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.