Sunday, July 31, 2011

Beninese Recipe: Tomato Jus

This is not actually juice. It’s used as a sauce with my favorite type of pate (pate rouge), but I think it’d also work as a warm tomato/onion salad or a relish for something chicken-y. Delicious, and about as easy as it gets.

6 small red onions
4-6 plum tomatoes
peanut or olive oil
salt and pepper
chicken boullion cube
small spicy peppers (optional, maybe poblano?)

1. Cut the onions and tomatoes into thin-ish slices, grind peppers. Keep everything separate.

2. Put a little bit of the oil in the bottom of the pan, heat it up and add the onions. Sautee until they’re just a little bit translucent, 3-5 minutes. Sprinkle in chicken bouillon, then add salt and pepper to taste.

3. Add tomatoes, cover and cook for 1-2 minutes, until they’re just a little soft. Don’t let them fall apart, or it’ll get all mushy and stuff. Remove from heat. Serve immediately, putting some of the spicy ground pepper to the side of each serving (each person mixes it in as they like).

Things That Happened This Week (7-24-2011)

Rhythm of the Marché. I went to the marché in Porto Novo to buy beads, and upon finding the right beads, I called the seller mama over. She walked over, and instead of starting the conversation with a “Hi, how’s it going?”, she instead chose to tap out an energetic rhythm on my butt before continuing with the sale. Hello to you, too.

A Box of Cheez-Its. Eaten in 2.5 days. Digestive system unhappy.

People Who Have Told Me I Look “Good Fat” Since My Return: Only 2. Must try harder at Christmas.

Started Studying for the GRE. Planning on taking it in September in Accra. Notes: it’s been a while since I took a standardized test. And math is still not my friend.

Books Read This Week. “Breakfast of Champions,” the first half of “The Three Musketeers,” and a book given to me by a pastor in my building who’s dead set on converting me to his church. Hasn’t worked yet, but the conversations have been entertaining – he seems surprised that I’ve read chunks of the Bible and can think about them all by myself.

Taco Night: The Final Fiesta. As our resident taco night master Erik is about to finish his two-year service, this weekend (7.31) is the last of his legendary fetes. Never one to let an occasion for tequila pass, he’s making this weekend by far the most elaborate one yet. Not only will there be the standard homemade tortillas, guacamole, salsa, and real bought-from-the-store cheese, but he’s also adding something that involves a blender...! Eeee!

Paris! And Mainly, Creme Brulee!

July 16th was my one-year anniversary of living in Benin, and in honor of that holiday, I left the country. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been an amazing year, but hey, after a year of living in West Africa, I needed a little holiday somewhere with warm showers.

And that’s what I got: for six days, my family took a vacation all together to Paris, where they have not only warm showers, but also delicious food & wine, fancy-schmancy art, and wireless internet. Craaazy! I spent the week eating as many servings of crème brulee and duck breast as I could, searching Google for anything I could possibly think of (best goat cheese in Paris! YouTube’s most popular videos! Megan Fox’s weird thumb!), and soaking up all of the elegance and developed-nation-ness that France had to offer. Also, laughing with my sisters, who somehow have the same sense of humor as I do (weird), chilling out with Susan and Phil in cafes, and hugging my adorable and oh-so-loving parents.

Important Points:
Enjoying My Sisters’ Grown-Up Company. It’s strange when you realize that pretty much none of the kids in your family are really kids anymore. The youngest of us, Katie, is already 16 and essentially a Real Live Adult. I’ve been avoiding being a Real Live Adult for several years now, but I guess if Katie’s already there, I kinda have to step up and accept it, huh? There are perks, though: I can now talk to my sisters about RLA topics such as politics, religion and the weather. It’s an exciting time.

Hugging Dad. No explanation necessary... sometimes a girl just needs a dad hug, and this last year has been one of those times.

Seeing Susan and Phil. It’s officially been over a whole year since we graduated from college, and no matter what continent we’re on, all of us have changed since then. It was really, really great to catch up with two of my closest friends and chat about what was different, and what, thankfully, is still the same. Plus, we somehow managed to go to three different eating establishments in under 4 hours. That particular skill may never change.

I GOT A KINDLE! Susan, being a wonderful human being, brought me a bag full of stuff I wanted from America, including grape jelly, dryer sheets, and nail clippers. She also brought me a birthday gift from my best friends from college: my very own Kindle. So cool! It was loaded with classics (which is the stuff I’ve been trying to read more of), and I got to download a book I’ve been dying to read (Suttree) before I left. 700+ pages compressed into one skinny little techno-thing. Thank you so much! Yall are wonderful, sneaky schemers, and I love you all.

Shopping with Auntie B. It’s nice to have someone who pushes you to buy things you really love, and for me, that’s always been AB. My sisters, AB and I hit the shops on multiple occasions, wearing out the soles of our shoes and the magnetic strip on the credit card with our sophisticated Parisian purchases. White cardigan? Check. New red-coral Greek-ish dress, care of Inamorata? Check. Chocolate muffin? Checkmate.

Picnic. My absolute favorite moment in the entire trip was our picnic... well, that and our last night out. I guess dinners with my family in general. Something about a good bottle of wine, great cheese, fresh bread, various fruits, and apple tarts combined with a relaxed, giggly family... pretty wonderful. And after a year in West Africa, definitely needed.

Paris, je t’aime. Vraiment, quoi.

Adventures of Mom & Auntie B in Benin

I think I bragged about this before, but did you know that my mom and my aunt flew all the way to Benin to visit me? They did. And they’ve got stories to prove it.

As a whole, the trip went really well – we got to see some culture (Ouidah and Cotonou), relax a little (Grand Popo), meet my fantastic host family (Porto Novo), and enjoy all that is my village (Daagbé). We stayed busy, took lots of naps, and met a huge number of really excited Beninese people. Highlights from my point of view:

- Auntie B at the Python Temple. The Python Temple, in Ouidah, is a voodoo temple where they keep a lot of snakes for powerful voodoo purposes. The snakes are tame and used to being handled, but I’ve never seen Auntie B so on edge – one wiggled near her foot, and she broke the sound barrier heading back to the door. The woman’s got some speed. And eyes the size of dinner plates.

- Hanging Out With My Host Family. My host family, the sweetest people in the world who spoke to me in mime for months while I learned French, met my visitors. Not only did they meet them, though, they fed them... really, really well. Maman Badarou made three types of meat, a giant bowl of fried plantains (my favorite), and even bought sparkling grape juice (they’re Muslim and don’t drink wine). And they sat and talked with Mom and Auntie B, and Papa was so excited to see them... it was fantastic. As we left, we took a bajillion pictures, and my host parents presented them with Beninese gift bags. It was amazing to see them all together, laughing and enjoying each other’s company despite different cultures and no common language.

- Pate. And More Pate. Part of being a good sport when visiting a country is eating the native food. Pate, or corn flour mush, is the native food here, and I commend both of my visitors for eating as much of it as they did. Various people fed them pate (which always comes in mountain-sized portions) like three or four times, and each time they tried their hardest to demolish the entire pile. They failed (like I usually do), but everyone here loved their effort.

- Playing with Children. Entertaining myself in village usually involves sitting for hours with the mamas or playing with children. So when Mom and Auntie B showed up, the kids were really, really excited: two new playmates! The visitors didn’t disappoint, and after teaching the petits to jump rope and throw a Frisbee, they played with them for hours. It was adorable, and I have photo proof that Auntie B is the best human tilt-a-whirl ever.

- Tissu! The Obsession is Contagious! Despite Auntie B’s professed disinterest in tissu when she got here, she left this country with three pairs of pants and two wrap skirts (I think), all made out of tissu. I looooove that! And Mom got a skirt and maybe pants... my couturiere was a very happy lady. :)

- People Loving Them For Visiting. The people here LOVED seeing my family. They treated them like queens, came out of their way to meet them, fed them tons, and complimented me endlessly on how beautiful and young they were. (Two people have told me how beautiful my mother is since she’s left, confirming suspicions I have had since childhood.) Since they went back to Yovotome (“city of the yovos”... meaning America), a bunch of people have stopped me to make sure they got back alright, including people who met them once and speak absolutely no French or English. Such nice people. And SO excited to meet my wonderful family.

- Just Having Them Here. At the risk of sounding sappy, it was amazing just to see my mama and my aunt. Getting to talk with them, hang out, sound smart while I answered questions, be spoiled a little bit... it was kinda great. And maybe even more importantly, having them see where I live and what I do makes me feel like I’ve made it, and like when I get home, at least two people will be able to talk to me about it. It’s like having proof of what’s happened so far, and a sounding board that’ll actually understand for everything yet to come.

All in all, pretty amazing. Thank you, Mom and Auntie B, for coming to the 26th (I think) poorest country in the world just to visit me. Thanks for being so interested and energetic and understanding, and thanks for making your trip such an adventure. Love you!

Meme Chicken Tissu. Be Jealous.

Meme tissu, or getting matching outfits made out of the same fabric, is a huge thing here. For every wedding, funeral, baptism and church party, there is a tissu chosen for everyone to wear. If you’re close enough with the family, you get to buy it, get it sewn into your own style, and look like a badass integration-wise – it’s like being in Destiny’s Child, but the outfits usually cover more of the stomach area.

Anyway. So getting meme tissu with someone means you’re close with them, and it’s a big deal.

A couple of weekends ago, my Beninese friend/neighbor Elise and her husband (“Maitre”) invited my closemate Sam and I to go over to their house for... well, they wouldn’t explain what it was for. We were worried. What if they ask us to fund a project? Or help them do something we can’t do? Having already accepted the invite, we sucked it up, put on earrings, and headed over.

Elise had made my favorite Beninese meal ever: pate rouge with tomato/onion jus, a little bit of piment, and really good fish. There was sodabi, of course, this bottle infused with citron, and they’d even somehow found a Beninese song with my name in it... I didn’t know Beninese people used “Melissa,” so that was pretty cool.

They were flat-out spoiling us, and we were loving it. Thinking it was over, we collected our things and thanked the two of them... but as we started standing up, they told us to sit our little behinds back down. They had a present for us.

A what? A present. That’s right, everyone, someone was actually giving US a present, just because they thought we were nice. Baffling, thrilling, and so encouraging. Yay integration!

We unwrapped the shiny-paper-covered boxes and discovered...

...(count to ten for drama)... tissu! But not just any old tissu. Chicken tissu. That’s right, folks, my neighbors went to the marché and picked out tissu just for us, and what they picked was red and blue with big white chickens on it. Then, they secretly took it to a local couteriere (not mine, because she’d tell me) and got it sewn into boombas for us. Ten points to Benin.

The rest of the evening involved beers at the local buvette, the head of my group of villages (Chef d’Arrondissement) asking why he wasn’t invited to wear the same thing, good stories, and a lot of adoration from me for the two of them. Meme tissu. Meme chicken tissu. My life is awesome.


Thank. The. Lawd. I have a computer again!

What this means for me: the ability to watch hours of mind-melting TV and movies, edit photos in which I am sweating too much, and prep typed things before I go to Cotonou.

What this means for you: Actually edited blogs! Hopefully better writing! And probably a lot more inane updates about the large insects I find in my house. Cheers!

Friday, July 22, 2011

Finally: Camp GLOW Post

I've written a lot about the challenges girls face in this country: lack of school-related support from parents, sexual harassment from teachers (some teachers, not all), pressure to marry and have babies right now, and an overwhelming pressure to value household duties over educational/professional goals.  It's hard to see such bright, strong girls being shoved aside to make way for the boys just because of their sex.

That's where the idea for girls' camp came from.  Camp GLOW started in Romania in the early '90s, dreamed up by Peace Corps volunteers who saw basically the same problems there as I see in Benin in 2011.  Our Camp GLOW is held in Porto Novo every year, and this year we invited 50 girls, six of whom were from Daagbé (thanks for your donations!).

To stop myself from rambling for years about how awesome it was to see these girls learning, interacting, and taking control of their own sessions, I'm going to just give some highlights.

  • We taught them about themselves.  Kids don't get the sex/puberty talk here until they're in 3eme -- usually at 17ish years old.  That's a little late, especially when all there is to do in village for hormone-filled teens is... ahem.  Because it's always better to have a Beninese person teach these culturally sensitive things, we invited a Porto-Novo-based female doctor to teach the girls about their bodies: puberty, periods, abstinence, and preservatifs (condoms). Personal opinion: when pregnancy is such a huge, education-ending problem here, this is one of the most important topics we can teach them.
  • We taught them about their rights.  A fantastic man (Beninese) from the NGO Victory Way came to talk to the girls about sexual harassment and their rights as both women and children.  Victory Way is an organization that works (really effectively, I think) to combat the mistreatment of women in Benin.  The man was incredible, challenging the girls to think and ask questions and argue for their own equality... it was amazing.  The girls really, really got it, and at the end of it they couldn't stop talking about everything they'd learned... how equal they are, how they can push for the same treatment as their brothers get.  Definitely a highlight for me.

The girls playing Zoom. : )
  • Zoom! This is probably only entertaining to my fellow Jonesians, but when it was my turn for songs and games, I taught the entire camp an edited version of "Zoom"... which may or may not be a part of King's Cup.  A game we perfected on Saturday nights in college.  The girls loved it. :)  
  • Arts & Crafts!  Among the items created: Fanmilk pouch purses, handmade bound books, and beaded necklaces.
  • (I Brag.)  One of my girls, Flora, was in my group, and she wanted to know if we were going to go home after the camp.  Home, as in America.  I explained that some would go home because they'd finished their two years, but that I and lots of others would be staying another year.  Flora jumped up and shouted "yaaaay! Madame is staying!"  I'm sure that that was a Class A Suck-Up moment for her, but hey, I'm susceptible to flattery, and that was good to hear. :)
  • Seeing My Girls Be Girls.  In class, they're all super respectful, kinda quiet, and not excited or emotional about anything.  By the end of the week, not only did they have friends from other villages across Benin, but they also jumped around, laughed, were silly... they were girls.  Real, free, excited-to-be-alive girls.  
I can't get more photos to upload right now, but here's the full album.  Thanks so much to everyone who donated the funds to make this happen... it was amazing, and I'm so glad I got to be here.  Stay tuned for next year's camp!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Meet My GLOW Girls

Bernadette was kind of a surprise pick for me -- she's an absolute sweetheart, and kind of in the high middle of her class.  I didn't really plan on bringing her until the very end, when I saw how deferring she was to the boys in her class.  She seemed like the perfect candidate for Camp GLOW -- smart, nice, and in need of a little girl power education.  And that's exactly what she got.
Flora (wearing an Obama girl t-shirt in this picture) is the overall top student in her 6M1 class for 2010-2011.  The girl is smart, and towards the end of the year she finally started gaining some confidence in my class... in the beginning, she'd cover her mouth every time she answered a question, and by the end I'd told her to stand up/speak up/put her hands down so many times that she did it automatically!  Yaaaay!  That's just posture, though, and I wanted her to get the full benefit of a week of health, education, financial planning, and women's rights sessions.  She was in my Red team, so I got to spend the whole week hanging out with her and enjoying her enthusiasm.  She asked me if she could come back next year.
Elisabeth is not shy.  She's already a burgeoning feminist (in a questionnaire I gave my girls' club, she wrote, "It is NOT true that men are more powerful than women, because a woman can do anything a man can do and probably worked harder than he did anyway."  She's the second girl in her class (after Flora), is always the first to raise her hand in girls' club, and is rarely too shy to share her opinions.  She also stole my notebook one day, just to write "I love you" (in English) on its cover.  I think I kind of love her, too.
Estelle was the girl I took to Natitingou with me for the spelling bee: an incredibly hard worker, smart student, and sometimes painfully shy girl.  It takes a lot of work to have a conversation with her, and in a large group of people, it's tough for her to talk.  I can sort of relate to that... so my biggest hope for this week was that she would come out of her shell, make some friends, and just let herself be silly.  It took a few days, but by the end of Camp GLOW she was teasing other girls, dancing enthusiastically, and even laughing at my mediocre Beninese dance moves.  I'd call that a success.
Pauline is the oldest girl I brought, and the only one from 5eme.  I found out after inviting her that she's also the little sister of one of my fellow English profs, so that's an accidental positive.  She's a good participant in class and gets good grades, but often isn't very outspoken otherwise... see a pattern with the girls?  Beninese culture dictates that when a kid given an honor by a grande (me), he/she doesn't usually act excited or happy.  They should thank you, curtsy, and walk away.  Pauline tried to do that when I gave her her invite, and even though her eyes were dancing, she kept her face calm.  When she turned away, though, I saw her cheek round out and her mouth turn up -- she was grinning like mad at her friends across the schoolyard.
Odette – Odette’s the littlest of the girls I took.  For most of the year, she was really quiet in class, volunteering to answer a question here or there, always getting good grades, but never really seeking any sort of attention.  At the end of the first semester, while doing grades, I suddenly realized that not only was she the top girl in my English class, but that she was the top student overall in 6M2.  Amazing – little girl’s kicking the boys’ butts. J  She’s got a big, gorgeous smile and a great giggle, and I couldn’t wait to see her soak up all of the important info we were going to throw at her.

Photos! Spelling Bee and Camp GLOW

They're on Facebook!

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Spelling Bee!

Last weekend was the 2011 National English Spelling Bee in Natitingou -- this is the one with Estelle and Soulemane, my awesome kids from CEG Daagbe.

The transport was, in all honesty, kind of hellish.  Getting there involved a taxi at 4:30am (or, well, 4:50, because it was raining and the taxi driver didn't want to walk outside), a speed-drive to Cotonou, and a nine-and-a-half hour trip to Nati.  Nine and a half... that's about eight and a half too long.  On the positive side, we got there in three pieces, and were in time to eat lots of riz au gras.

The day of the spelling be started early -- we ate, spent an hour or two studying, then were ready for the competition.  First up were the boys, and it was a fierce fight.  Soulemane made it to the top eight, and got out on the word "organisation" (all British spellings) because he forgot the R.  He was disappointed, but the two kids who got first and second certainly deserved it:  it was a 30-40 minute battle between the two, and they were throwing out words I probably can't spell: haemhorrage, anoemia, etc.  Intense.  The one that finally won (from way up north in Banikoara) was shaking he was so pumped up -- he definitely, definitely deserved it.

Kind of sadly, the girls' competition was way, way faster.  Half of the girls were out on the first word, including Estelle, who spelled "animal" as "element".  That's a clear example of how much harder school is for girls: whereas a motivated boy can go home and study for a few hours every day, a motivated girl has to clean the house, take care of the kids, make dinner, wash the dishes, and wash the laundry first. 

We had a girls' winner in about 20 minutes, also from Banikoara (what do they put in the water up there??), and then we spent the rest of the day playing volleyball, watercoloring, eating pate, and watching "B Movie" in French.  Also, Soulemane and two other boys took over the dishes for the girls one night, and made a point of yelling to me, "Madame!  Look what I'm doing!  It's dishes!!" 

Traveling back down was even more hellish than the first trip thanks to an accident on the one road between Allada and Cotonou, but we made it!  My kids had a great time overall, and it was really cool to see Estelle come out of her shell a little... she's normally really shy, sometimes too shy to even smile in front of me, and this weekend she actually laughed with me!  We played volleyball together, and that, somehow, just relaxed her and made her friendly and social and happy... : )  The things I get to do and the kids I get to know here, yall, are so, so cool.