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.