Thursday, February 25, 2010

How things are going. . .

I know I haven’t written as much lately about my life. I suppose the things that I used to think are interesting have become a little boring. The second year is like the first year, only you understand what everyone is saying. Here is a little mosaic of my life. - comment elle se passe maintenant.

My Trip to Nowhere. My friend Angelina (link) were planning a trip to Ghana during the February break. Another friend who was planning a trip called us and said, “Do you think the elections in Togo will affect the travel?” This was a reasonable question, since we have to pass through the southern part of Ghana to get to Togo. Having already had our vacation approved and reservations for hotels made, we asked the Safety and Security officer if there would be any problem. He hadn’t really considered it yet, and a few days later an e-mail went out forbidding travel to or through Togo before and after the election. Glad we informed them!

Anyway, so we’re planning our trip to Ghana during Easter break and hoping that if there is any post election violence, it will have calmed down and we will be free to pass through (really, it’s only a couple hundred kilometers!).

And so starts my trip to nowhere. This week, I spent a few days in Parakou, a few days in village. Adrien and I have been hanging out, going on walks, drinking cashews, and cleaning the house. Shortly I’ll head back to Parakou where I will meet up with my friend to go to the Ganni Festival, a big cultural festival in the northeastern part of the country celebrating the Bariba (batonum) heritage.

Peace Corps. The whole idea of the Peace Corps is to send volunteers into peaceful countries to share skills and culture. Unfortunately, the peaceful part isn’t going so well in West Africa. Since I’ve come here, there has been unrest in Guinea-Bissau, Gabon, Mauritania, al-queda kidnappings in Mali, and a president turned dictator and resulting coup in Niger. In addition to this, there are the upcoming elections in Togo which are likely to go poorly, since the current president was more of an heir to the last president. In Nigeria they put in place a new president (who’s name is Goodluck, by the way), because the current president was sick and seeking care in the Middle East. Now he’s back and no one is sure what’s going to happen.

So here I am, in a bastion of peace surrounded by countries of unrest that I’m forbidden to go to. It’s a weird feeling because Benin is so small. Nigeria, Togo, Burkina Faso, and Niger are all 5-10 hours away at most, but I’m forbidden to go to all but Burkina Faso, for the time being anyway. I’m really thankful that I ended up where I did. I’m thankful for the African experience – being in one of the poorest countries of the world, but at the same time, not having to deal with the civil unrest. They have enough killers here – HIV/AIDS, Malaria, traffic accidents, hunger, etc. Civil unrest isn’t going to help them.

Volunteers in other countries get consolidated, and often evacuated. They have to start their volunteer lives over in new countries (Several of the Guinea volunteers came to Benin), some times with only a year or a few months left in their service. I really am lucky to live in such a stable country. Thanks Peace Corps!


Now about that traffic. There’s a lot of grace going on in this blog post. I’m especially grateful that my 4 friends on a bus going south didn’t die in the horrific accident they went through last month. The bus was barreling down the road when there were two cars stopped on the road ahead of them. The breaks were not working well, so he drove into the other lane in which he encountered a semi truck bound for the opposite direction.

I’ve always been suspicious about these busses that the companies buy from China. I think they might not be made well, and I know they aren’t well maintained. After a few months of use, it’s already visible to the eye that they are falling apart. I suppose an American vehicle could do the same thing, but we would at least repair it quickly or preemptively.

The front of the bus smashed in. The seats broke off from the floor. Pictures of the bus make it look like it was sliced with a knife, its fiberglass body having cracked. Unlike the 10 dead from the accident, my 4 friends walked away with very minor (or no) injuries.

Traffic accidents are really one of our worst nightmares here in Benin. I live on the most heavily traveled highway in the country. It’s too much. Instead of putting used cars on trailers, they send them up north from the port 200 cars at a time, passing through every village like missiles or bullets ready to destroy. Being a major port for landlocked Niger and Burkina Faso, huge trucks loaded with boat crates pass through too. They go too fast, and it’s clear they’re destroying the road, and killing people along the way.

At the same time Beninese people are more mobile then they have ever been. Every day, probably 20-30 busses pass through on the road. This is how most of us get to Cotonou when we need to. It’s still the safest mode of transportation – I’m convinced. However, seeing the safest mode of transportation crippled, ripped in two, is most unsettling.

The Trial of the Century. Last week we concluded our first semester with the End of the Semester Council. This is where the teachers gather with the administration to discuss the results of the end of the semester and in general how things are going. At the end there is always a “divers” section, in which anyone can bring up any problem or concern that they have. As you can imagine, in a culture where people seem to like making meetings longer than they need to be, it’s good to bring a book or magazine.

This time, however, there was a trial. A girl had been accused of cheating. During the schoolwide exams, one of her teachers (not her English teacher), had slipped her all of the answers to the English test. I heard about this a long time ago, because it happened in Adrien’s class. I didn’t say anything because, frankly, it’s not my business and I didn’t want to involve myself.

When my colleague and I were sent to calculate the grades for Adrien’s class (note: teachers are sent out randomly to different classes to calculate the general grades for the semester, sort of like a GPA. The grades are read aloud and the teachers and students calculate. The idea is to prevent fraud. Get a computer!), we found the girl’s English grade uncalculated. I went and asked the director what we should do. He told me that the girl had denied it as well as the teacher. We ended up not calculating the grade.

Then came the trial. At the end of the council, the director brought up the case. Witnesses were called, including my colleague and friend who had caught the cheating. The teacher originally denied knowing the girl, but then they took the girl’s cell phone and quickly found the teacher’s number had been called many times from said cell phone. After that, the teacher said he called her to order cheese and eggs. Right. The girl took the test again, getting 13 out of 20 instead of 19 out of 10, even after the teacher had already given all the correct answers in class.

This was all grandiose. The teacher was there the whole time, denying that he had done it, making up stories about where he had gone when he left the room. Teachers got mad and yelled. Eventually the accused walked out. A vote was called, and the teacher was found guilty. As a result he’ll be excluded from end of the year moneymaking activities. In the US he’d be fired. I guess we’re not in the US.

Of course, the investigation is finished. Everyone considers the case closed. No one is going to look into his teaching and/or the clearly inappropriate relationship he had with a pretty, 17 year old female student. Like I said, we’re not in the US.

So long friend. Since Sarah’s first litter of beautiful puppies was born, 3 of the 5 have died. One was hit by a car and the other two died within the last week. One of them was my favorite, Sammy. She lived right next door and spent most of her time with Mama Sarah. She was a delight, well behaved and never snapped or barked. You could pick her up by her tail and she wouldn’t even squeak. She would curl up under my chair and keep me company while I would be reading on my front porch.

I came home to find her on my front porch. She had just drunk and vomited water and I’m pretty sure she was lying in her own urine. She had pimples all over her lips and her tongue was swollen in her mouth. I called the student over and made him carry her back to his house. “If she’s going to die, she’s going to die in your house, not mine,” I said. The veterinarian supply vender (no really vets here) had no advice and she died the next day. I’m guessing she probably got into “gris-gris,” some kind of a poison or sorcery intended to kill rats, people, or maybe even her.

I never really knew the other puppy that died. He was in the neighborhood but was kept inside the compound of the teacher (the same one who caught the cheating) who took him. It sounds, though, that he puppy got into something it shouldn’t have as well.

Fortunately Sarah seems to be doing well, so I think we can rule out transmittable disease.


L’advenir! Many of you have been asking me what my plans are. First of all, even though the school year ends in June, I can’t come home until September, because it’s a two year agreement. I’m trying to pack my summer with lots to do. I’ll be involved in several girls’ camps, including a week long camp that I’m planning for the strongest girls at my college. I’m also thinking about doing an intensive English summer school during August when other teachers are doing summer school as well. The goal would be to take about 10 of the best English students of 2nd and 3rd forms, and give them an active learning environment to really practice speaking, writing, and listening to English.

I’ve also applied for France’s English Teaching Assistant program, known to many volunteers as “Peace Corps France.” I would live in France for 7-9 months and teach English in there academies. The money is terrible, but I figure it would be a good chance to transform my French into something that is useable outside of West Africa. I’ve hit a bit of a learning block here, where often if I try to speak in complex phrases or vocabulary, the average folk don’t really understand me. Anyway, I should know if I’ve been accepted in April.

I’m also starting to research graduate schools that have M.A.s in Teaching English as a Second or Learned or Foreign Language. I’m looking at several schools in the New York City and Washington, DC areas – GW, NYU, Columbia. Applications are too much work nowadays if you don’t have a good internet connection, so I figure, if I get in to France, I’ll have all year to work on my applications.

Anyway, that’s a slice of my life here in Benin. I really love hearing from you all, in comments and in e-mails! Don’t hesitate to contact me. I usually write back!

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Evolution of Food

I’m surprised to see how some foods have grown on me since I’ve been in Benin. The first Beninese food that I really liked hit me right away in training. My host family would often give me pate rouge. This is the boiled corn flour mixed with a tomato sauce. It wasn’t until about my first year anniversary in Benin that I actually tried to make it myself. Thus began the slippery slope into Beninese eating habits. If you can’t beat ‘em, join em. Right? In this case, there’s a reason the people here eat the foods that they eat, and it’s that the ingredients are readily available.

Shortly there after, it was yams. We started by frying and boiling them, and eating them with a salty, oily tomato sauce. That got boring and we started making the quintessential west-African dish, yam pilet. This is an intricate task that I’m starting to really believe only a woman can sculpt. You boil the yams, more like steam them, and then mash them in a giant mortar and pedestal. Sounds easy right? The mashing is. But then, you need to know when to add water. Adding water puffs the grainy yam into a smoother texture. Then you have to knead it with your hands. Even after several months of making yam pilet (Adrien had to learn too), we can’t really make a perfect round of yam pilet.

The sauce is another story. Sauces here start with a good bit of oil and tomatoes. The tomatoes are usually ground on a kern, though a small can of tomato paste is used too. If you’re feeling extravagant, other spices can be mixed in too. Of course, hot peppers are a must, but garlic, onions, black pepper, and ginger are often available too. After the tomato and spices are well fried - remember, you’re frying a paste of all the above – then you add the sesame paste or peanut butter (both of which were milled on the kern as well). Throw in your meat, already cooked, and it’s good to go!

I spend a lot less money on supermarket foods nowadays. I’m likely to come home from the city with basic condiments like spices and ketchup, but I manage to buy most of my ingredients in village.

Sticky Hands. . .

Since I was a child, family walks have been a big part of my life. A form of entertainment in a house with no cable television. Many nights after dinner, several of us would go out together. Up the Oak Street hill, right on 12th Street, sometimes out to the cemetery and back, sometimes down town, and sometimes the short loop down to 7th street and back home. When I’m home, some of my best conversations with my father happen when we go for walks. When it’s just the two of us and we can both say what we’re thinking- my mom and I, my dad and I, my sister and I, my best friend and I. We can talk about politics, love, worries for two hours straight and no one is annoyed.

And there’s peace too. When no one wants to walk with me, I have myself to talk to. It’s a retreat from my house into the world. A world that talks to me softly, but takes care not to interrupt my thoughts. Brisk nights in Minnesota, my breath turning to snow the minute it hits the air. Sultry nights in Iowa, fireflies dancing with stars.

Even in college and graduate school, I kept the walking tradition going. I remember walking distances with Jason that I didn’t realize were walkable. After walking, things were all of the sudden much closer than I ever knew. Then the woods and prairies of Minnesota, next to lakes, the respite known as St. Johns, now with Elias in tow, prancing about the forest and hunting for rabbits.

That’s something I thought I had lost when I came to Benin. My first months here, I would go on two walks a day. They were long, hot, and miserable. I had to shut myself off to the world that I was trying to get to know. The relentless heckling by children, “bature, bature,” and even adults bothering me and mocking me. It was to be expected and I don’t hold it against the village that I now call home. Don’t listen. Respond to people who address me politely. Easy enough.

But about a year ago, I went out and looked for mangoes with Adrien, and realized that there was a wealth of trails – to local villages, between houses, to the train tracks, and back to my village. I started walking with Sarah often. Now, if I have the time every day. My family walks continue. Sometimes with Adrien, sometimes with Sarah, sometimes even with Sarah’s puppy Sammy.

Any walking trail leaving my village isn’t going to have a big “Take only memories, leave only footprints” sign over it like some of the trails back in Iowa had back in the days. The trails start with big piles of trash. People dump their trash on the outskirts of the village. It’s also where people who don’t have latrines relieve themselves. Hold your breath and walk about 100 feet, and you’re past the trashy, depressing Africa. Now you’re “au champ.” In the country.

Most of my walks are through cashew orchards, forests with wild teak and mango trees, and prairies of grass. Sarah is a hunter. She stops and listens, perks her ears, points her paw, and often goes for the pounce, never catching anything. If Sammy comes along they hunt each other.

In February the cashews are ripe. Cashews are inedible raw. They’re harvested in this form and sent to Asia, where they cure them, and send them to Europe and America where people pay big bucks for them. Most people who eat cashews in America would never recognize the cashew fruit. It looks like an upside down bell pepper, with a kidney bean, the cashew, hanging out from the bottom end.

You can eat them, I was told. Just rip off the cashew and leave it on the ground for the farmers to harvest. You don’t really eat them, to be precise. You suck the juice out of them. It’s a sweet, nutty juice, with a bit of tang. During February and January I sneak through the orchards looking for these big ripe apples to rob. Sarah waits impatiently as I suck the juice out of the fruit. I often come home sticky, needing to wash my hands and change my clothes.

Now we wait for mango season, only a few months away. Not just the big meaty mangoes that we get back in the states, but also small stringy ones that you suck on until your face is covered with mango pulp. I feel like a kid. Like when I would come home with mulberry stains all over my knees.

Walk through the orchard to the railroad tracks. Then turn left if you want to walk toward the Catholic mission. Right if you want to take the short loop. The train tracks curve around the village and cross the road on the south end. The tracks are semi-abandoned and it’s really just one train that uses them. It doesn’t even run every day. I’ve never seen the train on one of my walks. One time there was a loud, ominous rumble and I ran, laden down by my walking sandals, to see it. I was too late.

Continue along the tracks until you run into a really worn down path that crosses them. Here you turn right into more cashew orchards and farm land. As you approach the village, you can see the three cell phone towers and a bit of the cement water tower next to the primary school. Be careful if you’re listening to music, you might not hear one of the motos wanting you to scoot off the path. They are weighed down with sacks of grain and yams. The harvest being brought to town to sell at market.

See the trash pile? Welcome back. A few minutes later, the heckling starts, as children at the primary school shout “bature” and “yovo” from the windows. Fortunately I’m almost home. Fortunately I’ve had my peace and I’m ready to reenter civilization with a clear mind, an open heart, and sticky hands.