Saturday, December 31, 2011

Un Peu En Ritard: Music Videos by 5eme Students!

Can't get them to upload here, but check them out on YouTube:

1. 5eme M5 sings "Jingle Bells" -- watch the kid (Innocent) in the front left.  He was really into it.
2. 5eme M1 sings "Ain't No Mountain"... because I felt like it.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011


Thank you SO SO SO much for donating!  The entire almost $3000 is done in under 3 weeks, which is really, really fast by PC standards.  Thank yous will be out soon (as soon as PC sends me the list of donors).   I'm so excited!  I get to start as soon as I get back!

Other things to say:

  • People keep asking me if they can send me books for the library.  Short answer: yes, but I can't pay you back for shipping.  It's not in the grant that I wrote, so it's not acceptable for me to pay for shipping for donated books.  If you want to send me books (kiddie lit and young adult novels would be best), I'd love to have them, just send them to my package address.  I will be getting books from France for most subjects, though, so it's not a big problem if yall can't send me truckfuls of them.
  • Somehow yall managed to donate all of the money for my project before I even got the chance to put the apron money in.  Amazing.  Since there's no more space in that fund, I'm going to take the money from the aprons and divide it equally between the Camp GLOW fund and the Camp BLOW fund, for which we still need to raise lots of money.  Thank you so much for buying!
  • Know anyone who still wants to donate? We still need to raise $2,581 for Camp GLOW and $4776 for Camp BLOW.  Those links are here: Girls' Camp  Boys' Camp
  • Home is amazing!  I've been here exactly a week and I've already gained 4 lbs.  I'm gonna make it to 10, just watch!  Will update on all of the lovely people I've seen and all the delicious foods Mom keeps handing me (she's dedicated to my goal, too).  But now, have to go shopping for my friend Lauren's wedding dress!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Cool Site

Just found this site, which tells you the percentages of donated money actually go to the projects you're charitably supporting.  It's kind of like giving grades to charities and NGOs.

In other news, we're within $160 of being done with my grant!  That's AMAZING!  Thanks, everyone, for  the perfect Christmas gift!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Notes in Transit

(In Paris Airport:)

- Just had a really weird emotional response to coffee. It went like this: I get to my gate and, since I have 20 euros leftover from France on July, I decide to buy myself breakfast #2 for today. I get a cappuccino and a giant cookie, and without the stare-down and daily arguments that happen with Beninese mamans, the guy gives me the correct change. I sit down and take a sip of real espresso with real milk. And suddenly my trip home here and it's today and i'm going home to hug my Dad and Mom and baby sisters and there's a tear running down my face. Not sure how it got there. Will try to rein in the weirdness in public, promise.

- American parents seem neurotic and way obsessed with their kids. I'm watching a dad who just got on the floor to roll a ball with two-year-old Addison. Her mom just said (direct quote), "Want some more yogurt, Addison? Maybe? Okay, I'll come to you." in Daagbe, you (moms only, dads never) strap the kid to your back and forget about him till he cries, and when he's too big for that, you let him wander around the general area (playing with chunks of rusty metal and old plastic bags, eating dirt, etc.) until he either does something stupid (gets too close to an oncoming zemidjan) or cries for food. If stupid, you hit him. If hungry, you feed him. End of story. None of this playing with the kid or following him around with food... Kinda seems ridiculous to me now. Hah.

- This country is FREEZING. I'm wearing the warmest thing I brought to Africa (Jones jacket, thanks Caroline!), and am still shivering in my seat. Time for socks, and maybe even the spare tissu pagne I somehow thought I needed in America.

- I can smell melted cheese from my seat in the terminal. Not even joking. No one (except spoiled little Addison) is eating within two rows of me. This place is magical!

- The Frenchy-French accent is tough, but I really do speak French now! Sometimes, people even speak to me in French first. Probably just good manners in a France, but still. Win for me!

- It's looking like I'll almost definitely miss my flight to Cleveland because of customs and my layover time. Oh well. There's another flight a couple of hours later, so I'll get home tonight barring a blizzard or volcano explosion in Pennsylvania. Which I think is pretty unlikely, truth be told.


-On the Paris-to-New York flight: am seated next to an entertainingly cranky gardening lady, who keeps badgering the staff about giving her another double-sized glass of free merlot. She's on her fourth.


- At JFK: Sprint through the airport at top speed, caring not at all about how crazy and potentially homeless I look. Hair is at cavewoman-level disorder, and have forgotten to take off socks before putting on my duct-taped flats. Despite many strange looks, i make it to the gate on time! This time I'm sitting next to a lawyer who's doing really interesting cases... Between him and Leslie, I'm starting to believe that law is actually (gasp!) interesting to learn about.

 - I'm HOME!  Family picked me up in Santa hats, and we're now going to my favorite restaurant for a feast before I sleep for 20 hours straight.  So happy!  So cold!  Merry Christmas, everyone!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Weekly Updates: 12.21.11

  • The Grant: Uhhh... so, I was planning to post an update on the percentage we've earned so far, complete with an elephant graphic to show where we're at.  Little problem: that elephant would be pretty much filled up already.  We've earned over $2500 in two weeks! That's AMAZING! Had already written a blog begging people to advertise and donate again, but after seeing the donation page and the giant number of people who have been Facebooking and sending in money... Yall are way ahead of me. In fact, you're kind of ridiculously on top of this, and you deserve a huge THANK YOU!! So much closer than I expected to be by now- thank you so much.
  • I've got pledges already to cover the rest of the grant, and I haven't even put the apron money in yet, so that will now go to girls' and boys' camp, which still need funding. Merci bien, merci beaucoup, and mibayi keke (kekekekeke!) -- I don't know how I got this lucky in terms of friends and family, but thank god I did. :)

  • World Map Is DONE!! Yaaaay! And I gotta say, it's really pretty. The best part has been seeing students' reactions, though. When I started the project, I assumed that only a couple of students would actually use the map for school reasons.  The others would regard it as a giant artwork that the crazy white lady did, and forget about it as soon as the novelty wore off.
    I've been amazed at how many students now hang out next to the map and stare at it, telling their friends all of the countries and facts they know (most of which the other volunteers and I taught them). Others stand there and just let the country names roll around in their mouths, tasting their vowels and consonants for the first time. "Madagascar" and "Australie" seem to be their favorites.

  • Read Book #75! Seventy-five was my original goal, and I made it with months to spare. Ah, the Peace Corps life. :) So... On to 100?
  • Aprons. Forgot to say earlier, if you ordered an apron (they're all sold now), wash it separately in cold water-- the dyes here aren't as set as what we're used to in the States. I have killed many a t-shirt by washing it with tissu.
  • Africa Loves My Mom. Two different families have given me gifts to bring to Mom: my couteriere Pierrette made her some clothes just because, and my host family in Porto-Novo went on a shopping spree for presents for Mom and my sisters. Pierrette also tried to give me a giant chicken (the biggest I've ever seen in Benin) to bring to Mom, explaining that I could just tie its feet together and put it under my seat like people do on busses here. We had to have a talk about customs regulations...
  • Wake-Up Call. At 5:30am last Wednesday, I woke up to my next door neighbors (two construction workers in their late 20s) blasting Shania Twain's "From This Moment On" at full volume. Best part: they were singing along with made-up gibberish words. In falsetto.
  • It's "Cold Season." By that I mean that in the early morning, it MIGHT hit 68 degrees. People are wearing multiple layers, ski caps, and heavy windbreakers. All of my friends have been complaining about it being "too much" and "dangerous for the health." The cold ("harmattan") also has been cited as the reason for why my students couldn't do their homework and why we had to end our weekly English department meeting early. Harmattan is hilarious. Remember this when I can't function in Ohio in December.
  • Remember The Week Before Christmas when you were in middle school? Remember how impossible it was to concentrate and how distracted you were? Please say a silent thank-you prayer for those teachers who managed not to kill you during that time. Having been on the non-student side of that situation this week, I am now aware of how much self-control it takes. God bless you, junior high teachers of America, and God save my three classes of hellians.
  • Merry almost-Christmas everyone! I had my kids sing some songs in class (when I wasn't quite as mad at them), and will upload the videos soon. Prepare yourselves for a total and adorable butchering of your favorite songs! And Ohio, see you tomorrow night. Eeeeeeee!
Pictures from the last week and a half:

Femi and I.  Femi is Pierrette (my couteriere)'s niece,
and one of my bffs.

Sayidath and her mom, who's 6 months younger
than I am.  No wonder Auntie B fell in love
with this baby.

My students, working on a group project.  It was hard. :)

Friday, December 9, 2011

Donate! Projects I Really Care About

a.  Read the last post!  Lots of info on my school library project, plus a pleasepleaseplease for donations.

b.  The quick version, for those of you with real jobs: donate to Peace Corps Benin projects!  Here are the three I most care about (emphasis on the first one, which is my baby).  All contributions are tax-deductable, go directly to the projects (no overhead or organization fees) and can be done with a credit card or "ACH Bank Check," whatever that is.  Click on the name to go to the donation site.

CEG Daagbe School Library: Help build a library for my secondary school!

Camp GLOW: Fund a weeklong camp for 10-14 year old girls, where we'll teach them about health, their rights, education, goal setting, and how to take control of their own lives.  Read my blog from Camp GLOW last year:

Camp BLOW*: Contribute to a weeklong camp for 10-14 year old boys.  Basically the same thing as Camp GLOW, except we'll focus a lot on treating everyone (girls included) with respect.  This is our attempt at hitting the girls' empowerment thing from every angle, while at the same time enriching the lives of smart, motivated boys in our villages.

*Yes, I know, ridiculous name, but the girls' camp is "Girls Leading Our World," so we went for consistency rather than respectability.

Books for a Brighter Future: Help Me With My Library Project!

And now, for the featured act.  After over a year of working on group projects, it's finally time for me to  introduce my very own, big, intimidating, and hopefully amazing project:  I'm creating a library for my school.  It's a huge project, and an important one, and I need your help.

Kids almost never have access to books here.  Out of my 130+ students, under ten have the textbooks they need for their classes, so they're left to study whatever they've managed to copy off of the blackboard, spelling mistakes and all.  Most have never used a dictionary or even seen an encyclopedia, and the thought of reading a story for fun is about as foreign as I am.  There are no books.  I want to bring some here.

With school administration, I'll be creating a library where students and professors will have access to reading materials: textbooks, picture books, stories, magazines, reference books, and even maps and visuals for science classes.  Giving the school a library will change the whole learning environment, not only for the students and teachers, but for the entire community.

So now that I've climbed the first mountain (writing the grant application -- getting budget numbers was like pulling teeth), it's on to Everest: fundraising.  I need to come up with $2,824.89 by January.  Here's the thing: I don't have that.  (Weird, I know, for an English major not to be swimming in $100s.)  Which brings me to my main point: I need your help.

1.  Donate! (Please!!) The link is here, you can use credit or debit cards, and every single dollar will get us closer to CEG Daagbe's school library.  I personally promise that every cent is going to the project, not to admin costs or organization fees.  And I'll get the kids to send you a cute thank-you note, complete with marker decorations and frequent misspellings.  :)

2. Advertise!  I know it doesn't often come up in conversation, but if you can bring up the whole "hey-my-friend's-building-a-library-in-Africa-and-do-you-have-five-bucks-to-spare?" thing in conversations with family, friends, coworkers, and church groups, that'd help a lot.  Facebook posts and emails would also be amazing.

3.  Aprons for Africa!  I'm coming home for Christmas, and I'm bringing 55 aprons with me.  Each of them was made with African fabric (tissu) by my seamstress, who's a really close friend.  I'm selling them for $15 plus shipping, and all profits (about $11 each) will go directly to the library.  Can't guarantee a specific pattern (I only have 2-4 of each), but let me know if you hate yellow or only wear stripes and I'll do my best to oblige.  To order, email my mom at*

Thank you so much! Tell your friends!  And an even bigger thanks again, because without all of yall's overwhelming support (financial, emotional, spiritual), there's no way I could be here doing something this big, complicated, and community-changing.

Love love love,

*Leslie, Tara and Alex, I have your orders already, but email Mom anyway just to double check.

Weekly Updates 12.7

  • World Map: Still Not Done! Worked on it 7+ hours this week outlining and labeling countries, and I've still got Asia to go. My shoulder muscles are very angry at me, but I'm getting closer. I am GOING to finish this sucker before Christmas break, even if my arm mutinies.
  • In Mispronunciation News... I've been teaching my classes music and instruments vocabulary, and on Monday we ran through some flashcards for review. They got guitar and drums right off, struggled with saxophone and piano, and totally failed at accordion (note: I did not choose this random array of instruments). I flipped the next card up (of a singer), and the class genius raises his hand.
    "Madame," he says confidently, "it's fuck."
    Um... What?
    "Yes, it's a fuck, Madame, fuck!"
    (I wonder briefly if they can hear me when I mutter at them under my breath.) "That's not... uh... correct." (I giggle.)
    "Yeeeeeeess, it's fuck!"
    (rest of class chimes in: "Yes Madame, fuck! Fuck, Madame!")
    No, still not correct, another word?
    "frenchfrenchfrench, Madame, fuck! Frenchfrenchfrench copybook!!"
    I go to look at his copybook. Discover the word they're determined to say is "folk music band." Later a girl tells me she saw a penis on tv. She was watching a piano concert.
  • Compliment of the Week: A professor told me I looked like Mary, the mother of Jesus. Thank you?
  • Grant is online! Further info in the next post. Here we go!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Weekly Updates: 12.2.11

  • I'll be on a plane in 18 DAYS!!
  • The Adventures of Shadow (and my poor floor).  This week I puppy-sat for my closemate Maeghan's new puppy Shadow.  A few things you should know about Shadow: he is a puppy.  He has a teensy little puppy-sized bladder.  His body magically produces about 17 gallons of pee a day.   And he is a Basinji, the second least-trainable breed of dog in the world.

    Things we achieved in a week (sublist):  Shadow pees on floor a record 10 times, despite hourly trips outside.  He poos in my bedroom once.  House is now coated in bleach water.  I manage to not commit caninicide.  (That should be a real word.)  We also manage to make my cat royally and hilariously jealous.  After spending the first day stalking and then running from Shadow, who REALLY wants to play, Popsicle spends the rest of the week perched just out of reach on my porch, glaring at the puppy in his house.  He also snuck inside on multiple occasions, only to be surprised and then viciously defensive when Shadow, again, wanted to play.  I rescued him.  He sat on the porch and glared.
  • Learned: Owls Are Sorcerers.  Along with spiders, ants, cats, dogs, and fireflies, owls are animals that sorcerers can inhabit to come kill or injure people.  Funny, as the owl is also my college mascot.  During a conversation with my Nigerian friend (6 months younger than me, and she has a 7 month old baby girl), I learned that sorcerers in my village often posess owl bodies to come to people in the night. 

    If they come to you and you're the target, the owl will pull the soul out of you, maybe through your mouth or eyes.  Once your soul is gone, your body's dead, and your family will bury you.  It is after your burial that the sorcerers dig your body up, have a child chop up the body into meat, and then they drink your blood, which is "like water to them."  Then, she pointed out the child who is rumored to be the local body-cutter.   All the adults say it's him, and she told me that because he's started so young, he'll be the boss of the sorcerers when he grows up.

    Halloween, you've got nothing on Africa.
  • Grant Is En Route!  Finally got my grant application reviewed and sent to headquarters, so as soon as that's looked at, it should be online!  Watch out in the next week for a post/email about how you can help me out (hint: donate and advertise!) and the link to the site.  :)
  • Bridget's Birthday Weekend.  This Monday is my really good friend Bridget's birthday, so we're celebrating by pampering ourselves all weekend.  We ate delicious food last night with fresh pineapple juice, gave ourselves manicures, and at 1pm, will be going to get massages.  Yes, my friends, there are massages in Benin.  They're hella expensive on our budget (an hour is 7 mille, or about $15), but we're doing it -- we've earned it after the grants we've just written.  Later, we're going to drink hot chocolate and eat cookies that Sam and Alicia made.  We're spoiled, it's okay.
  • Next Week... I will go to a church party (free food!), eat real turkey and pate rouge at Kalyn's friend's house, take lots of photos of Pierrette and family with me, get more Christmas presents made, try my hardest to get almost done with my world map.  Because this is getting embarrassing.  Wish me luck, and see you all SO SOON!

Friday, December 2, 2011

Jim Talks Back: On Our Ghana Trip

The guest author for this post is Jim Doty, my fellow Jonesian and Rice classmate. We got to visit him in his Peace Corps post -- Senya, Ghana -- in September. Amazing trip, and an amazing friend.   This post should have been written up a few weeks ago, but I was getting used to being a teacher, so better late than never.

   In September, Lissa and two of her friends from Benin came to Ghana.  Bridget and Victoria were coming to run in the Accra International Marathon.  Lissa pretty much hits the highlights of the events that happened on her blog, so I think I will just point out some things that I noticed.

   First, It was really nice to see a friend from Jones/Rice University again.  We could have gone on for hours swapping stories about life in Houston.  We did spend a good amount of time swapping stories on people that we were keeping track of.  It was also reassuring to see someone I knew already a year into their service.  It was really cool to see how calm, self confident, and adventurous a volunteer could be after just one year in country.  I got the feeling that things were tough in the beginning.  I was still very new in country, and was nervous about hosting someone.  I was thinking they would be bored, or uncomfortable, or wouldn't like the food.  Instead I got the three best guest one could wish for.  I think a lot of that came from the fact that they had been around the block before.  In summary, it really gave me something to look forward to.  When times are tough here, I am going to remember that the girls were quite happy after a year.

   Next, in Benin, their trainers gave them some good advice during training.  First, "Not my village, not my problem."  At first this seems like a callous bit of advice, but here in Peace Corps, we don't get to fix everything with a magic wand.  Instead, we have been given the opportunity to work in a really small site, to win the hearts and mind of a community, and to make a difference there.  So when you leave your site, you can't stress out, and try and change people that you have not been building bonds with.

   Second, "Every Peace Corps Volunteer's experience is different."  This one is kind of obvious, but I often forget about it when I get together with other volunteers.  The living conditions vary quite widely between the sites, and even more so between countries.  Sometimes when I meet up with volunteers, it can feel like we are trying to one up each other on who's site is tougher, or problems are rougher, or counterparts are better, or customs are stranger.  But, this ends up being really unproductive.  It is good to swap stories about site, but not even considering for a moment that your service is supposed to be the same, at least for me, has allowed me to try and use those stories as times to see if people have thought new solutions that I haven't thought up before.  At the end of the day, humans are amazingly adaptable.  What usually throws us for a loop is when you change the game on us.  So I know I could get used to no electricity, but I have it most of the time.  I have gotten used to not having a refrigerator, but I don't really think someone else should have to.  When you have one convenience or another, it changes the amount of time that you have to do other things.  If you have absolutely no conveniences as a volunteer, you spend a lot of your time doing things just to survive.  If you have every convenience in the world, you could use that to spend more time and energy on the people around you.  "Every PCV's experience is different."

   Third, "Don't speak to much of the local language in someone else's village."  All of us have varying levels of difficulty with learning these languages.  This is also compounded by the difficulty of learning the language with out a tutor or teacher for the most part.  If you come in and blow your host out of the water with your mad language skills, you take a little bit of their credibility away.  So Bob is always kind and doesn't show me up in town, and I don't embarrass myself when I go and visit him.  These little lessons I have been finding rather useful when interacting with other volunteers.

   In return, I would like to offer an idea that came from our Country Director Mike.  It came in the context of his fireside chat on how to be a successful volunteer.  He stated that we, as Peace Corps volunteers, are agents of change.  However, he made it very clear that we have to be very careful what kind of change we try to implement. "A Peace Corps Volunteer is not an agent of systemic change."  The Peace Corps is an organization that focuses on grass roots style organization.  We work on providing the ability for the host country nationals to solve some of their own problems.  This is done in a variety of ways.  However, we are not the panacea of volunteer organizations.  We can't solve systemic problems like corruption, canning, or how well teachers get paid.  We have to be careful to make sure we tackle problems we can solve.  There are enough of those without burning out on issues that we can't solve.  

From Ghana with Love,

[Thanks to Lissa, Bridget, and Victoria for coming to visit.  We had a blast, and although we can't promise we will make it out, we will try and see Benin.]