Friday, April 27, 2012


Big, angry, smack-you-in-the-face curveball. Here's how it happened.

I've been stressing out for weeks about this librarian thing- I wanted the person I hired to be perfect so that when I'm gone, the library will be in good, capable hands. I found two candidates, interviewed them, then spent lots of time weighing and worrying about the options. At the last second before I was supposed to meet with my director to finalize the choice, he announced that he'd found another candidate and wanted me to interview her. This is not the curveball.

I meet her. I ask her questions. She's not too easy to get talking, but she's smart and understands both libraries and system management. I meet the director, we chat, we choose her. He calls her into the office and motions to me. I offer her the job.

Director: "Congratulations, yes, we'll be very happy to have you. Can you start Wednesday? Yeah, so this year Mme. Melissa will pay your salary, and then next year... Well, we might pay you... Or we might just get some professors to volunteer to take care of things... I don't really know yet, we'll see..."

Um, what?

"Yeah, the parent association hasn't accepted to pay the librarian for the next year, so I need to talk to them first..."

It should be noted at this point that the school paying a librarian for minimum two years after I leave was one of the conditions I required before starting the project. That means he was fully informed last September, and we've talked about that obligation several times since. This should not be an issue, ESPECIALLY not this late I'm the game.

I was pissed. I still kind of am, but now I'm functional and pushing forward. I'm not paying a librarian tjis year if all of that training will be wasted next year when they don't hire her back. So, the plan: He's having a meeting with the parents within the next week. I will be at that meeting, and I will present the project and push for funding. A Peace Corps administrator came and visited my post last Wednesday, and she helped me out a lot by calling him out on the issue and making him promise to get a signed contract of engagement for a librarian by next week. Hopefully things will work out if I stay on top of them... But seriously, waiting til April, after I hired a librarian, to unveil this giant, seriously project-altering problem? Not cool, sir. Not cool.

Blogs 4.19-4.27

- In General: A busy but not very accomplished week. I felt like I was always running around doing something, but don't feel like I crossed much off of my ever-growing pile of lists. Case in point: while I made lots of phone calls and even met with my director twice, we still haven't chosen a librarian.

- Stormy Weather. I think it's rainy season! Evidence: twice this week I have ridden to school in the pouring rain, showing up soaked to the bone and muddy. I miss cars. Much more professional in this weather. Also related to this title, I'm on an Ella Firzgerald/Etta James/Louis Armstrong/Sam Cooke kick. Yay. :)

- Major League Curveball. Actually, this deserves it's own post... There will be ranting.

- Success! My unofficial goal for this couple of weeks was to get at least one student to give me free mangoes. They're all over the place, literally falling out of trees, and so I just needed someone to go collect them for me. I employed all of my best hinting techniques (do you know how many sentences you can work the words "Madame" and "mango" into? It's a lot). I oohed and aahed when I saw them eating mangoes. And yet, despite promises and empassioned declarations of fruit-related intent, I got no mangoes.
UNTIL today. Yes, my friends, my sweet orange dreams have been fulfilled not by my actual students (blast them all), but by Louise, a 3eme girl I tutor.

A moment to brag about her: she's an incredibly hardworking girl, probably 17 or 18 years old, and this past semester, she was the top student in her class. Not top girl. Top student, in a grade where boys outnumber girls 3:1. She's amazing. And Louise just brought me a bag of 10 perfectly ripe mangoes., just because. I love her.

- Reunited and It Feels So Good. Pierrette and I are friends again! I stopped by her place with my friend Victoria, who is getting a Sonny-and-Cher-inspired disco jumpsuit made out of tissu (not a joke, will have pictures in two weeks). I brought up one of the issues I had with her in the most indirect Beninese way I could, and while she didn't actually apologize (that doesn't happen), she tried to explain it away, castigated me for "holding it in my heart" for so long, and then gave me free biscuits. Beninese apology: check. Crisis averted. I went to her house on Sunday, as per our tradition, and she was nothing but fun and friendly and undemanding. Honeymoons are wonderful, aren't they?

Friday, April 13, 2012

Trip to KandiLand!

Trip to KandiLand!

Way up north in Benin, where the humidity disappears in favor of lots of dust and most people are Muslim rather than voodoo or Catholic, there's a little city called Kandi. Kandi holds the smallest of Peace Corps's offices ("workstations") with only 8 people using it as their home base. Because their last building was kind of falling apart, PC just moved the workstation to a new place, and a few of us southerners made the very long trek up north to go to the housewarming. Noteworthy events:

- Thanks to a bus breakdown and several unnecessarily long stops, the bus ride took from 6:30 AM to 9:30 PM, 15 hours. It's just over 400 miles, so in America, that'd be like six and a half hours. Cool.

- We got out at one of the stops to go to the latrines, and the little boys manning the station (12ish, I'd guess) started telling us that we were going to go to bed with them. Sexually harassed at 10 AM by preteens. They start 'em young here, huh?*

- Menu: baked potatoes, pasta salad, chili, bread with BUTTER, and, as the centerpiece, and entire barbecued pig. Also, BBQ sauce and key lime pie. We ate at 2, and as I write this it's 7... I'm still uncomfortably full. Ughhh, but SO good... Later, cards and good company. :)

- Kidnapping Jenny! I'm kidnapping my friend Jenny from up north and taking her to my post for a few days. Yay! She's been to my post before, but this time she'll get to hang out and come to school, etc.  Visitors! My village must think I'm running a hostel.

- AMAZING NEWS! Mandee, my little sister,** just sent me her confirmation note from Air France... TO VISIT MEEEE! Aaaaaahhhhh! I'm so excited!!!!!!!x137327856853^4674!!!! June 20th can't come soon enough!!

*Don't worry, ladies, I told them in English with pretty clear hand gestures that their itty bitty penises were far too small and ineffectual to be of interest to us. That shut them up. 

**Mandee's the second out of three sisters in my family, is 21, and is awesome (obviously, both of my sisters are. It's just some weird genetic thing...). More importantly, we look a lot alike, especially to people who don't see a lot of white people. I'm totally going to convince people that we're twins (considered supremely lucky here) despite the fact that I've told them my actual family setup a bajillion times before. I'm pretty sure it'll work.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Pictures, Part 2: Stuff in Village

So... I realize I'm posting 8 blog posts in one day.  Sorry!  That's what happens when you don't see a computer for 3 weeks.

Femi, my couteriere's little niece, in full-on hyper mode.

I made vertical files for my library!  Thank god for leftover world map
paints and a little creativity.

My local midwife, teaching my girls' club about sex and its consequences.

Gerardine, my student, laundry girl and friend, with her fat little
brother Jonathan.

With some of my really good friends, Mama Jumeaux (Juliette) and
GbloGblo.  The party was for her uncle, I think.

Cute kids at their family fete.  The family wore the blue version of the tissu,
the nearby cousins wore the purple version, and everyone else (including
me) wore the brown version.

With Pauline, who's studying to be a primary school teacher.  Please note
that I did not make myself look like a giant rabbit.  Someone else did that
to me.

Vicky teaches my girls' club about how to use condoms correctly.  The girls
thought the condoms-are-NOT-too-small demonstration (stretching them
over our forearms to the elbow) was hilarious.

My corn earrings!  Ears of corn... hahahah.

What I've been doing for the last two weeks: labeling and
coding SO many books.

Many many many many books.

Not done yet, but it's coming along!

Pictures, Part 1: Women's Day in Vakon

Victoria, organizer of the Great Vakon Women's Day 5k, gives a
pep talk to the girls participating before the race starts.

Ready, set, go!

Vicky reads off the names of the 5k race winners.
One of Vicky's major projects in village has been to train a group of high
school students to give health information sessions in local language.
Here, some of her Peer Educators teach their audience about malaria, using
a question-and-answer setup all in Gun.
Kid with a goat necklace.

Chicken in the Road

I can't remember if I blogged this, but it makes me laugh every time I think about it, so I'm going to tell it again.

I was riding my bike back from school a few weeks ago, thinking very hard about something and thinking very little about the road ahead of me. This frequently gets me into trouble, as people only use a foot-wide track down the road going both ways (despite its being a normal two-way-sized road), so not paying attention means you run a pretty high risk of collision. Anyway.

I was biking home and not looking ahead of me. In the split second before I ran over it, I saw a white mass, feathers...a chicken. I swerved, nearly falling over, and off to the right I heard a big collective gasp, then a relieved sigh. I looked toward the noise. There, I saw a group of no less than 15 people -- men, women, toddlers, topless grandmas -- all sitting there, watching this dead chicken. This was their afternoon activity. They were sitting on a log, just hanging out and waiting for someone to run over an already run-over bird. Better than TV.

The Legend of the Retracting Penis

Last week I was sitting at a table at school with the vice principal and a bunch of other profs. The vice principal had a story on his mind. He had recently heard, from the friend of a friend, about a really, really mean man.

Why was he mean? "This man got mad at another man, and he did some gri gri (voodoo magic) against him. The mean man told the other man the next day that he'd better not touch his wife or something bad would happen.

"The second man (against whom the first had done gri gri) slept with his wife -- how could he possibly help himself? The next day, the second man was with some friends when all of a sudden, he started sweating. Then he started shaking violently, and suddenly his penis got harder than it'd ever been in his life. Slowly, painfully, it started shrinking, shrinking, shrinking, until finally it turned inside out and retracted all the way into his body. And you know when that happens, you die."

The best part of hearing the story wasn't even the story itself, though I feel that this is a pretty excellent example of a voodoo story. No, the best part of this story was the fact that absolutely no one doubted the possibility or verity of the events recounted. Instead, we then spent half an hour discussing how someone could be so incredibly mean and twisted as to forbid someone to sleep with his own wife, when we all know that life without sex leads to death. What man could deny another a functional penis? Who could be so...evil?

Updates 4.4-4.9

- Librarian Interviews. I started interviewing our two candidates for librarian this week. Exciting, but surprisingly political -- two profs I know well and like each suggested someone. One candidate is a man who has an education level way above what we can pay for, but he said he still wants the job. Seems nice, didn't call me cherie, etc.  My main worry with him is that he secretly hopes/expects the pay to be higher, despite my telling him it'll 100% stay the way it is. And/or he would leavr next year if he found something better. Also, he clearly doesn't read for fun, but...not many people do here.

The other one, a girl about my age, I met a few nights ago. She's the sister of a prof, is married, and finished the first part of high school, which is the education level we're able to pay for. She's nice and seemed excited about working with kids. Worries with her are that she was super shy when I met her... Might just be her meeting a blanche for the first time, but if it's not, I'm not sure she'll be able to stand up to pushy profs and administrators who might want to break the rules. Will keep you posted.

- What Happened to Pierrette? Something's off. I started bringing volunteers to see her (she's my seamstress) about a month ago, and now...I think she's kind of forgotten what our relationship is like. She essentially forced me to buy tissu for a fete (party/commemoration) didn't really want to go to, sewed it into a little above-the-knee dress and got annoyed when I insisted on wearing leggings, and then tried to get me to leave my visiting friend at home while I went to the fete without her. Why? Because the friend wasn't wearing the same tissu. Seriously? She's been bossy and demanding, and is kind of treating me like a yovo doll instead of a friend lately. Frustrating. I'm going to slow up on bringing her stuff for a while, and also not bring more volunteers for a bit. Maybe she just got American-ed out.

- But Really, Life's Good. Besides my various stressors, things are going well. I've been working a bajillion extra hours a week to get the books labeled and ready, and I'm now shooting for mid May to open. Earlier if I can get the librarian trained fast enough. Village friends are doing well, and one just had a new baby boy! African babies come out surprisingly light-skinned, so I got to make the joke where I call the baby my yovo friend... Constantly amusing to everyone involved. No girls' club this week because of exams, so we start back up when I start teaching again after our really stupid two-week break. Yes, time off to travel will be nice, but do we really need to take more time off of class to relax? I've taught six and a half weeks since the beginning of January. That's stupid.

- Spring Breaaaaaaak! Vicky, Bridget and I are heading up to Kandi (way northeast) to celebrate the opening of the new workstation up there. It will be a much-needed break from my projects. I need to breathe and bond with friends.

- Addendum to Last Point (Added the Following Day): Spring break is cancelled! I'm going to fast forward through the details, but basically the government cancelled the break because of the strike, so now we're supposed to teach all of April. Because as volunteers we taught during the strike (which started in January) and this is the second-year PCVs' last chance for vacation*,  Peace Corps decided to let us take a week off anyway, which is remarkably cool of them. This is actually kind of the best case scenario for me: a week more to cram grammar rules into my kids' skulls and work on library stuff, PLUS a very necessary break from all of those things. And in perfect time to celebrate my birthday!

*PC rules stipulate that you can't take vacation in the first three months or last three months of service. For me, that means no more vacation after May.

- Bonne Fete! I did Easter in village again this year, which was a good choice. The actual day of Easter not much happens, but the next day is a multi-village Catholic celebration called Galilee. We went to church (again, and this one was four hours long), danced up to the front to give offering, ate spicy rice with spaghetti noodles on top, and then watched groups of students do dances and skits. When one of them is doing a good job, you can walk up and stick a coin to their forehead as a compliment. Normally they'd keep it, but this time it went to the church, kind of like a fourth, talent-inspired offering.

My student/friend Gerardine was dancing well, so I did this. Then another friend Ade (pregnant, my age) made me stay up on stage and dance in front of everyone. Embarrassing (I don't have even a semblance of rhythm next to most of them, and about 20 of my students were in the audience) but still fun. Everyone went wild when I attempted the shimmy-booty pop combo that's big around here... When else am I going to dance uninhibitedly in front of 400 people who think I'm great just for trying? Never, that's when. Also, to my future children: prepare yourselves. I'm saving embarrassing dance moves just for you.

Updates 3.28-4.3

- Stop Post: May. I'm not sure why, but the mail system here seems to have gotten way worse as of this calendar year- there are at least two packages that have been in the mail since January and still aren't here (that's 3 whole months). As such, I'm issuing my Stop Sending Me Presents announcement for the beginning of May. After May 1st, don't send me packages anymore, because I'm not positive I'd get them before leaving. Letters will still be fine though, and much appreciated! :)

- Visitors Galore. In this past week, I've had three visitors. Two of them came because they were bored of Cotonou and/or had nothing to do at post until Monday, and then Vicky came to do a condom demonstration for girls' club (more on that in a sec). It's so much fun to show off your village to people, to kind of see it through their eyes. It makes me proud when I can walk from one end of village to the other and every baby and every group of mamans, knows my name and waves at me.* And when men driving by on motos now call me "Madame" and smile instead of leering and yelling "Mademoiselle, cherie!" or "La Blanche!".

Those are changes that I've made, just by being here and being patient, and by explaining nicely what I want from village friends. It's fun to show off projects, too -- the world map is always an attention-getter -- but the things I'm happiest to show fellow volunteers are the social interactions that I'm lucky enough to have. I am, at least to some extent, an accepted part of my village, and I'm so proud of that.

- FANtastic. Pun...sorry. My fan works! One of my visitors, Andrea, started tinkering with my fan, and now it kinda works! I have to stand in front of it and manually spin the wing things for 5-10 minutes before the motor kicks in, but still. Yay! Fan! Also, it rained twice this week, which seems promising (and cooler).

- Condoms, Condoms, Condoms! In continuing with my sex ed theme in girls' club, I brought my friend Victoria in to talk about safe sex and how to use condoms correctly. In America, I'm really against abstinence-only education, and even though I think pushing abstinence makes more sense here to some extent: in this culture and with their age level, it's really tough for me to believe that most girls are making an informed, uncoerced decision to become sexually active, whereas in America, most 7th grade girls are dating peers, not 32-year-olds or teachers.

That said, I still think it's super important to teach how to have sex safely, because some of them are going to decide to give it a go. I don't want any of my girls to be the next pregnant drop-out. Melanie was heartbreaking, and if it was a girls' club girl... Anyway.

So Victoria came and talked about why condoms are a good choice, and then she pulled out a wooden phallus and showed them how they work. Last year, the girls were timid and didn't want to even watch, but this year, everyone grabbed a condom and followed along -- so awesome. They volunteered to do the demo themselves and cheered when their fellow girls got it right...we made such a commotion that Vicky ended up doing a second talk for a group of 4eme girls that overheard and really wanted to learn how condoms should be used. We also did myth busting to start the girls thinking about how to argue when their boyfriend tells them that condoms break (they don't use them correctly), or they're too small (we stretched them over our arms to disprove that fact, and the girls thought that was hilarious).

Overall, a very positive and informative meeting, and a huge thanks to Vicky. Next club (after our 2-week spring break): negotiating techniques for saying no or not now to sex. Stay tuned!

- Time for Classes? Devoirs are this week, so we don't teach. The next week starts our 2 week spring break. I will teach one week in April, two in May, and one in June. Ridiculous.

- Director REALLY Wants Cat Poop. But cat now basically refuses to poop inside (thank god, it smells) since he's outside most of the time. Once I locked him inside for 3 days and he STILL didn't poop. I hate locking him in because the house starts smelling like his pee, but the director keeps demanding his poo and sending other profs to do the same. I keep telling him that he can borrow my cat for a week, but he refuses. Why do I have to do the smelly work? He should just buy a cat already. I guess I'll just have to tie poor Popsicle up outside... :(

*Once this week, though, I was walking with a visitor when one of the village folles ("crazies", not my term) walked up, wrapped her arm around me, and started babbling in Gun about money. She wanted it. I shook her off, but she (topless, of course) followed us for the whole length of the village (like 2k) pretending to understand our conversation, laughing when we laughed, and continuing to ask for money: "Give me 100 francs. Or give me a million francs." You know, whichever I preferred. She'd stop when we stopped, pulling up a chair when we stopped to buy bread. Everyone thought it was hilarious -- the folle following the yovo! -- and would try to help us, but she wouldn't leave. Finally a teenage girl chased her off with a broom... Oh my. My life. On the upside, that's definitely a story, and my visitor was a great sport. :)

Updates 3.24-3.27

- I just had a really great day. I'm not even sure what was so great about it... I bought library things in Porto-Novo, saw Victoria for coffee, labeled books in the library, tutored a girl... I think it was just one of those days when everyone I saw smiled and said hi, calling me "Sister" or "Madame" or "Melissa" (or "Amalissia") instead of "yovo." Those smiles and familiarity mean a lot.

- Sex Ed, Continued. The local midwife (medically trained, very respected) came to girls' club and talked about sex:  the necessary terminology and definition, and the consequences. Some of the things she said were a little unusual (like, "Having sex early or too often will made you ugly and old very fast."), but in general the information was solid and much clearer than I would have managed. Plus I got to ask leading questions, which let me stay in control of the direction of the talk.

Next week, Victoria (my good friend and nearby health volunteer) is coming to explain contraception and how to CORRECTLY use a condom. I, for the record, think abstinence-only education is stupid* (ahem, Texas...).

- Working Butt Off = Refreshing. This last week or so I've been spending every available minute working in the library. I've had a pretty great last week or so, so I'm thinking maybe my busy-ness is related. Being productive is so awesome! I feel useful! Yaaay!

- Stamp Crazy. The director is giving me lots of the books that have been locked in his office for years, and i'm thrilled about that -- it's over 400 important, very useful resources. The school's administration is very, very focused on making it clear that those books belong to/were given by them, and as a result they're marking them as their territory pretty... Uh... Obsessively? They want each book to be stamped essentially in every blank space in the entire book (to discourage theft, I think). Guess who gets to do that work? Yes, I get to stamp the books around 10 times per book. Because they couldn't find anyone else to pee on their fire hydrants for them. Ahem, I mean, stamp their books. I do appreciate having work, but this just seems unnecessary. If it's so important, pee on your own books, people!

*Besides, you know, being incredibly ineffective in reducing teen pregnancy and STIs.

Updates: 3.19-3.23

- Mali Shuts Down. So remember how last post I was really upset about not being able to go to Mali in April? Well, turns out I probably wouldn't be able to go anyway: they're currently having a coup, so the country's a no-no for all PCVs the world over. Sigh. Maybe in August...

- Boss Meets Egoun. My Peace Corps boss Taibatou came to visit me/my director in village to talk about me getting replaced by another volunteer when I leave (gah!). My director, polite and impressed by my (strong, well-dressed, polite but outspoken, kind of awesome female African) boss, takes us to a buvette for a soft drink. As we order who walks in? Egoun.

That's right, Egoun, the probably always drunk, dancing, goofy voodoo fetish. He immediately starts yelling, in his Louis Armstrong voice, for a large beer. No one is sure how he would drink said beer, as his face is covered with what looks like a sequined, embroidered ski cap, but he really wants it. The director laughs and ignores him, Taibatou is silently focusing on her soft drink, and I feel awkward.

I'll fast forward through the next ten minutes of Egoun calling for beers, singing the yovo song (incorrectly, somehow), and demanding money while we all sit there awkwardly. Eventually the director paid him off (just a little tip, really) and he left. Taibatou's response: "Egoun used to be sacred. Now, he's just a joke." Ooh, Egoun, buuuurn.

- Library: We have books! More, I mean! Gabriel and I finally went and bought books in the Porto-Novo marche (picture me sitting quietly with a bag full of money, Gabriel arguing like a champion for good prices, and no less than 8 different men and women crowding frantically around us with their offerings). This process took 3.5 hours and still isn't done. The very next day, I went to the director's office and discovered that he's decided to give the library a whole bunch of books that I guess he had kind of hidden in his office...including many of the ones I'd just bought. Oh well, we'll just have lots of those important ones. I'm really excited- it looks great so far! Now, labeling and librarian. Will keep you updated.

- SO HOT. Ladies and gents, it is hot-and-humid-as-hell season. It is so hot that I start sweating within 4 minutes of a cold shower, wake up in a pool of transpiration, and have at least 3 people a day say to me, "Wow, you're really sweating. I guess it's not this hot where you're from, huh?" I, like everyone in my village, have heat rash, except mine is even on my scalp. No one can sleep, except for me when I take Tylenol PM. (Yes, I know that's probably unhealthy.) I hate my fan for breaking, and I'm praying for the end of April, when the rainy season will come.

- Welcome. Every time I take my backup phone to school with me, I get a "Welcome to Nigeria" message. Hah.

- School Update: The professors are all now showing up to school, but several are JUST showing up. They go to class and sit there, or take a nap, or talk on the phone. It's just a few of them, but until they start again, the government's not announcing the new end of the school year. Most people think it'll be done by the end of June/early July (meaning we wouldn't have to change camp dates), but no guarantees yet.

What is certain is that on that official last day of school, the second I am done teaching, I'm buying myself a large, icy cold beer. Celebration of survival.

- Ears of Corn. In marche success stories, I found a pair of earrings in my local market for 50 francs (10 cents). They're are tiny golden ears of corn! On my ears! So clever!

- Need New Music. Anyone? Anyone?