Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Three Conversations

Conversation with a zemidjan:

Zem: The price is 1500.
Me: I'd like to pay 700.
Zem: What?? That's absolutely ridiculous! Do you know how how far Daagbe is? And how expensive gas is now? 700... Impossible!! ...Give me 800.
Me: I'm going to pay 700.
Zem: Oh. Okay, let's go.

Encouraging Conversation with Gerardine, my student/friend/person who helps me with dishes:

Me: 10 is an okay score, acceptable. But for you,... I think you can do better, because you're smart.
G: (smiles, says okay)
(silence for a few seconds)
G: In October, you're going away?
Me: In September, but yeah, I'm going home. I need to see my family, my friends...
G: (silence)
Me: That's good, right? It's good to be with your family.
G: (pauses)... I just don't want you to leave.

Conversation with Nicaise, my very entertaining student:

Nicaise: (looking at the grades he's gotten this semester)... Madame, your math is right, but normally you should do the "plus plus."
Me: The what?
Nicaise: You know, plus two points here, plus three points there... That would really help my grade.
Me: Hahahahaha! (Creative approach, I like it!)

10 Pictures from Pendjari

Sunday, February 19, 2012

More Aprons, What?

A couple of people have contacted me wanting tissu aprons, since the last ones sold out so fast. I wasn't going to do anymore because I didn't have a project to put the money toward, but I think I have one now... Or, well, a person.

My couturiere has done a lot for me, and I want to help her earn some money for her diploma in two years, which costs her about $100...and then she has to pay for the party afterward. I don't want to pay for everything (the party she can do with help from her older brother), but I'd like to give her the chance to earn some of the money, instead of borrowing/asking for it from older relatives.

Here's my proposal: each apron will be $15, like before. Out of that, I'll split the profits between her and another Peace Corps Benin project (not sure which one yet, but probably a girls' education one), meaning that she'd get about $5 per apron (a LOT of money here). She asked that I or another volunteer hold on to the money until she's graduating so that she's not tempted to spend or lend it, and that kind of proved to me that she's serious about saving it. She's kind of amazing, really: didn't even finish primary school but speaks French better than most people I know, and at 19 is essentially running her older sister's seamstress shop.

Anyway, so that's where the profits would be going: to a Peace Corps project and to a spunky, smart girl trying to start up her own, independent life. Aprons won't be mailed until July at the earliest, because I don't want to send them by unreliable Africa mail. Want to order? Send me an email ( with the number you want, the address I should send it to, and any special requests you have. I'll email you back about sending a check.

Thanks so much for everything y'all do! You're amazing people, and I'm lucky to have you following me along in this crazy Beninese adventure. :)

Book Thoughts: Half the Sky

You know when you're reading a book and all of a sudden, something just clicks? And instantly, inexplicably, you've changed just a little bit, and maybe your life has switched around too? That's where I am.

I'm reading "Half the Sky," which is a book by Pulitzer Prize-winning authors about women, oppression, development, and changing the world. It talks about something that I believe in 100%, which is that fighting the violence, oppression, and discrimination of girls and women is the single most important action we can take to help developing nations. And the best, most effective way of doing that? Getting and keeping girls in school. Give a girl a real education, and you've upped her family's income potential by a huge percentage, not to mention making her life and the lives of every single one of her children and grandchildren safer, stabler, and healthier.  Educating girls saves lives, and it also saves countries.

I'll spare you the sermon, but I have two major thoughts on the book at the moment (I'm not even a third of the way done, hah):

1. Read this book right now. It's fascinating, well-written, and tough to put down, despite the vague self-help look of the cover. Read it, and then pass your copy on to a friend -- it's that good, and that important.

2. I think this kind of stuff is what I want to do, ultimately. I'm not going to be too picky about employment upon return -- I know how precious a job is to a recent college grad -- but I think women's empowerment and development will be a driving force for me in the future.  I have lots of ideas floating around about how exactly that would work, and of course nothing really decided.

What I do know is this: I want to do something I care about with my life. And women's empowerment... I care a lot about that.

Cat Poop, Gas Prices, and Teacher's Strike

I just realized that there have been several things I wrote about -- mysteries, minor crises, etc. -- and then forgot to follow up on. Let me know if I'm missing anything.

- The Mystery of My School Director's Need For Cat Poop: I told a story this past summer about how my director asked that I please give him a bag of "two to three days' worth" of my cat's droppings. I asked him why, and he said it's for...something..." Upon later sneaky research, he still wouldn't tell me. He kept requesting it (every month or so I have to hold Popsicle hostage until he has a bowel movement), and I keep getting more grossed out.

I did finally get him to tell me, though: "It's for a prayer to keep bad spirits away. But don't worry, it's not just the cat's 'caca'. We mix other things in too. And you know that candle you brought us from America? We use that too!". It's a Glade scented candle, which is maybe a good thing.

I'm now trying to get out of being his full-time kitty poop supplier, but so far telling him that it'll take a long time and that it makes my house smell have not worked. Today I tried a new strategy: offering to let him borrow my cat for a week. No go. Turns out he wants nothing to do with the actual animal, and everything to do with the poo. He's the opposite of 7th grade me. Sigh... What do cats eat that contains a lot of fiber?

- The Nigerian Gas Crisis: A month or two ago, Nigeria's government suddenly removed all of the really substantial subsidies they had on gas. Benin's gas is almost entirely from Nigeria (legally or illegally), so gas prices here shot up from 275 a liter to 800 a liter overnight, sometimes even more. Obviously, things got a little crazy: transportation costs were insanely high and inconsistent, anything imported basically doubled in price, and everyone went a little crazy. Several volunteers had to deal with zemidjan drivers who were clearly at the very end of their ropes stress-wise.

Nigerian oil workers, of whom there are lots, went on strike. Nigerians in general started riots and protests. The government decided to backtrack a little.

Now, the subsidies are reinstated. They're slightly less than before (gas is about 400 a liter now), but transport costs are back to normal (don't ask me how that works) and the new plan is to reduce subsidies slowly over a much longer period of time. People in West Africa do not like having their Band-Aids ripped off. We'll just take it nice and slow, thank you very much.

- Teachers' Strike: I can't remember if I blogged about this or just told my parents, so here's some background. Most of the permanent teachers (the tenured ones, kind of) are on strike, including a good chunk of my school profs and almost all of the primary school's. Why? Because of the government, according to them. What my teacher friends have told me is that even though their permanent status is supposed to get them a solid contract with a higher salary, the recently hired permanents were never actually given a contract by the government. No contract means no proof, so they've been getting paid just a fraction of what they say thru should be getting. I've only heard their side, so I have no idea what the other point of view is.

Anyway, so they're mad and they're striking (PCVs do not strike, so I'm still teaching). Entertainingly, they're only striking Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. They work Monday and Friday so that they can say they worked that "week". Don't ask me how that makes sense. I haven't heard much about a resolution, and in the meantime the students are missing weeks and weeks of classes, which sucks. They might extend the school year to make up those classes, but they might now, and so far, the strike's got no end in sight.

- Other Things: Library's hit a snag with the book donation organization, but we'll work through it. Carpenter's working on shelves (still) and as soon as I have those I'll start organizing and labeling. I'm healthy (not counting my stomach pets), my girls' club rocks, and the president of Benin, YAYI Boni, is now the president of the Afrocan Union, too.

That's all I've got, folks. Did I miss anything?

Updates 2.17: Everything Breaks, but Safari!

- Africa Hates Technology. Ever since I've arrived in Benin, Africa has seemed somewhat angry about all the gadgets I brought. It puts up with my flashlights and (so far) my iPod, but had a hissy fit when I found my headlamp and thus destroyed it. It's also murdered a handheld fan, many pairs of headphones, a cell phone, and now, two more things. Ladies and gentlemen, it pains me to announce the death of my room fan and the third and final passing of my Mac. The fan, of course, died suspiciously close to hot season, which leads me to believe that this continent is now annoyed with me personally. Mac, a close personal friend  who shared many memories and important documents, lived his last two months in the comfort and constant air conditioning of the Cotonou workstation, but was unable to fend off the evil spirits Africa sent his way. Both Fanny and Mac are survived by a resigned Peace Corps volunteer, several young flashlights, and an absolutely desolate iPod touch.

- It's almost avocado season! And I can see the mangoes in the schoolyard in front of my house-- they're getting heavier and heavier, hanging from the tree branches. Still a month or two to go before mangoes, but avocados in a few weeks!

- Skillz. Spent a good chunk of Wed translating American rap phrases into Gun for no good reason. Rapping in gun, I feel, will be a marketable skill when I start job searching in October.

- Report Cards. Spent the majority of last week and this week calculating grades for my three classes, then entering them into all of the different books with the appropriate colors of ink. Yes, the ink matters. Last year I had to retrace the graded for an entire class because I wrote in blue instead of red.  The verdict: predictably dismal, but I now have solid proof that the kids I had last year are doing better in English than kids that had the other prof (my last years' classes had between 39 and 49% pass, whereas the class that had him last year has 28% passing). This is comforting- I am at least a little bit effective. In other happy news, the girls I took to Camp GLOW last year who are still in my class this year have generally awesome grades in English, and I think overall, too. Yay!

- Girl's Club: just to keep y'all up to date on what we're doing, the last two lessons have been about how to save money to buy school supplies (saving money is not really a thing here for cultural reasons), and how to set and reach goals. That was this week, and I had each of the girls set a goal and make a step-by-step plan to get there. Hope they do-- if so, we're going to have a lot of female lawyers here in 10 years!

- Safari! Having finished the first semester, we now get a full week off of school. I'm organizing a trip for 6 of us to go to the wildlife park up north (Pendjari), and I'm really excited. Can't wait to see monkeys and elephants! Will post pictures ASAP. Cross your fingers for lions!

Friday, February 10, 2012

SHAMELESS!!! (plug)

Hello all!  My awesome volunteer friend Caroline (in Ukraine, where it is insanely cold right now) is raising money for a really cool camp.  I'm going to let her speak for herself (kid's a fantastic writer), but if you have a couple of extra bucks, please donate!

New post on not all who wander are aimless

SHAMELESS!!!!!!!!!!!! (plug)

 by carowhack
Here's a shameless plug for a camp I'm working at this summer. It's called Camp M.A.K.E. (multi-culturalism, action, knowledge, empowerment) and it will be in the east of Ukraine this July. I am VERY excited to be working for/with this camp. We'll be teaching Ukrainian youngsters about multi-culturalism and generally exposing them to people and ways of life that they don't come into contact with a lot. So here's where you come in - we need money!! I (along with the rest of the camp staff) have been working hard these past few weeks to send out donation letters begging people back in the US for money to fund our camp. I'll post the formal letter below so you can get more information but when you're reading it just remember how much you love me and want to donate to MY project.
To donate: go to the camp website - OR just go directly to the donation website at
Every amount of money helps. $5/$10/$1 ANYTHING YOU CAN GIVE. SERIOUSLY. You are all amazing. If you've already decided to donate, then you don't have to keep reading. If you still need convincing, then read on. Also - SHARE THIS WITH OTHERS. Spam facebook, your blogs, email lists etc with the donation links from above.
x's and o's you know i love you, Caroline

Dear Potential Donor,
            I'm writing to your organization for assistance funding a Peace Corps Partnership Project grant. I'm a PCV in Ukraine, and my assignment is Teaching English as a Foreign Language. This project is in collaboration with volunteers from around the country to conduct a summer camp in East Ukraine. Our goal is to develop homegrown Ukrainian leaders by teaching youth about project management, teamwork, and multiculturalism. Camp MAKE motivates, encourages, and opens the minds of youth to new ideas and new ways of doing things.  
At first glance, Ukraine is not a country you would expect the Peace Corps to be in.There are signs of what looks like a country’s development — among other things, there are roads, schools, and power stations. But, there’s a catch: the roads fall apart and aren’t repaired, the schools have no heat in winter, and the power stations occasionally blow up. Beneath the veneer of development, deep cultural attitudes and a legacy of Soviet leadership chip away at the ability of the people to organize themselves and improve their country.
In a society where individuality was openly discouraged, few people are creative enough to come up with solutions to problems.  In a country where all the native leadership was systematically destroyed for the better part of the last two centuries, too few Ukrainians are equipped with the skills to change and develop their country.
So, that’s where we — and hopefully, you — come in. As Americans, we’ve been raised to take charge, make things happen and change something if we’re unhappy with it. We question why something is the way it is, and we don’t stop at “no.” We fund raise, volunteer, work together, lead, follow and progress. We’ve been given a unique perspective at life that doesn’t agree with Ukrainians’ motto that they survive, not live. So, while we preach to our students about English grammar in front of classrooms every day, we’re also representing something else — we’re living, breathing examples of something different.
Camp is a breath of fresh air in a toxic smoke cloud. Camp is hearing a 14-year-old boy, raised in a culture that sells its women to the West say, “In a marriage, it’s not important who’s the bread-winner or who stays at home, just that both people contribute.” Camp is hearing a 16-year-old girl, raised in a culture that still refers to Black people by the N-word say “It doesn’t matter what you look like, as long as you are nice and care about other people.” Camp is listening to a group of Ukrainian teens who have just spent three days renovating a local community center discussing how a better action plan and communication would have improved their project. Camp is seeing meaningful changes in attitudes and actions.
Ukraine needs of lot of things to meet the challenges of the 21st century: clean water, medication, safe and reliable transportation, etc. Our project is designed to correct the underlying challenges that keep Ukrainians from solving their own problems: a wholesale lack of native leadership and innovation. Camp MAKE aims to create a generation of curious, creative, compassionate Ukrainian leaders. Camp MAKE focuses on the potential of Ukraine to do for herself sustainably. MAKE stands for multiculturalism, action, knowledge, and empowerment, but it means much more.
Camp makes change. Camp makes waves. Camp makes a difference.
To read more and consider helping our cause, please visit our website, or go directly to the Peace Corps donation website at:
We sincerely appreciate any help you can give. Donating to Camp MAKE 2012 will help make the possibility for a better future a reality for our promising Ukrainian youth. Thank you.
Caroline Turner, Camp MAKE Staff

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Weekly Update (2.1.12): Ant Nest! And Other Minor Disasters

  • Ant Nest!  So I was sitting on my floor reading a book when I noticed a line of teensy little ants.  This was suspicious.  I followed the line and found a whole pile of ant eggs, with dutiful little ant nannies tending to them.  Ew.  To the dismay of Buddhists everywhere, I sprayed them with a solid layer of bug spray, then reorganized the whole thing.  In the process, I...
  • Found 3 Eggs!  Like miniature chicken eggs, each about the size of a Milk Dud.  One broke, and was a little unidentifiable, fetus-y blog with black pinpoint eyes.  I was convinced and worried that they were from mice, and then I realized that mice don't lay eggs.  It is unlikely that I have miniature invisible platypuses running around the house at night, so I'm currently unsure of their origin.  Except, well, the whole lizard thing.  Cross your fingers for lizards.
  • Exams (again).  Spent this week overseeing exams.  It was boring.  Highlight: during the 6eme math exam, someone thought it'd be a great idea to burn a giant pile of trash right next to the classroom.  We all smelled like a barbecue afterward.  The end.
  • Crime and Punishment, even though it tricked me, was really good!  First half's a little wallow-y, because the guy is basically going crazy, but the end is exciting and interesting.  Score one for Russian literature.
  • Three Products I'm Loving:  I brought these things back from Amurrica, and in the off-chance you're looking for a new energy bar, sunscreen or soap, I suggest these.  They're awesome!
    Neutrogena UltraSheer Sunscreen and LemonZest
    Luna Bars!
    Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap: Peppermint!

  • That's all for this week, next update: Parakou!