Saturday, May 28, 2011

Village Love

My mom called me this week and asked if I was happy lately.  This lead me to realize that I've forgotten to tell you something important I figured out a little while ago:

I kind of love my village.

It's certainly not without its faults, and every single day there's something that frustrates me about either the place, the people or the culture, but I think that's normal.  And when it comes down to it, I feel incredibly lucky that Peace Corps put me where they did.  It took me a long time, a lot of work, and a lot of forced positive thinking to get here, but here I am. 

Every evening in Daagbe, the sunsets are stunning, like the kind of thing you see in postcards or computer backgrounds: a pink sky with blue, rolling cottonballs, or bright red-orange scattered with dark slices of cloud.  The people treat me like a rockstar: everywhere I go, I hear my name (or some version of it).  I even have a nickname: the ladies across the street call me "Kpon ene," which is the Gun word for 100 cfa... the amount of beans I buy practically every day.

I go to school, and my students love me.  Respect me? Sometimes, but love me almost always, getting my bag for me, and searching me out in the schoolyard to say "Good morning, Madame."  They do things just to make me laugh in class, and I love that.  My fellow English profs have my back and help me with ideas/projects/teaching advice, and last week my homologue Epiphane snapped at a guy in my defense, then when everyone else said, "Geez, it's just a joke!" he announced loudly that it was his duty to protect me.  My director has yet to shoot down one of my project ideas, and his wife calls me regularly to make sure I'm doing well.

Finally, my friends.  I have friends in village, women who will help me buy a couch or just invite me over to sit and watch TV.  Two professors this week invited me to their daughter's naming ceremony, and when I showed up, they thanked me about a billion times for being there (when it was really me who should have been thanking them for the invitation).  People invite me to sit down and eat, or sit down and just hang out, and they're genuinely curious about how things work in America: how do we travel, what do we eat, how does the school system work?  And I know for certain that if I ever need help doing something -- finding rice in the marche, arguing a price for a couch, switching a lightbulb, or buying biscuits -- anyone I ask will take the time to show me.

It took me a long time to love this place.  In the beginning, I spent hours crying on my cement floor, or writing desperate journal entries wondering if I was going to make it here.  And you know what?  I did make it.  I love it.

Weekly Updates: 5.27.11

  • If You Give A Kid An Old Box... he'll make music for a week.  I'm not sure why I find this so adorable, but I told a kid who works (manual labor) on my apartment complex to throw out a cardboard box.  At first he refused, and I didn't know why; turns out he just wanted to play with it.  For the last week, Burton's been practicing his drumming skills as soon as he gets off of work, singing and marching with it around my concession.  It's a little sad that this might be his only toy right now, but also heartwarming that an empty box, with a little imagination, can be entertainment for a week.
  • Happy Anniversary, Mom & Dad!  Something like 26 years now?  Whoa....
  • Congratulations, Lauren & Rick!  One of my BFFs from high school just got engaged to her boyfriend Rick, right after completing basic training for the Air Force.  That is both badass and romantic, which kind of fits her perfectly.  : )
  • Self-Confidence for Girls!  I was sitting with a couple of profs at the school just chatting (I'm chattable!  Cultural integration win!), when one of my 6eme girls came up to get food for one of them.  He thanked her for the food, then said, "Hey, your uniform's getting awfully tight.  Do you eat every day?  You should be eating every three days!"  He's a nice guy, and that was said in the joking, kind tone...  Fat is pretty here, so I think that was a compliment, but imagine if a US teacher said that to a girl... probation? lawsuit?
  • Peter Piper & the Fresh Prince.  That's pretty much what I did this week.  And "I Want It That Way" by the Backstreet Boys, which I think is an important addition to any English class.  I also went over the exams that they just took (not great) and gave them their final semester grades (they asked for lots of free points, and I refused), but I think the important thing here is that I rapped in front of each of my classes, and they LOVED it. : )
  • Final Remarks.  One of the stressors this week: at the end of my classes, I gave a little "happy vacation" speech.  After that, all of the students would crowd around me and say "Goodbye Madame!" 8,000 times, ask me if I was going to teach them next year, tell me that I should teach them next year, ask me for presents, etc.  One girl spent the entire class period asking for free points on her overall grade, then followed me around asking for a gift.  I jokingly chased her out of the classroom, and two minutes later she reappeared... to ask me for money.  "Madame, give me 50 cfa." No please, no reason, just a demand for money. I told her that she was being really impolite and reminded her that she would never, ever ask another prof for money, and then I stormed off so I wouldn't scream at her.  It was so, so frustrating -- I spent a year teaching her, and she still thinks I'm Santa Claus. 
  • Power Up.  Yesterday, I shocked myself with and electrical outlet.  Not much of a story here, but it felt like someone punched me in the ring finger.  Also, I did not know that my voice could naturally hit that note.  It was in the Mariah Carey/fruit bat range.
  • Confession.  I kind of love my village.  I'll write more on this in a separate post, but just so you know... Daagbe, for all of its frustrations, is a pretty great place for me to be. : )

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Weekly Update: 5.20.11

  • THANK YOU!!!!!!!  K, I know I just wrote another post on this, but... the gratitude keeps coming.  Thanks for your donations to the spelling bee!  You just made two kids' summers, and I promise to document as much of the fun as I can. :)  And yes, I realize that the all caps/bold/underlined/multi-exclamation-pointed headline is excessive.
  • Operation Christmas Child.  You know how every December a bajillion churches across America (I have been to many of them) roll out a huge box for Operation Christmas Child?  You take a shoebox, fill it with coloring books, little trucks, dolls, and other toys, paste a label declaring Boy or Girl and an age range, and send it off to Africa?  I'm here to tell you that they actually make it to Africa... in May, but whatever.  Last weekend I went to my couteriere's house as usual, and her two kids had gotten boxes.  They loved the little trucks and were confused by most of the other stuff, so I had an amazing time showing them how to use the other stuff.  Coloring books were SO exciting, the yoyo was hilarious to the parents, and even my 20-year-old friend Pierrette was thrilled with the Etch-a-Sketch.  Good times, and a cause that really does deliver what it says it will.
  • DONE!  As of Thursday at 5pm, I officially finished with my official, officialicious school duties.  No more classes to teach or devoirs to oversee.  Still have to finish grading and writing grades in the books (in blue and red ink, or I get in trouble), but I made it -- finished one year!
  • Learned This Week:
    • My school is built on the site of the old sacred voodoo forest.  When it came time to be built, the elders of the village officially designated another area of town the new voodoo forest... kinda cool.  There's still a fetish or two near to the CEG that the kids are not supposed to go near... actually, one of my girls went near it an ended up with a hugely swollen foot earlier this year.
    • Oro, the fetish that comes out in August for three full days, is actually caused by a woman.  During oro season, those of us with voodoo communities (mostly in Oueme/Plateau regions) will leave for a couple of days, because while oro's out, women have to stay in their houses with the lights off and windows and doors closed.  If they go outside, oro will... umm... kill them (more on that later).  No worries, I'll be safe in Cotonou.
    • I haaaaaate overseeing 3eme students in devoirs.  They're the oldest kids at our CEG, between 17 and 28ish years old, and they are absolute jerks to me.  I won't be helping them on their national-level devoirs, I guess... Can't help someone who won't listen to me.
    • On the 6eme devoir, the students had to write ordinal numbers (1st, 2nd...) in full letters.  Apparently many of my students really believe that 3rd is spelled T-U-R-D.  Also, that the plural of man is women. :)
  • Living in the Dark.  My power has been out fairly consistantly for three weeks -- it comes on for 2 hours every day or two... usually... and then is off the rest of the time.  Problem is that when the power's out, the pump for my water doesn't work.  It went off for 4 days last week, and despite the H2O I keep in trash cans in the back of my house, I was bathing in a soup bowl by day 3.
  • Exciting New Addition to My Wardrobe!  Email coming about this soon... and pictures to Facebook... but probably shouldn't blog it.  Ask me if you want to know -- we did a southern girls bonding party for Victoria's birthday, and now we're decorated!


I don't know what kind of crazy strings/credit card numbers yall pulled, but thank you, thank you, thank you for funding the spelling bee!  I think I posted my plea on Wednesday afternoon my time, and by Friday morning your time it was all the way funded.  Given that usually these things take months to fill... you all are absolutely incredible. 

Thank you so much -- I know this trip means a huge amount to Soulemane and Estelle, and I promise to take lots of pictures of their starry-eyed faces as we head up to Natitingou.  And thanks also from me... this is the first real project I tried to take on, and knowing that it's going to really happen is a huge encouragement for me.  You made my month, and that's not an exaggeration.

: )

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

(Bi)Weekly Update: 5.3.11

GAD!!! The social highlight of the PCV year is GAD weekend – a huge, all-volunteer fundraiser party weekend held for/by the Gender and Development committee in Parakou. GAD funds a lot of our littler projects (world maps, women’s center nutritional murals, school gardens, girls’ club field trips), so it’s a really great cause. We pay a chunk of change to get together, get all dressed up (“America beautiful”), and bid on dates, jewelry, art, restaurant meals, and lots of America goods (spa stuff! Cheez-Its! Glee DVDs!). It’s fun and social, and it’s all for an important purpose, which makes it even better.

Night 1: You Wore What?? The first night was the talent show and date auction, and we were supposed to wear something ridiculous. I have to say, the creativity of a large group of people with very little money was astounding: Dione wore a dress made of plastic bags and duct tape, Bevin wore a dress covered in elephants, and Sam and I (yes, I’m bragging) made outfits out of hilarious matching Spongebob tissu we found in the marche. As a whole, we made a huge amount of money on the date auction (I went in with some girls to buy a taco night for $40 each, but some people spent more than double their monthly salary on a date). A ridiculous time was had by all.

Night 2: We Can So Look Pretty. Night 2 was the big night – the night we pull out our very best dresses and makeup. There were even hair straighteners. Hair straighteners! And yall, we looked hot, not just in a temperature-related way. I guess sometimes you forget how pretty PCVs can be when they try… anyway, it was good to feel attractive again. We bid on lots of silent auction items, and I won a beaded African-looking necklace! We ate lasagna with real cheese, danced American-style to America music, and towards the end, jumped into the pool fully clothed. It was a wonderful, wonderful evening. : )

TDW: Yet More Training. Except this was training I wanted to be at – the training to work stage with the new volunteers. And now I’m really excited! As a group, the RCH and TEFL trainers edited the packing list they send out (adding a “Things you think you need but don’t” section), chose the weeks we’ll work, planned sessions, and convinced admin to let us add a cooking session and soccer games for stress relief. I feel really good about what we came up with, and even better about the group of trainers I’m working with. PSL 24, we can’t wait to meet you – see you July 2nd!

Me, Dione, and Sam in our first night outfits.

My closemates Lou and Sam on the second night. :)

(Bi)Weekly Update: 4.26.11

  • Please Fund the Bee!  K, I hate asking for money.  HATE IT.  I'd rather run a mile on burning porcupines than beg for cash, and we all know how much I love running.  But, here I am: the spelling bee's in trouble.  With a month and a half to go before the deadline, we still need $750 to get our kids to Natitingou to have the spelling bee... if we don't get it, the spelling bee's impossible.  Please, please, please send in a couple of bucks if you have the chance -- I really don't want to tell Estelle and Soulemane that the trip they worked so hard to win is cancelled.  : /
  • Return from IST.  We had In-Service Training last week, so I was home for less than a week.  As it was still Easter break, I pretty much just sat outside with the mamas for that whole time.  Exciting!
  • Easter With the Voodoo Man.  I planned to spend Easter Sunday like normal people do: going to church for 4 hours, then eating and drinking until just shy of the point of vomit.  My friend Juliette invited me to fete with her family (Doloresse, Dorothe, Romeo, and the other kids), so I bought a chicken to contribute and was ready for mass by 6:30am.

    ...then I waited.  At 9:30, her kids finally came over to tell me that she'd decided to skip mass to cook delicious riz au gras, which I was totally cool with.  After watching her ecrase tomatoes, onions, and piment, fry the chicken in oil, and cook the rice in broth and red palm oil and all sorts of other things, we ate.  SO good.  I played with her kids for a while -- photo shoot, drawing lessons in the sand, and "watch the kids get mangoes from the tree" -- and then Juliette decided that the two of us needed to visit her husband, who was in turn visiting the traditional medicine man.  Easter with voodoo man?  That's normal, right?

    The following 4 hours were hilarious, bizarre, and occasionally a little awkward.  I'd write it all out, but that seems like a waste of everyone's time... thus, bullet points:
                        - We got there, and everyone has to take a welcoming shot of sodabi.*
                        - Voodoo man invites me to be his 4th wife. I say he can be my second husband if he'll do the dishes.  He thinks I'm joking.
                        - Juliette, Husband, Voodoo Man, and I take another shot of sodabi.
                        - Voodoo man tells me that his name in Gun means "Danger Elephant."  I consider marriage for the name change.
                        - It's my turn to buy the sodabi, and we all take shots.  I pour about half of mine out and say it's a gift for the ancestors.  This is received very well.
                        - Voodoo man tells me that he wants 10 kids with me (I hope at this point that he's still joking).  I tell him I want maximum 2.  He tells me that in order to have our 10 children, I will have to slap his "lizard" (ew) to wake it up, because it doesn't work all that well.  His wife, to whom I've applied pink lipgloss, concurs: "Nor, really, it pretty much doesn't work at all."
                        - I change the subject, and we talk about Nigeria for a while.  Juliette and I stand up to leave, have to take another demi-shot for good luck, and ride off into the afternoon on her (sober) son's moto.  I regain sobriety about a week and a half later.  Happy Easter, everyone!

* The sodabi was more than usual for me, but remember that I was with a good friend who I trust (Juliette) with my safety.  Also, they think you're weird and/or rude if you won't drink with the group on fete days.