Sunday, July 29, 2012


My Camp GLOW girls -- Sandrine, Albertine, and Benedicte
Camp GRACE boys and tutors.  Boys (Martial, Saturnin, Charle, Narcisse,
and Louis), tutors (Gabriel, Epiphane)
We met this kid (my hero) who wore Spiderman pajamas AS REAL
This kid, Saturnin, was like most Beninese people completely terrified
of snakes.  The entire time he had this one on, his entire body was
shaking. But he did it!  He's a champ!

Learning about Beninese history at the Route des Esclaves.

Updates (7.14-7.21)

- To Bridget's House We Go! About a year ago Bridget moved from one little village to an even tinier village nearby. I hadn't had the chance to visit up until now, so last weekend a couple of really good friends (Matt, Michelle, Vicky) and I made the trip to the other side of the south. Her village is gorgeous and remote, all forests and hills and tunnels of jungle foliage, and I loved getting to see how many people just absolutely adore her there. Every kid we passed called out "Tata Brigitti!", and when we arrived at least five people came by to say hello. It was a great night full of good food and wine and wonderful people.

- Weekend in Cotonou. Post-Bridget's we headed down to Cotonou for the quarterly volunteers-and-administration meeting, which was mainly an official excuse for us to hang out with several awesome COSing volunteers (PStarr, Dione, the Spencers) for the last time. Strange to say goodbye to some people who have been there with me since the beginning, like Dione: she and I learned French together from the first day, and she's been one of my most constant sources of support, hilarious stories, and positive energy since then. I'll miss her here and I hope I get to see her sometime back in the States, where I imagine she'll be thrilled at the speedy Internet she can use to Google thousands of pictures of entertainingly-clothed baby animals. Dione, you've had a big part in making my service what it's been, and I'm going to miss your excellent jambons. How is your head?

- A Bad Day. Had kind of a mid-week slump, but thanks to friends and a spaghetti omelette dinner with my post mate Kalyn, I'm feeling much better.

- 100! Just finished "The Brothers Karamazov", which is my 100th book read while in Benin. Goooooal! Also, Russian literature? Way more fun than I'd expected.

Strangers in a Not-So-Strange Land

You know how sometimes you end up somewhere completely unexpected and don't really know how it happened? Last Friday my friend Maman Jumeaux invited me to come visit her boss's house in Porto-Novo, where she works as a cook. I knew they were Pakistani and Muslim missionaries, but somehow it didn't occur to me that that meant it was a completely different culture. I showed up to about 20 women (the men were staying elsewhere) and a bunch of kids, all wearing long sari-like outfits and gold jewelry, all speaking in a language I couldn't even begin to decipher. Some spoke a little English or French, but mostly our conversations were stunted. I did better with the kids, who went to a bilingual English-French school and were funny, at one point even chastising me for dancing. Apparently in their branch of Islam, dancing is inappropriate.*

It was a fascinating day. The women arrived in long hijabs and veils, spoke in Urdu and laughed about things I didn't understand. I watched them make a delicious spicy chicken sauce and chickpeas with rice...must learn to cook South Asian food. Also learned that after two years, I'm way more Beninese than I thought I was. I found myself teaching the kids words in Gun and telling people "bon assise" way too often, and I was infinitely more comfortable hanging out with the Beninese kitchen staff than sitting in the air conditioning with the other yovos. Turns out that sharing a skin color does not make you the same, and that I'd much rather joke with the locals than pretend to blend in with people who are strangers here like me.

*The ban on dancing makes me seriously wonder about their success rate in converting the masses: I know my Beninese friends, Muslim, Christian and otherwise, and I can't imagine a single one of them subscribing to a religion that forbids them to dance. Here is a place where it is appropriate and acceptable to dance and sing pretty much anywhere just because you feel like it -- church, at the market, as you walk down the street -- and it feels impossible to reconcile that rhythm and joie de vivre with any religion that deems dancing improper. It seems unAfrican, somehow.

Friday, July 27, 2012

In Brief: Speed Updates for June/July

My update lag time is embarrassing. In an attempt to catch up, I'm going to do quick little notes on each of the big recent events, maybe even with complete sentences. Aaaaand, go!

Take Our Daughters to Work Day Weekend (June 14-16)
With fifteen girls, fifteen very busy professional Beninese women, and seven volunteers, TODTWD was a frenzied weekend for those of us organizing it, but it went kind of...spectacularly. Vicky, Bridget and I ran it, and it was kind of cool to see how seamlessly we worked together. We had a fantastic group of women (Mamans Modeles) acting as one-on-one hosts for the girls, and a solid group of smart, interested girls. After shadowing their Mamans at work on Friday, the girls came in to our workshop excited to tell everyone about what they'd seen. We passed Saturday doing little sessions on what they'd learned, study skills, goal setting, and public speaking, then went to a big fundraiser our Gender and Development committee was putting on. The girls got all dressed up with their Mamans and got certificates (Beninese people LOVE certificates), and we sent them home to their villages the next day. Success!

Mandee Visits! (June 20-27)
We took notes. Among them:
  • Within 40 minutes of being in Benin, Mandee is on a zemidjan (motorcycle taxi) that gets in a fight while driving at a high speed down a very busy street. At a stoplight, several men get off of their motorcycles to yell angrily in Mandee's zem. Mandee looks at me across the street, eyes as big as dinner plates, as I frantically make the Beninese hand sign for "come here!" She interprets the hand sign as the American one for "it's fine".  Oops. Eventually I run across the traffic to her, drag her by the hand to my zem and jump on behind her. High speed evacuation success, and in retrospect a good story for the books.
  • The next day, Mandee's zemidjan completely loses us on a very long drive to a very small, distant restaurant. I spend 20 minutes on my zem freaking out about how I have just lost my not-fluent-in-French baby sister in giant, incredibly confusing Cotonou. Upon arriving to our destination, we realize that her zem just took a shortcut to beat us there.
  • We dress the same on purpose all week, successfully bewildering many of my village friends. Point for the yovos.
  • Mandee says the following: "Every once in a while... I don't know how it happens... I just end up chewing on a piece of sand."
  • Mandee generally wins African hearts. Among her greatest moments (in my opinion): having an adorable Franglais conversation with a female student I tutor, who has since asked after her about 70 times. Eating pate with her hands on her first day in village, thus impressing my entire neighborhood. Convincing my student Gerardine to show her how to peel an orange Beninese-style (it involves razors), and laughing when hers was a little...artistic. Charming my director and village chef so much that they took us out to get dinner at 10pm. And finally, teaching little kids to take photos, which they absolutely loved.
  • I already blogged this, but some of my best friends threw Mandee a surprise party, even getting her an outfit out of tissu so she would match all of us. So sweet! I keep remembering their generosity and feeling so lucky to know these people, to be here in this country.  And I'm incredibly glad that Mandee got to come here and meet them. Thanks, Panda! I love you!

End-of-the-Year Professor Meeting (June 28)
As after every semester, we met on the 28th to discuss how the students did at CEG Daagbe and what we can be doing better. Everything was fairly standard (not stellar, but at least 91% of my classes past their grade). Then the director stood up and said, "You know that our friend Madame Melissa is leaving soon, and you know what we have to do, right?" Everyone said "Yes!" and started smiling at me and giggling. Then they all spoke really fast in Gun, and all I understood was an amount of money, "gift," and "party." I really am a fan of those words. It's a secret, so no one will tell me anything, but whatever's happening will be August 18th. I'll keep you posted.

Directly after the meeting and the food, my work partner Epiphane pulled me aside and excitedly told me that the English professors had a surprise for me. They handed me two packages (so sweet!) and we took lots of pictures together. I got home and opened the packages to discover a beautiful hand-carved statue of a woman carrying water and a gorgeous outfit. Amazing gifts from really genuine, kind friends who told me that now I won't forget them (as if I could). Lucky. So lucky.

Sherry Visits and Camp GLOW! (July 1-7)
My fantastic college friend Sherry came all the way from Dallas to visit me and come to our annual girl's camp. Sherry's one of those people who's both hilarious and really thoughtful about things like girls' empowerment (she's the person who introduced me to my favorite feministy website,, in college), and I absolutely adore the conversations we have. Anyway. Camp GLOW.

We arrived at Camp on the 1st with my three girls (Benedicte, Albertine and Sandrine) in tow, and almost immediately Sherry seemed taken with everyone there. The feeling was mutual, and for the rest of the week I rarely saw Sherry without two or three girls talking to or just staring adoringly at her. She was fantastic. :)

Like last year, our days were packed with activities and presentations, and the girls learned about a lot of important things: gender roles vs. their actual capabilities, rights of women and children under Beninese law, malaria, puberty, sexual health and hygiene, financial planning, sexual harassment, HIV/AIDS, goal setting, public speaking, and study skills. They took field trips to the National Assembly and an agricultural teaching project (Songhai), learned to type on a computer, played football (traditionally a boys-only game), and sang lots of songs the volunteers taught them.* We also had a dance party.

It was a pretty fantastic week. I was less amazed this time around, less sparkly-eyed at everything, but no less impressed by the enthusiasm and interest the girls threw into all of the information we gave them. They loved being there, loved being amongst their peers, being told that they, the girls, were important and smart and worth everything we could do for them. It's no less inspiring to me now, two years into service, to see how girl's eyes shine when you tell them they're smart, they're valuable, that they can do things with their lives. I hope they know how true that is.

Sherry was only in village for a day after we took the girls back, but it was really nice to have her see all of my people and places... I know I'll need to discuss these things when I get back, and having her as a witness for my life here will be invaluable. Better, though, were the Rice-y conversations we had and memories we laughed about -- I love my friends in Peace Corps, but there's just something irreplaceable about the quirky-curious way my college people think. I love it. I miss it. And I'll be glad to get a refresher in October.

*College friends, you'll be proud to know that Sherry and I taught the little ladies not only the chorus to the Jones/Eye of the Tiger song, but also the undeniably true chant: Jones Wins Again!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Erm... so I owe you some updates.  Kind of a lot of them.  I will get on that very very soon, I promise, but in the meantime, I made a fun map!

This is what my COS Trip, the trip I'll take when I get out of Peace Corps, will look like*.  It's a long and pretty awesome trip (Sept. 1-27th) and I can't wait for the adventures! Although, to be honest, I'll be pretty/supremely excited to get on that last flight home.  Mom and Dad have already agreed to arrange for a burger to be present at my arrival.  See?  I'm on top of things.

*It is, since the map got a little unclear, Benin-Ghana-Turkey-Greece-Ireland-Ohio.