Friday, August 31, 2012

Visa Photos: Don't You Want to Travel With Us?

Our respective visa photos (Bridget, Lissa, Victoria).  Please note that
Bridget looks like she's a lost child, Vicky looks like she might be a serial
killer, and that my neck was deemed "too white" to photograph, hence the
scarf.  Want to be our friend?

COS Week

  • ARGHHHHH.  COS week was kind of badly planned.  There were too many of us, plus half of the staff was gone (to be fair, some had emergencies), and the end result was that several of us ended up incredibly, incredibly stressed out.  After a day and a half of waiting and coming back and waiting and coming back, I burst into tears in front of a staff member, at which point they finally gave me a receipt to do what I needed to do: go to the cashier, give her 5,000 CFA, sign a paper, then have her hand me 5,000 CFA and sign another paper.  A day and a half, people.  Cheers for bureaucracy.
  • Medical Surprise. Don't worry, it's not HIV. On Wednesday, I tested positive for tuberculosis, but don't freak out.  I don't have actual active tuberculosis, and I could cough directly into your lungs and you wouldn't catch it (wanna try?).  What it means is just that at some point during my service, someone with TB got too close and the germs got into my system, so my body started making the antibodies.  As long as my immune system isn't compromised, it shouldn't ever develop into active TB, and unless it becomes active, I can't transmit it.  Repeat: I AM NOT CONTAGIOUS. I did an x-ray to prove it.

    Now, the sucky part: we're going to redo the test in the States just to double check, but assuming it's the same (it will be), I'll have to do nine months of treatment.  The kicker: no alcohol.  That means no drinks for almost a year, probably starting at the very end of October.  You can now officially call me Sister Mary Melissa.
  • But In The End... I finally, finally got my paperwork finished.  Guys, I am officially a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer.  I did it!

    I'll probably blog a couple more times, because it turns out that blogging's kind of an addiction.  But just since I feel a sense of completion and closure right now, I want to say this: thank you so, so much to each and every one of you who have stayed with me and read along with my adventures in Benin.  I love hearing that people actually read this thing, and it's incredibly encouraging to know that there are so many of you keeping me company from thousands of miles away.  Thank you.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Edabo: Last Week in Daagbe (8.18-8.25)

  • Ramadamadan. Went to a standard holiday fete (delicious food, beautiful new outfits for the family, dancing) at my host family in Porto-Novo's house. The twist was that we had all three generations of Peace Corps host sisters there: me from 2010, Claire from 2011, and now Suzanne from 2012, and that's not even counting our Beninese host sisters. Yay!
  • Louise! I forgot to blog this earlier, but the girl I tutored all of this year just passed her second level national ex, meaning she can go on to high school! The exam is SO hard, and only 27% of students who took it passed in the entire region (in our school, that rate's much lower). I am so incredibly proud of her!
  • CEG Fete! My school planned an adorable get-together to say goodbye, and after several replannings, it was held on Wednesday. There were speeches by the school admin in which they made me sound way more impressive than I actually am, a speech by the professors that quoted Charles Schultz/Snoopy (win!), a speech by me in terrible but enthusiastic French, beer, and fish sandwiches. And then presents! A pretty new boomba from my director and his wife, and then a shiny white outfit from the profs together that is easily the most beautiful, elaborately embroidered thing I own currently. Mainly, though, it was just really touching to see all the profs that were there to say goodbye, good luck, and that they'd liked getting to know me.
  • Friend Fete! Got together with my really close friends (the ones who threw the party for Mandee) in Porto-Novo for one last shindig. We got meme tissu, Maman Jumeaux made delicious ignam pilee (pounded yams) with spicy peanut sauce AND riz au gras, we ate a ton, drank a ton, and danced til we were all sweating. It was wonderful and fun, and even though I had to say goodbye to some of my favorite kids on the planet, I managed to not cry* until I was on a zem on my way home. I love my people.
  • That One Day I Was Santa. On my last full day in village, I went on a gift-giving spree, which really just means that I gave away bags of stuff I cleaned out of my house. Milk powder! Pens! Half-full toiletries! I felt like Oprah. People, sometimes ones I didn't even really know well, also stopped by my house to say goodbye and thank you, which was really touching. It's cool to see that people care, I guess, because I care about them too.

    Some close friends brought presents, like my friend Elise, who made me a last in-village dinner of vrai-vrai Beninese food: fresh pate and delicious sauce legume. My other really good friend GbloGblo lives in a mud house with her five kids and has no money to spend. She and her daughter Gerardine spent a couple of hours and the last couple of francs they had to make me bottles of roasted peanuts and corn to take home with me. "Tell your mom and dad that this is what we like to eat in Benin. And tell them hello from us, and that we hope they're well." I didn't cry, but just barely.
  • Edabo. I left Daagbe yesterday (Saturday the 25th), and this time, I did cry.  My friends were all around me wishing me goodbye and good luck, and the tears started rolling as I walked toward the taxi.  Not easy to leave, and I'll miss my village a lot, but by now the crying's done and I'm gearing up for this week: COS paperwork and appointments galore before we head out on our grand adventure September first.  Wish me luck with all of these signatures and documents!
*Crying by adults is not culturally appropriate. Only babies cry, period.

Updates 8.8-8.17

  • Addict. I'm getting several pretty American things made out of tissu before I leave: shorts, a dress, skirts... In related news, there's an excellent new song by the Nigerian artists P-Square and Akon called "Chop My Money" ("chop" = "spend" in Nigerian slang) that you should check out.
  • Name in a Song! My Beninese friends have been playing this "Melissa" song on repeat for me lately.
  • Return to Pakistan. I went back to the Pakistani missionaries' house with my friend Maman Jumeaux, and was treated to an in-depth explanation of what Ahmadiyyat Islam is (spoiler: it's not accepted by Pakistan's "regular" Muslims as real Islam) and given three books to read about the religion. I'd actually like to read one of them (a historical one), but might not have time before I leave and have to return the books... This makes at least three churches that have tried to convert me in two years. Fourth time's a charm?
  • Cooking Conundrum. Exactly 15 days before I leave post, I ran out of cooking gas. Replacing it costs about $18, which is a lot of money for just two weeks of use, and which is also money that I definitely don't have right now (see first bullet point). Problem. I'm going to try to tough it out and survive on a PCV raw food diet: powdered manioc (gari) with milk powder and sugar, bread with peanut butter, bruschetta, packaged glucose biscuits, and whatever food I can find to buy on the street. The main issue left is what in H-E-double hockey sticks I'm going to do without my morning caffeine fix... Pray for me.
  • Let It Snow. Y'all, it's so cold here. I keep waking up in the middle of the night to find another pagne to wrap up in, and stumbling out of bed in the morning wearing all the sheets until it warms up a little. Making myself take cold showers is an increasing struggle. And this whole no-hot-coffee thing... Not cool, Benin, not cool.
  • Warm Fuzzies. People have started realizing that I'm actually leaving really soon, and they're being especially sweet. I'm getting lots of "We love you!"s and "Are you sure you can't stay another year?"s, and one of my old neighbors quite seriously asked if I could just move to his village four hours away and do a quick two years there... I could stay with his family if I wanted. No, but aww.
  • SortSortSortSortSort. Turns out that even as a Peace Corps Volunteer, it is possible to accumulate a truly staggering amount of stuff within two years. This week's project is going through all of it and trying to separate it into give-away bags in such a way that everyone I know gets something and no one's mad about what they got. This is likely impossible, but my irrational belief in myself as an organizational superhero leads me to at least try. Onward!
  • Best Wishes! I went to visit my work partner Epiphane's family for the first time this week, and while I think Epiphane told me at some point during the last two years, somehow I totally forgot that his dad is an Ifa (a voodoo fetish/spirit) priest. Really cool. Epiphane took me to see his father's personal fetishes,* which had their own building in the family compound, and then we took a walk around the area to see all of the other family fetishes. Back at the house, his father was happy to meet me, and he said he was going to pray for me. He then promised that he would pray especially so that by 2013, I would be pregnant with my husband's first son. I'm going to accept those prayers in a very figurative sense.
  • Local Language Lesson #644. At the same meeting, I asked Epiphane's father (who looks like a mischievous little elf) how to say "cheers" in Nagot, his language. Epiphane translated the question, miming the clinking of glasses and the saying of some celebratory word. His father pauses to think, then lights up, gives a big, few-toothed smile, and says, "Hallelujah!" So there you have it: the word in Nagot for cheers, according to a local voodoo Ifa priest, is "hallelujah."
*This is a terrible sentence out of context.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Camp GRACE (7.22-7.28)

GRACE: Garçons Respectieux Apprenant a Creer l'Egalite
This was the first year we've done a boys' camp in southern Benin. We've had a southern girl's camp for years, and this year, realizing that we were missing an education opportunity for an important group of people, we decided to start an entire new gender-equality-focused camp...for boys. The logic is this: Benin is a male-run country. While the law is increasingly supportive, in day-to-day life women are still less than men: less powerful, less respected, usually less educated, and less financially stable. While we as volunteers spend a huge portion of our time teaching girls that they are smart, that they can and should assert their rights, and that they deserve respect and attention, that fact of the matter is that without men as allies, any move towards women's equality will be very, very slow. So we should continue to empower girls, but we should also put some effort into teaching boys and men why and how they should support their sisters, wives, mothers and children.
Thus, Camp GRACE. A week in Ouidah with 49 smart, engaged boys, 5 Beninese men ("tutors") as role models and team leaders, 15 soon-to-be-exhausted volunteers, and Samantha Speck, our fearless and feisty directrice. Lessons focused on health, education, financial planning, career planning, and above all women's rights and equality.
The boys, mostly under 13, were so sweet and polite, and you could tell that they were really excited to be away at camp. I found it harder to bond with them than with the girls at Camp GLOW, which was interesting, especially since the male volunteers had no such trouble. I wonder if that would be the same in America. Maybe. The boys were really enthusiastic about most of the sessions, and were particularly willing to discuss girl's equality in school. There were boys on both sides of the "Are boys and girls equal?" question, but I think the Beninese man who presented and the tutors made a lot of good points. Behavior change starts with new ideas, so if nothing else, we gave them that.
I brought five boys (Saturnin, Narcisse, Louis, Charle, and Martial) and two tutors (Epiphane and Gabriel), so our Daagbe representation was strong. I think everyone got a lot out of it. Favorite moments:

  • We went to the voodoo temple of serpents, where they have sacred pythons that you can hold. Beninese people are almost universally terrified of snakes. We told the boys we'd give them competition points for each kid that held one, and all except one did. One of my boys, Saturnin, was so terrified that as the man put the snake on him he froze, wide-eyed, and started shaking like a leaf. He smiled and stood as still as he could for a whole 15 seconds, then ducked out and dashed off laughing and shaking as soon as the man took the snake from his neck. The entire camp clapped for him.
  • Narcisse asks if maybe we could stay an extra week at camp? He'd call his parents right now to make sure it was okay.
  • Gabriel (tutor) and I gave a lesson on the importance of education and study strategies. Afterward, he thanked me for bringing him, adding that the camp was a really great idea.
  • Volunteers play the boys in soccer. Boys soundly beat the volunteers, but PCVs take the prize in style and best on-field impromptu dance parties.
  • Overall, a wonderful, inspiring, and often hilarious week, and a camp that I hope will continue to make an impact in the coming years.

Updates 8.1-8.7

  • Beninese Independence Day in Bridget's Village. After my COS medical (wherein they decided that I have neither giardiasis or amoebas, which seems impossible), I went to visit Bridget at her post. Takon is beautiful and teensy and fun to walk around. As it turns out, it is also fun to fete in.

    On August 1st Benin celebrated its 52nd anniversary, and the day started at 7:30 when one of Bridget's women friends dropped by to say hi and ask for a shot of sodabi. Yes. More officially, Bridget and I joined in Takon/Toffo's festivities by watching a parade involving gendarmes, dancing women, and four Beninese boys inexplicably doing judo routines. Next, we went to the mayor's house and ate fish heads and akassa as we drank free wine, beer, and liquor (the Beninese know how to party. Also, the withered old voodoo man next to us was drinking up, so we followed suit). We ended the day at Bridget's before nightfall, cuddling up on her couch and watching Community. Happy Independence Day, Benin!
  • Goodbye, Smarshley! The following day, we headed to Cotonou to say goodbye to one of our stage's funniest, most easygoing volunteers. We'll miss you, boo! Save some stories and eat some fancy London food for us, and we'll see you on the other side of the Atlantic. Practice that whiskey cake technique, too -- we may need it come Derby time.
  • Dassa Date. In May, Bridget, Sam and I bought a "date" as part of the annual GAD fundraiser. Turns out, it was a fantastic purchase.

    Dassa, where the date was set, is in the middle part of the country, in the region called the Collines ("hills"). For the first part of the date, we went off-trail hiking up a gorgeous, forest-covered mini mountain, pausing at the top when we ran into the mud houses of two voodoo princes who wanted us to come to their huge annual party the next day (this really happened). After politely declining, we hiked down, went SWIMMING in a real hotel POOL, cleaned up and went out to a dinner featuring roasted rabbit and prawns, and then went to a just-for-us private jam session with a group of amazing Beninese musicians. Bridget, our little honey-voiced songbird, even got on the mic and sang along with them to Bob Marley and "When the Saints Go Marching In". It was pretty impressive as a whole, and big thanks to Mark de Dassa for arranging it.
  • Life Goal #82: Check. On Tuesday, I realized a life goal I didn't even know I had. I paid a girl to do my laundry... in pancakes. Booyah.
  • Replacement Visits. The girl who's replacing me in Daagbe's name is Katie Lootens, and I got to meet her for the first time this week. She seems pretty great: has been to Africa three times before, speaks excellent French, has been studying Fon (a language very similar to Gun) intensively for over a month, and has been friendly and smiley to all of my village friends. I couldn't have gotten a more competent, ready-for-action replacement if I'd picked her myself. I haven't gotten to hang out with her too much, and I'll admit to feeling a little weird about someone else taking over my Daagbe, but so far I'm pumped that I got someone so solid to take care of my village when I go. She'll be here until the 18th, then will go back to stage (letting me have that last week in village alone to say my goodbyes), then will move in permanently on September 16th. Good luck, Katie! You're gonna rock it!

Guest Blague: Sherry!

For those of you who don’t know me, hi! I’m Sherry (alias Rosa when in Benin, in order to avoid presenting strangers with the opportunity to address me as “chérie”), and Lissa and I became friends during college, thanks to the beauty that is JIBA. Now, after ever so many years of larnin’ and maturation, we are still friends, and I am not sure how this happened (no really, I just read through old emails to check, and I am truly at a loss) but after Camp GLOW last year, I half-jokingly emailed Lissa telling her how awesome her stories from camp were and how I was going to hop over the Atlantic to crash the party the next year--and then, somehow, about a week ago, there I was!
tl;dr I’m Lissa’s friend and I visited her in Benin and now I am writing about it and here you are reading (thanks!).
Considering that this is Lissa’s blog and “when in Rome” yada yada, I figured I would do my guest post in list form. Before I launch into those, I did just want to say, once more, thanks so much to Lissa for hosting me and letting me visit and to all the PCVs who were wonderful to me throughout my trip! :)
Things I loved about running around Benin:

  • Marché-ing in Porto Novo for pretty tissu, later to be taken to the couturière for the making of pretty clothes and things! Seriously, if Lissa were a superhero, I think tissu-shopping would be her power--well, her power and maybe her kryptonite, as well.
  • Birthday cake in a makeshift dutch oven
  • Seeing the new map! Eee!
  • Baby animals and lots of pretty foliage
  • Daagbe students and neighbors (and Lissa's adorable toddler "husband")
  • Daagbeians (is this the proper demonym?) shouting "May-lees-ah! May-lees-ah!" at us whenever we walked or zemmed past. They love her, they do!
  • Riding on zems
  • So many conversations in which questions about my family's health were matter-of-factly followed up with inquiries after Obama's well-being
  • Debating whether or not to buy penis keychains when present-shopping in the artisans' village (in the end, I decided that the fact that they existed was enough for me, and that I did not need to purchase any)
  • Piment, mmm
  • Lissa's miscellaneous calendars and goals and quotes posted up on her wall: same Lissa as always!
Things I loved about Camp GLOW
  • Singing and teaching songs (including, as Lissa mentioned, Jones cheers in both English and French)|
  • Interactions with the Beninese women (and a few men, too!) who helped with the camp and were fantastic role models to the girls, as well as cool field trips to broaden the girls' horizons
  • 4th of July celebration with the PCVs, with Real Hamburgers and Real Ice Cream (USA! USA! USA!)
  • Group of girls: Madame Rosa, how old are you? (cue guessing back and forth until they happen upon the right number) Oh, are you married? Do you have any children? Sherry: Mais non, but how old are you? I know you aren't married. How many girls are there your age who are married? Girls: We all know some in our villages, of course. S: What do you think? Would you be ready to be married and have children at 14? G: No! Those girls, they are always tired, and they are never clean, because they have no time to wash themselves!--I think this is as apt a summary of 16 And Pregnant as any of its viewership could give.
  • The end-of-camp skits, wherein the girls demonstrated what they had learned, simultaneously touching and (probably unintentionally) hilarious
  • Getting coffee for all the volunteers with Lissa each morning and debating whether the man was making it "that colour"
  • Watching Bend It Like Beckham with the girls, who had comically exaggerated reactions to all the dramatic scenes, as well as some pithy and astute commentary on culturally Western things I had taken for granted ("Wait, Madame, does everyone have her own ball to practice with?")
  • The girls' soccer game, so very apropos!
  • The girls, just on the whole: I was thinking I'd have to deal with some of the shenanigans Lissa had blogged about, like students calling her "yovo" and refusing to use "Madame", but the camp girls were wonderful(and had no end of dance moves to teach me! speaking of which...).
  • Dance party incorporating MoTown, Bieber, and multiple repetitions of "Waka Waka" (requested by the girls each time)
Things I wasn't expecting
  • Finding myself in a Rasta bar the first evening in Benin--or even, that there were Rasta-themed bars to be frequented there at all! but it was a really fun time with a little group of PCVs, some live music and slam poetry, and Beninese beer (which, incidentally, is no better or worse than what Lissa's posts have made it out to be)
  • Obama beer! it's for real, people! and I really hope he knows he gets to take his place in history along with Sam Adams as a president with a namesake beer (I'm kidding, yall. It's a blog blague!*)
  • That I’d get my first marriage proposal on the back of a motorcycle; it was so very Rebel Without A Cause (well, kind of)
  • A couple gendarmes stories, but I’ll pick my favorite: it took place on a taxi ride from Daagbe to Cotonou. Lissa and I had seen our driver bribe someone off early on but brushed it off, as our mental energies were fixed on the sheep (the poor sheep! though when we first heard moaning, we thought the noise was the car breaking down, and I do think that the situation might have been worse had the taxi's machinery actually been the source of the bleating) that had been loaded into the trunk of our car. This became especially worrisome once we began to think we smelled urine, given that my suitcase was also stowed in the trunk. Then, at some point, we were pulled over again, and this lasted a very long time.
    At this point, we realized that our cab driver might actually have been in some real trouble with the law, which you would think would involve more glamour than carting around livestock in your sedan's trunk but oh well. Also during this time, we, being yovos, had to hand over our identification to the fuzz, and we did have the pleasure of hearing the police debate what my ethnicity might be ("probably mixed, black-and white" "ah yes, probably mixed"). Then, this diversion being over, we waited. The man with the sheep (which turned out to be plural sheep--though, thankfully, they left behind no bodily fluids) and a couple other passengers decamped in search of faster transport, but being that it was raining and we were on the side of the highway with luggage to tow, we stayed put. Finally, some more money changed hands, and after that extended delay was over with, we were in Cotonou in no time.
Last but not least: favorite Lissa quotations
  • "So, how concerned are you about schistosomiasis?" (If you already know what schistosomiasis is, you've more understanding than I did, but imagine having this line dropped on you casually as you're wading across a semi-lit and mostly flooded street at midnight on your first night in Benin; happily, neither of us contracted schisto and so did not have to be much concerend about it)
  • "Don't play. I'm Beninese!" said in local language to zem drivers who were trying to rip her off, often resulting in their complimenting her as being a strong woman and then standing down (note: this is my rough translation, since I don't speak Fon/Gun)
  • "Here, we bon everything"
*Blague = "joke" in French

Walking toward the world map.

We're in Benin!

Couturiere working on Sherry's clothes.

Camp GLOW!

GLOW girls. The one on the right looks like Abagail Breslin!

Blueberry birthday cake!

Morning coffee man.  Photo taken surreptitiously via iPhone.
Sneaky sneaky, Sherry.