing the stores that were open. There was a huge bookstore with a lot of American books and a lot of restaurants and fast-food joints. It was weird to see these really modern Africans. There were little children speaking English and families sitting together. One father would pull out his digital camera and take pictures of his kids while the mom would go order the pizza and diet Cokes. It was surreal. There was an apple store with an internet café and people were readily using the computers.

In the afternoon we went to see Clash of the Titans in a real modern movie theater and in the evening we ate dinner at Champs, an American-style sports pub. We ate nachos and burritos and ran into some Benin US embassy staff we met recently. We had a few rounds of beer and in the end they treated us, which was quite the gift since we’re on a shoestring budget.

Now on to the second part of our journey in Kumasi. Right now I’m in the Kumasi Peace Corps Workstation. I have a feeling now we’re going to see the real Ghana that exists outside of Accra. Even still, everything is very clean and seems so much more developed. Many Beninese say that the French were bad colonialists and the English were better at it, which is why countries like Nigeria and Ghana ended up so much richer. I think their resources are just better, but I haven’t done much research.

Anyway, that finishes part 1. More to come.