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!!