Thursday, December 23, 2010

Cotonou to Parakou: An Average Day of Travel

Today Dione, Bridget, Sam and I made the trek from Cotonou to Parakou, which is about halfway up the country.  I always forget to explain how ridiculous traveling here is, so today we kept a log of the happenings.  Enjoy!

5:47am -- Leave PC Office, get zems to bus place (Etoile Rouge)
6:03 -- Arrive at Etoile to mass chaos. 
6:04-6:25 -- Attempt to make sense of chaos, are told to stand/sit/be in three places at once.  Are subsequently ignored by four different bus officials when asking for clarification.
6:32 -- Get on bus that might be headed to Parakou.  Maybe.  Or Nigeria.
6:33 -- Get off of bus to put bags underneath (as instructed by angry bus man).  Walk against tidal wave of angry Beninese men and Kleenex-selling Beninese women.
6:35 -- Back on bus, get settled.
6:48 -- Get yelled at to move to extreme back of bus so that it can leave on time.
6:49 -- Rumor spreads that something is wrong with bus.  All other passengers get off of bus, decide that rumor is stupid, and get back on.  Crisis averted.
7:03 -- Bus leaves, weirdly on time.
7:08 -- Realize that Official Bus Man is wearing a shirt that reads, in English, "Lazy and Proud." 
7:13 --Someone throws a candy wrapper out of the window.  It flies back into our window and hits Dione in the face.
7:18 -- Stop to pick up more people.
7:19 -- Same man throws another wrapper out window.  It hits woman in front of us in the face.
7:48 -- Bus stops in the middle of main road for no known reason.  No one gets on or off.  Six minutes later, we go.
7:52 -- Feel strangely cold, thanks to the first moving air I've felt in a month.  Use extra jeans as a shawl/mini blanket.  Jeans were clearly not invented to be blankets.
9:07 -- Michael Jackson songs start playing from a mysterious source in the back of the bus.  Mysterious, as the bus has no speakers.
9:52 -- Man falls asleep on Bridget.  We giggle, take many pictures.
9:40 -- Start to get out of jungly south and into the drier Collines -- rolling hills, tall grass/scrub, and considerably worse roads.
10:12 -- We watch in horror as bus almost backs over three women and a giant pile of pineapples.  The women make it out alive.
11:27 -- Pass 2 semis going up a steep hill, one of which is labeled "GAS."  Surpisingly, do not die.
11:29 -- Road block: cows.
12:16 -- Dione gasps "OH.  MY. GOD," next to me as I'm dozing.  I wake up and, terrified, clutch the seat ahead of me, certain that I am about to meet Jehovah.  It's more cows.
12:59 -- In the middle of nowhere, there's a bunch of logs on the road creating a kind of stunt driving course for all passing vehicles.  Our driver zigzags through at minimum 80mph.
1:21 -- Woman in front of Dione literally just reaches up, tilts her hand back, and throws her garbage directly onto Dion.  We die giggling (silently).
1:30 -- We have a mini dance party in the back of the bus.  All other passengers fail to noties our genius on the improvised dance floor.
2:05 -- Another woman throws trash on Dione.  We're not sure she even tried to find the window.
2:08 -- Drive into giant cloud of "ass-smelling" smoke.  Wording courtesy of Bridget Kennedy.
2:56 -- Arrive at stop in Parakou, successfully avoid getting trampled in mass exodus from bus.  Buy wine at nearest supermarche.  We made it!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Weekly Update: 12/17/10

- 150 Days. Sunday was my 150th day in Benin – almost at 6 months! Was thinking about what I’ve learned/how I’ve changed since I got here, and I’m kind of amazed at how comfortable I now am… it’s not exactly home here, but I don’t freak out every moment of every day now. Things are starting to seem normal. Even French.
- School = Fun! Had a lot of fun with classes this week – improvised a spelling bee, which they loooved, made them sing American Christmas carols, and tried really hard to find the balance between fun teacher and strict teacher. I think I’m failing a little on the strict teacher part, but I’m working on it.

- …But Also Sad. One major negative of the week was that I saw corporal punishment for the first time at my school. Several boys had been eating breakfast while flag ceremony was going on, so the SG (vice principal) took a thick stick and hit their hands at full force multiple times. If they pulled their hands away after the hit and didn’t put it back fast enough, they got more strikes. The boys were about 15 and trying their hardest not to cry… I had to look away, or I would have been in tears, too. Corporal punishment like that is illegal, but really common in Benin… and even though I want to, it’s not a good idea for me to try to stop it.

- Niger Visa: Happier note: I finally filed for it! Got all the way to Cotonou WITH my passport AND my money AND the photos… I win. I pick it up on the 22nd, and head out the 23rd.

- Tissu! I just got my camera cord, so I’ll post more tissu pictures soon (I keep getting emails about this, which is hilarious). I took two outfits in this week (pink/green capris set and a brown dress), and just got back a new modelle that I had made – green with turquoise swirls on it. Pretty!

- Break Plans: I think I wrote about this earlier, but in case I forgot, here’s the plan:
  • 22nd – Cotonou (meet Dione and Sam)
  • 23rd – Parakou (meet Bevin and Bridget)
  • 24th-26th – Malanville (stay at Matt’s house)
  • 26th-28th – Niamey, Niger (see giraffes!)
  • 29th-30th – Sori (stay at Jenny’s house, go barhopping with her coworkers)
  • 31st-1st – Parakou (party with other PCVs)
  • 2nd – head home, start teaching on the 3rd
- I’m Loved! Thank you so much to everyone who’s sent me packages! It feels kind of like real Christmas thanks to you (but hotter and with more bugs, thanks to Africa). I now can live on only chocolate for three months… chocolate has protein in it, right? The PC office is mad at me because I keep clogging up their space with mail – yaaay! Love yall!


Weekly Update: 12/10/10

- Church Fete Sunday! Ate too many pig organs and almost puked. But I am a champion, and I carried on.

- 1st Devoirs. This week was CEG Daagbé’s first round of devoirs – kind of like school-wide midterms. I didn’t have to teach at all (yesss!), but I did have to oversee several of the tests, which meant glaring at the potential cheaters and threatening zeroes for anyone who talked. Not fun, but a good was to practice my evil teacher death look, and at least I didn’t have to lesson plan.

- Review Session. Before the devoirs, I decided to have a Saturday morning review session for my 6eme kids. I’d heard from other volunteers that no one comes to review sessions, so I invited both classes to the same time slot and bribed them with a point on the next quiz. Saturday morning, 81 out of about 92 kids showed up… I was both completely overwhelmed (the classroom was made for 36) and really excited. They all woke up and walked to school just to study English (or see what the crazy American lady was going to do next). How cool is that?

- Removed Tresses, Lost Hair. I took out my braids and lost a big blob of hair, so I talked to the doc. Apparently it’s a combination of the malaria meds I just changed from, and low levels of protein and vitamins. Random dark leafy greens from the marché: check.

- Cracked My First Coconut. It was fun, delicious, and apparently calcium-rich!

- Started a Gún Dictionary. Another professor, Gabriel, is teaching me Gún (he’s incredibly patient), so I’m putting all of the lessons together to hand down to the next volunteer.

- The Gift of Company. Last week, my friend Jenny’s village offered her an albino baby as a gift “so that she wouldn’t feel so alone being white.” I did not make that up.

- I Am Going to Hell. Don’t want to explain too much here in case more people from village read this than I know about, but basically the story here involves my having to tell many many details about my wedding/marriage to the Father of the Catholic church I go to. I’ll be sending my loving husband a “happy anniversary” card on the 4th of July.

- Sorry, Kitty. Discovered on Monday that I may have accidentally been filling my cat’s litterbox with cement powder for the last month… oops.

- Purposeless Trip to Cotonou. I got all the way to the Niger embassy in Cotonou, then filled out the paperwork for a visa only to discover that I’d forgotten my passport in Daagbé. Again. So I spent the rest of the day doing nothing particularly useful – spent time on Facebook, hung out with Elyse, and went to a surprise Christmas party at the Ambassador’s house. Among the highlights were Christmas-y smells, the possibility of speaking English at a normal speed, and mini pumpkin pies.

- Plans. One more full week of classes, then a half week that’s either classes or a teachers’ formation (no one seems to know), then break! Just found out that one of my other favorite people in our stage is coming, so now I’m even more excited! Yay “winter” break!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Weekly Update: 12.3.10 (Part 2)

- Homesickness: I’m not sure if it’s because it’s holiday season or if Daagbe’s just still not home, but I’m a little bit of a mess this week. I tried to make Christmas cards and had to quit because it was making me too sad… sigh. In my head I know this is going to be easier (and actually is easier than it was at first), but I still find myself daydreaming about stepping off the plane in Ohio pretty frequently.

- Daagbe People Are So Nice: Tuesday, after having my Christmas-card-related breakdown, I decided I needed to go to the marche so that I could make banana bread. Somehow in the course of things I got invited to one of my students’ houses, went there, was served an entire plate of crackers (which they packed up for me when I left), and sat quietly while they ran around trying to find something else. They brought a big cooler of neon orange liquid to me, and when I asked what it was, they said “beer.” Oh god. Turns out “beer” in this case actually meant orange Kool-Aid, so that was a happy surprise. The point of this paragraph: even though it’s been a down week, every time I turn around there’s someone or something that will make me smile if I just let myself.

- Banana Muffins with Fake Nutella: Make life exponentially better.

- Got My Hair Tressed: It’s in tiny little twists (not cornrow-style), kind of like you’d get if you were Brandy and/or in the Bahamas. It took four hours, hurt like hell, itches a lot, makes Beninese people really happy, and is significantly less sweaty than my normal hairdo. I guess that’s a win?

- Malaria Medication Sucks: I’ve been on Mefloquin, a once-a-week malaria med, since I got here, and now I think I’m going to see if I can switch to a different one. Two main reasons: first, Mefloquin makes your hair fall out. Not all of it, by any means, but between that and the not-much-protein thing, I lose a lot of hair, and I’m pretty sure baldness isn’t going to be all that attractive on me. Second, Mefloquin gives you crazy dreams – for the past week, I’ve been having recurring nightmares about tarantulas living in my kitchen and Popsicle having rabies. Kind of funny, but less so when you haven’t slept for a week.

- Church Fete: There’s another church fete Sunday! I’ve been trying for a week to buy the tissu that the church bought for the occasion (so the entire congregation will match… in theory), but even though I gave the money a week ago, the lady still hasn’t showed up at my house with the fabric. I’m supposed to get it tomorrow afternoon, but I have strong doubts about whether or not the couteriere will be able to make it into an outfit quickly enough (even if she does actually show up on time). Ah, well, at least I’ll have a Virgin Mary outfit to wear to school (I can do that here!). Worth it, I think.

Weekly Update: 12.3.10 (Part 1)

- This week was not particularly interesting, but while writing things down, I realized that it was going to be a long-ish post. Thus, for easier digestion, two parts.

- Santa Claus? Upon return to village, approximately every person I know asked me what I brought them. I caved to a couple (and I actually did bring back some things for the mamas I hang out with in front of the house), and I laughed a couple others off. I’m trying to figure out if this is normal, culturally (if one Daagbe person typically asks another for gifts when/if they travel), or if I’m just new and white. Either is entirely possible, and I’m trying not to get all testy until I figure it out.

- School: I’ve spent this week trying to fly through all of the material my students need to know before the tests, which start next Monday (I thought I had an extra week… Nope). My 6eme classes are pretty much caught up now, but my 5eme is behind, so I’m making them come in for a make-up class on Saturday morning. This makes me a terrible person, I know, but it’s Saturday morning or fail. At least I’m bribing them with free quiz points, that makes it better. I’m also holding an optional study session for the 6eme kids… they seem excited, but I’ve heard a lot of stories of kids not showing up to non-mandatory sessions, so I’ll be surprised if I get the majority of them.

- In-class Inside Jokes: Somehow I must have translated to my 5eme students that if you make me laugh, I’ll choose you to talk. This has led to some really awesome in-class habits, my favorite being that at least half of that class now makes ridiculous faces every time they raise their hands. I was trying to get them to stop yelling “Ici! Ici!” (Here! Here!) when they raised their hands, and I pressed my lips really tightly together to translate the not-talking thing. I wrote something on the board, turned back around, and André had sucked his lips all the way inside his mouth, leaned forward off of his bench with his had raised, and was looking so hopefully at me that his eyes were bugging out. I had to stop class for a minute because I couldn’t stop laughing, and now a bunch of the other kids do that on a regular basis. Score one for Mme Melissa.

- Calendar: This week is normal classes, then next week is tests (midterms, basically), then we have regular school until Dec. 22nd. At that point I make a break for Niger, and come back to start classes again on Jan. 2nd. Just FYI. Also FYI: School officially started October 8th or something like that, and I’ve now taught two whole weeks I think. Life is good.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Weekly Update: 11.26.10

Parakou!!  This week was our PSW, which stands for something official and means that all the 1st year TEFL volunteers got together for a week to talk/vent about teaching.  Parakou is in the middle of the country (the farthest north I've been yet), and traveling away from the south was really interesting/awesome.

 - Observations about Parakou/Being North of Oueme Plateau:  People are SO much nicer!  Or maybe just less agressive.  I could walk up to a zem and tell him where I wanted to go, and 9 times out of 10 he'd give me the right price the first time -- no arguing!  People didn't walk up to demand money as much, and there was ignam pilee, which is a delicious, delicious food that you should try.  Also, it was waaaay drier up there, so my hair actually dried in one day instead of the regular 3.  Very cool. 

 - Seeing the other TEFLers:  We had so much fun!  It was really good to see people, vent, tell stories, drink bad Beninese beer, and eat lots of food.  Especially helpful: knowing that bizarre, hilarious, and occasionally awful things happen to everyone.  Also nice to know that all of our schools are really resource-less, not just mine (actually, mine's pretty nice in comparison).  We visited a Parakou school, and were all marveling at the doors and nice chalkboards in the buildings... until my friend Katie said something like, "Whoa... they have walls..."  Lots of good stories about student mutinies, lessons gone hilariously wrong, and discipline tactics yet to work. I feel better... -ish.

 - Food stuff:  Because PC was paying the hotel to cater, I ate more protein this week than I normally eat in 2 weeks at post -- every lunch and dinner involved meat!  Lunch was always eggs!  And I got to eat wagashi, the cheese made by the nomadic Fulani people.  It's not exactly cheddar, but for a dairy-starved girl from Ohio, it was delicious.

 - New friend:  The first day of PSW, we checked in and all headed to a hilarious beer festival in Parakou (like Oktoberfest, but waaaay more Beninese).  While we were sitting there, I met a girl from Japan who's also a volunteer through their PC-like program.  We started talking, eventually exchanged numbers, and two days later she invited me and two friends over for sushi at her house in Parakou.  Sushi was delicious, she was fantastic to talk to, and it was really interesting to see how similar PC and the Japanese volunteer program are.  She got here 4 months ago (like us) and will be here for 2 years (like us) -- good contact.  I think she's going to be in Porto Novo soon, and I hope she calls me... I'd love to return the dinner.

 - Figured out Christmas Break plans:  I'm going giraffe watching in Niger with Bevin, Dione, Matt, and some other people (I don't know the entire group yet).  Yay!  That'll be all the way through Benin, plus a whole new country, plus freaking giraffes.  SO cool.  Gotta start saving/planning/filing for the visa.  : )

I know more happened, but I can't think of it right now... I'll maybe update more later, after I get back to post tomorrow.

Camp GLOW: In Case You Want to Send Me a Christmas Gift…

Every year, PC Benin puts on a series of camps for girls called Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World). I’ve seen pictures and videos from last year, and it’s supposed to be amazing – for a week, 50 girls get together to learn about leadership, taking control of their own education and career, saving money to reach goals, and all sorts of sessions that hopefully help them kick past the cultural barriers that Benin puts in their way. There’s fun stuff, too, like arts & crafts, history/culture field trips, songs, and soccer matches (girls rarely get to play soccer here), but the point of it is empowerment, pure and simple.

To do the camp, we need money – Peace Corps volunteers supply the food, the transportation, all of the speakers and field trips, and all of that amounts to about $6,000 USD. We get donations from Beninese businesspeople (part of PC’s policy is that all projects must have some input from local people so that we’re not just giving the people things all the time), but most of the money comes from donations.

So here’s my pitch: I’m doing this camp, and I’m pretty sure it’s going to be incredible. If you happen to have an extra $5 laying around and wouldn’t mind sending it our way, click on the following link – you can donate online (let me know if you do, though, so I can thank you!). I promise that we’ll use it as carefully as we can, and that I’ll write a really awesome blog post on the awesome things that happen. With pictures.

K, that’s it – begging over. : )

Conversation on Polygamy

At my weekly English department meeting (AP), we got talking about a lot of random things. First it was kids, and that led to how many kids each of us wanted, and then somehow we jumped to multiple wives. One of the professors has two wives already, and he said that it was good for a man to have two wives, especially if he wanted a lot of children.

This is a professor I usually like talking to, and so I felt comfortable arguing a little: I said that it was fine for a man to have two wives as long as women were allowed to have two husbands. He thought this was hilarious. “A woman with two men! That’s not good, God doesn’t like that. God wants men to have multiple wives, that’s why there are more women than men in Benin.” It’s like 52% women to 48% men… I (laughing at the logic) told him this was a ridiculous point, and he should start thinking of better reasons.

Anyway, so we argued for a while (without getting too mad), and while neither of us changed our position much, it was really interesting. I kind of assumed that because professors are educated and generally more worldly than other people in village, they’d be more equality-minded… false. In their arguments, there was an underlying assumption that women are to be owned and controlled, and that a man must always be in charge. “Here, we say that the man is the head of the family, and that without him, the body cannot be.” “In America, we say the woman is the neck, and she can turn the head any way she wants.”

It was frustrating to find out that several of my fellow English professors are unapologetically sexist (even those that talk about girls’ empowerment in the classroom like it’s really important), but in another way it was kind of nice. Seeing girls shoved back every day had kind of drowned out the shock factor for me – in one of my classes I have 33 boys to 13 girls, and I wasn’t surprised at all when I saw that count. It was a good feeling after this conversation to know that I still get fired up about equality, and that I’m still, after all, a feminist. It’s good to know what I’m up against, and what I’m fighting for here… a girls’ club seems more important and needed than ever.

Tabaski: Because Kids Haven’t Missed Enough School

Last week they announced that this past Wednesday would be Tabaski, the Muslim holiday celebrating that one time when Abraham almost sacrificed his son but then didn’t. Instead of slaughtering his firstborn, God said it’d be totally cool if he just killed a sheep, so he did. Thus, the celebration is alternatively called “The Festival of Mutton,” and the entire point of the day is to roast sheep and eat the meat.

I visited my host family that morning and watched them dismantle several dead sheep (sidenote: sheep have truly huge testicles. Terrifyingly huge). I was meeting some other PCVs (Kara and Scott) for festivities, so I left them to roast the sheep and promised to come back before I returned to village. Spent most of the day drinking (beer, wine, gin) and eating (fish, akassa, and because the people we were hanging out with weren’t actually Muslim, pork). It was a good day, not anything all that special in terms of Beninese fetes, but fun to hang out with Scott and Kara – they’ve both been in country for over a year, so they’re good at hanging out with the Beninese. Plus, they’re hilarious and really welcoming, so that was a definite positive, too.

After getting tipsy and eating pork, I returned to my actually Muslim host family (who participate in neither of those activities). I hung out with them for a bit, and right before I grabbed a zem to go to the taxi place, my maman handed me a giant bag of freshly cooked mutton to take home with me – every time I see them, they give me food. They may be in on the village mama’s secret plan to fatten me up. If you have to roll me off the plane in two years, I claim absolutely no responsibility.

Conversation with a Beninese Man

(I’m thinking of making this a recurring feature.) Setting: Seats in front of my concession. Beninese Man in Question: A primary school teacher.

BM: You should cook me something for dinner. You should prepare Beninese food and invite me over.
LG: I’m sorry, I can’t have men in my house. My husband doesn’t like that.
BM: Oh, then I would like to take you out to a restaurant. We can go on a walk afterward.
LG: Umm, no, sorry. I’m married, and that’s not appropriate.
BM/LG: (Establish that I’m actually married, my husband is in America, and that no, I don’t want a Beninese one, too.)
BM: Hmm, okay, I can’t have you. Then I want you to call people you know in America and send a woman to me here.
LG: (Thinking he’s joking.) Hah, okay, I’ll work on that. It’s expensive to get here, though, are you going to pay her ticket?
BM: Yes, I will pay her ticket. I will save my money. And don’t worry, it’s not because I want her to take me to America. She can live here in Benin with me.
LG: (Realizing he’s serious.) There are not many women who want to give up America, family and all of their friends to live here.
BM: But she can have my children, and we can visit America during the holidays. She must be white, and I would like her to have brown hair and either blue or green eyes, not too fat and not too skinny. But definitely white.
LG: I don’t think this is going to work. Sorry. I’ll think about it, but I don’t think it’s going to happen.
BM: So when should I come back? When will you have sent her to me? Two weeks? I’ll check back in two weeks. Remember, she must be white.
LG: …

Weekly Digest: 11.19.10

- Tabaski. A yearly Muslim holiday, Tabaski constitutes a Beninese national holiday, which means – surprise! – no school. Luckily it was on a Tuesday, so I didn’t have classes anyway. More on Tabaski to follow, since the explanation I started writing is way too long for a bullet point.

- Tabaski, Part 2. On actual Tabaski at about 4pm, the Beninese government announced that the Tabaski national holiday would continue an extra day, so there would be no school Wednesday. This one actually did mess up my plans a lot (Wed. I teach 6eme, and both of my classes are behind). I asked why Tabaski was going to continue, and my host maman explained: “Well, you know, we worked so hard today having the party that tomorrow we need the day off to relax.” Ohhh… right.

- Problem with Woman at School. I think I wrote about this last week – a woman professor at school was refusing to call me Madame, instead calling me Mademoiselle as loudly and emphatically as she could. I’d ask her to call me Madame, and she’d refuse… you expect that from men here, but the fact that it was coming from a woman (a professor!) was really getting to me. At the end of last week, I said something to the effect of, “Madame, I respect your marriage. Why don’t you respect mine?” Then I pulled out a picture of me with my husband. Today, she walked up, called me Mademoiselle, and then immediately checked herself. “Good morning, Madame.” Success.

- Other Problems at School. I told the other English department teachers that I was going to Parakou, and they all demanded that I bring them presents… really unprofessional, I think. Not sure how to handle it. I only got to teach my 6eme classes once this week, and now they’re really behind. My 5eme class on Thursday was going really well until the entire class sort of mutinied and refused to do one of my activities. In return, I’m making them do the assignment as homework, plus do another huge (21-sentence-long) homework assignment. Screw you, little assholes, I have the power here.

- Free Food! Today (Friday, 11.19.10), after a hella long trip to the bank – 1.5 hours just to withdraw money! – Elyse and I treated ourselves to “fried” chicken for lunch. We were just about to pay when an attractive older man walked up to our table, told us he had already paid for our meal, and gave Elyse his phone number. “Call me sometime, if you get the chance.” He didn’t ask us to marry him, demand our numbers, or try to get money from us. By far the most tempting Beninese man offer we’ve gotten to date… plus, free food!

- Elyse Visits. After our adventures in Cotonou today, we headed back to my village in a taxi. On the way we ate FanMilk (cheapo ice cream substitute), chatted lots, got an actually good price on the taxi without arguing, and saw a rainbow. Good day, excellent company… : )

- Onward and Northward. Tomorrow we head to Elyse’s post for the night, and after that, to Parakou (in the middle of the country) for a week of training with the other first-year TEFL volunteers. Yay Americans! I expect lots of fun stories, some debauchery, and lots of good food.

Friday, November 19, 2010


How To Not Fall Asleep While Teaching

Teaching gets boring sometimes. Not that I’m an old pro or anything, but when you have to go over the conjugations of “to be” 18 times in an hour, your mind starts to wander. To combat boredom, I’ve come up with a number of ways to keep myself entertained.

First, I write my own exercises. This allows me to, a), correct all of the mistakes in the official teaching document we have, and b), put in funnier names. I’ve used celebrities, Disney characters, entertaining Beninese names (Fati being my current favorite), and, of course, friends’ names. See below.

Next, I do my best to call on kids with funny names. This is maybe unfair, but really, when a child’s name is Aude (“odd”), Parfait, or Abiodoun… how can you resist? Related: when grading 5,000 quizzes and homeworks this weekend, I made it a point to look for entertaining sentences that kids had accidentally written. My favorite (4):

Third, I make my own visual aids. Kids find my drawings hilarious, and even when my art skills confuse them terribly (it took me 5 minutes to explain that my picture of “boy” was not, in fact, a newborn baby. It had pants, okay?), it’s fun to draw vocabulary words. Plus, it’s doubly fun to make them copy my awful drawings into their copybooks… Muahahahah.

Finally, and most importantly, I talk to myself. Kids who speak no English and very little French can’t decipher swear words spoken in whisper, so I can say pretty much anything I want when I’m writing on the board. I can also start singing for absolutely no reason (example: Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song), and they shut up and all pay rapt attention to me. Does Will Smith have anything to do with simple present tense? Probably not. Does he keep me from falling asleep while teaching it? Yes ma’am.

Friends, Fajitas, and Fantastic Conversations

Any day with fajitas is a good day. Any day with great conversation and company is also a good day. Thus, Saturday (11.13) was absolutely fantastic. (See that word math I did there?)

I didn’t really know the girls in my region all that well – I’d seen them around during stage, but because most of them are health and environment volunteers, I didn’t get to hang out much with them. A week or so ago, though, Becky texted me to schedule a let’s-cook-something-delicious dinner, and eventually we ended up inviting three other girls (Victoria, Emily, Katie) to join – party!

Spent Saturday morning cleaning, then headed into Porto Novo and met up with the girls for ingredients shopping. You take a taxi back to my village, and since there were 5 of us, we just hired a whole car for ourselves. The guy driving us tried to jack up the price, but Victoria flirt-discutered it down to the normal price, and then we had a singalong party all the way back, which we think made it worth his while. “Waving Flag” and Shakira’s Africa song figured prominently into the selection, and the driver thought we were crazy, and life was good.

Came back to my house, then headed out to the buvette (bar) down the road, where we downed a couple of beers, christened ourselves the Southern Belles, and launched into an incredible, unexpected conversation. Sometimes, when you have the vocabulary of a three year old in French, you forget what it’s like to talk about real things. These girls are smart and funny and opinionated, and we had a great discussion: cultural sensitivity vs. women’s rights/health issues (FGM), foreign aid and what’s wrong with just giving people money, African and American takes on volunteer work… everything about what we’re doing here and how we fit in. My mind was spinning happily, and it wasn’t just from the beer.

Came back to the house and made vegetarian fajitas (meat’s expensive and we were lazy) with pico and beans and fresh tortillas. Soooo good. Swoon. Conversation continued, then we watched an episode of House, set out the Thermarest, and went to sleep.

All in all, an incredible day – cheers for big thoughts, great dinners, and fantastic company.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Weekend Update: 11/12/10

I was about to start this post by saying that nothing really happened this week, but then I realized that it did.  Things just surprise me less now, I guess.  Highlights of this past week:

  • I taught my first full week!  It was exhausting.  I gave and graded two quizzes -- my 6eme M1 class did amazingly, and my 5eme class pretty much all failed... 37/41 got 10 out of 20 or lower.  Awesome.  That was particularly frustrating because it was review from last year, I used activities we'd done in class, and it was fairly obvious that no one had studied.  I was genuinely pissed, so I made Thursday's lesson a lecture on study skills, I brought out evil Madame M (my teaching alter ego), and I gave them a really long make-up assignment.  Monday, I'm assigning a new seating chart... let's see how they like my class if they can't chat with their friends all the time. 
  • Pauline, my neighbor, was in a motorcycle accident.  At midnight last Tuesday, after I was very asleep, she showed up pounding on my door, face and leg covered in blood, and announced that she was sleeping in my house that night.  I didn't really have a choice (she'd left her keys out in Porto Novo), so I patched her up with my med kit, gave her a snack and a pillow, and tried to go back to sleep (she's fine now).
  • A little down this week.  Spent most of it inside my house because of some raging digestive issues (I'm doing tests in the med unit today), and I think that made me feel more isolated than usual.  Am hoping that once I'm fully into work, that'll get better.  Plus, after next week is PSW -- a whole week with the other TEFL volunteers in Parakou.  Yaaaay!
  • Awesome moment in parents' meeting.  The director introduced me in front of a meeting of all of the school's parents, and I greeted them in Gun.  They looooved it -- everyone started cheering and grinning and clapping, and one guy even made a little speech about how much it meant to them that I was trying to learn local language.  Felt good, and made me (sort of) want to study. : )
  • Fellow teacher trouble.  So I was doing well with the other teachers -- I finally convinced most of them that I'm married, awkward inquiries as to whether they can visit me stopped, and I'm starting to have professor friends... actually, one of them (Gabriel, also my Gun tutor; his awesome wife Florence is going to help me with French) found my blog the other day -- uh oh.  Anyway, so there was this one female teacher who absolutely refused to call me Madame -- she'd call me mademoiselle, I'd ask her to call me madame, and she'd say loudly, "MADEMOISELLE."  One of the other profs said it was because she wanted me to marry her brother.  I told her I was already married.  She said I should take a Beninese husband, too, Mademoiselle.  Yesterday I got really pissed and whipped out a picture, and I think she might stop now... which is good, because it's really, really frustrating.  You kind of expect it from the men here, but to have that whole thing coming from a fellow professional woman... Frustrating.
  • Observed the head of the English department teach classes.  He's really, really good -- I'm not actually sure I can help him with much more than pronunciation.  I can help with that, though.  During class, one of his kids stood up and, responding to a question, said, "Yes, this bish is beautiful."  I think he meant beach, but I had to fake cough to keep from laughing at him.
  • Am having people over to my house tomorrow!  Some of the girls in the south are visiting to slumber party and make fajitas.  I don't know where to get most of the stuff for fajitas... but whatever.  Details.
K, that's all I've got for now -- love yall!

Friday, November 5, 2010

This Week: APCD Visit

Not much happened this week, except my boss from Peace Corps (the APCD) visited. My boss Taibatou is kind of fantastically glamorous, a Beninese woman in charge, and I love it. My other boss, Cyprien, who oversaw my training, was also there… he’s been an English teacher for years, knows everything about education ever, and is incredibly nice when I call him freaking out about my house/school/living-with-the-director situation.

Anyway. So she visited today and observed my 6eme M1 class, which I had seen exactly two times before. We had a couple of rough patches chatting-wise, and it took (not exaggerating) about 20 minutes to explain the sentence “Create a dialogue with a partner” using my entire Franglais and FreMiming vocabulary. But we got there, that’s the important part.

I also decided that I did not want to be bored during this lesson, so I taught my kids a song. A classic, one that fit the topic (Introductions/Greetings) perfectly. I taught them the following:

A: Yo! My name is--
B: --What?!
A: My name is--
B: --Who?!
A: My name’s--
B: Chicka chicka!
A: (enter student’s name)

Please picture me plus my class of 47 students chanting this in front of my bosses. Then add the Beninese English accent (“May name ees watt! my name ees ho!) and my students’ fantastic names (Sunday, Abiodoun, Pelagie, Aude, etc.). I don’t love teaching just yet, but if I get to teach a hilarious rap every day, I can definitely get there.

List: Weird Things I Cook For Myself

I blame this on several factors: lack of ingredients, lack of tools, and just plain laziness.

- Spaghetti with a lump of peanut butter on it
- Rice with powdered milk and cinnamon
- Rice with sweetened condensed milk. There’s a pattern here somewhere…
- Boiled onions, topped with a little sugar. (Try it.)
- Broth. Just broth.
- Dry spaghetti. Not technically cooking, but current favorite snack.
- Mayonnaise sandwich. Ew, I can’t believe I ate that… but it was so good.
- …and that’s enough for now. I’ll let you know if I made anything else that’s spectacularly strange.

Notes on Hygiene, Part 3: I Am A Genius, and Primping

I am a genius. After I wrote the last post, I created what is maybe the most important invention of my life: the Hot Water Bucket Bath (HWBB). I imagine that other people (like, most of the PCV population) has been doing this since before I was born, but I intend to take any and all credit for my groundbreaking creation.

The HWBB is a careful concoction of boiling water (a medium-sized pot) plus faucet water to taste (or feel, whatever). Normally a running shower is preferable to a bucket bath because it’s less work – no carrying the water-filled bucket from faucet to shower, no trying to douse yourself bit-by-bit using a small bowl or cup. Bucket baths take more time and thus increase exposure time to mosquitoes.

However. With the introduction of the HWBB to my life, I’m a convert. I can’t say enough about the joys of pouring a perfectly warm bowl of water over your hair, slowly waking up to the sweet feeling of soap-scented steam curling around your feet. It’s a PCV’s version of a hot bubble bath, and it’s pure bliss.

Enough on that (euphoric, heaven-sent) subject, we have more important things to talk about: primping. Primping, or “spending time making minor adjustments to (one’s hair, makeup, or clothes),”* is difficult here, both because supplies need to be rationed and because it’s difficult to motivate yourself when no one in village really cares. My observations:

Shaving – I can’t stand underarm hair (just the prickly feeling of it, ew), so that’s shaved every day. Legs… well, I made a solemn promise to myself and the world that I would shave my legs at least once a week, so I shave once a week. Usually Tuesdays. If I’m going to Cotonou or somewhere else I’m likely to see Americans, I always before (it’s a patriotic thing, really), but otherwise, it’s once a week. No more, no less.

Eyebrows– This is a good time burner and feel-good-ifier, so my brows are pretty well maintained so far... Since I don’t look in the mirror every day any more, it’s often difficult to tell when they’re getting unruly, but hey, I try.

Deodorant – Every day, religiously. Sometimes more than once. I will not compromise on this topic.

Other scent-related issues – I should have brought more perfume samples, although I’ve found a reasonable substitute: bug spray. I spritz a little DEET on the back of your neck and you can’t really smell anything else.

Makeup – Hah. In the States, I love makeup, and I like looking pretty. Here, it’s so humid and hot that it takes about 30 minutes for most of it to melt off (except for waterproof mascara, which God makes with his own hands as a gift to cosmetically-minded women in sweltering countries). Makeup follows a similar rule to leg-shaving: If I need to feel pretty, I’ll dust on a little powder and mascara, and if I’m seeing fellow PCVs I’ll spend a whole 15 minutes applying creams and liners to my face. On a regular day in village, though, forget it.

There you have it, my personal, no-detail-withheld account of a PCV’s hygiene in Benin. Ta-da! (Please still be my friend?)

*According to whatever dictionary comes with this computer.

Notes on Hygiene, Part 2: Showering

Showering I shower every day. That said, showering here is different: I have running water (I’m spoiled), but it’s cold only, and at 6am when it’s still dark outside, a blast of ice water to the naked flesh is not something you really want to withstand for very long. I’ve developed the dunk-scrub-splash-dash method in response.

Step 1 (Dunk): Take deep breath, turn on faucet. Edge toward water, put one arm in. Lean head in. Remember that this is not the Hokey Pokey, step under running water. Count to 10 (okay, 5), jump back out of cold water. Turn off faucet.

Step 2 (Scrub): Soap up, concentrating effort on Potential Odor Zones (POZs). I’m going to let you figure out what those are.

Step 3 (Splash): Turn on faucet, stare at it apprehensively until you get the guts to step in (minimum 15 seconds, maximum 2 minutes). Realize that you cannot actually rinse off if you keep leaning away from the cold water. Splash furiously at POZs. Consider self clean, turn off faucet.

Step 4 (Dash): Grab pagne, towel self off as you sprint inside away from swarming mosquitos. Congratulate self on expended effort.

You’ll notice that there’s no mention of shampoo there. I now wash my hair every 3 days. This was difficult to get used to at first (and kinda gross), but a couple of factors have made it easier: First, shampoo adds at least a minute to cold-water shower time. Second, I have a lot of hair, and since I keep it in a bun most of the time, it doesn’t seem worth it to keep it all sparkly clean. Third, it takes my hair a day and a half to dry (thank you, humidity), so washing it more than every 2 days seems like a waste. (Does hair mold?)

Fourth and most importantly, every Beninese woman or child who plays with my hair tries to make it into a helmet. By this I mean she combs it, then uses her hands to plaster it as flat as she can onto my scalp. If it’s clean, strands escape, and she’ll spend 20 minutes explaining to me that I need to buy pomade and/or glue. When my hair has a healthy oil slick going on, it sticks in place, and nothing makes a Beninese woman happier than a completely immobile hair style.

That’s about all I can say on showering without scaring the small children (an army of whom, I’m sure, are reading my blog). Oh, except cold-water showers in the middle of the day are awesome, especially after biking home from school. Stay tuned for further updates.

Notes on Hygiene, Part 1: Introduction

I’ve thought long and hard about writing this post, and I’ve decided that you will probably still love me afterward. Thus, hygiene.


So Beninese hygiene is different than American hygiene: We tend to think they’re dirty because there’s lots of body odor and significantly less deodorant. They tend to think we’re dirty because we shower only once a day and don’t sweep our houses as well as they do. That last part really does factor in as personal hygiene.

While I try to stay as America-clean as I can, it’s tough to be as scrubbed and primped as is normal when you have hot, indoor showers and unlimited access to mirrors. As much as I’d like to lie and say I’m a powder-fresh princess over here, some things have slid a little, and since I’m dedicated to being as disgustingly honest as I can be on this blog… here we go.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

List: Top 15 Countries To Visit

In no particular order… make your list, let’s compare!

1. Thailand
2. India
3. Indonesia
4. New Zealand
5. Iran*
6. Turkey
7. Israel
8. Argentina
9. Brazil
10. Kenya
11. Madagascar
12. Morocco
13. Egypt
14. Holland
15. Switzerland

*Potentially impossible.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Beninisms: Talking the Talk

Any country has a set of slang phrases that make absolutely no sense in any other language – try explaining “kitty corner” or “from the get-go” with any sort of logic or reason.  Benin is no exception. I don’t know if it’s West Africa as a whole, Benin, or just my area, but some of the things they say are fantastically and hilariously confusing to think about. The following is a short list of my favorites:

Bonjoir – this is a blend of “bonjour” and “bonsoir,” used when you’re too busy (or lazy) to think about what time of day it is.

Ou bien –Literally translates as “Or well (in the healthy/good sense”), but I’m not actually sure what this is supposed to mean. You stick it at the end of sentences, and sometimes it translates to kind of a sassy quadruple snap after you put someone in their place… sometimes it just goes at the ends of sentences though.

Quoi? – Much like “ou bien,” this word can be put at the end of anything, quoi. It doesn’t change the meaning quoi, it just kind of emphasizes what you’re saying. “This is a wonderful sauce, what? You must have worked very hard, what?” Entertaining in that it makes everyone seem just a little spastic. Quoi.

Tu a fait un peu? – “You have done a little?” This is what you say when someone gets back from a long day at work. Apparently you never want to say “I’ve done a lot” because then the other person will be jealous of your productivity. I must have made a lot of people jealous, as no one explained this to me until about 2 months into stage.

Bon travaille, bon arrivée, bon appetite, bon assis – you get complimented on everything here. Good work, good arrival, good eating, and my favorite: good sitting. I am an excellent sitter, and I really love being complimented on my ability to be seated well.

Tu es là? – Literal translation: “You are there?” I am asked this several times a day, despite the fact that the speaker can obviously see that I am there (or wherever)... It's polite to say, but I'm not quite sure why... I asked my host sister to explain: “Well, you know, it’s a question… to see… if you’re there.” Ohhh. Got it.

Stuff I Can’t Get Into A More Coherent Blog Post

- Big groups of kids, even when they’re students and have to curtsy to you when you greet them, are scary.

- In Cotonou two weekends ago, Elyse and I swung by a roadside “cafeteria” on our way back from our nightclubbing adventure (we were not alone, promise). As we sat eating our egg sandwiches, two rats darted up from behind the fridge, scrambled onto the thatched roof, and ran over our heads. “Huh,” Elyse said, “I didn’t know rats could run that fast up walls.” We kept eating.

- I started “decorating” my walls by writing quotes on them in chalk – idea by Lou and other PCVs. First thing I put up: “Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…” – Dori, Finding Nemo

- Other fun names from my classes this week: Kizito, Adeola, and Aude – pronounced “Odd.”

- When you’re alone in a faraway country, sometimes the littlest kindnesses mean the world. Today at the teachers’ meeting, my teacher friend Gabriel came and sat by me instead of a big group of other teachers, all of whom were sitting on the opposite side of the room. I almost teared up… it meant the world to have a friend.

- At the couteriere last week, I asked the seamstress to put a really long zipper into one of my dresses – I have trouble getting them on and off because tissu has no stretch at all. “But how will you close the zipper?” she asked, “Your husband isn’t here to help you!”

- Conversation with man on zem:
  • MOZ: Hello White! I’m happy to see you. Are you Italian or French?
  • Me: I’m American. I’m a volunteer from America, and I work at CEG Daagbe as a professor.
  • MOZ: Oh, excellent. How’s Europe lately?
  • Me: Umm… I don’t know, sorry. I’m from America. Not France.
  • MOZ: Not French? Italian? Or German?
  • Me: No, I’m not from Europe. NOT Europe. America. The United States.
  • MOZ: Ohhhh, you’re American! OBAMAAAAAA!


This is the view down the street, photo taken from the place I always sit with the mamas in front of my house. 

K, I will stop eventually with all of the pictures of the sky, but isn't it gorgeous?  Every night it's almost surreally stunning...

Teaching Week Two

So this week, the fourth official week, was my second week teaching. Or, well, sort of teaching.

Monday went well – I got to teach all three of my scheduled classes, which is six hours total. I was exhausted and a little frustrated by the end of it (to be expected), but I survived. My students may have even learned something… maybe.

For my 5eme class, I’m reviewing the highlights of 6eme to see what they remember, which is evidently not much. We reviewed the most basic sentence structures – affirmative and negative of “to be”, like “I am a student,” and “She is not a man” – and most of the class was completely baffled. I got a number of confused sentences, the most popular being, “I am a not.” This is fantastically existential, but not what I was going for.

The two 6eme classes are starting from scratch, so we worked on greetings (good morning, etc.) and the alphabet – I want them to be able to spell things in English. They loved reading the letters (I gave some of them personalities, like R, which was pirate-y) and spelling their names, but getting them to do anything else was like trying to get a boulder to hula hoop... ne marche pas. They don’t really understand me in any of my languages – English, French, mime – yet, so it’s going to take some serious patience to get them to do my activities.

Tuesday I don’t work, but Lou and I met with the mayor of Ifagni, who’s going to New Jersey this week. We thought he wanted cultural tips, but he actually wanted our parents’ contact info… Mom and Dad, if a strange African man shows up on your doorstep, I’m sorry. He’s bringing a special hat to wear in a picture with you, though, if you’re interested.

Wednesday (today) I’d prepared a lesson plan for my 1-3pm class, but not for the 9-11am class – we had a teacher’s meeting starting at “09h trés precieuse.” At 10:42 we finally started the meeting, and four and a half hours later, it ended. It was monsooning (the heaviest rain I think I’ve ever seen), but they fed us a big meal of pate and liver kebobs, so I guess it all balances out.

Here’s a picture of the road I take to get home… after the rain, it’s more like a series of small rivers.

These are two of the many things I drew/wrote/listed to keep myself entertained at the teachers’ formation.

Our 100th Anniversary!


Today’s our 100th day in Benin, and I have to say, it was pretty excellent. I woke up and went to chez la couteriere, where 2 dresses and my Halloween costume were done – and all actually fit!

Visited the grand marché and indulged in a pineapple and some bananas, then got back to my house, where, surprise! Scott, a PCV who’s returning to the US soon, brought the bed frame, set of shelves, and FAN that I bought from him. I don’t know what it is about living here, but I am freakishly excited every time I get new furniture. You could give me a bedside table and I’d probably cry with joy.

Then my close mate* Lou visited (read his blog here – it’s funny, good writing), and we ate brownies and chatted for a couple of hours. I missed good conversations, and he’s kind of hilariously honest, so it was an excellent use of my afternoon. He gave me the first 3 episodes of Glee (season 2) – so exciting! My computer can’t play the files yet (I’m going to have to figure out where to get an .avi converter), but I have them. Baby steps.

Made cheesy pasta for dinner, had pineapple for an appetizer, wrote a letter or two, and will head to my bed-on-a-brand-new-bed-frame soon. Such a happy day… now to gear up for teaching week two.

*In Peace Corps Benin, you usually have either a post mate or a close mate. Post mate is a person who lives in the same village, close mate is the nearest person to you otherwise.

Anyone Want A Beninese Pen Pal?

I spent all of Monday at training, and despite desperately wanting to hide in my house for the day, I went Tuesday, too. Wednesday morning I got to training and suddenly realized that it was ridiculous for me to be there – I understood roughly nothing, I was not a happier or better person for being there, and the other teachers weren’t benefitting from my presence either.

So I did what any clear-thinking and upstanding Peace Corps Volunteer would do: I faked sick. I took two carefully timed trips to the latrine, texted my director, and then hailed a bush taxi. I’m going to explain the real reason to the director (if he ever calls me back), and the rest of the profs can just be worried about the sick yovo. That’s cool with me.

The only really interesting thing that happened over the past three days was my conversations with the other people at my table – all men, all in their late 20s or early 30s. I threw the words “my husband” out in the first 15 minutes, and despite a vague flirtiness from two of the professors, I didn’t have any creeper trouble. They asked me a bunch of questions about the US – mostly about getting jobs and whether or not teaching was lucrative (hah) – and then asked if I had any friends who would want a Beninese pen pal. I said I’d ask.

Anyone want a pen pal? As far as I know they just want to practice their English, and if they start asking to visit, you’d have every write to cut communication. But I’m pretty sure they’re good people, and I’d love to help them out if anyone’s up for writing a letter/email or two. Let me know if you’re up for it. Thanks!

PS. My heart just melted. When I got back from the formation at lunch, I stopped at the marché to say hi to my friend Valerie, and I told her that I was sick. She just stopped by my house (it’s dinnertime) and said she’d been worried all day and just wanted to check and make sure I was okay. Score one for Daagbe’s amazing people.

Teacher Training Week

I just got back from the first day of teacher training week, and my lord is it boring. I’m pretty sure it’d be boring anyway (based on the little I gleaned from the schedule booklet), but they do the training course in really fast, really technical French, so my understanding level is at about 20% at all times.

I started writing letters to pass the time, but then realized that my fellow English teachers were reading everything I wrote over my shoulder (most of it complaining about the training), so I had to stop. My new strategy: drink two cups of coffee each morning, make lists of things unrelated to training, and try really, really hard not to fall asleep.

Most entertaining part of the day was when they handed me the attendance sheet. Here’s the conversation:

Me: So my name goes here, and my school here, and… what’s this card number?
Lady: That’s your national identity card number. Write it there.
Me: I don’t have a Beninese national identity card. I’m American.
Lady: You don’t have a card? Do you have a card number?
Me: No, I don’t have a card or a number. I’m not Beninese. Can I just leave that box blank? It doesn’t really apply to me.
Lady: Umm… are you sure you don’t have a card?
Me: Very sure. I’ll just leave it blank, okay?
Lady: Umm… (looks very uncomfortable)… You don’t have a number?
Me: I do not have a number. I’ll leave it empty.
Lady: …(hovers awkwardly, squirms a little)… ummm…
Me: … I have a driver’s license number. Would that help?
Lady: You have a card? (Looks at me like it’s Christmas.)
Me: Not a Beninese identity card, but I have a card and it has a number on it.
Lady: Ah, excellent! Yes, this is a wonderful teaching license – very pretty! It’s pink!
Me: Um… teaching license… yes.

I just reread that and it’s not funny. Sorry, I’ll do better next time. How squeamishly uncomfortable the Beninese people seem to be with unfilled boxes just makes me giggle… they do the same thing if you write only the day and month in the date box, or if you write in the wrong color ink in the grade books. There is only one way to do things, and it is the right way.

I think there might be some OCD genes running around here somewhere… Dad, maybe you’d like it after all.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

List: Fun Things I’ve Seen Zems (all male) Wear

  • Santa hat
  • Pink sparkley mary jane shoes
  • Clear blue jelly sandals
  • Teletubby-shaped hat, white and fleecy
  • A stack of chairs balanced on the zem’s head
  • Houston Astros baseball cap (!!)
  • Purple leopard print cowboy hat
  • Neon yellow cape

Saturday, October 16, 2010


Because I have free internet!!

Dorothe, who was camera shy for some reason

Dolores, who was definitely not camera shy
 Pauline, my next-door neighbor -- neither of us speaks French very well, so we have entertainingly confusing conversations.  She put a shirt on especially for this picture. :) 
 Sunset from my front porch...
...yeah, sometimes Africa's pretty stunning.

Kids = Stalkers, But They’re Cute


I had to yell at a bunch of kids earlier this week for being annoying as hell… they’d come to my screen door and clap and bang and yell my name, 20-30 minutes at a time, for absolutely no reason other than to see me. I got angry at them Monday, and explained why I was angry Tuesday morning, and have since then had a much better time with the kiddos.

Now, I even want to hang out with them sometimes. There’s a set of 6-year-old twins, Dolores (girl) and Dorothé (boy), who are absolutely adorable. Twins are considered very lucky here, even to the point of having special powers, so it’s especially wonderful to be friends with them… they can protect me from any bad gri-gri coming my way.

Dolores and Dorothe, being cute.

Their mom’s one of my good friends here (Juliette), and these children are beautiful – big doe eyes, long lashes, bright smiles missing their front teeth. They run around in nothing but their underwear most of the time, and they’re fantastically mischievous, like pretty little imps. Dorothé keeps telling me he’s going to marry me, and if I wasn’t already engaged to Moubarack Obama, I’d probably take him up on the offer.

I have other little friends, too – one 4-year-old girl runs headlong into my hip every time she sees me to give me a hug. Another little boy sat on my feet for 40 minutes yesterday stroking my prickly shin… ew. Most of them now know my name (or some variation of it – Meleesia is popular), and when I hang out with them, their moms teach me Goun phrases while I teach the kids patty cake games. I don’t feel exactly at home here yet, but sometimes I think I’m falling in love with the people in my village.

How School Works

Because I’m sure I’ve forgotten to explain important details, here’s the rundown.

Hours: 7am-5pm, with a 2-hour lunch break
Kids per class: 55-70
Kids who show up for the first few weeks of class: less than 60%

Boy-to-girl ratio: about 2:1
Female professors: I think 4 including me (all of the others are part-time), compared to 50+ male teachers

Administration: The directeur (my boss, the principal), the surveillent general (the VP/discipline guy), and the comptable (accountant). We also have a secretary, Adelaide, who’s 22 and took me to her tailor last weekend. Yay. : )
Number of English professors: two permanent (I’m one of the two), and maybe 5 part-time? Not quite sure, haven’t met them all yet.

Other subjects: a lot are in cryptic acronyms, but I know they study French, math, history/geography, and “sport”… the older ones study philosophy, too.
Length of each class: Depends on subject. English is in 2hr blocks, other subjects range from one to three hours.
Rooms: Students have one classroom, professors go to them. Sometimes a class doesn’t have an assigned room, and the prof has to go searching for one.

Corporal punishment: Officially illegal, but lots of schools use it as their main discipline tactic. Mine, thankfully, doesn’t, so I can use the administration to discipline when I need to (other volunteers can’t, so I’m lucky).
Uniforms: Mandatory, and all khaki

My schedule: I teach 3 classes of kids, 2 times a week each (total 12 hrs teaching, plus 2 in a weekly English dept. meeting). I have Tuesdays and Fridays off. A pretty light load, so I’ll need to start big secondary projects to keep myself busy.


First (Real) Week of School

10.11.10 – Monday – I taught my first class! It was 5eme, and only about 35 of the kids showed up (normally there will be between 55-70), but I think it went pretty well. I had fun, at least. My main worry is that I didn’t scare them enough. It’s tough to establish discipline if you’re not strict at first, so I’m hoping that my teacher glare instilled some sort of fear into their little hearts.

10.12.10 – Tuesday – no classes today, and am thus really, really bored. Need to find something big to do with Tuesdays… sitting around and eating rice all day is probably not healthy in the long run.

10.13.10 – Wednesday – Taught the first class for each of my two 6emes. I’m their first English class ever, and since I try to teach mostly in English, it was a lot like talking to a brick wall. Their French isn’t that good either – I’m pretty sure I speak more than they do, which is terrifying – so getting my point across was rough. Miming is our only common language… luckily, I’ve been practicing my conversational Charades.

10.14.10 – Thursday – Last class for the week was 5eme, and I started doing a review to figure out what they’ve retained from last year… it’s not much. I asked them for the date, and no one knew any of the days of the week except for Wednesday… which they uniformly pronounced “Whed-ness-day.” Great.
We also did greetings (good morning, good afternoon, etc.), the alphabet (+ the meaning of “to spell”), and finally Hangman. I actually didn’t slack off on planning that last bit – Hangman requires you to say letters, and remembering the difference between E/I, G/J, and S/X is proving to be difficult for that class. Anyway, so I’m using the next couple of classes to review and assess, and then I’ll start teaching new stuff. Mini-list of most entertaining names in my classes: Gaston (who sits right next to Sebastian), Parfait, and Sunday.

10.15.10 – No school for me again today… and surprise! Just learned that we don’t have school at all next week. Some idiot planned an all-region teaching conference for the third week of school. I will go to a day-long meeting on “how to give a test” every single day rather than actually doing my job. Sigh.

Sunday Fun Day: A Catholic Fete


Today started off kind of terribly. One of my favorite people in village, a lady named Valerie, had invited me to 10am mass at her church. I got up early and showered (I even washed my hair for the occasion), and was ready by 9:30. Ten rolled around and she wasn’t there. Then 10:30, then 11… By 11:24, I’d resigned myself to being sad and bored for the rest of the day. I got my Tupperware full of dried beans and began sorting them on the porch, watching the rain fall.

At 11:43, I heard a voice sing “Bonjour!” across the concession – Valerie! I grabbed my helmet and we sped to church about 2 hours late. The sermon was just about over by the time we got there (I think it was about giving thanks for food – women danced down the aisle carrying fruits, veggies, eggs, and live chickens on their heads), and after praying 6 or 7 times I thought we were done. False.

Drums started playing. The choir started singing. And then we had an all-church two-hour dance party/conga line. Apparently today was not only mass, but also a huge church fete – it took me a while to figure out why, but I think it was because the bishop was in town…? Anyway, I jammed out in the back of the church, and they thought I was hilariously awkward, which is true, especially on the dance floor.

After the last song, Valerie swooped in and led me to a tent that had magically appeared in the churchyard. A chair appeared next to the Chef d’Arondissment (the mayor, who reminds me of Mufasa), and Valerie told me to sit. I did, they handed me a beer, and having not eaten for about 4 hours before then, life started getting really great really fast.

You can’t fete without food, so we ate a huuuuge Beninese meal – at one point I looked down and realized that I was happily munching akassa (fermented corn mush) with spicy stewed pig skin and intestines. Ah, how far we’ve come (and/or thank you, beer). I got to chat with lots of important village people, ate good food (after the pig skin), and had a surprisingly fantastic afternoon, despite my earlier decision to sulk the day away. Ah, Benin…

Friday, October 15, 2010

List: Things I Could Buy in Benin for About $2 USD (1000 CFA)

1 American-style chicken sandwich
4 meals of beans, rice & plantains from side of road
3 American chocolate bars
20 Beninese “chocolate” bars
3 hours of internet
A 2 hr. bush taxi ride to Cotonou
10 cut-up pineapples
30 oranges
10 eggs
1 can tuna
4-5 hours of hair braiding time
40 text messages (in-country only)
2 kg. white flour
1 m. nice cloth
How to Eat an Orange, Benin-Style

1. Buy oranges on side of road. The vendor lady will shave the outer peel off with a razor blade (probably not sanitary). If you prefer to do this part yourself, take them home and peel them yourself (traditionally done with a dull, large knife).

2. Cut circle off of top of orange, exposing the actual fruit.

3. Squeeze bottom of orange while sucking the juice out of the top. Continue until all juice is gone, spitting out seeds. If you are Beninese, you will practically reduce the orange to dust before you’re done.

4. Throw leftover peel into the road. Ta-da! Done.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Note On Mail

I don't think my school checks its mail very often, so don't send things to CEG Daagbe anymore... just go with the address for Cotonou (the one on the side of this page).

Thanks to all who write/send things, loooove yall, and miss you!

Trip to Cotonou (Again)

I know, I know, I was just here. And yes, I feel guilty about staying in village only a week at a time… I’ll fix it in the future, promise. Right now, though, my friend Elyse is camping out at the Med Unit (malaria = awfulness). I won’t get to see her until Thanksgiving otherwise, so I decided that it was worth the day and the guilt to see her smiling face. Plus, she knows good restaurants in Cotonou, so double win. And I get mail!

Next probable trip down is November 6th, so unless something dramatic happens, I won’t be sending letters until then, just FYI.
Update on House: I have a set of shelves!  And it's actually really pretty... surprising and awesome. :)

The First Week

The first week of school here is kind of a joke – it’s reserved for cleaning the school and grounds, finishing up admin stuff, and paying fees. Even though I knew that going in, I was still kind of surprised by how little I did this whole week… here’s a sample day:

5:30 – wake up, shower, scarf food, bike 12 min to school

6:45 – arrive at school, am first one there

7:00 – school officially starts

8:30 – other people start showing up

9:00-11:55– students hoe the school yard, sweep things, and sit around doing nothing in large groups. Professors show up and leave kind of randomly. Admin collects school fees and works on schedule.

Noon – I get bored and hungry and/or have explosive diarrhea and have to get medicine. Bike home for official nap time.

1:30 – spend half an hour trying to decide if I should go back to school for the afternoon or not. It seems pointless, but PC tells me I should go and be seen… ughhhhh…

2:00 – bike back to school, discover absolutely no one there. Am told that I should probably just go back home for the rest of the day.

2:30-5:00 – play with group of children in front of my concession. Teach them patty cake. Fell happy about life in Africa.

5:30-9:30 – make beans and rice for dinner, read, knit, write letters, and organize. Enjoy time spent not getting stared at.

9:30 – pack bag for tomorrow, brush teeth, and go to bed.

Also, I don’t work Tuesday or Friday, and I only have 3 classes to teach total – that’s 12 hours a week teaching, then 2 in meetings. I tried to talk my director into giving me another class, but he kind of refused… he said it was good for me to have free time. False. Free time = boredom = homesickness. So I guess I’m going to have to come up with a big secondary project or two to keep myself busy… not sure what or how, but I’ll work on it.

Other major stressor for this week: the fact that despite my obviously being a teacher, kids still call me “yovo.” I let my hopes up that it’d be an automatic no-yovo situation, and finding out that I’ll have to work at getting things to that point has been kind of difficult. “Yovo” is understandable (not good, but understandable) just walking around village, because that’s what kids’ parents have taught them to say. In school, though, it’s a sign of disrespect, and it’s really important that people respect me. I think I’m going to talk to the director and/or disciplinarian guy (surveillant general) to see if they can do anything… it’s really not acceptable, and it’s getting under my skin.

**Update: I talked to the director, and he’s going to have an “instruction period” about the word “yovo”… I’m happy. Also, the more I introduce myself to kids, the more they remember “Madame”… little victories, people. Little victories.

When You’re A Celebrity…

You guys, I’m a unicorn. I’m the Easter bunny, the ghost of Elvis, and Santa Claus wrapped in a gooey slice of chocolate cake.

I attract attention and excitement like nobody’s business, and while I’m happy that people want to know me, it gets really friggin’ stressful after the first 15 minutes. People show up at my doorstep constantly, kids ask to come inside and look at (and ask for) my stuff, and today at the marché a gendarme (soldier) guy with a rifle invited himself over to my house after talking to me for max 15 seconds. I don’t know his name and he doesn’t know mine, but there’s a 500% chance that he’ll show up and try to get into my house and, simultaneously, my pants.

Yesterday as I was reading on the porch, 7 children clustered around me and stared, inching closer and closer, for 2 hours. I went inside to breathe/shake off the claustrophobia, and they waited for another hour to see if I’d come back outside. I didn’t.

Stressful. Not that the whole community’s that way, by any means – there are a couple of women who I like a lot (they stick up for me and tell people that I don’t like the name “yovo”), and most of the rabid attention I’m getting comes from a friendly, honest, interested place. It’s just that there’s so much of it right now… It’s really hard not to lock my door and pretend I’m asleep all the time just so I don’t have to deal with everyone.

Tomorrow school starts, and I’m hoping that the schedule will keep me busy/help me be less freaked out my the 84,000 eyeballs staring at me at all times. Maybe the kids will even start calling me “Madame” instead of “yovo.” That would be cool.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Lists: Foods I Miss, Foods I Love

10 American Foods I Miss Most

1. Good chocolate
2. Bacon
3. Chicken breasts without bones
4. CHEESE. Chevré, sharp cheddar, Parmesan and fresh mozzarella.
5. Fajitas… drool.
6. Ice cream (any and all flavors. Related: milkshakes)
7. Chocolate chip cookies, hot from the oven
8. Greek pizza, no olives from Broken Rocks
9. Strawberries and blueberries
10. Mom’s brisket with mashed potatoes

10 Beninese Foods I Actually Love

1. Fresh pineapple
2. Fried plantains
3. Peanut clusters
4. Bissap
5. Rice, beans & spicy sauce
6. Fan Choco (chocolate ice cream substitute)
7. Fresh grilled fish
8. Riz gras
9. Mangos (when the season comes)
10. Homemade yogurt, frozen in little bags

Beninese Recipe: My Favorite Lunch

K, I’m going to try to do this thing where I post updates on a delay – that way you don’t get 13 updates one week and none the next. If this works, you should be reading this sometime around the Oct. 7th.

1 c. dry rice
2 c. dry beans (basic, boring beans, the find you could find in baked beans cans)
2 bananas or plantains
Vegetable oil for frying
Every Tanti’s Red Sauce (Benin’s staple spicy tomato sauce, recipe to follow)

1. Soak beans overnight. Cook the following day, probably with salt and bouillon of some sort. Make rice. Set aside.
2. Make sauce. Set aside.
3. Heat vegetable oil in a pot. Slice bananas/plantains on the diagonal (so they look like rhombuses from the side). Each banana should give you 5-6 pieces, probably. When oil is hot, place banana slices in oil. Let fry until outside is dark brown and a little crunchy. Let cool.
4. Put everything on a plate, mix it up, and eat. Serves 2-3 Americans or 1 Beninese.

Every Tanti’s Red Sauce (from Cookin’N’Benin, the PC Benin cookbook)
4 T. vegetable oil
2 onions
3 cloves garlic, crushed
3 c. water
12 small Beninese tomatoes or 4-6 American ones, pureed
2-3 piments (chili peppers), pureed
1 cube chicken bouillon

1. Heat oil and add tomatoes, onions, piment, and garlic. Saute for about 5 minutes.
2. Add water and bouillon. Cover and let simmer for 20 minutes. Salt and pepper to taste. For extra spicy sauce, simmer with two more piments (whole) in the sauce.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Awkward but Normal: A Conversation with a Beninese Man

Date: 9.29.10
Setting: The village marché

BM: Hello yovo!

LG: I’m not “yovo,” I live here. I’m a professor at CEG Daagbe. Call me Melissa, not yovo.

BM: Ah, you live here! What a wonderful opportunity for me! I’m very happy to have you here, and I hope that we can have a friendship. We will talk, and God willing, you will marry me.

LG: Uhhh… what?

BM: We will marry! I love white skin (rubs my arm). I want to marry a woman with white skin. I don’t like black women.

LG: Oh, I’m sorry, I’m already married.

BM: You’re married?? You’re too young to be married. How old are you?

LG: Twenty-two, and I’m definitely already married. My husband lives in the United States, but he will visit me here soon.*

BM: Ah, but do you have children? (If you don’t have kids, the marriage isn’t really considered legit.)

LG: Yes, I have a little girl.

BM: What’s her name?

LG: Uhhhhhhhh…lex. Alex.

BM: Oh, okay. Give me your phone number.

LG: What? I can’t, my husband is jealous and he will be angry with me if I give you my number.

BM: I will give you my number (writes it on the first page of my brand-new notebook). You will call me tomorrow.

LG: I’m sorry, I will probably not call you tomorrow, because my husband is jealous and he will be angry.

BM: Just for calling? You can call me. I will visit you at your house.

LG: Do not visit my house, that is not appropriate. I probably won’t call you, but maybe. If my husband says okay, but he won’t because he’s jealous.

BM: You must call me. We will be friends. I want to marry a woman with white skin.

LG: I have to go buy a vegetable. Goodbye.

*The next person to mail me a photoshopped picture of me with a husband and a small child will be my favorite person in the world. Bonus points for a creative and/or hot husband (can’t be Obama, Bush, Jackie Chan, or Brad Pitt, because they’d probably recognize them).

First Days At Post


So far, I’m still alive and more or less sane. I’m focusing this week on a fun game I’ve titled “See and Be Seen” – here’s how you play.

1. Wake up, do chores, then do more chores to avoid going outside where there are people.
2. Convince self to go outside. This usually takes about 30 minutes, a concrete goal, and a reward for completion of said goal (if I go to the market, I will buy myself bissap).
3. Walk outside, immediately hear “yovo” eight times. Explain yet again that I live here and that I’m a professor. My name is Melissa.
4. Go to marché or other goal location. Talk to minimum 3 people, refusing all marriage invitations and remembering to smile. Buy present for self.
5. Return home, congratulate myself on a successful day. Take nap – being so productive wears me out.

It’s a little boring here since school hasn’t started, so putting that on my to-do list has helped me stay productive and positive. I’m also working on putting my house together (difficult, as I still have no furniture), and I’ve converted the front room into a visiting room so that I can keep my space and shareable space very separate. That’s going to be important for my stress levels – boundaries and the ability to hole up away from visitors when I need to.

There were some kids that dropped by the other day who touched each thing in the front room and asked me to give it to them, so the front room now contains pictures, two chairs, a cup for water, two maps, and that’s about it. Boundaries drawn.

That said, most of my interactions with people have been overwhelmingly positive – when I introduce myself as a professor, people are generally delighted to know my name and my reason for being here. The marché mamas (the vendors at the market) are really sweet and let me hang out with them, kids are hilarious, and one lady brought me a bag of 3 pineapples and 10 oranges after I told her in passing that I liked fruit. So sweet, and definitely a high point of my week.

School starts Monday… stories in a couple of weeks!

Move-in Day Part 2, and Subsequent Fiasco

Today I finally moved to post, a full week after I was supposed to get here the first time, and two days and several hours after I was supposed to get here the second time. It was another long and frustrating day for several reasons.
First, I got here and the water didn’t work… it took several hours to fix that one, but now I can shower. Yesss.
Second, one of the parts on my stove broke, so I can’t cook. I think I can buy the part tomorrow at the marché, but it kind of sucks to not be able to cook for myself after looking forward to it for so long.

Third, the carpenter hasn’t actually started on any of my furniture yet (or bought the wood to start), despite the fact that he was supposed to have it finished and in my house by yesterday. The director called him and made him come over, and he said he’d have the shelves done by Saturday and the table/chairs by the following Thursday. This means that by the time I’ve taught school for a full week, I might finally get to fold my clothes and put them away, and/or eat dinner while not sitting on the floor. Awesome.

Move-In Day Part 1, and Subsequent Fiasco

Move-in day was all sorts of wrong. The taxi was 4 hours late, we waited 2 hours to finally find the key and get into the house, and when we walked in, it was uninhabitable. Even though PC makes the rules very, very clear to the communities, my house still had no screen on the windows, no screen door, an open-air sewage pit, no neighbors, and a thick layer of cement and sand on every flat surface. Also, no furniture.

I fought back tears for the better part of 5 hours while my director* called the carpenter, the plumber, several small children, and the mason to come fix my house. At about 8:30, they suddenly realized that I couldn’t really live there that night, so they invited (told) me to pack a bag for a week. Where was I going? Back to Porto Novo. To live with the host family that I know really well and adore? Nope, to live with my boss and his family. Awkward.

The family was really nice, they made me good food, and the Maman was so excited to have a girl in the house (she has five sons) that she gave me a really shiny pearl-and-gold-Chinese-characters necklace. Problem was, I was not in village being productive, and except for the two days I was errand-running with the parents, I was home doing nothing most of the time. Which is hell when you’re freaking out about getting things done on time.

To keep myself busy, I read two books and made 8,000 lists. I made lists about chores to get my house in shape, funny things I’ve seen zem drivers wearing, and my top 15 countries to visit. I made lists about American foods I miss, things I could buy here with $2, and places I didn’t know I could sweat so much. I made lists about the lists I’d made, and I made a list about lists I refuse to make (#1: future baby names).

Anyway, so it was a boring week. I think because I put so much time into it, I’m going to post a list every time I update… get excited. The first of many:

Top 5 Favorite/Most Entertaining Beninese Misunderstandings:

1. Obama is America’s first African president. They don’t mean African-American.
2. North America + South America = the continent America. Obama is president of this continent.
3. If you wash a cat, it will die. I’m not sure why this is so funny to me, but it is.
4. Everyone knows everyone in America. I have told people that Obama is my next door neighbor, and they believe me. My other best friends include Rihanna, Akon, and Beyonce.
5. I am Chinese. (I’ve had people walk up to me and karate chop in my direction, and I’ve also had them speak fake Chinese to me – “tong tok bok tong.” My blonde-and-blue-eyed friends get this too.

*I’m not sure if I explained this earlier, but “my director” means “the director (like the principal) of my school”… in other words, my boss.

Introducing Popsicle

I finally bought a kitten and named it Popsicle, even though Katie tells me that it’s a terrible name for a cat. Whatever, this is the land of weird names. My friend Jenny’s host brothers are named “Jubilee” and “Godwill.” For short, they call the latter “God.” I did not make that up.
Anyway, so here is a picture of Popsicle. He’s a talker and a snuggler, both of which I find annoying in excess… we’re still getting used to each other. He is really great to just sit and hold, though, when I’m freaking out about going to post. As long as he eats spiders, I think we’ll be okay.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Shopping for Post and... Swear-In!

The last couple of days have been an absolute blur – we got our move-in allowances on Thursday, so we’ve been shopping like crazy since then. Then yesterday we had swear-in in the morning (Yall, I’m a REAL volunteer now! Yaaaaay!), shopping and eating in the afternoon, and a big party last night. And more shopping today with my host sister Madjidath (she helps me avoid getting ripped off). And probably tomorrow. I’m exhausted.

Swear-in was held in the ambassador’s back yard in Cotonou, which meant that we weren’t really allowed to take many pictures (sorry!). Each sector chose one tissu design, and each person in that sector takes a couple of meters and makes an outfit out of it. It looks pretty cool when everyone’s together, actually – it’s surprising to see how many different things you can make out of one piece of cloth.

Oh, okay, so besides the clothes, swear-in: we got there, sat down, began the ceremony, and it began to monsoon. It did not stop monsooning for about 2 hours, at which point we were drenched and coated in a fine layer of mud. There were lots of speeches, most of them boring and/or in a local language that I don’t speak, and after the ceremony they gave us a bunch of meat- and cheese-filled pasteries… Mmmm. I think I ate 15.

After heading to the PC Bureau to do a whole bunch of paperwork and admin stuff, we went to Eravan, which is Benin’s Target. It was absolutely crazy to walk in there: it was air-conditioned, there were shopping carts, and there were American foods like Snickers and Pringles. We were so overwhelmed when we walked in that it took us a second to start actually shopping… I’m going to be incompetent and weird when I get home.

Fast forward a couple of hours, and we were back in Porto Novo having a party on the roof of a hotel. It was fantastic – good music, fun dancing, great people, and finally a chance to cut loose and shake the stress of stage off. I’m going to miss these kids over the next couple of months – we’ve gotten pretty close over the past 9 weeks, and I’m fairly certain that by the time we head back home, we’ll be our own little family.