Friday, December 28, 2012

On A Great Big Coconut Tree

This Christmas I spent the holiday in Grand Popo with some of my fellow volunteers.. For those of you who don't know Grand Popo is the Beach Resort town of Benin.. it is “touristy” (even in Grand Popo it is a stretch to call anything in the country touristy).. and it is beautiful. Grand Popo is in the south western corner of Benin near the border of Togo.

The whole week was a lot of fun. Sunday before going to Popo a group of volunteers in my region got together at my house and had an early holiday taco night (yum!). Monday morning we left with the best taxi driver ever (a friend of my work partners).. he took us straight to Grand Popo... avoided all of the holiday traffic (we made amazing time) AND came back to drive us home to Porto Novo on Thursday morning.

Once in Grand Popo we stayed at Lion Bar. Lion Bar is a very small Rasta Bar/Inn located right on the beach. There are only a few rooms but you can also pay for a tent and they have a beach area where they set them up for you right on the property. Because there were so many of us we rented out a room to use for our bags and then slept in tents. We had originally planned to stay at a fancy beach resort hotel, Awale Plage, but we had a lot of issues with them during the reservation process... so we decided to stay at Lion Bar instead. It was really really the right decision. The owner, Lion, was really cool... it was very safe, they watched out for our possessions just as much as we did, we were all able to stay together in one place, and he also ran an awesome little cocktail bar where you could get rum drinks in coconuts. Who wouldn't want to spend their holiday sleeping on the beach and sipping rum out of coconuts with a huge group of friends at a reggae bar?

Christmas Eve was spent catching up.. sitting in the sand.. drinking.. dancing.. talking about our posts... it was a really great time.

Christmas morning a few of us decided to go on a really touristy excursion where we got to see the Mono River, a zangbeto, Mangroves, a local village, and Sea Turtles (at a sea turtle conservation NGO). This was the first time in the six months that we have been living in country that any of us got to do anything touristy.. and even though we do live here and some of the activities were a little silly (like seeing a village) we had a really great time and we were glad that we went. - - HOWEVER if you do go on this tour.. and the tour guide tells you afterward that he also runs a restaurant that makes pizza (for a really really good price) do not believe him.. it is too good to be true. My personal opinion is that he had never made.. or even seen a pizza before.. but knew Americans like pizza. It was interesting however that none of them had cheese.. since a friend and I specifically asked that he not put cheese on mine.. and put the extra on hers.. and he said yes he would put lots and lots of cheese on hers. C'est la vie.

To celebrate Christmas I had made little “Christmas stocking” handkerchiefs filled with candy to give to the Environment volunteers that I had trained with (I would have loved to have made them for everyone but that would have cost me a lot of cfa). Our Environment group also did a white elephant in the Afternoon.. which was a lot of fun (we might do another one at our April training just because) so that everyone (not everyone came to Popo) can be involved in it. Later in the evening some German volunteers who were also spending Christmas in Grand Popo went out and bought fire wood and brought the wood over to Lion Bar.. we built a big bonfire on the beach and some Christmas carols were even sung.

Mostly, I spent my holiday laying in the sand.. staring at the Atlantic.. and thinking about everyone on the other side. It is weird that knowing we are connected by the same giant body of water makes me feel a little closer to home.

I hope you enjoyed your Christmas as well!!

Lots of Love

PS – I wanted to add a really big THANK YOU for everyone at home who sent me Christmas cards and Christmas packages. I really enjoyed opening them. AND I used the pretty cards and and other decorations I was sent to decorate my house. My neighbors thought the cards were really great – but did not understand that they were letters from home.. Greeting Cards aren't a thing here. Candy Canes took a lot of explaining too.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Santa Comes to Africa Too!!

I hope EVERYONE at home is enjoying their various Winter Celebrations <3
Me -- I'm Spending Christmas on the Beach - Z

*In Other News -- I have officially been here 6 MONTHS! 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

All Things Girly

Maybe it's because it is the holiday season – and everyone at home is getting all dolled up.
More likely it is because I am in Africa and am filthy and covered with dust all of the time.

Don't let that tan in my photos fool you – it washes off with a good shower.

Either way I think it is time to talk about the girly things in Benin:
Nail Mamas, Tissu Shopping, and Belly Beads

Nail Mamas
aka the ladies who walk around with bins of nail polish on their heads

Can you see the star glitters?!?!

These amazing women will do a full mani-Pedi for 200cfa (the price of two pineapples or 40¢).Now of course when I say mani-pedi you have to think – 6th grade sleep over party with your best friends not fancy American day-spa. Don't worry her color selection will definitely help you imagine this. OH and sometimes the nail mama is feeling creative too. If you want just a plain color you have to specify or else it will never happen. Sometimes you get stripes and designs.. glitter.. or even every nail a different color. Tell her it's for a holiday, she will have a blast with that as well.. and we all thought the day's of holiday themed nail polish were over after high school (silly us). I occasionally go to a stationary nail/hair lady who I pass everyday on my way to work (more often I just do my own nails – I know party pooper). However, most nail mamas are not stationary, you can often flag one of the amazing traveling nail polish ladies down as you see her walking down the road. Many volunteers will get their nails done while sitting in the local buvette.. just ask a random child to go find her for you.
Tissu Shopping and Tailored Clothes

The Beninese version of clothes shopping. In Benin you can buy ready to wear clothes BUT it is very expensive... and unnecessary. You go to the tailor.

In this country you go to the market and buy fabric “tissu” and then bring the fabric to your tailor and get whatever you want made (the outcome may or may not be what you ordered but just roll with it). Frequently families wear matching outfits – which is kind of adorable. When anyone has a party for a wedding or a funeral or for some other big occasion – the entire party will purchase the same tissu for their outfits. The volunteers call this having même tish.. we have also been known to indulge in the weird habit for many occasions (and are required to do so for our swear-in ceremony). NOTE: This is not just a tissu thing – The Beninese LOVE getting matching t-shirts made for most any occasion as a souvenir. Most commonly this will be a t-shirt from a funeral with the date and person's face printed on it.

même tissu

The amazing thing about the fabric here is that it is not only fantastically brightly colored – it is also the most random thing in the world. You can find tissu with patterns of chairs – umbrellas – trees or flowers – hand bags – most animals – various shapes -- really truly anything. There is a tissu that one of my neighbors has.. it is toasters with pieces of buttered toast flying out of them (unfortunately I have not seen this pattern for sale). There are always certain tissu patterns that get popular and everyone will be wearing it in various colors. A really ugly prawn pattern was popular when we first got here.. luckily that one has died down. The tissu (and also the dress designs) go through “fashion seasons” just like clothes do at home (the amazing toaster tissu must have been last season). – Also beadazzling the clothing is a thing here – make sure you ask for your outfit to be plain – this guarantees nothing but it does give you a fighting chance.  

Belly Beads  

The lingerie of Benin. Women of all ages wear belly beads starting when they are a baby (for babies they are actually used to keep the cloth diapers in place). It is believed that wearing beads around the waist helps a little girl grow into a womanly figure. After a certain age these beads become “lingerie” in the sense that they are not meant to be seen. For little naked babies running around there is nothing taboo about them – but for older girls they are considered something for your husband.

That doesn't take the fun out of it though. Just like the Nail Mamas there are Bead Mamas as well. These women walk around with basins full of bead strands and sell them to you at 100 cfa a strand (depending how many times you want it to go around - 3 to 4 times is normal - and how big you are.. it is usually 300-500 cfa). I think that being able to afford more beads is a status thing for women – just like having lots of hair. The colors are almost as varied as the nail polish ladies --- and some bead mamas will also have beads that are different sizes are shapes. Usually they are just simple round beads.

For all the men reading this blog: Men in Benin play pitanque and/or soccer.. they wear whatever clothes their wives pick out... and the spend A LOT of time sitting around and drinking beer.

Happy Holidays,

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Welcome to the North

This week I was in Parakou for a week of training. Parakou is located in the Northern half of the country... not the far north.. but it was a nice 6 hour bus ride from Porto Novo for me to get here.

My first impression of Parakou was that it was insanely quite (since it is a city I was expecting it to be similar to the cities I am used to in the South).. Secondly I noticed that the heat was much dryer.. Third I noticed that the landscape isn't nearly as green. This made me glad to be posted in the south I like the more humid heat.. I like the greenery.. and I love being so close to the Ocean. I have already grown accustomed to the faster (more crowded?) life of my area. That being said there is A LOT of north – the north is much larger than the south.. and Parakou is only one tiny city. [Note: If you had told me months ago that I would have called life in the south faster than anything I would have laughed at you]

There is a workstation here in Parakou. It is much different than my workstation at the Bureau in Cotonou. Obviously the biggest difference is that it is not attached to the main office – but it also has a bigger library and kitchen. It is more homey (really just a big house as opposed to an extension to the office with bunks in it). This also has its negatives however – there is only one computer and it doesn't get kept quite as tidy. I like that I can go to the workstation and actually take care of work with administration in Cotonou – but I definitely see the draw of having an escape that is completely separate from all of that.

In Service Training (IST) was interesting. Our pre-service training was filled with language and cultural sessions and many many hours of technical training for working at our sites.. the IST was focused more on the Administrative sides of things. The hotel that the environment sector stayed at “Le Princess” fed us really well for breakfast and lunch and really well done snack bars twice during the day.

During the first two days we had talked about our problems and successes.. had a security session.. and a medical session (information about what to do if you fall sick while out of the country) – half of the first two days was taken up by our individual reports on our communities – this gave each of us a chance to share our stories and some pictures with each other (and probably allowed us to stay more focused throughout the rest of the week).

We had an informative and important session on how to report our activities to Peace Corps. There is a whole system in which we have to enter project descriptions.. participants.. outcomes.. etc. In theory this allows Peace Corps to monitor the actual effect our programs are having and how many people we are reaching (this is actually a fairly new concept/system in Peace Corps). There is also a section where we write about our success stories (and frustrations). After we submit these quarterly reports to our administration they forward them to Peace Corps Washington. These reports are the source of all of the feel good stories that Peace Corps uses in advertising – these reports are also used by Congress for filibustering.

On Wednesday our work counterparts joined us for the rest of training. The sessions with our counterparts included planning projects and we had a session on the stages of habit changing (getting people to change their gardening practices reads similar to addiction counseling) and the ever entertaining topic of cultural differences. Mostly we had discussion and brainstorming on projects and ways to implement our new projects.

It was really really awesome to get to visit another part of the country.. but now that the week is over I will be very glad to be back in the south. I would say “time to get to work” but the whole country goes on break for the fete season (Christmas and New Years)... so I guess that will have to wait until the New Year!

Volunteers and Host Country Work Partners -- Parakou
Feeling more positive about things than I was a week ago.

Friday, December 7, 2012

My Community

Next week my Peace Corps staging group has our first In-Service Training.

Part of this training is an opportunity for us to describe the ups and downs of our communities and hopefully describe a description that will allow the other volunteers in my sector to have an understanding of where I live and what type of work is available to me in my community. (Since my commune is so close to Porto Novo.. we actually went to Akpro-Misserete a few times during our pre-service training.. so hopefully I won't bore everyone too much when I give my presentation) Since I am reviewing all of these things I thought this would be a great opportunity to update my readers at home as well – since the last time I described where I live.. I didn't actually live here yet.

As everyone knows I live in Akpro-Misserete. I live in the commune head (kind of like a county seat) and my area where my house is located is very Urban. However most of the surrounding villages.. where my gardeners work become are more rural. The whole area has electricity and most people have running water or at least pumped water (I think this is because of the proximity to the Capital).

Central Misserete has a health center, many many churches, the mayor's office (as well as his house where he often hosts meetings), there is a CEG (highschool).. a Primary school and a Maternalle (think pre-school).. and also a private primary school and a Seminary  The market of Akpro-Misserete is located in my neighborhood and the boulangerie.

My town is located between two major roads that split after coming out of Porto Novo.. One that goes north towards Sakete and Pobe (this road runs closer to Nigeria).. the other goes North towards Bohicon and is the road that I will take to go to Parakou on Sunday.

I don't yet feel well integrated into my community, but I realize this is a process so I am trying not to let myself feel discouraged by this. I think that my major problems with integrating (aside from language and cultural differences that I am still adjusting to) have been the fact that I don't actually work in the same community that I live in and also that my area is so urban. I do not feel/see the sense of community in my town that I see when I go to work in the outlying villages.

The Market sells all of the Benin Basics. African “Legumes” aka leafy greens, piments, tomatos, okra, oranges and pineapples.. and sometimes bananas. Most vendors have packaged pasta.. rice.. powdered milk (yuck).. and also tomato paste. Since I am so close to the major market in Porto Novo most people in my neighborhood go to Porto Novo to do their shopping. The produce is much more varied (and is a better price) in Porto Novo. In many ways this discourages the vendors from expanding... but at the same time.. the people who do shop in the local market wouldn't have interest in buying the more varied produce that they aren't interested in.

I do have some friends in my community. Unfortunately I am still new enough in my community that there is a delicate balance of whether you want to be my friend versus people who want me to give them money or help them get to America. Everyone here thinks that Americans are rich and can magically carry visa's for the US around in their back pockets.

Biggest Community Frustration: Not being sure who is really my friend and who I can trust. People not knowing who I am because I don't actually work in the same community where I live.

Best Thing About My Community: Being so close to Porto Novo.. Having Electricity and Water.. and Access to grocery stores.. and a variety of produce that is only available in the Capital and in Cotonou.

Things I Need To Work On: Feeling at Home... Getting people to understand why I am living here... and I would really like the people who do know me to stop treating me like I am a child/stupid. :)

That's All For Today

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Food Issue

In Benin people eat A LOT and being called fat is a compliment...
They also drink A LOT but not water only beer and oranges.. water is for when you are sick.
If you are not fat or you lose weight.. or you drink water... then people think you are sick or unhealthy.
I guess you can imagine where that leaves me.

As I have said before on this blog... people are accepting of my weird eating habits. I am not saying they understand. Basically, anything weird I do in this country is just brushed off as a weird yovo thing that the yovo does. [That being said I think I should mention that I have met a few vegetarian nationals]

At some point during my first month in Misserete I became sick.. not incredibly sick.. but sick enough that I called out from work and made an appointment to see the doctor (luckily for me I was already scheduled to go to Cotonou the next day). When I returned I found out that everyone at my office had collectively decided I must be starving.. why else.. is this overly hot tropical country where she isn't even supposed to drink the water could she possibly be sick. At which point I had my privacy completely infringed upon. It was insisted that I let some of my coworkers into my house to see that I had a kitchen set up and that I had food in my kitchen. Sometimes I really wish I could give the people I work with a piece of my mind.

On another occasion I had a man tell me – honestly – that people who don't eat animals don't have blood in their bodies. In case you didn't know.. human bodies are not capable of making their own blood we need to extract it from other living creatures. Sigh.

I have had people come to my house offering me food – with the intention of convincing me that I should pay them to cook for me everyday since I obviously don't know how to cook or care for myself since I don't make pate or akassa (the staples here.. both of which I don't mind the problem is I hate the sauces that they are served with).

My neighbors are convinced I eat only crackers and oranges. Unfortunately, this doesn't keep them from asking on a regular basis if I have food to give them as a gift for their nagging. If one more person asks me for chocolate I might scream at them.

As much as no one here believes it – I do eat – I eat very well. AND I am slowly mastering the one portion cooking. We really take for granted the ability to refrigerate left overs at home.

I eat beans. I eat lentils. I eat pasta. I eat a lot of rice.
I eat vegetables. I eat bread. I eat fruit...

For breakfast I usually eat a cliff bar or any other various granola bar that I have received in a care package from home :)... (Hey GUYS Maple Nut Cliff Bars are my favorite (I also like the oatmeal ones) – yes I know they are hard to find on the East Coast – but I know a secret place that usually stocks them). On weeks where I am feeling a little more decadent (or should I say homesick) I will buy chocolate spread.. and eat chocolate banana sandwiches for breakfast. I don't attempt the peanut butter banana – Erik just does them so much better I could never hope to replicate.

Lunch is more varied. If I am going into Porto Novo for any reason I have voandzu for lunch. These are Bambara Ground Nuts.. and they are delicious. I usually eat them on bread or with gali (powdered manioc). The women who make voandzu here in Misserete make it way to spicy. During training I ate avocado sandwiches for lunch (there is a lady at Songhai who makes them with onions and tomatoes and is there everyday until 11) If I am feeling lazy I will just get some hot bread from my local boulangerie and eat it with peanut butter or I will buy a bag of oranges to “Drink.” If I am feeling more ambitious I might make myself french fries with chopped up garlic. I am not really a big lunch person – never have been.

Sometimes.. If I am visiting someone.. I end up eating a early dinner late lunch. Usually if you are visiting someone anytime between 2 and 5 they will give you something to eat. However since this is Benin they expect you to eat a lot. This is usually where I get my salad (salads here are served over pasta). I don't usually make myself salad because I don't want the lettuce to spoil if I don't eat it quick enough. I still seem to stumble on salad about once a week.

My favorite things to cook for dinner are lentils or plantains. I like to fry up plantains and eat them for dinner with rice and beans. Most often I cook up lentil with veggies and eat it with rice or on a baguette in a sloppy joeish type of fashion. I have found that lentils are really versatile and easy to cook in one portion – plus they are great when I am feeling low on energy. When I eat pasta I usually cook it with avocado or carrots and onions sauteed in olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Another thing I make is a vegetable and potato hash.. this is really good if I have veggies that are starting to go and it is very filling. Occasionally, I will just heat up a can of beans with a spice packet from home and eat it over rice or bread.. just to change up the flavor a little.

I eat a lot of onions carrots and potatoes. I sometimes buy green beans and cucumbers. I would say I usually have an eggplant once every two weeks (the problem with an eggplant is it is too big for one person). I eat “soy cheese” which is really a tofu like thing that the people here call soy cheese. But I only eat this on the day I go to the market in Porto. I am not sure what the shelf life is so I eat it right away and they don't sell it at my local market. Oranges, bananas, and pineapple are plentiful this time of year.. and Papayas are easily found in Porto Novo. Mango isn't in season yet.

On the rare occasion that I drink something other than water – my drink of choice is Youki Pamplemousse aka grapefruit soda. If they don't have that.. I will drink Judor which is an orange soda. It is really nice to splurge on a cold beverage from time to time.

Lentils and Rice (Adapted from my Peace Corps Cookbook)
Ingredients: Lentils, Rice, Chopped Onions, Carrots, Sliced Garlic, Green Beans, Olive Oil, Balsamic Vinegar, Thyme
Cook The Lentils and Rice Together.
In a Frying Pan Cook the Carrots Onions and Garlic until well cooked in olive oil. Add Green Beans. Once the Green Beans Are Cooked add the thyme and balsamic vinegar. Add cooked Rice and Lentils and melange Until everything is well cooked and it tastes good.

*I will adjust this recipe with actual measurements next time I make it.
Much Love

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Holidays Away From Home

Now that Thanksgiving has passed.. I can say I have officially say I survived my 3 favorite holidays!!! 

For the most part... I handled it better than would have expected. I think I owe a lot of this to the fact that my three favorite holidays are non-existent here in Benin [so I just ignored them]. I am not sure if I should be patting myself on the back for surviving them – or reprimanding myself since my over all method was pretending they didn't exist.

Fourth of July

For those of you who don't know... I love the Forth of July. It is my favorite holiday.. and no.. it isn't because it usually falls on the same weekend of my birthday (something I have spent most of my life being somewhat unhappy about). This holiday also happened to land right smack in the middle of our first week training in Porto Novo. I was expecting to spend the Fourth curled up in a little ball somewhere sobbing to go home -- Since that is similar to what I did when I spent my first Fourth of July away from family (in the far off land of Madison NJ).. an occasion on which I was so distraught by the fact that I wasn't home.. Erik felt compelled to go out and buy me flowers and it is amazing that any cupcakes got made for the party we happened to be going to with some of our Professors

So how did I survive it in Benin? - I think two things saved me this past Forth of July. Firstly.. the obvious fact that it isn't celebrated here. It wasn't in my face. I could just simply block it out. Secondly.. the disaster known as my 24th birthday would have made anything look like a sunny day.. the close proximity of the two making my homesickness seem like a pleasure cruise by the time the Fourth rolled along. That being said.. I have two more of these to get through and the first week in July was definitely my darkest moments during training (How did my favorite holiday also end up being the only holiday I am going to miss 3 times in my 2 year service?) – Next year my strategy is to make my 25th birthday a week long celebration.. and just ignore it all over again. I have yet to come up with a better method for this one.

*I think it is important to note here that I did COMPLETELY fall apart on Benin's Independence Day.. when I found out we weren't going to get to attend the parade... or buy little souvenir flags to wave in the street


This is a special holiday. I really do love Thanksgiving.. but my family does not celebrate it in the “traditional sense” and my personal Thanksgiving Tradition has undergone some serious changes throughout my life. For the past 6ish years I have spent Thanksgiving out west with my awesome brother and his awesome wife and their equally awesome kittens. High School was a mix of Thanksgiving with good friends (I am not sure that I did the same thing two years in a row for Thanksgiving in HS). Also when I was in Junior High my Grandmother decided to stop having Thanksgiving so that she could travel which interestingly enough helped prepare me for Thanksgiving Peace Corps Edition. I think I might have been freakishly well adapted to just.. do something else this year.

Don't get me wrong.. I missed the festivities that I have come to know as my Thanksgiving tradition with my brother terribly.. I missed the animals.. and the vegan feast... and playing boardgames. BUT unlike the Fourth of July.. I am accustomed to this specific holiday being a little more fluid. I happily wished my family a good holiday.. and prepared my [incredibly simple] little addition to the holiday feast that was held buy some friends here in the Oueme/Plateau. That being said.. Next year I plan to visit home for Thanksgiving. I will be very thankful for that.


I think that Halloween is my third favorite holiday – simply because I don't like the rest of them. BUT I do like it very much. There is something really amazing about getting dressed up in a costume.. going to parties.. and carving pumpkins. There is something amazing that during this night of the year children go door to door and are given candy. There is just something magical about Halloween.

My strategy for dealing with Halloween was more similar to how I went about the Fourth of July.. Just ignore it. I avoided the various Halloween festivities being thrown by other volunteers in Benin. I tried not to think about all of the fun that was being had at home that I was missing out on. I was not in the Halloween spirit. I did watch some Halloween movies.. and I did try to throw a pumpkin carving party [there are pumpkins in Cotonou] but I was unable to find the pumpkins in Porto.. which is probably all for the best. It probably would have really freaked the neighbors out. I just kind of bummed around and reminded myself it would be over soon. Next year I promise myself I am not going to do that again.. Looking back over the last 5 months.. aside from the initial shock of being here.. Halloween was actually the hardest for being away from home. I think it will be better if I allow myself to enjoy it.

When you are away from home the holidays are definitely some of the hardest days. You really realize how far away you are. On the other hand realizing that I have successfully survived what I previously considered my top three most likely days to have crippling homesickness.. makes me realize how fast time is flying by.

The next wave of holidays to pass – Christmas/Winter Holiday and New Years.

These have ever been my favorites... I am not a huge Christmas fan (although I do get super excited about the stocking) and New Years never seems to live up to my expectations. Both of these holidays are widely celebrated here in Benin.. and will be very much all around me. SO I guess I will just have to embrace them and make them my own :) I think I will try decorating for Christmas around my house.. if nothing else it will make my neighbors very happy. Who knows.. maybe without the cold weather and snow I will actually enjoy the fete!


Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!!!

Dear Friends and Family,

I hope that every one has a great Thanksgiving.. and a great time with whomever they share this special day with. I miss you all very much. 

Much Love,

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Muddy Muddy Mud Stove

There is something about making mud stoves (in my mind at least) that is just feels so very much a “Peace Corps Thing”

I seems like Peace Corps volunteers have been building stoves with mud.. well since the beginning of time. Peace Corps volunteers all around the world make mud stoves. It is one of those projects that kind of tie us all together... that and teaching kids.

Which is why I think it is very interesting that in Benin in the year 2012 only the environmental volunteers are trained in doing so --- YES I know the teachers don't really have the time... and maybe the health volunteers shouldn't be getting so dirty.. and we all know the business volunteers don't like to get dirty.. so in that sense maybe it is a good activity for the environment volunteers since no matter what we will be playing in the dirt. I am not complaining ... I enjoy being in the sector of the mud stove. 

This week I had the wonderful opportunity to go to the “near by” community of Djigbe to teach them how to build mud stoves. This is not my post it is a group that another volunteer works with. They process manioc. I have been having a rough time at post getting some of the people to seem even the slightest bit interested in the fact that I am here... and the people in Djigbe were a much needed dose of the exact opposite. They were excited to meet me... interested and attentive.. and they were friendly too!! [They also loved that I was using my limited Goun abilities with them]

We made 3 mud stoves... I made the first one with their help – they made the second with my help – and the third they made completely on their own. 

Confession: These stoves aren't "exactly" like the ones that we made during training :-/ so I am interested to see going into the future how well they hold up. They wanted them built into the wall.. and I had never worked with their style of marmite either (so the actual structure was a bit different).. most concerning to me however was that they kept widening the opening every time I tried to make it smaller (having a wider opening in the front will cut back on the fuel efficiency of the stove.. and I wasn't able to fully encase the marmite in mud :(... the mud SHOULD go all the way around the marmite leaving only an opening for the wood to enter... BUT I WON'T BORE YOU WITH ALL OF THAT) – here are some pictures!! 

If properly made the mud would
 wrap all the way around at the top.
Curious Kid
Working On Their OWN

These stoves could last up to three years if they keep them and good condition and keep them protected from the rain. Luckily if they need to build a new one.. I taught them how!

The reason that the Peace Corps builds these stoves is that they are considered more energy efficient... and MUCH safer than the traditional “3 stone method.” Since it is enclosed it is much harder to fall into the fire.. or have a child fall into the fire. Each stove is made specifically to fit the marmite that you made it with.. As long as you use the properly fitted marmite.. heat will be kept in the stove.. and the owner of the stove will begin use (up to 70%) less wood. Which is good both for the wallet and for the forest.

With Mud,

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Primary School

I had a picture post for today BUT the pictures won't load.. so we shall talk school instead.

This past week and the week before I worked on my “observing classes” part of my community study. I did this at the primary school (kind of like elementary school). I also need to go over to the CEG (kind of like high school) at some point. That being said -- After dealing with the primary school I am feeling awfully discouraged.

I had a lot of trouble explaining to the Director that I wanted to observe some classes in order to better understand the education system here in Benin. He kept asking me if I wanted to take classes.. and eventually I had to show him my prewritten statement that I had brought along just in case. He said he understood and I could come back next week.. but I could tell he really didn't understand. One of my landlords sons walked back over with me and explained that I just wanted to sit in some classes.. they had a discussion in local language.. and then the director was all like “Oh! You can do that right now! (only not in english)” So I sat in on a math class. It was a actually really adorable. It was first level math so they were learning basic addition “1+1” type stuff. They all had their own little chalkboards that they would hold up with the answer! When we were leaving (for some reason the kid who had walked over with me felt that he needed to observe the class as well) he told the class I had something to say to them.. which I didn't so I just said Good Work and Thank You.. to a group full of small children who don't speak french anyway. I went back a second time and the second time I observed a pre-entry class. It was a class where really young children learn the basic french words required in school like chalkboard and pencil and beating stick...

One of the reasons that I need to get to know the school system is that I am supposed to do an Environmental Club at one of the schools.. When I explained to the director that I would like to talk with any teachers who might be interested with my assistance in starting up an environmental club or a school garden. He told me that they needed help building new classrooms :( I just repeated myself and told him that I didn't have any way to offer financial assistance just my environmental knowledge.. but of course he wasn't very responsive to that. I will continue to be present and I hope maybe he will come around.

I might have better luck at the CEG at least with starting a club.. because the students are older... but I think that younger children would be more fun to make an educational garden with. Oh well.

Just from the little time I spent at the Primary school I can tell you that the school system here is very different. They cover the same basic concepts and class work.. Math, Science (Although I'd love to see a science book – I know they don't believe in Dinosaurs here!), Language.. The school curriculum is nationally standardized.. but things like Physical Education (which is an actual requirement) usually fall by the wayside anyway.

The classes are all held in French.. none of these children speak french at home. In the homes here everyone speaks their local languages.. French is only used in school or in business. So I can understand why a lot of the younger children were dozing off.. how can they learn something if they don't understand what is being said to them? Obviously they pick it up eventually.. but it really must be very discouraging. There was a small child in the “preschool” class who the teacher made stand because he was so sleepy.. the kid literally continued to sleep while standing up. It was very impressive.

Also, a fellow volunteer told me that it is considered OK to give manual labor or beat a child as punishment.. however, giving lines is considered cruel and unusual. As far as punishment in the school system.. I have only seen the children forced to do squats... which I guess is like getting exercise. I think that manual labor is probably more common when the they get a little older.

I would really like to start moving forward with my plans for the Environmental Club... I was hoping to work at one of the schools in my immediate community.. but if the CEG goes as well as the Primary School did.. I might end up just working at the private school in the next town over where volunteers have done Environmental work in the past. :/ Maybe at least until I get a better baring of things.

Don't Forget to Remember Our Veterans Today!!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

4 Years Ago Things Started To Change

Even though my absentee ballot did not present itself to me until the day before the election.
Even though I am way out here in West Africa.
I eventually figured out how to vote today.. via fax!
Oh Technology!

Did you vote?

Four years ago.. When Obama was first voted into office... It was one of those moments (every generation gets a few) that as the years go by we will all always remember (and probably be asked by our children) exactly where we were when it was announced that Obama would be the next President. Without getting political.. I just am going to say I hope that today our country is able to pull together and make the right decision. That being said.. in America the right decision (whether I like the outcome or not) is the decision of the informed voter... and it is the decision that the majority supports. Go to the polls... Know your facts.. and VOTE for what you believe in.

A fellow volunteer in Benin wrote a really great blog post about the American Election HERE.


Monday, November 5, 2012

Under Hardships If Necessary

This week I had no electricity.

It isn't hard living without electricity.. in fact before I moved to Benin I EXPECTED to be living without electricity. When you come to expect something like electricity... it becomes hard to live without.

Sometime during the night between Wednesday and Thursday my entire neighborhoods power went out. Power Surges (or whatever) are very common in Benin.. obviously. However, I live right outside the Capitol City.. and I have come to expect extravagant things like electricity. Up until this week.. I had never lost electrical power for more than 2 hours. AKA I was unprepared.

So as I was saying.. when I woke up Thursday morning there was no electricity... no biggie. Then I went to shower... no water!! Oh well. I went to work and assumed all would be right when I returned in the afternoon. Later I learned that the water pump.. doesn't work when there is no electric to make it work.

When I returned at lunch time there was still no power. My neighbor told me there was “a problem la ba”.. which means “the problem is over there” which is the vague and unhelpful answer given for many questions in this country... if you ask where anything is.. it is “la ba” In this case I think that la ba.. meant the power source. Yay.

I was assured it would all be fixed before nightfall. I stopped believing that shortly before bedtime. At this point both my computer and my phone (which needs to charge once a week) were dead. Because I was unprepared.

Friday: My landlord delivered us jugs of water in the evening.. which I guess I should have realized was a bad sign. I keep my water filter well stocked so I wasn't worried about dehydrating. But I did have a lot of dishes to wash.. and it was nice not to have to waste my drinking water to cook some pasta. At this point my kindle (which I charge once every 2 months) and my Ipod were flashing battery warnings saying FEED ME FEED ME!!

Saturday: Still no power. BUT It will definitely be back on today! My landlord pantomimed at me “The men are working on it!” and then did a car motion.. maybe that meant a car hit it.. maybe it just was another one of his weird hand gestures he uses when trying to communicate with me. He barely speaks any french so who knows. At this point I was becoming a skeptic as to the return of the power.. so I decided to try to charge something with the solar charger I brought from home... which doesn't have an adapter for my phone anyway. Saturday was my anniversary (sorry sweetie) and the only thing I was really concerned about charging was the phone. The solar charger (which holds charge) wasn't charged.. or working.. I figured I would be able to fix that on Sunday. Now the kindle and the Ipod have both completely drained.

Sunday: How ridiculous I felt by Sunday. I moved to Benin expecting no electricity.. packing all sorts of solar charging devices and fun stuff.. and day 4 of a power outage... I had no electronics.. no way to contact the outside world.. and NOTHING to do. Of course.. it rained all morning and was cloudy. Natures attempt to foil my plans. At this point I was concerned that Erik probably thought I was dead... and my boss was coming to visit during the day Monday and I needed a phone so he could contact me. I discovered that the solar charger peace corps gave us while not being as nice as my other one.. did have an adapter for my phone. BUT the charger didn't actually work... AT ALL. Now my camera battery is dead too.. I tried to take a picture of the solar powered chain of command I rigged up in an attempt to charge my cell phone.. but as soon as I turned it on.. it asked to be charged and shut off. (I'm a failure at this living under hardships aspect.. I have been spoiled)

Monday: As of today at 5.. when I left my post to come here to Cotonou (to watch the elections.. and apparently football.. which would have been exciting if it wasn't so incredibly disappointing) My power was still out. I was able to charge my phone up in the morning at the office though. Hopefully when I go back home it will be fixed. My landlord said it would.. but then I heard one of my neighbors saying this happened where he used to live.. and he had no power for 3 months.

All in all I discovered that I am completely unprepared for the situations that I moved to Africa being completely “prepared for” Now that I no longer expect them. I also now know that if the power goes out that I will eventually die of dehydration.. at least I was prepared enough in that I always keep enough water in my water filter to last a few days.

Other News: I finally received my absentee ballot today. REALLY HELPFUL... and I finished an entire journal this week for the first time in my life!! 


Saturday, October 27, 2012

Trick or Treat: Send Me Extra Candy!!

It's the Halloween Season at home. What a weird time of year to be missing... the costumes, candy, haunted houses, pumpkins and parties!! Here in Benin it is not getting colder... there is no noticeable difference in day light.. and palm trees are definitely not turning red and orange. I don't think children here would be allowed to celebrate Halloween like we do... even if (especially if) they knew what is was. This time of the year.. life is definitely way more interesting back at home. I can't wait to hear about everyone's holiday adventures! We better start planning Halloween 2014.. I'm going to have a lot of Halloween-ing to make up for :D

I have been watching Halloween movies all week... and I'm going to go buy myself some candy to eat on Wednesday!! WOOOO PARTAY!! I tried to find some pumpkins to have a pumpkin carving party... unfortunately I didn't find any in Porto Novo (they do have them in Cotonou though so maybe next year!) 

Speaking of back home (and subjects I can actually relate to). My East Coastness is going to be the death of me in this country. I will be the first to admit that I have an East Coast personality.. generally speaking I am high stress.. overly organized... fast paced.. I live on a schedule. I have never viewed this as a bad thing... I walk a little faster talk a little faster and get things done a little faster. I had my first palm pilot when I was in Junior High (my dad let me take his old one when he got a new one).. and I am definitely addicted to schedules and making lists. I love office supply stores.. and I may or may not have a serious love affair with post-it notes. (I usually jump up and down like a 5 year old when I see the bulk packs in Costco). That being said.. I don't see me putting down the planner anytime soon... but what I plan to work on is just accepting that my perception of what makes a successful day.. and what I should actually be considering a successful day.. is something I have to take a serious *soul-searching* style look at. I learned the term “soul-searching” at Drew U.. not by choice... Hey ADMIN I'm using your vocab!!

This week I made a very packed schedule for myself. Monday went as planned.. Tuesday tumbled... Wednesday didn't happen... Thursday might possibly have moved backwards.. and so on and so forth. There are to many variables.. like rain, does the other person understand the point of the meeting.. or rain.. or lack of communication.. or rain.

On Thursday I changed my schedule for Friday to “Harass People” hoping maybe to light a fire on some things (like finding me a language tutor so I don't have to be reliant on others).. however it was raining and also some sort of holiday... OH WELL. Luckily for me, I live in a country where socializing and wandering around the marche is considered acceptable form of work by most onlookers.. So I spent a lot of time talking to people. I met a teacher and talked to him for a bit, I am going to start with my school part of my community study next week (something that I have been wholeheartedly avoiding). I got really lucky and caught my bread lady walking around the marche.. so I was able to ask her about some different products I saw. Lots of red bananas being sold this week.. a normal thing for Porto but I have never seen them around here.. maybe they are seasonal? There is something weird about bananas being red.

In the Peace Corps world this is a fairly successful week.. I should be thankful.. must stop beating myself up... I had the realization that I am stressing myself out. it really doesn't matter how much work I feel like I did this week. There is no way for me, someone who grew up right out side of Philly.. to have any real grasp on how much work I did or didn't do this week by anyone's local standards... right now my standards are irrelevant. This story will probably be strange to you in a you probably needed to be there sort of way... but it is what made me realize this:

Yesterday evening, my landlords son knocked on the door to find out if the water was out. We went through the normal greetings Bon Soir... Cava Bien... Tu fais un peu? (Did you do a little?).. To which you always reply Oui, Un Peu. (Yes a little). It is considered impolite to imply that you did more than a little... and as far as doing “a little” is concerned,  getting out of bed in the morning.. and breathing... both count. At which point he asked me if I ate an orange today.. which is a slightly bizarre question.. I think he could tell I was confused by it and then added something along the lines of “If you ate an orange today that's good.” I'm still not sure if he was concerned about my health.. or if he was implying that eating an orange is hard work. Either way, his concern wasn't over the amount of work I did do.. or I felt that I did.. or it looked like I did... his concern was that I ate an Orange. For some reason that made me feel a little better about things. It is funny how someone saying something so little and unrelated can just make things click. 

Enough with the differences.. This week there is one thing I can say is the same as at home. 
I am getting a lot of rain.. and judging by the weather reports my friends on the East Coast are about to get lots of rain too! I hope everyone at home is being smart and preparing for the storm that is coming that way :( Hopefully it isn't as bad as they are saying. However, the best thing to do is to be ready!

Cory posted this link on his twitter with tips for preparing. Be Prepared for Hurricane Related Weather!

Everybody Have A Happy AND Safe Halloween <3

Monday, October 22, 2012

No Juicy Stories.

Instead I can tell you...
How to eat an orange in Africa!! 
  1. Roll the orange on a hard surface (as if you were going to juice it)
  2. Using a razor or a sharp knife carefully peel off the colored layer (but NOT the white layer)
  3. Cut off one end of the orange so you can see the yummy part.
  4. Proceed to suck all of the juice out of the orange squeezing until there is no more left.
  5. Toss the rest on the ground for some goat to eat.
That is about as juicy as my life has gotten recently..
I'll try to find you the juicy story i was asked for..  and get it to you next week <3

* * *

Nothing super duper exciting happened this week so I figured I would just do a general update.

Since I arrived here at post things have been moving.. forward.. in true Beninese fashion.

The first two weeks I sat around.. pulling my hair out.. and waiting for... anything.

During this time I spent a lot of time walking around my local market. I made friends with a bread lady in front of the boulangerie.. so now I always get the fresh bread in the morning which is nice! And the guy who sells locks nails and tires knows me now too. I also spent a lot of time sitting with my landlords wife.. I think she will be very helpful for me as I try to get to know the community because she seems to know everyone and she is very nice to me. My landlord doesn't speak any french but his wife does which is completely backwards to the norm.. he talks to me in hand gestures and grunting noises which might be his local language or an attempt to speak english to me. Since he doesn't speak english or french he might as well go for the language I know. The two of them have been very helpful to me since I moved in.. fighting off termites.. fixing door issues.. they even gave me a broom!

Outside of my "community study" I have been visiting the different farmers I will be working with... and going to lots of office meetings/formations. I even had a few meetings specifically scheduled to let me know that there wasn't time to work with me that day.. but I'm really glad there was time to schedule an official meeting to let me know that... (sometimes I have to try really hard to remind myself that I can do this).

I think the hardest thing for me since I moved into my house in Misserete.. harder than being away from anyone else who speaks english or who has any grasp of what my life is like at all.. and even harder than feeling like no one has work for me to do (even though every one seems to think I'm doing a lot of work and then seem to be offended when I look for work elsewhere).. is that people keep asking me for money.
The Reason For My Problems.
--I am not accustomed to this and I have found it very stressful. I had to remind myself this week that I can't hide in my house.. I have to go out and get to know my neighbors. I also realized that the root of me hiding wasn't the constant shouting at the YOVO or the fact that I wasn't feeling well.. I just was mentally exhausted from people asking me for money and not understanding/believing that I don't have any. I really don't enjoy that every friendly person who seems to strike up a conversation with me then wants me to give them money :( and the worst part is they are offended that I don't think that they are entitled to the little money that I have.  I'm already overcharged for everything based on the fact that I'm obviously a foreigner so PLEASE STOP. Even at work I was getting the feeling for awhile that people didn't want to waste their time working with me... since I am not yet allowed to start applying for grants for their projects. Fortunately, I think I pushed past this barrier (at work at least) and people are at least starting to let me tag along and talk to the farmers I will be working with. It isn't at the point I would like yet.. but its getting there.

Today a friend of mine who lives in the village of Vakon brought me to church with her for a little bit.. which was interesting. She is Christian Celeste and church is an all day affair for her. She was walking me to the road.. because I had stopped by her house and when I went to leave she wanted me to stop in and see her church. It was very interesting.. I obviously couldn't understand a word of what was being said it was all in a local language. It was much different than church at home. Everyone was dressed the same.. there was a band with a full percussion section.. and everyone was dancing (the whole time). I'm assuming the sermon was in the singing but I'm not really sure. I was given a piece of cloth to cover my hair with.. and then I was given a chair and it was insisted that I sit in it. Which was very strange – very few people were sitting and I was the only one with a chair. On top of that I was sitting in the corner with all the small children (who were staring at me) and I was the only person not wearing the matching white outfit. Not to mention.. I'm a yovo but maybe they didn't notice that. Benin is predominately Catholic and Muslim.. but in my region.. even with the Mosques being so very loud.. and I would say that the Christian Celeste Church is the most visually prominent. She said that next time there is a big party (such as a baptism?) she will bring me because it is a lot of fun...

This week I have a bunch of meetings and outings planned with work. I found a place for my garden so I hope to get that started as well.. and I am going to do some mud stove work too! Each week feels a little more full and satisfying.

Moving in the right direction.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Somewhere Over the River

I just got back home from spending my “Workstation Days” in Cotonou!! Which is like being in America... only it would be nothing like America to anyone who is currently in America. To us however, it is just like being in America. I took my first hot shower since I left the states in June!

There are 4 workstations throughout Benin: Cotonou, Natitingou, Kandi and Parakou. Your workstation is based on your location in the country and it is where you pick up your mail, relax, use fast internet, watch TV and spend some time with other volunteers, and sleep in an air conditioned room (at least in Cotonou). My workstation is the Cotonou workstation, because that is the one closest to me. Which is really nice because the Cotonou workstation is also the Benin Peace Corps Headquarters. This means that when I go to relax.. I can also visit the doctor, stop in and talk with my program manager (or any other administrator that I like), and all paperwork and important things are processed in Cotonou. Every month each volunteer gets 3 free nights to spend at the workstation (2 right now because I am still in the adjustment period).. and the best part is that they are not counted towards our vacation days :)

Cotonou is the big economic city.. it is also the home to most of the Embassies and has a lot of expats. So while I can get almost anything I could possibly need in the Capital City of Porto Novo, where I live, Cotonou has everything else. If you can't find it in Cotonou... you won't find it in Benin. In line with my weird habit of getting really excited and buying strange things whenever I walk into a “western style” grocery store in this country.. I came back to post today with rose water, canned baba ghanoush, cappuccino flavored cookies, hot sauce, and guava jam. I also bought some more practical things that I actually needed... but that isn't interesting.

Volunteers also get the opportunity to eat non-Beninese food when in Cotonou!! I even had falafel one night!! It was so good!!! There is a french bakery that has chocolate soy-milk... and they also have kiwi juice?? and I had my favorite avocado sandwiches. Not this weekend.. but in the past I have eaten vegetarian bean burritos in Cotonou! Next time I go I am excited to try the Indian Restaurant that volunteers seem to like.

I discovered that Customer Service does exist in Benin (but probably only when the business is not owned by a Beninese person). Another volunteer and I stepped into a Pizza place in Cotonou “1 2 3 Pizza”.. we sat down ordered a bottle of ice cold water... and waited for about 10 minutes when the owner came out and told us that they couldn't cook us anything because the oven was broken. He gave us each a free salad... (with croutons!).. and he didn't charge us for the water! Now, I have no idea how the food there normally is.. but I would definitely go back and try! I would also recommend this place to anyone else visiting Cotonou, because they were just so nice and friendly!! Nice and friendly is not normal business etiquette in Benin.

Normally customer service in Benin is “I don't really have any interest in serving you... you are interrupting my nap.. and if you don't have exact change I won't sell you anything (Even if I have the change!).” Small money is very important here, having a 5000 cfa note is not worth as much as having 5000 cfa in change. The bank loves to give us the worthless 10,000 cfa note. The smaller your change is broken down the more it is worth in the market.

Aside from the wonderful grocery stores and restaurants that Cotonou has to offer.. Cotonou also has the beach! BEACH!!! and a private pool where volunteers are allowed to go swimming on Saturday afternoons!! So basically.. after weeks at post.. without any other Americans to hang out with.. eating rice, beans, and bananas every day. Cotonou is paradise.

I had a glorious weekend.