Sunday, May 20, 2012

Updates: COS Conference and Grand Popo

In a move both awesome (no class for a week!) and detrimental (no class for a week...) to my projects, Peace Corps held the annual COS* conference this past week in Cotonou.  All of the members of my PSL** got their butts all the way down south for two jam-packed days of paperwork, explanations, planning, and career resources.

The most important part of the week was, obviously, when I got to choose my departure date (terrifying!) -- Bridget, Victoria, Sam and I will be leaving Benin on September 1st.  Whoa.  I'm starting to both dread and anticipate that date... I can't wait to see yall, but I'm going to be a bundle of tears and nerves when we hit mid-August.  More on that later.

Anyway.  So the conference was amazing.  Highlights:

  • They fed us fancy hotel food (like fish brochettes and chicken with mushroom sauce) three times a day.  By lunch of the first day, we all felt sick from stuffing ourselves (it's there!  We won't have it again until America!  Must. Eat. It. ALL.), and by dinner of the last day, most of us were just nibbling on the ridiculous dishes served to us.  Sad, but true: we just can't do rich food en masse anymore.
  • Famous!  We were on TV!  There was a ceremony and certificates presented by government ministers (the Beninese LOVE certificates), and throughout the whole thing about a bajillion cameras.  Vicky and Bridget even got interviewed on TV-- in local language (my heroes)!  Learned: if there is a camera in your face and you do not want it there, just look directly at it, wink, and do the Sarah Palin pow pow pow thing.  Works. 
  • Pool Parties!  Peace Corps Benin does do some really nice things for its volunteers, and one of those things is treating us to an amazing hotel for our COS Conference.  Our smiley training manager, Gisele, made it a point of telling us every day how proud she was of us for making it to the end, and that this conference was a celebration of our services.  It's nice to be celebrated.  Especially when that celebration takes the form of air conditioning, hot water, and a real, live, CLEAN pool.  :)
  • Vitamin C.  I will not sing the graduation song, but that's what it felt like.  The 45 of us have become an incredible support network for eachother: we've seen the best days and the worst days, heard the ridiculous stories and been indignant, fired-up, entertained, and surprised on behalf of our fellow volunteers.  This conference was the last time I'll see many of them, and it was wonderful, bittersweet, and important to spend some time together before the great depart.

Post-conference, I still didn't have school (Thursday was a national holiday, and I don't work Friday or Saturday), so a group of us went to Grand Popo for a day or two to soak up the sun and just relax.  I am sunburned, relaxed, and so happy.  Oh, explanation: Grand Popo is Benin's "resort" town, and by that I mean there are hotels and moderately clean beaches.  Because we're poor, we picked a PCV favorite for our lodging: a rasta hotel called "Lion Bar".  Every room had a different rasta on it (I was in Bob Marley), everything was red, green and yellow, all of the people working there had amazing dreads, and yes, the whole place smelled a little illegal. 

We spent two days walking barefoot in the sand, playing cards, drinking cocktails and dancing around in the surf.  It was perfect, it was beautiful, and it was just what we wanted to complete our final week of being all together.

*Seriously, people?  I have translated this way too many times already. Close of Service.
** Pre-Service Learning group, or the people that came into PC Benin at the same time as me (about 45 of us total).  PSL 23 4eva!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Pictures As Of Late

Closemates!  At GAD fundraiser, night 1.  My dress is totally and
completely covered in pockets, which are full of candy.  Interactive outfit!

Southern Girls from our stage, night 2 of GAD.  See?  We can still be pretty.

Ella, my school's new librarian.  Sweetest. Face. Ever.

E-Money and I get our completion of service certificates at our COS
(close of service) conference.Yay! Almost there!

After COS conference, a group of us went to the beach. It was a
rasta-themed hotel... hah.

Bob Marley was all over the place.

This is in Benin... surreal.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Big News!!

COS DATE: Ladies and gentlemen, we have picked our COS (close of service) dates. I will officially leave my village on August 25th and will finish my service on September 1st. Ahhhhhhhh! How is it already that soon? Crazy. I won't be coming home directly -- currently the plan is Ghana to Turkey, then Greece, then Ireland, then home -- but I'll let you know that date, too.  See you all in four and a half months!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Updates 5.7-5.12

- Two Years After Starting... This week my administration decided that my system of punishment, which has worked for the last year and a half, is now not acceptable and I need to change it. Cool. Normally, I give kids who are making trouble or talking lots in class lines (a time-honored and often creative form of punishment taught to me by Peace Corps). If they do them, it's done, and if they don't, I take one point away on their next quiz grade. Apparently this is heartless and will make all of my kids hate English...except when I asked the students themselves, they were upset and wanted me to change it back. Oh well. I'll be sending a lot more kids to the office from now on. Maybe the lost class time and potential beating will make them like English more.

- A Quiz's Worth. I was making photocopies of a quiz on Tuesday, and we had a couple of mess-up sheets. The lady put them to the side, and right before I left I asked her to please not throw them out before Friday, so that my students couldn't accidentally find a copy before they took the quiz. Her response: "Oh, don't worry! I'm taking them home. We'll use them in the latrine." Africa: where every exam has it's purpose.

- I Miss Real Men. And by that, I mean men who don't see women as secondary citizens, possessions, and/or not worthy of the same respect they demand of their wives. Lately I keep having heartbreaking conversations with professional, respected men who talk about cheating on their wives as impossible to avoid, and tell me that women are worth less than men. "It says so in the Bible." It also says we can't wear cotton-lycra blends, but j don't see anyone paying attention to that one. I love my village, but I seriously can't wait to live somewhere where I'm not surprised when a man treats me like an equal and feels guilty if he cheats on his girlfriend. America's far from perfect, but at least we usually have the guilt part down.

- Sorry, That Was A Venting Session. I just talked to our village's doctor, who's 5'0'', round and has a ridiculously thin moustache. He can't help cheating on his wife. It's just his nature as a man.

- Moving On...

- Librarian Training Starts! After finally, FINALLY getting a librarian, I just started training her this week. Ella* is kind of quiet and not quite joking with me yet (I will break her), but she's picking up the systems quickly, and when I ask her for an opinion or if she has questions, she says practical, smart things. I like her. Also, she has one of the sweetest faces I've ever seen. We're working on learning labeling and organization, and by the end of the week we should have both the rest of the books and a solidly-defined system for checking books out. She'll label the new books while I'm gone next week (for my Close of Service conference!), and then we'll need maybe a week before we're ready to open. I can see the finish line!

- Director Still Clinging to Empty Shelf Theory: After I made him promise to give me all of the school's novels that he has in his office, I made a mistake. I didn't pick them up immediately. I guess letting have time to think is working against me, because I went Thursday to take the rest of the books, and he was suddenly unwilling to give me books... because then his shelves would be empty. No matter that he already voluntarily emptied several other shelves.
This goes back to a major cultural difference that constantly baffles me: whereas Westerners horde and refuse to freely share money, Africans share money but horde knowledge. A lot of Beninese people believe that we have the cure for AIDS but won't share it, because some of their countrymen would totally do that. My director hoarding books is his way of keeping a little bit of knowledge just for himself, even if that knowledge is entirely comprised of RL Stine books and murder mysteries.

- Girls' Club. This week, sexual harassment. Not my most engaging lesson, unfortunately, but an important, necessary one, and I'm glad we did it. We came up with steps to take if one of them is being harassed by a prof/administrator, and what to say if one of their friends wanted to sleep with a prof. No girls' club for two weeks, but in the meantime I'm working on getting t-shirts -- yay! I'm thinking about an African Rosie the Riveter on the front, but would be up for any suggestions... Oh, and anyone have a good empowerment quote? Deadline's Saturday the 19th!
*Remember Clotilde, the other librarian candidate that we chose? She decided she didn't want the job. I liked Ella better anyways. :)

- I Should Make This A Less Vent-y Post. Things I'm happy about right now:
  • Mandee's visiting in 6 weeks!
  • Sherry might visit in July!
  • I'll be done with the library in 3 weeks!
  • I'm getting a cool new pink dress from the couturiere tomorrow!
  • The girls are SO excited about girls' club t-shirts! They love the club as much as I do!
  • We have Close of Service (COS) conference tomorrow...which means I've almost survived two whole years of Peace Corps!
  • And we get to stay in a fancy hotel with AC and a POOL!!
  • I'm listening to Sam Cooke!
  • My electricity and water are both working!
  • I have good friends all over the place, and I get to see them in 4.5 months!!
  • Yaaaaaay life!
K, I've worn out my allowance of exclamation points for the month, but I feel calmer. Love you all, and thanks for slogging through all of those rants!

Friday, May 4, 2012

Topsy Turvy Week (4.27-5.3)

- Very, Very Bad: see previous post. Ughhhhhhhhh.

- Adorable: A month ago my student/friend/laundry girl Gerardine came over to wash my things and I gave her a few of the pancakes I was making. Apparently, she liked them, because we were joking last week and I told her that the reason I couldn't make them was because I didn't have an egg. She got really serious and said, "So...if I bring you an egg, you can make them for me?"

Monday, she shows up at my house with a little plastic bag and a hopeful look on her face. It was an egg.

I made her a full batch of pancakes, which she then put in a bag and hid from everyone so she wouldn't have to share. I keep smiling to myself... How cute is that?

- Best Conversation of the Month: I went to school early Monday, and I ended up sitting at a table with two members of our school's administration. Both can be intimidating, both love to argue, and both had a lot of thoughts about relationships between men and women.
It was a long, complicated conversation, lots of arguments: they kept giggling about how I think a man and woman are equal and should help each other out at the house (the fact that my husband cooks for me was worthy of a laugh-induced stomach cramp from the assistant vice principal), and I kept arguing with actual logic that they treat women like they have no desires and are less worthy of respect than men, etc.
We then talked about sex, really frankly, open and closed relationships that are respectful and honest, and eventually the difference between love and desire. Somehow that fed into the Bible's declaration of men as superior to women ("But who wrote the Bible, men or women?")...and then I kicked some ass with my trivia-based knowledge of strange Bible verses (thanks, vacation Bible school!) Ultimately, I looked up and realized that I was arguing, in French, with eight adult Beninese men, and at least on a logic-based level...winning?
Nothing really changed in their lives, except for maybe them getting their wives/girlfriends/both to be more vocal in bed. (See? No shame.) They said at the end that what I said was mind-blowing and made perfect sense, was right, but that in practice, it wouldn't be happening. Still, I'm pretty happy, and not only because French came out of my mouth for 2 hours straight and I didn't come out of it seeming like a mentally handicapped four-year-old.
Even if nothing in their lives changes, the ideas are now there, explained and argued and proven reasonable. Eventually, those ideas might influence one little thing in one of their lives, one little consideration for their wives or a teensy bit of respect for a hardworking daughter, and that counts for something, right?

- Spoke Too Soon. I have heat rash again. Ah, the joys of the tropics.

- Peace Corps Prom! This weekend is GAD, our annual almost-all-volunteer get-together, wherein we try to raise funds for one if the organizations that helps us with lots of our gender/development-related projects (they paid for my world map supplies, for example). Anyway. Point is, we're all together, which almost never happens, and we actually try to look nice. GAD is the one night a year when we all pull out our makeup, get pretty American-style dresses made, and scrounge around trying to find heels and a travel hair dryer. It's an adventure, as is everything here, and it's really, really nice to remember that we can still look and feel America-pretty, even if it's only one weekend a year. Pictures soon!

A Bad Start

I was sitting on my porch tutoring a student when I learned that my new next door neighbor might be a chronic source of sexual harassment for his female students. He's an English professor in a nearby town, and he's lived here maybe a month or two. It was evening, and he wasn't there, but into our concession walked a 16- or 17-year-old girl, dressed up and looking guilty. She went to his door, knocked, then tried to just walk in, which is weirdly familiar for a student -- my students curtsy and bow when they show up at my door, and I'm not even as intimidating as a normal Beninese professor.
Anyway, she knocked, he wasn't there, she left. Twenty minutes later he drove in, and within 30 seconds she walked back in, meaning that she'd been sitting just outside the concession, in the dark alone, for all that time. They talked in lowered voices, I openly glared at them for the duration of the conversation, and she left again...only to return a minute later and walk right into his house. She closed the door behind her.
I was SO uncomfortable. I asked the student I was teaching what was happening, and she laughed at my naiveté and gave me a very clear look.
"He does this all the time. I asked a girl from his school, and she said he's not good. Girls go over to his house a lot. Did you hear his last phone conversation? It was a girl wanting to know if he would change her grade from a zero."
I almost cried right then, and the rest of our tutoring session was essentially worthless. Somehow, I guess I convinced myself that if I worked from the girl's end on sexual harrassment and didn't ask specific questions of professors who I know would name names, I wouldn't have to see it happen in person. Stupid, I know, but i made it 22 months without it being blatantly visible, and I thought I just might make it.
I didn't. I walked by a few times and looked in the window, and each time they were just sitting at the table talking. She left an hour later, and I guess I have no evidence that I should be uncomfortable... Except I am. It is not normal for a single male teacher to have a female student over to his house alone, and definitely not normal to close the door.
After she left, I confronted him-- I had to. I think I would have lost respect in myself if I hadn't. I was polite (somehow) and not too confrontational (I spoke in English so that our neighbors wouldn't hear) but I made it clear that I saw his visitor and that I wasn't okay with him having female student visitors. At all. He assured me that he was just discussing a private family matter with her, that I could always look in and see them at the table, and that a student would never go back into his bedroom. I suggested that he meet his students on his porch, outside, so that it'd be clear that he wasn't doing anything immoral. I thanked him, told him I thought I could trust him, and said goodnight.
I don't totally trust him, especially because of his reputation, but I am pretty sure that nothing happened last night. He knows now, though, that I am watching, and that I'm aware of what might be happening... Maybe that'll be enough to make him think twice. I hope it is.

Crisis Averted!

The Problem: Despite many verbal agreements (lesson learned) and hours of discussing the librarian, my director suddenly decided that the school probably couldn't pay a librarian for next year. Training her would therefore be useless, and the project would essentially fall flat.
The Developments: I made it clear to the director that he needed to come up with a game plan ASAP, and meet with the parent association (which okays all financial decisions). On Wednesday, a Peace Corps administrator came by my post to see the project. My director was of course not there (even though I informed him and then reminded him daily for a week), so the PC lady (African, which makes her style of interaction with my school admin even more awesome) and I talked about the issue while we waited for him to come back. He came back, told her about the problem himself (big boy star for him), and then she laid into him.
It was all polite and Beninese-appropriate, but there's something just fascinating about watching a woman totally refuse to let my director bullshit his way through a conversation. Every time he would interrupt her to try to explain or make an excuse, she'd just raise her voice a little, ignore him, and keep on talking. I was supremely uncomfortable to be stuck between the two, but I have to admit, that part was fun. I consistently love watching our Peace Corps admin women interact with non-PC men.
Anyway, she basically ran him down until he promised to send her a signed copy of the librarian's contract for the next two years. She won. I won. The project continues.