Sunday, June 30, 2013

Peer Support

This past week I was in Cotonou for “PSN” Training. PSN stands for Peer Support Network.

The peer support network is a group of 12 volunteers chosen to act as a support system for the rest of the volunteers in country. In the training manual it is described as “a group of PCVs selected and trained to provide emotional support to their peers in concert and cooperation with the Peace Corps staff of the country. The goal is to provide quality support in a manner that enhances the potential and the productivity of the PCV in their service to the people of their Peace Corps country."

The training was great. Even though it was only two days, I couldn't help being reminded of the different Peer Mediation and Peer Support trainings that I had attended when I was younger. We practiced listening skills and how to keep a conversation going. We talked about how to recognize when a situation is dangerous and requires outside help. We learned how to help when someone is grieving. We talked about alternative stress reliefs to recommend if we feel that someone might be developing a drinking problem. After a lot of really helpful discussions we practiced having conversations with one another, using different scenarios that might come up.  We learned about the different resources that Peace Corps Washington has available to us, hotlines and emotional counseling that are free for PCVs (and definitely under advertised – since this was the first time I remember hearing of any of this).

Peace Corps is generally a high stress job.. and volunteers are constantly teetering on an emotional roller-coaster. During our training last year, we had a session where we were given a chart showing where we should be emotionally at different months during our service. The majority of our first year of service.. we are expected to feel unhappy, stressed, depressed, and worthless. The second year (according to the chart) gets better. Currently we are supposed to be going through mid-service crisis followed by many months of feeling adjusted and satisfied with our work. On top of that it is time for us to start looking into our plans for after Peace Corps.. there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I think I may have had my mid-service crisis early... and while things might not always go exactly as planned here in village, I feel well adjusted, and the projects I am doing I am happy with. So that is good.

That being said, since we are so often below the “Happy and Content Line.” Having a group of peers who are not only willing but also trained how to successfully help each other get through these funks is useful to both us and to administration who may not be as well equipped to deal with situations that they can't completely relate to. Since we are going through the same (or similar) situations as each other, we are better prepared to give advice than a host country national on staff, or an RPCV who works in the office and lives a city life in Benin. While these people are obviously awesome and do a great job keeping the system running.. their lives are much much different than ours and sometimes it can be hard to relate.

Aside from functioning as a phone line. PSN also holds events, does fundraisers, and goes on site visits to make sure the new volunteers are settling in well when they first go to their posts. We sell t-shirts, candy-grams, and host bake sales. We host regional “wellness weekends” at the workstations where volunteers can sign up to come, and eat a healthy dinner, do yoga or go running, attend arts and crafts sessions, and watch movies (to name a few activities). These events are often focused around holidays where people might be feeling more stressed than normal due to homesickness.. such as Christmas or Valentine's day.

I am excited for this coming year with our 2013-2014 PSN team. We have some great ideas and are looking forward to planning a celebration for the 10th Anniversary of the Peer Support Network in Benin in February. I think we have an amazing team with lots of diverse personalities and interests. It is going to be a really awesome year.


Monday, June 24, 2013

A Year Ago Today

June 24th 2012: I woke up early – loaded my two suitcases [of what I thought I needed for two years in Africa] into my dad's car. Said goodbye to my dog and my neighbors. We drove 20 minutes to pick up Erik at his house and the four us of.. me mom dad and Erik drove off to find breakfast so we could eat one last meal together before I flew off to Benin. I barely touched my food. My stomach was in knots. An hour later they dropped me off at the Holiday Inn in Philly where I would have a day full of icebreakers with other new peace corps volunteer trainees. Everyone was given about 200 dollars to go out for dinner – and for airport spending. I went to one of my favorite restaurants in Philly with a group of trainees. I had a veggie burger and fries and beer and the restaurant staff played a mix of songs about in Africa in honor of us leaving. It was really nice – at the time I was convinced getting to know my new “coworkers” at dinner was the best thing to do. Later I wished I had used that money to go out for a nice dinner with Erik – or perhaps to call my friends up and buy everyone drinks at a local bar that we like. I would have two years to get to know all of these new friends. OH well – I probably made the right decision. I didn't stay out late we had to get up early to go to the airport the next morning. In many ways this “first day” was much different for me than for the others because I was still saying my goodbyes to home. – I hadn't left home yet. I didn't feel like I was leaving until we were on the plane to Africa the next day. Most of the others had already experienced the feeling of leaving on their flights or train rides into Philly. It was a stressful and emotional day. The three days that followed are nothing but a blur to me now. 


June 24th 2013: In comparison today was typical and relaxing -- not that typical means what it meant to me a year ago. I woke up at a reasonable hour and spent my morning sitting at the couturier while she finished a skirt I had ordered last week and adjusted the straps on a beautiful dress a recently COS-ed volunteer had given to me as a gift on Saturday before she left. I went to Songhai and bought some corn. Went to Ouando Marche for fruit sugar and some soap for washing clothes. --- In the afternoon I had the two Japanese volunteers who live in village with me over for dinner. It had been one of their birthdays on Saturday and so I decided to have them over to celebrate since I hadn't been there over the weekend. I made boxed mac & cheese.. grilled up some sweet corn from Songhai.. and baked a chocolate cake. One of my friends had never had mac & cheese before so that was an interesting experience for her.. I think she really enjoyed it. – It was just a day in village. No icebreakers. No beer. No tearful goodbyes. Just cake and friends and a few short power outages. 


It is weird to think I haven't seen my parents for a year and for most of my friends it has been even longer. – The volunteers who trained us have officially started leaving the country (some people are approved to close their service a month or two early for graduate school). Over this past weekend I had my first official training to take over one of the few second year positions that I will be stepping into. This weekend it was as a Cotonou Workstation Committee Member.. this coming week I will be training for the Peer Support Network. Where has the time gone.

I can't believe it has been a year since my parents dropped me off at the hotel in Philly. 

Honestly, What were they thinking. 

Sunday, June 9, 2013

While you're here..

 you might as well dance.

For those of you who don't already know this.

I started taking Traditional African Dance classes at the Ouadada Cultural Center in Porto Novo a little over a month ago. Every week I go with a really awesome group of JICA volunteers and we dance our little hearts out. It is easily the number one thing that gets me through the weeks here. Then again (for those of you who don't know) I have been dancing my whole life.. so that really isn't that surprising.

The very first class that I went to was definitely one of those “Who am I and what am I doing here?” moments that we have every so often as Peace Corps Volunteers. Most of the girls don't speak English. So there I was one evening in a dance class (that my friend had invited me to go to) with a group of Japanese volunteers and a very enthusiastic Beninese dance teacher.. in a power outage.. dancing outside.. to live drumming.. with the only common language among the lot of us being very very broken french. It was spectacular to say the least. Of course I had to go back for more.

After only 2 or 3 classes I was informed that we were having a PERFORMANCE in 3 weeks. What?

This week I appeared in my very first West African Spectac.
Costumed up and all.

It was a really great experience.
The performance went great and we had an awesome turnout :)
I have lots of really supportive and just amazing friends here in Benin who came to see me dance.

This was supposed to be a photo post.. but I don't have the internet for that right now..
I will add the pictures to this post as soon as I have the internet capability!
Photos Thanks to Amber P!

Sorry about the half posting thing.