Friday, March 26, 2010

Remembering Kate. . .

A year after the death of fellow TEFL volunteer, friend, and mentor Kate, a lot of questions continue to go unanswered. I feel pretty safe here. I tell myself that what happened to Kate was a very isolated situation – a perfect example of how the volunteer experience can go disastrously wrong.

In the end Kate was protecting girls in her village that were being exploited. The exploiter had a lot to lose. The rest of the story could be a bit of mystery, but we’ve filled in the blanks with pieces of information that we’ve heard and internal events that have taken place. In the end it’s a lot of hearsay and little evidence. The tongues of Peace Corps, Benin, and the US Government are tied. Me too I guess. I feel like I can’t really share what I’ve pieced together as long as I’m a volunteer.

When the assistant-director for TEFL called me to tell me about Kate, she said that “Kate has died.” I think when my friends and I heard this, we all wanted to think the best, if there is “a best” in such a situation. She had some health problem that we didn’t know about. Some emergency situation – a snake bite, bike accident, etc. In those first few hours, we never would have dreamt that someone could murder Kate – the example volunteer. When news finally came down from the Peace Corps and from national media that she had been murdered, we didn’t know what to think. What happened? Are we safe?

Within two days, most volunteers were headed to the south for a memorial in her honor. We hoped for more information, too – peace of mind. Really, what was happening? Would they send us home? Were we all at risk? Did Peace Corps have anything they could tell us that could make us feel better. No. They couldn’t tell us anything. Just that she was killed while she was sleeping. What did that mean for us? Sorcery? Ethnic motivations? So many possibilities and Peace Corps couldn’t ease our worries. They could just say that we were safe. Many have struggled with this since. Are we safe? I’ve moved on pretty well, but what happened to Kate is always in the back of my mind.

We remembered Kate as best as we could in the situation. It’s a hard mix – that selfish worrying for your self and the remorse of someone you know and love being brutally killed- That’s something that most Americans live their whole lives without experiencing. A few of us sang “Your Long Journey,” a blue-grass song, Amazing grace, people spoke, a slide show was shown. We knew only one year of Kate but there was still so much to share. My friends and family back home were not there for me. They couldn’t have been, even when they tried. The distance is too much. The only real consolation I found was in being with the people I had grown to love in Peace Corps.

Now we’re here again. We’re in the same room. The same picture of Kate is placed on the same table. Candles are lit as Kate’s own writing and a short obituary are read. The country director, the Ambassador, everyone speaks. We sing, we watch the same slide show. It’s more real the second time around. We’ve processed, we’ve moved on as we can. But everyone still cries when it’s over. Hugs. Moving on.

The Peace Corps experience is such a bipolar experience – one that I have no regrets about sticking with. Some days you’re mad as hell and some days you sit and smile and thank the spirits you’re where you are. I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else in my life. At the same time, soon I’ll move on. I wish that my two years of service weren’t so dominated by Kate’s death. That can’t change. All the good things, even knowing Kate, learning a language, making friends, teaching, they never would have happened if I weren’t where I am right now. It is well.

Friday, March 5, 2010

FĂȘte de Ganni. . .

Last weekend I finished my February break by going to the Capitol of Bariba Country, in northwest Benin. The town is called Nikki, and getting there involves a few hours in bush taxis on dirt roads. Since it’s the dry season and these 1980s cars don’t have AC, I was covered with dust by the time I arrived. Well worth it! I stayed with my friend Nora who lives in a nearby village. It was especially comfortable for me, because there are so many people in Nikki, that by the time we were done, it was nice to escape back into quiet village life.

We arrived in Nikki in the morning. There were thousands of people there, clogging the streets, scanning booths of African goods and crafts, and dancing in public spaces. Although it is a festival specifically for the Bariba (Batonum) ethnic group, everyone shows up, and on the streets, you’re just as likely to see dancers from the 60+ other cultures in Benin.

Nora’s friend and coworker took us around the town and even fed us some of the best yam pilet I’ve eaten in Benin. The big events took place in the afternoon. We relaxed and drank lots of water, and waited to head to the royal court.

When we arrived at the royal court, Nora’s friend guided us to the area labeled for “Tourists,” which might as well have said, “White People.” While other people stood in the hot afternoon air, white people were offered comfortable chairs in front of them. I’m not sure what they considered the other 100,000 people there, if they’re not tourists. Sometimes in Benin, you’re offered special services just because you’re a white person, and in 100 degree heat, who am I to say no?

The symbol of Bariba royalty is often the horse, which, I’m guessing, was brought to them by the Muslims. They spent a lot of time fleeing Muslim inquisition and eventually succumbed to their pressure, and became Muslim as well, and took a few Arabian horses while they were at it. There were probably about 20 horses there, draped in flashy blankets and saddles. Each driver was in full Arabian costume as well, turban, long bumba, etc. Eventually the king came out of his palace on horse back. He looked ancient. At this point, the team of horses accompanied him around town where he visited several sacred sites – the tombs of dead kings where he offered libations for a good new year, sacred trees, and apparently to a place with two very large clay jars. The jars are filled with money, grains, and knives. The king reached into the jars, and what he pulled out would foretell the wellbeing of the kingdom in the coming year. They didn’t actually announce what he found.

After that, the king and the kings’ men returned to the royal court, where we were eagerly awaiting. I thought there would be more ceremonial, but actually, the king just went back into his palace, and we sat around and watched the kings’ men showing off their horses. In the group was one French man. I’m not sure how he got involved, and one jester porting around a fake horse. We waited around for about another hour, and when it seemed clear not much was going to happen, we went to the taxi stop and waited for the next car.

Vigilante Justice. . .
On the way home from Nikki something strange happened. Our taxi passed a man with his family on a motorcycle. This isn’t that strange to see here – a whole family, 4 or 5 people on one motorcycle. It’s not safe, but what is, right? A few minutes later, the taxi slowed a bit to avoid a pothole, and the motorcycle passed us again.

The driver passed him again, and waved him down. He and a passenger got out of the car, ripped the key out of the moto’s ignition and slapped the man back and forth, chastising him for irresponsibly driving so fast, with two women and two babies on the bike.

As Nora and I were processing what had just happened, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of irony, as we were packed in a station wagon, with 15 people and no seatbelts, and a driver going faster than any other vehicle on the road. Sure, the guy on the motorcycle was being stupid, but isn’t anyone who even approaches a road in Africa? Nora, who was in the previously mentioned bus accident, would probably agree!

The mouse ate my homework. . .
So Adrien went to the doctor because his kidneys had been bothering him. I gave him 3000 francs and headed to the Ganni festival, telling him to give me all the change. When I called him during the weekend, I asked if everything was alright.

“There’s a little problem,” Adrien said, “a mouse ate the money you gave me.” Suspicious right? I really do have complete confidence in Adrien. He’s been nothing but faithful since he’s been around me. If I send him to the market to buy something, he always brings exact change, and tells me as prices change. But shouldn’t I be suspicious? Who has ever heard of a mouse eating money?

So I got home, and he showed me. Yes, a mouse had definitely eaten the money beyond recognition. Apparently, our next door neighbor had lost 10,000 francs in a similar experience. Anyway, Adrien discovered the remnants of money in a mouse nest they had been building behind my clothing shelves. They had, in fact, munched on the clothes a bit too, and stolen Adrien’s extra cell phone sim card. They seemed to have an affinity for clothes pins, bouillon cubes, and used crystal light packets as well. Go figure.

We bought some poison and mixed it with some acassa and fish and left it in their inside the nest. Sure enough, over the next 2 days, we found 6 dead, and sometimes smelly, mice. They’re not all gone though. Yesterday, I caught another one wandering around my closet room. I chased it, called Adrien to help me, but it got away. I guess we’ll be poisoning again this weekend. Silly creatures.