Sunday, December 29, 2013

Happy Holidays 2013

Last week I spent my second (and last) Christmas in Grand Popo.

As always Popo was wonderful. Everyone had a great time - a much smaller and more low key group than last year – which is probably a good thing. I am perfectly happy just relaxing on the beach enjoying the sound of the ocean, sun on my skin, and sand in my hair. I hope to get to go back to Grand Popo at least one more time before I finish my service, it really is my favorite place in Benin (Admin if you read this – COS conference.. please?)

I hope that those of you who celebrated this year, had an amazing time with your loved ones at home. I can't wait to be there next year!!! Thank you (again) for the holiday cards and Christmas treats that I received from home. <3

This coming week is the New Year. 2014.  For me the turning of the year is a time of reflection – and here in Benin the year has sure given me a lot to reflect on. I have a postcard on my wall that says “When was the last time you did something for the first time?” I am lucky enough, at this point in my life, that that I can say I do new things almost every day.

I started off my year right, a New Years meal in a friends village where we shared culture exchange through food. Followed the week after by the annual voodoo fete (I celebrated here in Misserete) with two of my close-mates, sitting on the VIP stage with Voodoo Priests, Village Chiefs, and Kings. I learned Goun, and I perfected Peace Corps Gourmet. I taught farming groups to grow new crops, and grew traditional crops with primary school students. I went on a Safari where we were charged at by an elephant, we went on a boat ride that was uncomfortably close to a family of hippos, and even saw lions. I road tripped through Togo and Ghana, getting a chance to see West African culture outside of Benin. Joined my new Japanese friends in traditional Beninese dance classes. Throughout the year I hosted many volunteer's at my house in Misserete and created uncountable memories. I was selected for the Peer Support Network, joined the Volunteer Advisory Committee, and formed an Amour et Vie team in my village. I befriended a wonderful kitten named Papaya, who does his best to make sure I am never lonely. I had to say goodbye, as some of the new friends left to return to American life, but I also was able to welcome many new friends, as my village hosted a new group of Peace Corps Environment Action Trainees over  the summer. For me 25 was a year of much growth. I worked hard and learned a lot about myself. I have become more confident and also more flexible. I became engaged and I am also a very proud new Aunt. 2013 is definitely a year I will never forget. All I can do is hope that 2014 is just as amazing and full of excitement and happy news.

Happy New Year Everyone

<3 Z

Sunday, December 22, 2013

A Touristic Alternative

One of the “big” tourist attractions in Benin – other than Voudun – is the existence of lake villages. The most famous of the lake villages (the one that most tourists go to tour) is called Ganvie.

Perhaps, if you are a tourist, Ganvie might be exactly what you are looking for. The boat will stop at multiple gift shops and of course they will try to get you to spend ALL of your money on things that you either didn't want or didn't agree to.

Some volunteers have taken their families to see Ganvie and have had a good experience. A lot of volunteers have gone to Ganvie and had a horrible experience. Erik and I had a horrible experience, that ended with (after other things) having that hats that we had paid for stolen from us by the guy who sold them to us... by the time we were done there we were so very glad to be leaving. That being said you WANT to see  lake villages while you are here – and if we hadn't gone we would have wished we had – which means just dealing with the mostly bad experience to get a chance to see them. But what if there was another not quite as touristy, but tours provided, lake village, where they won't try to cheat you out of your money? Wouldn't that be great.

Cue in: Augege (pronouces wa-gay-gay).

This past Tuesday I was lucky enough to be invited to go on a boat tour of the village of Augege, which is actually very close to chez moi. There is a newly built and small tourist center that takes boats out  from Porto Novo, and takes about 30 minutes to get to the village by boat.

While they offer tours, Augege is by no means a tourist trap. I guess a good way to put it is they are just learning tourism. They have one restaurant/hotel that prepares food properly for westerners (we didn't eat there so I am not sure what the prices are like) – and of course we did a lot of greeting people while we were there. One of my friends broke her shoe, and the tour guide went to find her a new pair while we were invited to sit down in a local's living room for a glass of water. The children sang to us, surprisingly not the annoying yovo song, and we got a chance to see what was probably the most elaborately painted church that any of us have seen here in Benin (who would have thought).

Unlike Ganvie which is over water year round, Augege does in fact have dry ground during the dry season, it is an island in the valley, mostly disconnected from surrounding villages. So if you really want to see houses with water under them, make sure that you go during the rainy season. Otherwise you are just going to see stilt houses, but you will be able to get out and walk around if the land is dry!!! I really enjoyed  the dry season tour.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Long Distance Loving

This week I received a PM from a future volunteer asking me about the experience of being in a long distance relationship during Peace Corps – as I replied to her I couldn't help but think that it really ought to be a post as well. A lot of aspiring and recently accepted volunteers are facing the question of “Well what about my relationship?” – I know that I was.

To start I will say that YES for those of you who don't know I am in a long distance relationship.

A surprising number of my friends out here are also in long distance relationships. It works for some people it doesn't work for everyone. However, it is doable, and myself and most of my friends who are also doing long distance are still holding strong after a year and a half. We just have the home stretch now.

So you want to know how to approach a long distance relationship while in the Peace Corps?

A lot of how you approach the situation will depend on how long you have been together, your financial situation, and your Significant Others (SO) general acceptance of you doing the PC.

As far as a financial situation is concerned money isn't required (my fiancé and i don't have a lot of money) but it does make it easier – some volunteers swear by being able to talk to the SO every night... or traveling frequently to see each other..  which is something i could never afford to do. Every situation is different, but you can definitely find a way to make yours work for you.

It would be a lie to say it isn't hard. It is very hard. But you can do it.

My biggest suggestion would to be very upfront with each other before you leave about the expectations for this 2 year separation. TALK ABOUT EVERYTHING!

I know the application process has changed a lot, but when I did the relationship questionnaires we actually sat down and answered the questions together. It was difficult, but forced us to really talk about the situation (and as touchy as some of the subjects are we got some good laughs in as well) -- If you are already past this point in your application (maybe you just met!), you could use some the same questions as a guideline to sit down and have a discussion with each other. It seems silly as you are doing it but it really helps in the long run, and makes your SO feel like they are a part of your decision making and application process as well.

Going in to the the Peace Corps you and your SO may have already been together more than 5 years – or less than 6 months. I don't know how far along you are in your relationship BUT it is also good to have a discussion about the end point. This doesn't have to be marriage (ours was and he actually surprised me and proposed during my vacation home in November -- i thought we were waiting so it really was a huge surprise!!) BUT what ever the plan is for 2 years after – marriage, grad school, moving in together, or just picking up where you left off – you should try to make sure you are both on the same page. It is important to know where you both stand and have a common goal to be looking forward to. If not, your SO might be wondering if you are going to stay a 3rd year? Or if you are even considering them in your plans at all for when you get home.. these are hard emotions to convey when you want each precious moment of your short phone calls home to be happy and not volatile.

Lastly, before you leave set up a general plan for how you plan to keep in contact during your 2 year service. Simple things like how often (or if you write) should be included. Your SO might not know you want them to write -- and if you are expecting a letter it will put stress on the relationship. How often you plan to talk on the phone should also be on the discussion board (but this will change after you see the first phone bill and learn the realities of international calling). Most importantly, do you hope to plan any trips to see each other? If so where and who will be in charge of that planning process (preferably the person at home with the good internet).

That being said, don't forget that THINGS WILL CHANGE once you are in the Peace Corps and no plans you make or discuss will actually be fixed until they happen (often vacations fall through the wayside when finances change for example --- or maybe you won't have phone reception in your village). Be prepared for the fact that the plan you talk about will not always be exactly what happens. It is more like your 2 year relationship guideline.

Peace Corps is an emotional roller-coaster and you will have bad days and good days and a SO is really great for being your support system as long as they realize that we experience the extremes and they have to be there to support us NOT to tell us to give up and come home.

AND PLEASE don't forget to apologize to them from time to time when you feel like there have been more bad days than good and they are PROBABLY the ones hearing all about it. Don't forget to say sweet things and remind each other how great it will be when you are back together again. – It is also OK to cry from time to time, no one will think less of you for it.

Good Luck

*The “On The Homefront” book that Peace Corps issues to new volunteers for their families is also very helpful (I actually requested an extra copy to give to Erik and his family as well!)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Third Goal

During my visit home, I spent a day at a local high school talking to students (mostly French Language and Social Studies) about living in Benin, Beninese Culture and Peace Corps. I meant to post about this before (but my vacation home was just so jam packed full of craziness that I didn't get even one chance to update you.) Talking to students at home was incredible and I think that everyone visiting home during their service should take a day to set up a program with a local high school.

I really enjoyed the presentations that I gave, mostly because the students asked AWESOME questions. I unfortunately can't remember most of them now – but they ranged from “Describe your typical day?” to “How do you wash your clothes?” to "What do you eat?" and of course “How do you join Peace Corps?” Of course since most of the classes were French classes, there were also a lot of questions about language! It is always interesting to explain the ways that Beninese French differs from Parisian French, and to talk about how many different languages are found throughout Benin. The teacher who helped by setting up the program for me to come in (a teacher of mine from High School!) took some awesome pictures from the day -- I don't want to post pictures of the students (obviously) but here is a great one of me helping a teacher model traditional clothing.

I would love a chance to give more presentations like this when I get back to the states!


Here in Benin my week was spent mostly meeting with people so that we can get back to work (which sometimes involves having a meeting to discuss when you are going to have a meeting to discuss the possibilities of getting back to work). I went to the market and restocked on things like laundry soap and toilet paper – and of course fabric. Basically just trying to get back to normal, and trying to stay out of the heat. (and cleaning up after yet another flood!) Hopefully in the next few weeks I will be able to tell you about some cool projects!!!


Sunday, December 1, 2013

Glad I Have You.

I can not BELIEVE that it is December already – 2013 is almost over.
Which is crazy -- I will finish my service in 2014!

Just as a general update from the last post – Thanksgiving in the Oueme-Plateau was a huge success. We had appetizers consisting of cranberries, tomato basil bites, and guacamole. We feasted on candied yams, green bean casserole, 2 types of stuffing, corn, and 2 types of mashed potatoes  – chopped carrot sticks, cranberry sauce, corn bread and of course gravy (the wonders of packaged powdered stuff) – and we topped it all of with pumpkin pies and pumpkin cake and candied pecans, and left over Halloween candy– For those non-veggie persons in attendance there was duck –  and I am more than sure that I am forgetting something.

We all ate until we were stuffed (as one should for Thanksgiving) and then in true holiday fashion proceeded to spread out and lounge while we looked for a second wind. Papaya had his own turkey duck and cranberry dinner that I brought him from home specifically for the occasion. Making him the only member of the party to actually eat Turkey this thanksgiving – something that other volunteers seemed to get a kick out of.

I must say that both Thanksgivings that I have spent in Benin have been more than memorable with lots of great food and wonderful caring people. Although – the volunteers who have already finished their service must have been more organized than us since THEY thought to take a big group picture last year. Something we failed to remember to do. But I will add a picture of the spread (to this post) next time I am in Cotonou land.


As I am sure many of you realize based on my November blog posts – Coming back to Benin after spending a few weeks of luxery in the US of A was super hard on me. People who I talk to on the phone (and some other volunteers) definitely took the brunt of my unhappiness.. As you know, I try to be as positive as possible on the blog (which says something) – and now that I am starting to feel better and things are maybe starting to move back in the right direction, I think I would like to just talk about some of the reasons that I really am happy to be back in Benin. This blog is sometimes more reflective for me, than it is informative to you -- i realize that. I am also OK with it and am very glad that I have this output.

Peace Corps has its ups and its downs, but I think that I can honestly say that on average I have been more happy than not. It is just the emotional breakdowns that stand out. Being with so many of my friends over the weekend really helped snap me out of my most recent slump.

I love what I am doing here even if it doesn't always seem 100% effective (but hey that’s PC) – I am glad to be back in the country with my close volunteer friends and my cat who (bless his little heart) only wants to see me happy.

The lessons I am learning here are not comparable to anything else – you learn a lot by living in a culture that isn't your own. New ways of looking at the world around you, and new ways of approaching people.

The things that I really missed about Benin while I was home are as follows:
*you know the drill no specific order/list of 10 :)

1. The warm tropical weather – I don't care how “nice” it was at home for November. It was cold and as we all know I am not a cold weather person.
2. The fact that people know (and care – good or bad) when you haven't been around. As much flak as I received from some people who did not SEEM happy that I had been gone or that I returned. I also had many people in my village who were thrilled to see that I had returned. Specifically certain people who I walk pass everyday who it would not have occurred to me – as a westerner – to even mention my absence to – were truly concerned when they stopped seeing me.
3. Being around people who understand what I am going through here.
4. My two favorite Beninese beverages. Sodabe. Bissap.
5. Fried plantains.. Fried soy sticks.. Fried dough... Fried things.
6. People GENERALLY on an interaction to interaction basis are much warmer and friendlier here in Benin... Yes this is directed at you Barnes & Nobles employee who made me cry.
7. Napping – or really just down time in general. I barely got a chance to breath when I was home.
8. I missed the rice and bean lady.
9. The clothes here really are just that much more fun to wear.
10. Lastly, I missed the ridiculous, interesting, informative, frustrating and entertaining conversations that I have here in Benin on a daily basis. The mixture of things that are said to me daily definitely keep me on my toes.

So there you have it. In my favorite list making fashion.

Have a great week,

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Breaded Asparagus.

Last year for thanksgiving I made a video.
This year the internet has changed too much for me to be able to load a video from my house.
SO I am going to do this the “old fashioned way” and just write it out :)

Can not wait until next year when I can eat all the cranberries and pumpkin pies.

This holiday season:

I am thankful for my family and friends and my wonderful fiancé for being so supportive.
I am thankful for my kitten Papaya for being here to make me smile when I'm sad.
I am thankful for my new nephew because I know he is an amazing person.
I am thankful for all of the fellow volunteers
– especially the ones who have become really great friends of mine over the last year.
I am thankful for my fan for helping me readjust to this ridiculous heat.
I am thankful for airplanes.
I am thankful for technology that keeps me connected.
I am thankful that in about 9 months I will get to go home to a country that makes more sense to me...
I am also thankful for the experience to live in a country that doesn't.
I am thankful that I live in a world where the Peace Corps exists.
I am thankful for “TastyBites” minute meals for allowing me and Papaya to eat like bosses this Thanksgiving even if we were all alone in my living room. (Don't worry the real Thanksgiving festivities will take place on Saturday!) And for the Peanut Chew that I ate for desert. And lastly I am thankful that the only Turkey I saw today was alive and well and wandering in the field outside of my house.

Happy Thanksgiving Everyone and a Happy Hanukkah as well!!

Think of me as you eat your mashed potatoes and brussel sprouts.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Welcome Back

Back in village.

While I was gone my house flooded. This is something that I knew about since another volunteer (a complete angel - who also cleaned up after the flood) was checking in on Papaya cat every few days. Papaya is fine, and is very happy that I am back. However, I am starting to wonder if he is the only one.

I don't want to go into details, because I could rant forever and I do my best to try not to complain here in blog land... but since my house flooded (for the third time), and people came in to see the damage.. everyone has decided that I am very messy. Since, for obvious reasons after a flood, my house was quite the disaster. Papaya had freaked out knocking things all over the floor in his room – which is the room that had flooded -- (leading to a lot of things, mostly paperwork, getting ruined. Which meant there was water, and papers, and other small desk items floating all over the floor.

Something else you need to know about Benin, is that if you don't sweep on an almost daily basis, dust just starts to build up. Well, by the time my vacation ended, I had (for all intent and purposes) been away for 6 weeks. First the conference, followed by being very sick.. literally leading right into my vacation home. So the place was dusty, just as anyplace would be dusty after 6 weeks of being away. Duh.

Anyway, the general temper in my living situation at the moment seems to be that me (and my cat) are a complete nuisance, and I am not paying enough to live here given the state of my (inundated) house.

Gee, I'm glad to see you guys too. :(


Oh, I was also told that my cat is dangerous and might eat the children.

Friday, November 22, 2013


Dear Family and Friends,

I have landed safely back in Benin. America was wonderful, and I will be happy to be home again for good in less than a year. In the meantime I am back in Africa and the updates will have to also go back to blog land and not in person :(...

I really enjoyed my time at home (maybe a bit too much) and am definitely having a bit of trouble readjusting to being away from the people who love and care about me.

Home was great.. there is hot water in sinks. You can eat almost anything at a restaurant. People pay with little plastic cards. I was just so CLEAN the entire time I was there. Not to mention all of the other little things such as sweaters and boots and cuddling up under blankets and just not being the center of attention 24/7. I could not be a celebrity, being so noticed all the time is honestly my least favorite part of being a PCV.

It was an eventful trip home as well, for those of you who don't know.. this trip home was so that I could meet my brand new nephew who is just the most loved and most adorable thing ever and I can't wait until he is old enough to talk to me. Then of course, as if becoming an aunt isn't big enough in and of itself, Erik and I are now officially engaged. (And yes I was completely surprised) –

Even with all these big things happening in my life, the best part of it all was getting to see so many of my friends. I lucked out with spending a chunk of my trip on the west coast, which means I got to see family that I wouldn't have gotten to see otherwise. Back home in the Philly area some of my best friends made the trip to Chez Moi to see me, which made me feel really special and loved – and allowed for such activities as eating pumpkin pie straight from the box.. and drinking champagne to celebrate over jigsaw puzzles. You guys make it really hard to leave (and that's a good thing).

Hopefully in a few days I will feel re-acclimated.
For now I feel hot and sweaty and homesick.
But that is perfectly normal.. I think


Monday, October 28, 2013

Perception of Calm

Almost any PC Benin Volunteer is PROBABLY going to think I am crazy when I say this – but I love going to the bank. It is like a sea of calm in the middle of a whole lot of crazy. Now, I am going to add that the branch I go to in Porto is probably the best branch in all of Benin – and none of the branches in Cotonou (or any other city I have been to) fall even close to sea of calm. However, the small branch that I go to in Porto is an exception.

I love going to the bank because they keep a real line.. with chairs.. that the security guard takes very seriously. This branch is small so you rarely wait more than 30 minutes, unless you are silly enough to go during lunch break. The guard also takes very seriously a “no talking on cell phones” rule – which is completely unheard of in Benin. AND he will kick you out if you answer your phone. Which happens often.

For about 30 minutes every month I get to experience a quiet, air conditioned, and organized. AND that isn't even the main reason why I love going to the bank.

Once again I am going to say that this is speaking for the specific branch that I go to – but the reason I love going to the bank is that for this super western 30 minutes a month I find myself in a bubble where everyone is treated the same as everyone else.

Foreigner, Rich Woman, Poor Woman, Poor Man, Village Chief, everyone gets in the same line and follows the same rules. In most banks (or similar establishments) the line is only semi existent. Mostly because whenever someone important walks in they get automatically bumped to the front of the line. Not here in Porto, here you get in your chair and wait like everyone else. In most banks the foreigner (and the poorer women) would constantly get pushed to the back because everyone else thinks we won't notice. Generally this will only work for so long for volunteers before said volunteer would start making a scene and then we too get pushed to the front of the line, this act does not work for locals. At my bank in Porto the whole act of how to get to the front is completely obsolete. Because there is a line. An air conditioned, everyone is equal, and no one is shouting into their cell phone, not hectic, completely peaceful, no pushing, look at how efficient this is, line.

I know it is the westerner in me who finds so much solace in the line, but it is the human in me who finds the joy in the changes this same line has brought about for the customers who go to this bank.


When not sitting in my favorite bank day dreaming about how things work in America – I have been preparing (aka stressing) for my upcoming vacation. It's been a little bumpy. Maybe because I spent all of last week wasting away in the medical unit instead of preparing for vacation.. maybe it is just because I live in a tiny country in West Africa and things just kind of are that way.

I am stressing because:

1. I am not finished acquiring souvenirs for friends and family - blame the shutdown.
2. Dresses that I am having made for home (that should have been done last week) are not ready.
3. I keep having dreams that I forgot to get on the airplane.
4. I'm worried about people in my community thinking I left for good.
5. Trying to finish up Grad School apps from Benin is harder than I thought it would be (even with my parents helping with little tasks from home) – Dear UCSC your transcript ordering system is HORRIBLE. Horrible. Horrible!!!
6. AND OF COURSE – Papaya is currently out of food and so is the grocery store :-/

A friend recently said to me.. when on his way home after a long vacation “I'm clicking my heels!” That is where I am right now... clicking as fast as I can.

Click Click.

Monday, October 21, 2013

My Favorite Place

This week we had our “Mid-Service Conference” – which was mostly meant to be a discussion on monitoring and evaluation – and our new reporting processes (someday they will get it all figured out..). Normally, I wouldn't be super thrilled about a week of “Monitoring and Evaluation” discussions – but we got to go to my favorite place ever!!! Grand Popo.

No Lion Bar for me this week :( We stayed at a fancier place on the other side of the Island called Bel Azur. Very fancy fancy. Air conditioning, WIFI (that didn't really work), one of the cleanest pools in Benin, and the rooms we stayed in were all beach front!! facing the ocean!!!

When I wasn't spending my lunch breaks basking in the sun, breathing in the salt air, and getting sand in my hair (three of my top favorite past times) I actually learned quite a bit this week! (and yes I was spending those lunch breaks on the beach – I was sick and couldn't eat the glorious 3 meals a day we were being fed for free :( – such is life).

I honestly think that this was the best Peace Corps held workshop that I have been too. The purpose was to discuss monitoring and evaluation and the new reporting system. Due to the government shutdown, the new reporting system has not yet arrived here in Benin to be discussed. The workshop was already set up and paid for – so we used the time focus in on monitoring and evaluation procedures, we were able to have really great sector discussions on old and new reporting indicators.. and we did some hands on tool building exercises to help with future monitoring. On the final day we did an activity called “Open Space” – which allowed us to speak with our administration and program managers, and to each other about LITERALLY any issues we thought should be brought up in a bigger group. Everything from specific project issues, to working with admin, to increasing work partner accountability. I think everyone got a lot out of the open space, it was useful to hear each others stories and some great ideas came out of the session. I think that Peace Corps should hold more of their workshops the way the one this week was held.

After leaving the beach and heading home – I am now back in Cotonou.
A little sick, but I will be better soon. If I am going to be sick at least I got a chance to spend some time at the beach first :) -- so if this post is a little rambling I blame it on the fact that I am sick.

Can't wait for vacation.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Village Envy

I sometimes joke with other volunteers that I have “village envy.” Of course by the standards of anyone reading this in the USA - I live in a village.. but compared to where the majority of the other volunteers live, I don't live in a “real” village at all. I have running water, transient neighbors, electricity, other yovos. and most importantly I live on a paved road.

Misserete can be a great place, and I have learned to make it my home. That doesn't change the fact that whenever I visit a friend who lives in a village – I get that twinge of jealously. The small tight nit community, the village fetes (that the volunteer is actually invited to), a concession full of people who are also part of the community and can therefore help you integrate... women and children who speak the local language with you and help you learn!! When I see the small villages that other volunteers have I can't help thinking to my self “Zoe, this is the experience you expected to have!” Then of course I have to remind myself that every volunteer experience is different, and I am having the one that I was meant to have, whether it was the one I really wanted or not – well that's not really important anymore. At the end of the day (or most days at least) I am happy with the experience I am having and the lessons that I am learning from it.

What brings this up? Well this week I have been traveling the Oueme-Plateau doing “PSN site visits” which means... visiting villages!!! I am not going to go into the whole who and were, because I don't want to interfere with anyone’s security. I share my village on here but that is my choice. I will say, that the places the new volunteers live are beautiful AND PEACEFUL! So peaceful. I wish I could have taken pictures to show you on the blog (have no fear I will be getting a new camera soon!)

My favorite part of going to visit other peoples villages is seeing the personality that the village has. Some villages are big like mine (yet still further away from the big cities and major roads) – some are small – some literally feel like they are just one road! Not everyone has a daily market like I do (or even regular access to fresh veggies – unless of course they work on a farm or grow them themselves).I don't always love eating the village food (I am spoiled city folk) but I love seeing what is available. It is really an eye opener to me. . Some people don't even have bubbly water!!

I love seeing the vodun and statues that are visible in the different villages. Here in Misserete there are small statues, and there are “spirit scarecrows” that go up during the corn season. One of the villages I went to the other day actually had a small shed like “house” for the zangbetos!!! A lot of villages have guardian houses (where spirit protect the entrance to the village) and most villages have statues like the ones found near me. Sometimes small business will have statues, or there will be memorials to something from the past (in Ketou a larger town, up near some of the volunteers that I visited this week, there is actually a sacred trash pile!!) My favorite statue in Misserete is a statue of of Africa with lions located in front of the Maison de Jeunes. Why is it my favorite? Well.. because the artist felt the need to give the statue real whiskers, obviously.

When you live north of well.. almost everything is north of me.. so just when you live north. You always have reasons to come south and many people have passed through my village and slept at my house. I am on the way to Cotonou – where we have to go to see administration, have medical exams, and to get on an airplane. In the reverse direction, from Cotonou, I am on the way back to village. There is also a lot of training done in Porto Novo (which is the city that I live in a “suburb” of), so people come through here a lot. Which is awesome in many ways but it also means I rarely have a reason to go North, and because of where I live, I think I get a very skewed view of the rest of the country. I mean, I know the rest of the country isn't like the cities, and there is less money, and less available.. but it is hard to really understand that without seeing it.

Loving Life.

PS – I found a (small) pumpkin at a veggie stand in Cotonou, got excited and brought it home.. and have no idea what to do with it!! I can't really roast it on my stove, it would take too much gas. Any suggestions? I know all you brilliant people can come up with something.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Been Raining A Lot..

This past week was fairly low key.. except for the government shutting down.
Really guys.. what are you doing over there?

Monday started off with my mid-service medical exam. After a year in Benin we are all required to go in to the office to make sure everything is working correctly and to have all of our bodily fluids analyzed. More or less I am freakishly healthy (maybe for a PCV or maybe just in general). Basically peeing in a cup was the highlight of the week. Unless you count last Sunday when I got a chance to take some much needed beach time but I'm not entirely sure that that counts as this week.


Just because I know people are wondering. The government shutdown isn't “really” effecting us here yet. There are a few bumps (such as the volunteer shuttle that brings mail up north isn't going to run this month) but we are all still working – and at least as of now we still have money to eat. It is really hard to explain to people here what exactly is going on la bas. So the quicker we fix this the better ok guys?


No real updates or things to say this week. Misserete is fine. Friends are fine. Papaya is getting freakishly bigger every day and is terribly cute when he isn't trying to claw my face off. I even had to take off his little kitten collar and give him a bigger one! -- In village I have been busy with some smaller projects and have been trying to find a new big project to work on for my final year as my current big project is wrapping up. (Last week USAID came to my post to check out some of the work I am doing since I am so close to Cotonou and was an easy post for them to get to – that was exciting!) It is the rainy season right now – which means lots of being stuck inside cause de rain. At least there haven't been any floods this year!!!

This coming week is going to be more interesting! Going to go on a few regional day trips to visit some of the new volunteers at site and make sure they are settling in well. One of the big perks of being on PSN!

<3 Z

Sunday, September 29, 2013


One of the big concerns when you are getting ready to go into the Peace Corps is – how on earth are you going to keep in contact with friends and family at home???

There are lots of romantic ideas about letter writing – packages taking a year to get to you – sending mail with exotic postage – phone calls once a month... or less..

In reality it is really easy to communicate cross continent in the year 2013. Even to the third world.

As a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin I generally get to speak to my family every week. Mail moves much quicker than expected and rarely (but sometimes) gets lost en route. Technology advances have made communication seem almost science fiction – for example when I am using my MP3 player to have a face to face conversation with someone on the West Coast USA.

The reason for this post is I recently (within the last month) discovered how to use the “FaceTime” technology on my Ipod – and it has changed my life. Skype chat never works with the internet here – but for some reason FaceTime works great!!!


Ipod: If you are going to be a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin (and probably most of West Africa) an Ipod or an unlocked Iphone with wifi capability is a really brilliant idea. The Peace Corps workstations in Benin have wireless internet. Which means that you can chat with all of your friends who have Iphones at home and also use FaceTime!! Which is a really scary but really amazing invention. The volunteers who are lucky enough to have Iphones are able to pay for a monthly internet plan that goes straight to the phone.. no wifi needed!

Skype: Skype doesn't always work as well as you would hope. Ipod FaceTime works much better. Skype is really great for chatting and having conversations with your friends. It is just nice sometimes to have a free conversation in real time. The face to face thing -- not so much.

Internet/Email: We live in the day and age of “internet keys” a usb internet device that you charge with phone credit and then plug into your computer allowing you (sketchy but doable) internet access to your email and facebook accounts. Just be sure that you load everything in the html or mobile versions or else you will end up spending a fortune. The internet doesn't always work.. but it still allows many of us to check in with family and friends at home way more often than we had ever dreamed possible. Well at least for those of us who get good enough “phone coverage” in our villages. (It also lets me to communicate home with things like.. this blog!)

Cell Phones: Everyone in Benin owns a cell phone. Every volunteer owns a cell phone. Most of us have multiple numbers (one for work and one for other volunteers) – this also allows us to still be connected to the outside world if one of the networks goes out or we are in a dead zone. This wonderful device not only keeps us connected to home but also connected to other volunteers in ways that would have been really difficult if we had been volunteers just decade or two earlier..I can't imagine living here without my little nokia flashlight phone.

Snail Mail: aka snack food delivery system. With all this technology and communication you would think that the old fashion snail mail wouldn't make the list.. but really there is nothing like a hand written letter to give and get updates. We all are way more connected to home than we ever thought we would be, even just with the ease of cell phone use – but letters are still nice.


I can't even imagine what it was like to be a Peace Corps volunteer before the age of cell phones and internet. Technology has definitely changed the experience, but it has also enriched it in many ways. Making it easier to share, and to provide cross cultural understanding.

Sometimes I wonder, based on the technology here, if when I get home everyone in the States will have advanced to telepathic communications.

Either way my mind will be blown by things like voice-mail and fast speed internet.


Friday, September 20, 2013

A Year At Post

A year ago today I moved into my house in Misserete. 

Here are some pictures of how my house looked (after I got everything moved in) on the first week -- and how it looks today after living there for a year!! Well.. everything but the bathroom because that looks exactly the same. 

Tables and Chairs and Curtains and A BED! 

The Way In

Living Room





Back Patio

I also updated what I miss now list!

Sunday, September 15, 2013


It has been a really long week of party planning and party prep AND I am exhausted!!

I'm not going to write a big long post this week. I am just going to say Congrats and Du Courage! To all the newbies who swore in on Friday – Thank you guys for making your Swear-In Party such a great success!!! Good luck at post!

For everyone at home I was going to a picture post about swear-in and setting up for the party that we (The Peer Support Network) threw on Friday night for all the new volunteers BUT my camera was stolen.

So instead I leave you with a picture of my giant party weave:

Love You
- Z

Sunday, September 8, 2013

1 Dollar

This weeks post was all planned out and then I lost pictures in an Ipod mishap :(
I was able to “replace” most of them -- It's not QUITE the same but I will live
I did lose the picture of pineapples – so I will add a new photo later this week! 

This is 500cfa. It also comes as a coin (but the bills are crisp and newly minted).

500cfa generally equates to one US Dollar.
I make about a handful of those a day –
There are lots of things that you can buy for 500cfa:


Four Baguettes, One Ride Between Porto and Cotonou, Get a Boumba Sewn (Fabric Not Included), Knockoff Sunglasses, Bubbly Water (aka kitten entertainment), 500cfa Phone Credit = 50 Text Messages, 1 Kilo Flour (or Sugar), Fancy Owl Sandals, One Large Beverage (Beninois or Coca),*MIA* 5 Pineapples.

This week I would also like to send out a big thank you to Stage 24.

The group that came the year before me (24) has officially closed service. The last non-extender has left the country. 24 had a crazy number of extenders (12 I believe!) so they haven't completely left us to our own devices but it still feels much different now with most of them gone.

I learned a lot of things from my friends in 24 – aside from how to not go crazy. They taught us the importance of laughing at the end of the day and not to take ourselves to seriously. The Peace Corps is hard and some days are terrible – some weeks are terrible – but other times it is great. They taught us it is ok.. as we fumble shamelessly through local languages and cultural differences. How to fearlessly trek around West Africa on zem bus or taxi.– They reinforced the idea through their own experiences that everyone's Peace Corps is different – every village is different and every project is different. They were there to tell us through out training (and even through those early months at post) that no matter how miserable (or how great?) we were feeling IT WAS PERFECTLY NORMAL! Every single volunteer from group 24 welcomed us with open arms and taught us everything we needed to know. They were amazing friends and mentors and I can only hope that I can be as helpful to the new group as the old group was to me over the last year.


Sunday, September 1, 2013

September Already?

Happy September Everyone!!
I'm not gonna lie the weather isn't changing here.

Papaya Kitten has gotten much bigger over the last two weeks - - he is eating his kitten kibbles like a champ and even got his rabies shot on Friday!!

Not really much to report on – I started the week off with a normal Monday morning meeting. Tuesday I was super busy trying to get a tree count, transplanting lettuce and onion seedlings with one of my farming groups and checking in with some other farmers nearby. Later that afternoon I joined the trainees as they did an insecticide training with one of my newer groups (whose veggies look wonderful by the way!!) I was really surprised to see that they made nice little placards for the crops they are growing with me – I will have to remember to bring my camera next time. I spent most (and by most i mean barely a day and a half) of my week in Cotonou getting some things done that required internet and eating some much needed Cotonou food. The week ended strong with a trip out to another volunteers village to help with a tomato conservation (jarring) formation followed on Friday by various Misserete escapades and friend visits – including of course the visit by the vet that Papaya was thrilled about.

A big portion of my down time the past few weekends has been taken up with the PSN Bakesale. The PSN Bakesale is an "annual event" that takes place during training (since we have a captive audience of Americans who would kill for cookies and cake!) My house (due to my location) has become a sort of hub for all things bakesale related during the training weeks - I have had a few overwhelming days but I do love helping out.. so in the end the stress of a few burnt cakes is completely worth it! The proceeds of this fundraiser go towards the Swear-In Party. A party that PSN throws for the trainees after they swear in as volunteers to celebrate the fact that they made it through training. Training is rough. The party is well earned. We have been trying to switch up the baked goods each week (although chocolate cake is hard to replace) and so far we have offered chocolate chip cookies, chocolate cake, chocolate cake :-P, and lemon pound cake (which magically appeared out of a lemon cookie recipe – you never know what will happen in a make shift oven) –  This week I am planning on brownies and pineapple cake – but it might just end up being chocolate cake again if I can't find any pineapples!! I really do love to bake I just prefer to do it in the land of real ovens and grocery stores. Brownies AND chocolate cake? Why not.

Anyway, nothing fancy this week! Just a brief update.
I would say it was a typical week.. but that isn't true.
Those don't really exist here. (Why do I feel like I've said that before?)

Miss Home and Love You All

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Money Dropping

There is a quarterly magazine published by The National Peace Corps Association, called WorldView. The National Peace Corps Association is a separate entity from the Peace Corps. The association is an NGO that works to bring current and returned Peace Corps Volunteers from all around the world to the same stage, to discuss global issues, and to build a network (kind of like an alumni association). As Peace Corps Volunteers we receive a copy of the WorldView Magazine in our mailbox every few months.. I believe for others it is part of NPCA membership (or maybe you just have to subscribe).

I would like to talk about an article that was in the Summer 2013 issue. The article was titled “Come to Africa for Business, Not Handouts” (Buckler and Jackson) and I think that it addresses some very real and very important issues. Issues that I see everyday here in Benin, but that I also believe very few Americans understand.

Before I start I would like to say that what I am about to write is  MY opinion based on my experience here in Benin. – I do make some blanket statements – but they are meant to be pertaining to my experience.

They put it more eloquently than I could ever hope to – but basically the article was written to point out the problems with newer American “Africa-Focused” business models such as TOMs and Goods for Good. The problem being the drop mentality. You buy from us and we are going to drop a bunch of free goods somewhere for the suffering children of Africa. The problem, according to Buckler and Jackson... and to Peace Corps Volunteers everywhere... is that this not only inhibits growth of business in the countries that are receiving “free gifts” (no one is going to buy something if they think that a westerner is going to come by and give it to them for free later) – it also perpetuates the idea that Africa is incapable of helping itself (therefore reducing the desire to invest in Africa). I am not going to talk about these exact same issues verbatim.. but the article is what inspired this weekends discussion, and if anyone gets their hands on a copy they should read it.

As Peace Corps Volunteers this is a topic constantly on our minds. Peace Corps is “not a financial institution” we are not here to give handouts, and we work towards projects that are sustainable and will continue to be sustainable after we leave. For example, instead of buying a food producer fancy western style ovens (that will be useless once they break anyway) we teach them how to make cost-efficient and energy efficient mud stoves, which cost nothing to build and can be built over and over again. We then watch as the people who have learned  go out on their own into the community and teach others how to build these same stoves. Teaching a new skill is sustainable. Giving handouts is not.

As current Peace Corps volunteers in Benin, there are two topics (I think) that come up the most.. pertaining to the “give away mentality” of most of the worlds volunteer force. Firstly, especially in the south, I have (and others have as well) run into issues where not only do the people we are trying to work with expect free handouts, they are almost unwilling to do work that would assume free handouts won't come in the future. Occasionally, people will not want to work with you once they realize you actually want to do work. Many  want the easy way of getting things done, and the easy way has become western handouts. Not only has the Western world become convinced of Africa’s need for assistance (and don't get me wrong there is some assistance – especially medical –  is in fact very important)– Africa in some ways has also become complacent to the idea. Not only do people expect free hand outs – they feel entitled. This is a problem. It perpetuates a laziness so to speak – a lack of desire to work towards a goal for yourself – to start at the bottom and build something on your own is such an American mentality. It is hard as an American, wishing that kind of happiness on to others, to see that not everyone wants to do it on their own. Some people really are happy just sitting around and letting someone else do it for them. Some people just don't think they can. If Africa is every going to reach sustainable development. It is that mentality that needs to be addressed first.

I am a volunteer. Requested by my host organization to come and work with them in my community. I cost them nothing. I work for free. – This hasn't stopped people in my own office from telling me that I should be paying them because they are letting me work there. I did not choose my location – they asked Peace Corps for me.  Still, because  I am a westerner even many educated host county nationals believe I was sent here to give them gifts. I know that some of this is cultural.. but it is disheartening to say the least. From my experience, there is a serious case of the gim-mes going on. Are HCNs requesting western volunteers only because they think that means free gifts and financial gain?

The second issue comes from Peace Corps itself. It is an issue that a lot of Peace Corps volunteers face, is one that effects us in reporting, and one that will also effect us when we get home (assuming anyone actually bothers to read our description of service reports) – it is the idea that TO BE A SUCCESSFUL VOLUNTEER – you have to be spending aid money. Although, as I said before, Peace Corps is not a financial institution we do receive grant money from outside sources.. and there is a big push to spend that money. Peace Corps is great about the idea that the community HAS TO be involved. They need to provide a certain percentage of the monetary value of the project themselves  (this can be obtained by the community through land donations, equipment donations, monetary donations and also from the actual labor costs) – this is what sets us apart form other volunteer programs. – We want the community to take ownership of the projects. Don't get me wrong – a lot of these projects are great – often they are for school buildings, latrine projects, irrigation systems – I plan on doing a latrine project myself, I am not against using grant money. What I am against is the idea that to be a “good volunteer” you should be using grant money. What about the projects that cost nothing – in my opinion these projects will be the most sustainable in the end. A volunteer's service should not be judged by the amount of money they were able to hand out. It should be judged by the success of a volunteer in addressing the issues that the volunteers community has brought to the table (no matter how aligned they really are with the project framework). If DC thinks this small village needs an Art Club (for example) in their school, that is all well and good, but the volunteer shouldn't be left feeling like a failure because the community perhaps really just does not want one and so the volunteer but their energy into a school funded garden club instead. On the other hand building a beautiful library that the community will never use shouldn't lead to accolades just because grant money was spent.

A farmer might want an irrigation system because it is expensive and having it is a status symbol – but will he actually use it? Will he pay for the up keep when it breaks? No. Not if he thinks that someone is going to come along and pay for a new one for him again in a few years.

We are on the ground helping the communities and serving as ambassadors. We see everyday what the past policies of free hand-outs has done to the countries where we work. We see many very capable and wonderful people who with the right motivation could be (and should be) great. Africa is worth investing in and as volunteers here in Benin we hope to teach them that, while we are here to help, it is only to give a push and get the ball rolling. They don't “need” us.. but I think they need to believe that almost as much as we do.

So what is the solution? I don't really know... the problem hasn't changed yet since the authors of the WorldView article were serving. I think it is going to take a long time to change. For starters though, I think we should stop looking at Africa as a charity and start looking at it as a place with potential.


Come to Africa for Business, Not Handouts was written by Micheal Buckler (Malawi 06-08) and Beau Jackson (Cape Verde 03-05) for the Summer 2013 issue of WorldView Magazine. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Kick-Offs and Kittens

Today was my kick-off ceremony for Amour et Vie. I am not going to get into what it is again.. since I already posted about it HERE but feel free to go back and check it out.

Our ceremony fete was a success. We invited 80 people including the two groups of couturier apprentices we will be working over the next few months, and something close to 40 village chiefs as well as the mayor just to name a few. Less than 50 people showed up which was expected. Normally the presentations my team gives would be for groups between 10-20 people.. and during our practice run it was more like 5, so I think the number might have been a bit overwhelming. Especially since was their first time out in the community.

For the ceremony, my team did a demonstration on HIV/AIDS prevention including a condom demonstration.

There are of course a few things that we still need to work on (as is with most things in life) but I think that my team really did a great job at their kick off ceremony and I really look forward to working with them the during the rest of my service. I am proud of them!


In other news: 
This is my new roommate. 
His name is Papaya.
His pastimes include chasing ants and sleeping in cute places. 
He wanted to write his own blog post..
But he is too little and still speaks kitten. 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Trying Something New

Here is what we've been up to in  Gome Sota:

Crop Diversification Garden Beds
Green Beans
Building A Cucumber Trellis