Friday, June 29, 2012


This has been a week of surprises, and all good ones.

Mandee's visit itself was planned, but it was full of little adventures. I'll let her tell you about them in her upcoming special guest blog post, but I'm so amazed at one of them that I've got to just preview it.

I made plans with my friends Elise, Maman Jumeaux and Raphael to hang out the day before Mandee left. They're some of my favorite people here, and since they moved out of town I don't get to see them as often as I'd like. Mandee needed to meet them, particularly since our last few hangout sessions have involved delicious food and plenty of sodabi. Maman Jumeaux suggested that I wear this one tissu we have in common, and that sounded fun, so we agreed to arrive together.

We got there right before lunch and saw the buvette decorated, with a fancy tablecloth and real china (where did they get china??). My three friends walked in, all in the tissu I was wearing, which was a surprise and adorable.

Then Elise's mom walks in in the same tissu. And her dad...and sisters...and cousins...and Maman Jumeaux's my-age daughter... There were like 12 people, and M and I suddenly realized that they were throwing us a surprise party. They'd even bought tissu and gotten it sewn for Mandee. My people here...I'm so blown away by their thoughtfulness and generosity.

That was Surprise 1. Surprise 2 was littler: I made a deal with several of the neighborhood kids that if they could raise their overall grades by 1.5 points (a significant amount), I'd buy them a book. I finished grades and thought none of them must have made it since no one came to see me, but a few nights ago, Martial showed up. Martial lives a house over and is so sweet, hardworking and respectful... I'm taking him to boys' camp, so more on him later. Anyway, he showed up and shyly told me that he'd raised his grades by almost two whole points. I'm so proud of him, I'm grinning as I write this. He asked for an English-French dictionary, which I'll buy next week.

Surprise 3 (so many!): We had our year-end school meeting on Thursday, and after 2.5 hours of presenting and discussing grades, they mentioned my name and the fact that I was leaving. Then they started talking really fast in Gun (I caught a few words -- 1000 francs, party, gift, and eat) and everyone was smiling and giggling at my slightly lost expression. Whatever it is is happening August 18th at the school, and everyone's excited. I'm excited and still lost.

Right after that, my homologue Epiphane ran up, grabbed my hand and dragged me outside to where all of the other English professors were standing. They made little speeches about how they didn't want me to go home, but that if I was going to leave, they wanted to make sure I didn't forget them. We took a bajillion photos with the wrapped packages (they'd hired a photographer), then Epiphane brought me home. I just opened them, and I'm kind of blown over by the things they bought -- they're really nice. A traditional carved wooden statue of an African woman with a baby on her back, and this gorgeous outfit: the fancy embroidered white cloth as a top, and a hand-woven white, purple and silver skirt. Beautiful. How do I know such sweet, giving people? How did I get this life?

In conclusion, I am the luckiest person you know. The end.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Mandee's HERE!

Yaaaaaay!  So weird, and so exciting to have her here... you kind of forget all of these things that are funny or strange or just not normal, so it's fun to have someone point out the fact that the way Beninese people eat oranges is weirdly cool, and that speaking in French, English and Gun all within the same sentence is maybe not normal.

I'm not going to spoil any of her stories by telling them now, but there have been several, one of which involved traffic and a brawl.  Welcome to Africa!

Update 6.19: On Healthcare Remedies from Pioneer Times

I'm going to take a moment right now to vent a little. I have been miraculously healthy in this country. I mean, sure, food poisoning occasionally, that one time when I got a bacterial infection and my foot swelled up like a watermelon, the amoebas I've had so long I've started naming them...whatever. Point being that in general, I'm as healthy as a horse (who came up with that saying?), and I like it that way.

So it's kind of like a giant, celestial slap in the face when, this week, I started feeling icky right before my little sister arrives all the way from America. I've been so exhausted that yesterday I took no fewer than six naps, and while there's been no vomiting or fever (meaning, thank god, it's not malaria), there have been other...uh... issues. I will spare the details, friends, because I'm confused about the time difference and don't want to spoil your lunches. Suffice it to say: not fun for anyone, including the plumbing.

Today (6.19, Tuesday) I did some housework with my student Gerardine and at the end of it felt like my entire digestive system was going to explode. So I did what any little girl who has read too many Laura Ingalls Wilder books would do: I set out to make Pioneer-Endorsed Ginger Tea. Well, okay, it was just normal ginger tea, but I'm pretty sure Ms. Wilder would have approved. I went and bought 50 francs (10 cents USD) of fresh ginger, which turned out to be a lot of roots. Chopped it up, put it in a cup, added a little sugar and a bit of hot water and bam: ginger tea.

Thing is, I just drank it and don't feel that much better. I'm going to go see the docs tomorrow to see if they can find anything, but if this tea doesn't kick in soon, I'm going to have to go with some science-approved Immodium. Pioneers...this might be the end of our medical relationship. Ginger tea...pshhhh.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Updates 6.12-6.17

- And the 114 Verdicts... I have officially and finally finished calculating and entering grades for all of my students. (Teachers in America, take a moment to thank the higher powers that you have computers. Doing grades with a calculator is a pain.) Cheers! Out of 114 kids, 76 passed the semester -- two thirds. I'm pretty sure that's better than last semester, so I'm happy. :)

- Take Our Daughters to Work Day. This weekend is a big project that Victoria, Bridget and I are doing: we bring 15 girls from southern villages to Cotonou and match them up with professional, successful Beninese women. The girls shadow the women (Mamans Modeles) at work and interview them, stay at their houses and just kind of soak up everything that they can learn about being a professional woman. They spend a day with us doing workshops on goal setting, the importance of education, etc., and then we all attend a fancy dinner as kind of a ceremony for the completion of the project. I brought girls to the project last year, and they've kept in contact with their mamans -- one is even planning on spending the summer in Cotonou with hers. :) Cool project, and a good use of our weekend, I think.

- Mandee in T Minus Six! Mandee gets here in six days, on the 20th, and I gotta be honest: it still feels kind of surreal that she's coming. It's not going to be real until she gets off that plane. But I can't wait! I'm putting her on a zem immediately. Crash course in the Beninese transportation system!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Updates 6.4-6.9

- Devoirs. I spent most of this week grading papers and calculating quiz averages, so I don't have many stories to tell. I also read book #96 (getting close!), painted my toenails, and switched to a new list book. It has been an adrenaline-packed week.
- To Parakou! For my last Gender and Development Committee meeting, and hopefully tchouking*, which has been on my things-to-do list for at least a year and a half.
*Tchouk: locally-brewed millet beer. Alcoholic, made only in the middle-to-north part of the country, sold in wooden or hollow gourd bowls, and is served in an Octoberfest-tent style: you sit at a big table with strangers. Then you become best friends with them as you buy each other rounds. Fun!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Paparazza: Part 1

I realized a while ago that I don't have very many photos of village with me in least not very good ones. One of the nearby volunteers, Jessica, enjoys photography and is really good at it, so I asked her to come visit. The results:

Trying to round my class up for a photo...

Got it.

Panorama shot of my library.

Working with Ella.
With Ella, in our fully functional school library! Check out the section signs.

On my walk home from school.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Journees Culturelles: The School Party to End All

Every middle/high school in Benin has an annual multi-day party ("Cultural Days") to celebrate the end of the school year, Beninese culture, and just the school in general. My school decided to do this party before the actual end of school for some reason*, which means that my students' exam grades will probably be lower than usual. Bleh.

Anyway, so this fete. The first day involved a student-professor soccer game, which was surprisingly close (and the announcers were hilarious, making fun of the profs for everything they couldn't do). The second day was a series of theater skits and dances performed by some fantastically animated kids -- some of the dances involved the boys playing traditional drums and girls' choreography, and that was awesome. My kids can dance!

The third day, the big day, featured a class-by-class "pique-nique", meme tissu by class, and more performances. The older boys did some hilarious raps and some very uncomfortable dances that involved a lot of hip thrusting and gyrating, and sometimes just straight-up sexy-faced grinding with skimpily clad girls from their classes. At one point, three boys, flies unzipped to show shiny boxers, were grinding on three girls in matching miniskirts and belly shirts (with their SUPER sexual belly beads actually showing**). On cue, the boys turned toward the audience, put their fingers in their mouths, and slid down the girl's butts to the floor. That was the end of the dance.

The day ended with a Beninese artist and his backup dancers performing, kids singing and dancing along, and me ALMOST making it the whole three days without having to dance in front of the school. Almost. But then the artist called me out and the assistant vice principal dragged me up front, and there I was, booty popping and salsa stepping to the very best of my white-girl ability. I got a lot of cheering, and a lot of my favorite compliment: "Congratulations! You tried!"

All-in-all, not my favorite party. But hey, I went, I saw, I danced, and I never have to go again.


*Actually, I know the reason: it's because last year they had it after all the grades, including the behavior grade, were officially recorded, and the students got really drunk and crazy. School property was apparently destroyed.

**Belly beads, or strings of tiny beads worn around the hips, are worn by babies and women after puberty. For babies, they're just to be pretty and hold medicinal charms and amulets or help keep diapers up. For older girls and women, though, the beads are to be seen ONLY by your lover or husband... Flashing them around is like sitting wide-legged and panty-less in a miniskirt. Again, I was very uncomfortable, particularly because the male professors and administration definitely noticed.

Updates 5.21-5.29

-Surprise! No School! Because the school is rapidly approaching its end -- final exams begin June 4th -- it makes sense that we'd skip several days of school for older-kid practice exams and a three-day party, right? Here's the rundown of my remaining classes:
Monday 5.21- cancelled for 3eme practice exams
Wednesday 5.23 - cancelled for school party
Thursday 5.24 - cancelled for school party
Monday 5.28 - national holiday, no school
Wed/Thurs - finally get to teach, yay! Last class before exams

(week of exams: no classes)
(Post exam week: kids go crazy, skip school and refuse to learn)
So... One more class before I'm done teaching? Really?
- Last Book Shopping Spree (Probably). I did this one all by myself in Cotonou, bought lots of fun books for the kiddies, and generally had fun spending a lot of money. There's still a little bit left, and I'm kind of waiting on that to take care of other costs (supplies, library cards, etc.) before I spend it all, but we're almost finished!
- Village Love. I've been telling people that I'm leaving Daagbe August 25th, and it's been really nice to see them act sad and like they'll miss me. Everyone always asks when I'm coming back, which is also sweet... Sigh. Daagbe.
- Journees Culturelles: Giant annual multi-day school party. Kind of... crazy. This deserves another post.
- Winning. I met with my director the day before we opened the library just to run over all the rules and systems and get his final okay. We had a good, productive (!) meeting, and then, just as he was leaving, he offhandedly said, "So, if you have another 5 minutes, maybe you can come get the rest of those novels now." YES! For those of you that missed this whole thing, I've been trying for at least two months to get him to give me these books, and I've been losing. Turns out he just needed to see the almost-finished library, I guess. :)
- Grading Frenzy. We're almost at the end of school (2.5 weeks til grades are due). Because of the library and COS conference and everything else, I completely put off grading...and now I have a stack of homework assignments, quizzes, and by next week, exams to grade. I don't know if you know this, but grading stuff is really, really boring. Within two days this week I graded 135 quizzes and 39 homework pages, and still have close to 200 homeworks to go. Whew. Thank god for my iPod, new music, and a steady flow of mint tea.
- DONE! Everyone, an announcement: as of 10am on May 30th*, the CEG Daagbe school library is officially open for business. It's real! We did it!
On the first day over 57 kids came in (I stopped counting). Several students came in to look up tough words in the dictionary, and some came just to look through the books and read whatever they found -- a new thing for almost all of them. I asked one of my kids, Vietere, if he'd ever been in a library, and his response (with hilarious exaggerated hand movements) was, "Ja-Ja-JA-JA-MAISmaismaismaismais!" ("jamais" = "never" in French).

It was so much fun to see my students holding the books like they were sacred, pointing pictures out to their friends and whispering new words to themselves. This library thing has been a long, stressful project, but today, it was a bajillion percent worth it.

*Happy birthday, Andrew and Tara!!