Sunday, August 29, 2010

Food Poisoning!


I have now survived my first bout of illness while in the Peace Corps. Today is my recovery day after a nasty case of food poisoning last night... I’m not positive, but I think it was the fried dough balls I bought from a lady on the side of the road yesterday. (Sigh.) They were so delicious, too.

I felt a little queasy at dinner last night, so I decided to go to sleep early because then I could just sleep it off and be fine today. False. I puked every hour on the hour between 8 and 1, and then a couple more times just for good measure. This was stupid, as there was no food left in my system after the first round. On the upside, I got to see my very own bile for the first time… it’s not one of my better features.

Anyway, so it was a rough, sleepless night, and I thought I was dying of malaria for about half of it. Then I looked up the symptoms of malaria and decided I was going to live. I’m skipping school today (Saturday) and spending all day resting, writing letters, and forcing large amounts of oral rehydration salt water down my throat… disgusting. I’ll be in fighting form by Monday – rested, healthy, and ready to take on yet another class of troublemaking teenagers.

Teaching Updates: Model School Week 2

In case you were wondering, there is no possible way to draw “leap frog” without it looking vaguely sexual.

Luckily, the students I’m teaching don’t think like college kids, so they learned that particular vocab word without giggling uncontrollably at my artwork. This week’s teaching was… well, it was full of highs and lows.

Two days, I was really on – I got silence when I demanded silence, the class was excited to participate, and they retained the grammar points well enough to ace that section on a quiz. Today I was off, though, and I got frustrated and flustered for a good chunk of my two-hour lesson. It was rough – I had to make them put their heads on their desks for 3 minutes just to get them to shut up – and at the end, I wanted to bury myself in a dark room and take a long nap. On the upside, today we got one of the really awful troublemakers kicked out of model school for good, so that’s one less for the next group to deal with.

Side note: always be suspicious of flattery from students. Conversation from today:

Girl: “Madame Melissa, you are so pretty. And good job! You taught a really good lesson.”
Me: “Thank you! That’s very nice of you.”
Girl: (without pausing) “That’s a beautiful pen. Will you give it to me?”
Me: “…What? No. My husband gave me this pen. It’s very important to me.”
Girl: “Oh, well, what will you give me, then?”
Me: “An education. Sit down.”

So that’s model school – lots of kids who don’t really want to be there because it’s summer, and who therefore are a minefield of discipline issues. Optimistically, I’m getting pretty good at my bitch face, and yesterday one of the volunteers gave me a stick to hold… You just smack it against your hand a couple of times and use it as a pointer, and they straighten up. It’s kind of morally ambiguous – kids here regularly get beatings with sticks when they’re bad in school, despite the fact that corporal punishment is illegal – but hey, it’s effective, and I’d never in a million years follow through on the threat.

After today, I have two more weeks and one more grade level to survive. Wish me luck!

Food Stuff

I may have been too harsh on Beninese food.

I think last time I posted, I’d eaten fish, bread, and tomato/onion sauce twice a day every day for two weeks. Beninese food is not actually as awful as I made it sound – it’s very, very carb-heavy, but it’s also entirely possible to avoid fish and bread for a whole week if you want to. Plus, there are some fairly awesome foods here. Five important points (I’ll probably expand on some of these later):

1. It’s actually possible to get protein sans fish! You can get meat and chicken (both of which are generally tough and very lean), but there are also a bajillion different bean ladies around, plus peanuts and even Beninese soy cheese. I will survive this country’s nutrition issues, and I will do so without frying fish every day.

2. There is actually dairy here. No gallons of milk or anything like that, but you can get milk powder and sweetened condensed milk, butter (expensive), wagasi (weird tofu-like cheese from the north of Benin), and Laughing Cow cheese. I have no idea why they choose to import so much Laughing Cow (Vache qui Rit), but I am sooo thankful that they do.

3. Ignam pilee. I haven’t had this yet, but all of the PCVs drool at the mention of it. It’s a northern specialty, I think. You take ignams (like big potatoes), boil them, mash them by hand using a giant pounder (women do this in groups of three with chants to keep them on rhythm – YouTube it), and then top it all off with a peanut sauce. I can’t wait to try it.

4. Fresh fruit. I have never had pineapples so sweet as they are here – you buy a whole one on the street for 100 CFA (20 cents USD), and the lady cuts it up into bite-sized chunks in front of you. Papayas are here, too, and I can’t wait for mango season.

5. They have fried plantains (my current favorite African food). There’s a place near model school where I can get a big plate full of rice, beans, spicy piment sauce, and fried plantains for 300 CFA (around 60 cents). That’s what I’ve eaten every day for 3 weeks, and I’m not even a little tired of it.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Pictures... again.

Me teaching... I don't know what I was teaching.  Gerunds, maybe.  This was a relatively good class, though, and they understood my lesson by the end - yay!

Close-up!  Yep, gerunds.

At the marche.  I was in a bus, and therefore safe enough to get the camera out.

I’m Getting a Kitten!

My friend Elyse’s host family’s cat just had kittens, and I think I’m going to buy one from them… the going rate is about 500 CFA, I think. That’s about a dollar. Shots are kind of expensive, and I don’t think it’s actually possible to get a female spayed here, but I think it’d be well worth the expense.

3 Reasons Why I Should Not Get A Cat:
1. I am allergic to cats. Minor detail.
2. I don’t know how to litter box train a cat.
3. I’ll have to buy more food to feed said cat.

4 Better Reasons Why I Should Absolutely Get A Cat:
1. Cats eat spiders and mice and all sorts of other little creatures. And there a lot of little creatures here.
2. I need company at post. Company I don’t have to speak French or Goun to.
3. If I get a dog, my neighbors might eat him when I leave.
4. Kittens are soooo CUTE!

7 Reasons Why My Host Family Is Awesome

1. They feed me fried plantains all the time. I think I said at some point that I loved them, and while they’re awful for you (fried in palm oil), they are absolutely delicious. They also make me fresh-squeezed pineapple/grapefruit juice regularly.

2. They’re ridiculously patient with my French. They’ll sit there and wait for me to hammer out a sentence rather than just tell me what I want to say. My French was nonexistent when I moved in, but because they help me practice, it’s getting better quickly.

3. They think I’m endearingly hilarious. I can’t correctly wash my clothes by hand, I use a fork all the time, my French vocab is limited, and I get waaaay too excited about fried plantains. They look at me, laugh, and say, “Ah, Melissa…” about 30 times a day, and I laugh with them. Oh, Benin.

4. They gave me a sweet room with my own bathroom. Some of my friends live in teensy little houses with roach and rat problems, have to share the bathroom with gigantic (and not shy) families, and have families that constantly ask them for money/clothes/gifts. I have to deal with none of those things.

5. They don’t ask me for things. I can’t tell you how rare that is here.

6. They let me have alone time. In a culture where community is everything, the idea of free time is often lost. My host family asks me why I didn’t come down to chat (they want me here!), but they won’t come badger me. Amazing.

7. They care about my safety. Once, I got home at 7:30pm (just before dark), and Maman gave me a short lecture about being home on time so I don’t get hurt or lost. Kind of annoying to suddenly have a babysitter, and I wasn’t thrilled about the 7:15pm curfew, but it’s sweet that they’re so worried about me.

Monday, August 23, 2010

So I decided to make hot tea in my Jones water bottle... guess what? Plastic melts.  At least now I have a truly one-of-a-kind sealable goblet.  Sweet.

Jenny in a tissu outfit... I don't know what that face is about.

Dione, my language partner, and I at a TEFL get-together.

At said get-together, we learned how to slaughter, clean, and cook our own chickens.  This is Carlos.  His chicken dances.

Me in tissu!  This is my first modelle, and I love it.  That's Bevin, a friend and fellow TEFLer, also in tissu.

Five Random Observations About Benin

1. Everyone looks good, always. How you dress here is a symbol of how much respect you have for the people around you, so everyone takes a lot of time to wear pretty tissu and things. I like this idea. I might use it to justify my shoe collection when I get home.

2. Animals are absolutely free-range. I have seen goats, chickens, dogs, and even cows wandering freely down the main road, zems and trucks swerving to miss them.

3. The Beninese people do not like rain. When it rains, no one goes outside unless they have to – you can show up to a meeting (or school) two hours late if it’s sprinkling, and no one will be mad. Actually, everyone else probably will have skipped, also. Oh, and if it’s raining and a woman has to go outside, she wears a shower cap until it stops.

4. TV here is hilarious. For some reason, the tv companies take Brazilian soap operas and dub them in French. This makes the already-bizarre plotlines seem even more awesomely ridiculous than usual.

5. They think we’re dirty. We went over stereotypes of Americans and Beninese people recently, and I learned that each culture thinks the other is dirty. We think they’re unhygienic and don’t wash things (like food), and they think we don’t shower enough. Apparently they normally shower 2-3 times a day, and thus think we’re gross for only rinsing off once daily. Kinda makes sense.

Ponzi & Boni


I’m not sure how much of this is on international news, but Google search “Boni Benin scandal” and see what comes up. I don’t know a whole lot, and I’m not really supposed to blog about anything political, but basically Benin might be impeaching President Yayi Boni sometime soon. The news about a gigantic Ponzi scheme broke a couple of weeks ago, and apparently they just found most of the money in the basement of the presidential palace. That’s about all I know – any updates would be spectacular, since I don’t have a radio to listen to BBCNews.

Anyway, so between that and the election this year, there’s probably going to be a couple of protests and things. Just so you know (and Mom, so you don’t worry too much), the Peace Corps has a really comprehensive plan for getting us out of danger. They actually send us text messages that tell us where to go and how to get there. Better yet, these texts are in code… I feel like a spy, but a significantly less-cool spy than, say, James Bond or Mata Hari.

So no worries: Benin may get a little fussy, but I’ll be safe.

On the Rebound


Not to brag or anything, but today I magically got waaaay better at teaching. Maybe it was the fact that I knew I couldn’t do much worse than Day 1, or maybe it was just that I broke out the coffee this morning, but I walked into class today with confidence and it stuck with me the whole way through.

After a rough start yesterday, I decided to focus on one or two things each class (easier to self-evaluate that way). Today’s goals: discipline and energy. Energy, I figured, would be easily fixed through caffeine and confidence, so I put on makeup and drank a cup of coffee. Discipline was tougher – I had to call out the troublemakers and keep the attention on my lesson.

I split the table of punks up first thing, so they were less trouble than usual. I also stood riiiiight next to the punkiest one the whole time I was teaching – I felt like an evil genius, because he couldn’t talk if I was close enough to hear him. I made the sentence “How old are you?” and responses into a sort of chant, and the kids got really into it. Quite simply, I felt awesomely in control for most of the day, which means that even if future classes don’t go this well, at least I know that I’m getting better every time I teach.

My favorite moment: I called everyone’s attention to the board after an activity, and they kept talking. I told them to be quiet, and they still muttered. I walked up to the chattiest table, wound up, and slammed my hand on the wooden table as hard as I possibly could. I have never seen 30 children jump so high in perfect unison, nor have I ever seen looks that said, “Ohhhh shit…” quite so clearly. It was a beautiful moment, and after that, the class was absolutely mine.

French Update: C’est bon!


We just did another language interview, and guess what? I’m getting better! I started out at Novice Mid, and in four weeks of really intense lessons, I’ve jumped three levels up to Intermediate mid. Yay! PC really does work hard to get you to speak French… I thought it’d be impossible for me to ever speak a complete sentence, but now I can get around, argue prices, refuse marriage/dinner/torrid affair invitations, and have complex conversations with my host maman about Ramadan.

I’m not done with French – I have to make it to Intermediate High to swear in – but if I keep taking classes and study when I can, I think I’ll make it there without any trouble. Three gigantic cheers to the Peace Corps language program! It actually works.

First Day of Teaching: The Not-So-Graceful Plunge

8.19.2010You guys, teaching is hard.

My first day of model school was today, and I will just straight-up tell you that it did not go excellently. I started out pretty well – good entrance and intro, and the students were paying attention (even though I’m female!)– and then it slowly fell apart. Learned: when the kiddies get confused, some seriously epic distraction sets in. In my defense, the lesson I taught was really tough (I probably should have taught half of the material, then had the next person teach the other half), and I’ve learned a lot from failing so fantastically.

Tomorrow’s my next lesson (“How old are you?”), and I’m going to focus on classroom management: the goal is to keep them quiet using a blend of loud, sudden noises (slapping my hand on a desk), personal space invasion (hovering really close to a rowdy kid), and targeted humiliation. These are all tactics that have been recommended to me by current PC volunteers.

Best/most hilariously awful moment from today: for the last activity, I asked the students to write one sentence using the negative form of “to be” and one sentence with the interrogative form. It took 10 minutes for everyone to understand the instructions, and though everyone wrote stuff in their copybooks, only one kid was willing to share his work. I called on him. He stood up, and in a loud, clear voice, he read his sentence: “You are not a teacher.”

Optimistically, he got the tense right.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

And Here We Go…!

Starting this week, I’ll be teaching – gah! My first lesson is tomorrow morning, and I’m teaching the negative and interrogative forms of “to be” in the present tense. Riveting, yes? Actually, it’ll involve a lot of miming and slow-talking and colored chalk, all of which seem way more intimidating when you add large groups of children. Oh Lord. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Anyway, so the rest of stage is basically a speed course in English for these kids: they come to school for three hours every morning, and we try to get through an entire year’s worth of English in about a month. Hah. We do a lot of lessons fairly quickly, so it’s a great chance to crash and burn, then pick up and try again the next day.

Stay tuned for hilarious blunders and fantastic frustrations.

My school, CEG Daagbe -- the white board-looking thing is a faucet on the other side.  I'll try to get a better picture later, since I forgot to take ones of the courtyard area and classrooms. They're all open-air, with a tin roof and no doors.  The office has a door, an ancient computer, and an old-school Xerox machine, though!

This is my front yard currently... The holes are for wells, I think, but right now the land bridge thing is kind of scary.

This is my open-air kitchen and restroom area...No faucets or shower to speak of, but they should be there soon.

My living room! Should have a floor, ceiling, window covering of some sort (glass and/or mosquito netting), and maybe even paint by the time I move in... in a month.  My bedroom looks exactly the same.

Change Ain’t Gonna Come

A couple of notes on Beninese coins: for some reason, everybody wants them. Given the choice between a handful of coins and a couple of bills, I’m pretty sure that most marché mamas would choose the change.

This is the exact opposite of how I work with American money: I avoid coins like the plague (I throw them into a big coffee can the second I can), and I really only care about quarters.

Here, though, there are people who would rather refuse my business than give me change for a mille bill. This has happened multiple times, most frequently with zem drivers. I now actively search out places that will give me metal for my paper, and I hoard coins like it’s my job.

And another fun point: sometimes the change they give you is fake… why in the world would someone make fake 50 franc pieces? That’s like a dime. If I was investing my time and resources, I’d be pounding out 10 mille bills at least, if not 50 milles. Call me crazy.

Thank You! And I Promise I’m Not Hinting.

People were asking, so I updated the list of stuff I’d love to get. Done and done.

In other news, thank you so so so so sooooo much to the people who have sent me letters and packages – I get so excited to see familiar handwriting over here. A couple of days ago, I was having a really rough day of language (surprise surprise), and then suddenly I got two packages (first two I’ve gotten!) and three letters, and that alone made my week.

Everyone here was jealous – my home team totally kicks ass at the postal system – but no worries, I shared. A little.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The (strike-out American) Beninese Dream

On my last day of post visit, the directeur told me that we were going to visit the palm nut factory, and I was not excited. Palm oil (l’huil rouge) is thick and red and forms the base of basically every dinner in Benin. It’s absolutely awful for you, and my village produces a lot of it.

Anyway, so we went to visit this factory, and we started at the owner’s huge compound of a house – I don’t know how many wives he has, but there were a bazillion kiddos running around, and I’m betting they’re all his. When we met him, we had to bow as we shook his hand… I couldn’t figure out why, but whatever, I did it anyway.

After seeing this gigantic factory and how many thousands of gallons of oil it can produce in a week, I was pretty impressed with the factory itself. That’s when they told me that the owner built the factory from the ground up, and he’d never stepped foot inside a school.

That’s pretty incredible, I think. They told me I needed to give a speech at the end, so I tried (and failed) to translate the idea of the American dream into French. Unable to think of anything more eloquent, I said “c’est increible” about 15 times and thanked him profusely. Then we were friends: he invited me to a multi-day voodoo fete that he hosts at the factory in February – score!

Moral of the story: with some luck and ingenuity, anything is possible, even in Benin.

...and boobs are knees.

I’d just like to say that I have seen a ridiculous number of boobs since I got here. Most are flatter than pancakes and hang down to the waist (which is I guess what happens when you don’t wear a bra for 50 years), but any age is welcome to go topless – this weekend, my 14 and 18 year old host sisters in Daagbe were walking around in just shorts. Women whip them out all over the place for a variety of reasons: to feed babies, because they need to use their shirt as a head wrap, because they’re having a hot flash… really any reason is a good one. Probably makes laundry day easier, too.

Splat: A Fun New Game

Maggie and I came up with a point system for killing bugs, which is a surprisingly fun way of dealing with the disgusting number of bugs we see every day. These are hotly debated numbers, but so far, here’s what we’ve got:

Gnat/fruit fly: 1 pt
Fly: 10 pts
Mosquito: 30 pts
Big cockroach: 50 pts
Jumping spider: 70 pts
Huge spider: 150 pts

We started Tuesday, and so far Michael’s the only one who’s really made any points (he’s got 70). I’m on the alert, though, and there’s a cockroach right outside my door – feel free to play along from home!

Drama and My House

The first day I was at post, we went to see my house. Post visit is already an emotional time for stagiers, because it’s the first time we see the reality of service here – it’s not all like summer camp. I wasn’t expecting much from my house – a cement floor, a faucet outside, maybe a ceiling if I was lucky – but I wasn’t ready to walk into the building that I’ll live in in a month.

The place is completely unfinished, with dirt and rubble on the floors, no bathroom or latrine, and a 3-foot gap between where the roof ends and the wall begins. I walked in and immediately felt like crying: no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t picture myself living there happily.

It took a day of thinking and forced positive thinking to get out of that little slump, but now I’m feeling better about the whole thing. Seeing the house made me realize what a struggle it’s going to be to set up an entirely new post on about $300 (that includes buying furniture, which is expensive), and beyond that, how hard I’m going to have to work to stick out the first couple of months. Because without Americans around to vent to all the time, it’s going to be pretty lonely, and I now realize what a big accomplishment staying for all 27 months would be.

After my day of list-making and processing (best feel-better list: Ways to Make My House Happy for Cheap), I feel much better. I went back to the house and took my directeur with me, and we talked about what needs to happen before I move in. He was telling me that they actually have some pretty cool plans for the house – a tiled bathroom, even – so if they actually manage to do everything in a month, I’ll have a pretty solid starting point.

Voodoo, Part 2

The second day of my stay in Daagbe, I wasn’t allowed to leave the house for a whole day. Not because I did anything bad, but because Oro, a voodoo fetish that women aren’t allowed to see (or they die/someone hurts them), was out that day.

Oro gets three days a year to rule the town, all within a 21-day span that’s like the Oro season of the year. By the time I move in to Daagbe, the season will be over, so I won’t have to worry about it until next year (the townspeople have promised to tell me in advance when he’s coming, so I’ll be completely safe). Actually, next year, I’ll probably take a weekend trip around that time – it’d be a good excuse to visit friends.

Anyway, so I (and everyone else in the town) stayed inside all day and listened to Oro run up and down the street all day – it sounded like a recording of a lawnmower with high whistling giggles on top. Fun fact about voodoo: woman priests are actually way more powerful than man priests. Less cool but related facts: women are so powerful that they can’t be trusted to handle their power until they’re older, and when they’re on their period, they’re dirty and can’t be let into the temple. Thus, male voodoo priests are obligated to have more than one wife, so that there’s always someone who’s not bleeding to work the magic.

That was a little critical, and I apologize. Voodoo is a pretty cool religion, and there’s a traditional healer who lives close to me in village. I met him, and he gave me a long speech (in Goun, translated by my friend Gabriel) about how he was so, so, sooo happy to have me there, how I was going to do such good things for the village, and how he was going to do some praying for me to protect me against any black magic that might happen. Really sweet, and good to know that I’ve got all sorts of gods on my side.

Post Visit: Whoa

Oooh baby, post visit was interesting.

I went to Daagbe on Wednesday morning, and I was excited to find out that it’s really rural even though it’s only 30 minutes away. The host family I stayed with seemed pretty entertained by my foreign-ness (the papa was hilarious, and/but he kept force-feeding me pate by telling me I was insulting his wife), and the people were, for the most part, really excited to have me there. I met every official in the place, got lots of long speeches promising me absolute security and support (Mom, take note), and waved at a lot of people.

I also got to see a little of the reeeeally rural part of town: I live off of the main village road, but if you walk into the bush, there are whole compounds of people living in legit mud huts with thatched roofs. We visited and chatted with some, my tour guide/fellow professor Gabriel translating for me, and I got to see the wood carvers making Beninese masks and sculptures right in front of me. So cool.

The school was exactly what I expected: bare bones. We do have electricity in the office and a computer, which is a big thing for around here. The classrooms are big, open areas with no windows or doors, there are latrines rather than toilets, and the staffing situation is interesting to say the least… only 4 out of 50ish teachers are permanent staff members. I also learned that sexual harassment is a really big issue in my school, so I’m both apprehensive about seeing it and really pumped about starting a girls club to combat it.

(Dangit, forgot to put the pictures on my flash drive. Next time, I promise pictures of the school and house.)

We went to see my house, and that was a bit of a letdown – details to follow (update: I found out that most people had/have emotional meltdowns on their post visits. Congratulations to me, I’m normal!). Because of the house, I was in a sad mood for most of the first and second days, but the third day was awesome. We visited a palm nut factory, met every official in the area, and drove to three different points on the Nigerian border (sidenote: I am expressly forbidden to enter Nigeria at any point during my service or they send me home. I told that to my directeur [the principal, my boss] and the laughed: “But how would they ever know?”).

Two tiny highlights from the last day: an exchange with my directeur and the presence of pork in my diet. The pork was this delicious roast pork from the side of the road that the directeur bought for lunch… I missed pig. And the exchange might not be as funny here as it was in real life, but it kept me giggling to myself all day.

The directeur was asking me what I wanted for lunch, and he told me my options were pork, fish, or lapin. I didn’t know what lapin was, so he started miming “rabbit” – ears and little hops, all while driving a car on the wrong side of the road. “Oh, rabbit. It’s ‘rabbit’ in English.”
“Ahhhh, oui, I remember. Larbert.”
“Oui, larbert. I’ll remember now.”

My impact on Daagbe's English has begun.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

My friends Maggie (top) and Jenny -- it was a long day at school.

The view from my terrace

 My moto helmet (caske)... I duct taped a flower to it for flair.

At the birthday party -- my host sisters are the ones in matching red outfits, and the one in the black-and white skirt/top combo.  And on the trike is Moubarack.

My tissu!!

My braids (I kept them in a bun or a ponytail to avoid the inevitable braided mullet mohawk comparisons)

My now-gone henna tattoo... it's a random design, but the marks on my forearm are my name in Arabic -- my host sister is in Koranic school right now.

Van taking the Health trainees on a field trip.  Note that the bus was made for 11 people, but there are about 18 in there.  This is normal.

Ah, Voodoo...

At 2am last night, a huge crowd marched by chanting and beating pans and things. I froze for a minute to figure out if I was going to die, determined that I wasn’t (at least not because of them), and then figured out that it was a Voodun-related ceremony of sorts. In Voodun/Voodoo, they believe that you have to keep evil spirits away during the night by scaring them off with loud noises, so they sometimes have people walk the streets beating pots.
I wanted to get up and watch, but then I remembered that in some places, if a woman sees a spirit or certain ceremonies (called an “oro”), she can be in a lot of trouble. So I stayed in my bed, waited for silence, and listened to the chants.

Model School, etc.

We started model school Friday, so we’ll finally get to start teaching soon. Peace Corps brings in Beninese kids around the age we’ll be teaching, and each stagier (trainee) gets to practice teaching with them. Four people went today, each for an hour, with mixed results: some weren’t confident enough to get the students’ attention or weren’t quite sure how to get the concepts across, and others did really well.

I’m really nervous about the whole thing, mostly because I’ve never taught a class like this before. The classes in real Beninese schools range from 40-70 students, with limited supplies (you’re lucky if you have butcher paper) and a wide range of abilities and ages. In my classes, I’ll have kids ranging from 14 to their mid 20s, some of whom can’t read, some of whom don’t speak even French, and most of whom can’t understand my American accent.

My friend Andrew is doing Teach for America, and when I visited Houston in July, he showed us his teaching voice: he had to be confident and in control, intelligent, and authoritative without being harsh. My voice will be different. I’ll have to be able to control my classes, but my main focus is the accent – I have to pronounce everything clearly and slowly, and I’ll actually have to put on kind of a Beninese-English accent so that they can understand me. It’s kind of hilarious, actually… we sound ridiculous when we talk like we’re supposed to.

So that’s basically it – I’ll start teaching when we get back from model school, and I’m terrified and excited and ready all at once. This is no testing-the-water type experience. In the Peace Corps, we jump right in.

Heather, one of the other TEFLers, totally rocking her lesson.

Post Assignments!

My post for the next two (!) years of my life will be (drumroll please…) Daagbe!

Daagbe is a small town (I think – I don’t know a whole lot about it) just outside of Porto Novo, maybe 45 minutes from here. We’re in the Oueme Plateau region, and I’m going to learn to speak Goun (“goon”) as my local language… hah.

I’ll have electricity, and there’s running water in my village – not sure if it’s in my house or if I have to walk to it – and I’m the first volunteer to ever live there. I’m pretty nervous and not excited about that part… I was really hoping to have furniture and cooking supplies already there.

The Peace Corps gives me a small amount of money to get set up, so I’ll have to use that to buy furniture and plates and things. I’ll also have to set up the idea of a PCVolunteer for the people there – they’ll expect me to have lots of money, probably, and I’ll have to set some important boundaries (like “I’m not going to marry you just because you tell me I’m pretty” and “It is inappropriate to walk into my house unannounced”).

That said, there are definite positives to opening a post: no one will expect me to be like the last person who was there, and I have the chance to be that village’s first long-term experience with American culture. Plus, I can start whatever projects I want without having to carry out another person’s project when they leave.

So overall, I’m not quite sure how I feel about my post. My closest friends at stage are spread out across the country, and that’s both exciting (visiting = me seeing the entirety of Benin) and a little sad (I won’t get to see them all that often). I think most people here are a little meh about their posts, though, just because there’s no way to really understand what it’s like until you’re actually there living it.

Which brings me to next week: post visits for TEFLers! While the business, health, IT and environment people have to wait 4 more weeks until they visit their posts, the teachers all get to spend 5 days in our posts with a host family. We’ll meet the important people in our village (our boss, the mayor, the chief of the town, etc.), start meeting the locals, and get a feeling for our houses and schools. I’m taking my camera, so in a week or so, you’ll be able to see it, too... yay!

Some Basic Facts About Benin

Population: 8.5 million
Predominant religions: Islam, Christianity, Voodun (Voodoo), other religions
$1 USD = about 520 CFA (Beninese francs)
30.9% of people live on less than $1/day
73% live on less than $2/day
Adult literacy rate: 40.5%
Female literacy rate: 27.9%
Ranked 161/182 countries for level of development


On Wednesday night, I found out that my grandmother died – she beat breast cancer twice, but it came back again and was impossible to stop. She was 92, lived a pretty amazing life, and had all of her children in the room with her when she died... that’s comforting to know.

I’m okay (I got most of the crying out of my system that night), and I’m definitely staying here, but it’s really sad to think that she won’t be there to listen to my stories when I get back… She loved traveling and was just about fearless, and I think she’s probably here with in spirit, loving every adventure I live here in Benin.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Photos? Maybe?

The view from my hotel in Cotonou on the first night I got here

Sweet lizards around here... this kind has an orange head and a red tail.  Am having to small-ify my pics to get them to load, so sorry for the quality.

A zemidjan - the mototaxis we take to get everywhere.  PC volunteers are the only people in the entire city who wear helmets, so we stand out even more than usual.

A selection of the different types of pate (the white lumps)... this is waaay more colorful and exciting than my meals usually are.

One of the spiders I've asked to please not visit me anymore...

My bedroom -- it's huge and gorgeous by Beninese standards

The view from one of my windows...this is early morning, so it's still dark-ish.

Oranges. They're green here.

Week Two Updates: Tissu!

Most important part of last week: I got tissu! Tissu is the fabric that everyone wears – you buy it by the meter by arguing the price in the market (I’m terrible at that part), then have it sewn in whatever shape you want. It’s really cheap by American standards (I bought about $20 worth, and that’ll get me 3 outfits), and the tailors are cheap, too.

I’m SO excited to have legit African clothing. Thrilled, actually – expect a fashion show when you see me next. I found a gorgeous blue/purple print that will be made into a modelle (top/long skirt combo, very traditional Beninese clothing), a turquoise-and-white print that’ll be a shorter dress, and a red/yellow/white print that’ll be a pagne. Pagnes are basically 2 meters of cloth with strings, and you use them as a skirt, a headdress, a baby carrier… anything, really. I’m going to work on the headdress first.

Other updates:
  • Am getting so tired of drinking plain water. PC wants us to drink 3L a day, and I’m trying to budget my drink packets… ugh. Hydration is the priority, though, so I’ll keep on sipping.
  • Miss caffeine. And non-fish protein. Am best friends with chickpeas, though, so that part’s getting better.
  • Took my Alicia Keys braids out, and lost a lot of hair in the process (thanks to the crimps, also looked like Hermione Granger before she got hot). My scalp misses the breeze, but my hair’s thrilled to be free.
  • Can’t seem to upload photos. No matter how long I wait, they refuse to load… So until I find broadband, you’re going to have to deal with a text-only approach to blogging.
  • Plan to get a cat at post. Am allergic to cats, but whatever. I want company.
  • Charsh, my favorite grandmother (and to me one of the most important human beings on the planet), isn't doing very well... I think she's in the hospital right now.  Could everyone pray for her, send her good vibes, or at least think really hard about good things happening for her?
  • Went to Moubarack’s birthday party, and it was less exciting than expected. They did play a steady stream of Sean Paul, though, so at least I could sing along to the music: “Tell the manatees they’ve gotta take it slow…” (YouTube search: Sean Paul misheard lyrics)
  • If you send me emails, I might only send a short reponse because these cybercafe French keyboards suuuuck.  I'll try to prep some longer emails at home to send next time... /:
  • Have gotten some letters already! Thank you so much – letters are tres exciting to get, and they pick me up when I’m getting frustrated with French. Also a big thanks for the comments and the emails -- I have the best friends/family/support network in the entire world. : )


This is your official warning that, in the future, this blog will contain stories about poop. I’m holding out for a while, but since bowel movements are one of the favorite conversation topics in the Peace Corps (and since there’s usually a lot of poop-related drama), I’m going to have to include a story or two eventually. No worries, some of them are hilarious, and I promise to be a lady again when I get back to the USA.

As an intro – we’ll work in baby steps here – I’ll introduce the African Gamble, which is an important part of life for a PCV in Benin (they say that every volunteer loses the gamble at some point).

The African Gamble occurs when a person (usually in the middle of something important or official) thinks they have gas. Said person tries to let the gas out silently and surreptitiously… only to discover that what they just released was a lot more liquid then air. Awkward for you, and absolutely hilarious to everyone hearing the story.

This Friday: Post Assignments!

Most important thing to look forward to this week: post assignments! On Friday, they’re going to finally tell us where we’re living for the next two years, and we’re all tres excited. Also, franglais-ing is the in thing around here, so you’re going to have to put up with the rudimentary French I mix into these blogs.

Anyway, so posts! They’ll tell us what the village is, what our teaching situation is like, and what we can expect from the community – how conservative it is, what the predominant religions are, and, most importantly, what local language we get to learn. I am so, so excited to learn the local language… I’m excited to be two languages richer when I get back, but French isn’t nearly as cool as Bariba or Fon will be.

A little about how they assign posts: we did an interview when we first got to Benin about what we hoped to do at post and what our preferences were. Nothing’s guaranteed, but they let you voice your hopes, at least. I said I’d be fine with anything they give me, but if I got to choose, I’d take a village over a city, electricity but not running water, and another volunteer within 25 km.

The only thing I’m really concerned about is the other volunteer close to me thing... I need a conversation in English every once in a while. I’ll let you know what I get, but fingers crossed for something cool!

A Military Approach to a Peace Corps Problem

After a couple of battles with various arachnids (the most dramatic being with the giant spider previously mentioned) and a potential mouse or bat problem, I have adopted a DADT policy with the creatures living in my room. I will not look for them, and they will not show up in my room when I am about to go to sleep. I have communicated this policy via telepathy and reiki vibes, and am expecting compliance immediately. Will keep you updated.

Update: I woke up this morning to a large dead spider on the floor of my bathroom... I thought it was alive, but then I realized that something had eaten all of its guts and it was just the outside (exoskeleton! score one for 2nd grade science).  I am taking this as a peace offering from the bats (probably) that live with me at night. I'm starting to really like the bats. I'm naming the loud one Charlie.