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.