Wednesday, June 18, 2014

A Final Post

This post has taken some time to write.

I apologize to those who I know have been concerned due to my health and to my silence.
The last 2 weeks of my life have been absolutely insane and a bit emotional.

As of June 4th, 2014 I am officially an RPCV. After my many weeks in the medical unit, it was decided that my current health issues are very likely being caused by my anti-malaria medicines (at least from my understanding) and therefore I needed to be medically evacuated to a place where I could eventually stop being on them. Since I was already so close to the actual end date of my service – I was processed as a Close of Service. Which basically is just a fancy way of saying they let me go home early without any sort of negative consequence - but have no intention of sending me back to Benin.

Anyway, it all happened incredibly fast, and the whole medical experience was very up and down. At this point I am home in the USA and working on getting healthy again. There isn't anything actually wrong with me (which is actually an incredibly frustrating thing to hear when you aren't feeling well) except for a cough that will go away eventually - most likely when I am off the medication. Anyway, I feel weird getting into the whole medical this and that on the internet – since the whole end of my service has been incredibly personal. That being said, I felt I owed it to readers and to myself to have a final post on this blog. I couldn't leave it feeling unfinished.

America has been a very interesting readjustment. I am glad to be eating well again, and I am very happy to be readjusting during my favorite summer months. I do miss the palm trees and the hibiscus juice and of course Papaya cat and all of my fellow volunteers -- and countless other things.

To answer the big question: I am very happy that I joined the Peace Corps and am grateful for the experiences I gained. It may not have ended the way I had planned – but I would most definitely, with out a doubt, not have changed anything about my decision to be a part of this amazing organization. Peace Corps had its bad days and its good days -- and some more bad days -- and I loved it.

As for now, I am working on getting myself readjusted and healthy and ready for graduate school! Being home early has allowed me to enroll in an online summer course to get a jump-start on the program (see silver linings everywhere!!) - and some more time with family and friends before I move away again!

Thank you everyone for reading and following my journey as a volunteer. This blog has been an experience for me, almost as much as the Peace Corps itself was, in its own way.

Over and Out,

Zoe Crum
Returned Peace Corps Volunteer 
Benin 2012-2014

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Happy Days

Over the last 100 days I have been doing the "100 days" happiness projects with one of my friends back in the USA -- it has been a really great experience. That being said, with my current health issues, there were quite a few days during the 100 that were very much a struggle (and thus resulted in a picture of a water heater.. or better yet a piece of fruit as my happy moment for the day). While my experience was personal between me and my dearest. I wanted to share the project itself and as an idea with my readers because I found it very eye opening, and it was an absolutely amazing experience.

Check out the idea at 100 Happy Days, and in the mean time here are some of the happy moments from my personal 100 day project <3 :

I think that once I am home it might be fun to do a similar personal project - highlighting the things I find shocking or surprising about the US!

Hope you enjoyed the pictures!! 

Monday, May 12, 2014

What is COS Conference?

COS is an acronym meaning “Close of Service,” and COS Conference is the last in a series of Peace Corps training workshops that we attend throughout our service. Specifically COS Conference is when we are trained on how to come home. It is our last chance to all be together at the end of this incredible 2 year journey that we embarked on together in Philadelphia 2 years ago. Mostly, it really is a training on what to expect in America.

Friday, in Cotonou we started off with opening remarks form our Country Director. We had an important session on what type of health care to expect, or to not expect, once we go back home – and what medical clearance we need to go through before we get on our plane. (Basically the same physicals we had to do in order to enter the Peace Corps have to be done again in order to leave). Followed by some security information, and a question and answer session with RPCVs who are currently working with various NGOs and living in Benin.

The RPCV panel was incredibly insightful. Hearing about stories of readjusting (or not readjusting) to American life. The things that were shocking to people as they returned home. How to answer questions, that we really might not want to answer... and how to tell if the person asking really wants an answer. And of course about finding work after Peace Corps.

Me with the EA Program Managers
[Photo Thanks to Sarah A]
In the afternoon we had an official luncheon where we were presented Certificates of Appreciation from the various ministers of the Beninese government (the Ministry of Environment presented them to the Environmental Action volunteers) – and then we packed up into buses and headed to the beach in Grand Popo for the rest of our information sessions.

I am not going to go into detail about all of the things we learned this weekend. In summary we talked about resume writing, interviewing, how to frame our Peace Corps successes in a way that is applicable to work in the US – we talked about our successes individually and also in sector groups (showing how much we accomplished as a group was really uplifting) – we talked about our concerns with the program (ie changes we would like to see for future volunteers) – how to say goodbye to our friends in village – how to address the fact that most of us might not ever come back to this place we have been living and building relationships in for the past 2 years – the types of questions (both good and bad) that we will probably be asked when we get home and how to respond to them – the perks of Peace Corps service (NCE and Fellowships) – Networking – Closure – and so on and so forth.

The moment during the weekend that I found most interesting was when we were handed back our “Aspiration Statements” that we had been asked to send to the office in Benin before our arrival in June 2012. At first I was impressed by how well I used to speak English – after that initial shock – I thought it was really great to be able to see how much I did and what things I didn't get to do. It was interesting to see how naive (not in an entirely bad way) most of us were – as we were heading into this new adventure.

For me personally, when I applied to Peace Corps, I applied specifically for Environmental Action and Environmental Education posts. I even turned down an offer to leave at an earlier date, if I was willing to switch to the Agriculture Sector. My aspiration statement whole heartedly reflects this. Which is interesting, since we really are an agriculture program – and I have spent my service working with farmers to improve their techniques and with schools to grow vegetable gardens. This isn't what I wanted to do, and it will not be my passion in the future, but I am glad I did it and I feel that I ended up serving where I was meant to serve. Even though I was not doing the work I expected to be doing, even at the point of my aspiration statement for Benin, most of the goals for myself and my service, are things that I did do and I did them successfully.

I think that it might sound silly – to most people at home to say that we needed to be trained to come back to the USA, but coming home is going to be hard. I won't know the technology, or the current fashion. A song might come on the radio that EVERYONE knows from last year or the year before – and it is very possible that I will never have heard it. People will have started and ended relationships – and I will have missed it. New jobs, and babies and even a few weddings have happened while I have been disconnected. So when we come home be patient with us – and be understanding if we don't want to constantly talk about our experience – or maybe if we do.Who knows what will happen.

As long as chocolate chip cookies and the going down the shore are still both things -- it will all be OK. It just might take some time – and if I am speaking in a language other then english – tell me because I might not realize it. If my clothes are funny... well that might just be something you will have to live with.


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Never A Dull Month

Sorry for the uncharacteristic silence the last couple of weeks.
I am still here - I have just been sick.

I know in my last post, I said I was sick - but I was going back to post. Long story short it didn't really happen that way I am sorry if anyone was worried - I know most of the people who read this blog are my friends from home and therefore are also on facebook - still I wanted to apologize anyway.

Unfortunately, for me, being sick this time meant being stuck in the headquarters, sleeping a lot, taking lots of medications, and not doing very much else. Hence the silence. I am still here and I am getting better SO no worries. - It is just hard to blog when you have no energy and are sleeping all day. I kind of feel like I fell asleep mid April and woke up in May.

I don't actually have a topic to write about today either, just that I wanted to check in and give some updates.

Firstly, what I know everyone is wondering. My health is OK. I have a bad cough (that started with a bad flu) but it is finally (after 3 weeks!!) starting to go away. My energy level is also improving (mostly due to the fact that I am no longer on as many medications). I know volunteers love to complain, and our medical care is often at the top of the list. -- That being said people complain when things are bad - and forget to mention when things are good. I want to take this opportunity to say that the doctor here was incredible the last few weeks. She took great care of me - went above and beyond to make sure that my cough wasn't anything more than just a "chronic cough" sent me to specialists and tested me for every possible sickness - she was incredibly thorough and dedicated to making sure that I stopped coughing. I know that sounds silly, but it is true. Having a constant bad cough for weeks on end is exhausting, and she never made me feel like I was being a hassle - She wanted me to be better just as much as I wanted to be better, and even came in on weekends and holidays to check on me. I really appreciate the amazing care and attention I was given. *** I am not saying other volunteer complaints are unfounded I am just saying that I had a really amazing experience - maybe I'm just lucky *** I am being cleared to go to our Close of Service Conference this weekend and if all goes as planned will finally be back in post next week sometime. 

Secondly (and way more exciting)!! I am officially COSing from Peace Corps at the end of July!! My early COS (close of service) was approved for graduate school in August. YAY!! See you in July America!!! I will try my best to keep you updated during my last few months here in Benin on what wrapping up service is like - and of course reflections on all of the things I will miss when I am back home. 

Lastly, it is mango season!!! I know I am a few weeks late posting about this but Mango season is the best season and there are mangoes EVERYWHERE!! In honor of that - and in honor of the fact that I have been spending a lot of time updating our volunteer cookbook - I have a recipe to share with you from Burkina's PCV cookbook!!!

Mango Wine

What you need: 6 mangoes, 2 bananas, sugar, water, a large bucket and fabric to cover it with, a mixing spoon, and plastic 2 or 3 large plastic bottles. 

Peel the mangos, do not throw away the peels!! Cut the skin of the mango into small pieces. Keep the meat of the mango and throw away the seed. Mash the meat of the mango with the bananas (peeled) in a plastic bucket (or large bowl).  

Mix mashed fruit with mango peels. 
Add sugar. *The quantity should be about 2/3 of the banana/mango mixture* 

Add half as much water as the fruit/sugar mixture and mix well. Remember how much water you added, you will need to know later. 

Cover the bucket with fabric and tie string around to keep it covered. Keep it a room temperature and mix 3-5 times a day. After 3-4 days, you will see bubbles as alcohol begins to form. Filter your fruit mixture. Add the same amount of water as before to the filtered liquid. Put the liquid in plastic bottles and cover the tops with fabric, tied with a string.  Store at room temperature for 10-14 days. If you wait to long it will turn to vinegar.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Eating in Cotonou

So I am finally heading back to post.. after spending 10 nights in Cotonou with a cough. (Just a cough no worries). After so many days in the medical-unit - you start to feel a little stir crazy, if you are lucky enough you have great friends who will deliver you food, cook with you, and or accompany you out to dinner. Since Cotonou is the city, and it is where the ex-pats live - you end up spending a lot of money. I COULD NOT eat like this every day on a Peace Corps budget... we do get a per-diem when we are sick and stuck in the city. So, I will be reimbursed, but generally speaking one of these meals costs about the same as 3-5 days of food at post - and I am really glad we get "paid" next week - because I am out of money.

That being said, I spent most of my week doing pretty close to nothing and boring work on the computer. I don't have much news to bring, instead we will talk about food.

Here are some things that I ate this week Cotonou. 
Yes you can get all of these things in Benin and much more -- 
if you have the Money and you are in Cotonou. 

Karim 24

One of the local Cotonou schwarma places (all of the cities in Benin have schwarma - due to the high population of Lebanese ex-pats). Volunteers like to debate where you can find the best schwarma. Most places have a vegetarian version, meat version, and chicken version. Vegetarian generally means they put french fries in your sandwich instead of meat. OK, why not. I personally am a fan of Karim 24 because if I ask nicely they will make me a schwarma without the non-vegan mayonnaise sauce AND I can also have hummus added which is a huge perk. They also have a hummus plate with veggies and bread that you can order. Not to mention they are centrally located and fast, so even though they don't deliver to the bureau, you can usually find a volunteer who will be passing Karim and will be willing to stop for you. 

Asian Food

This week I had Thai food, Chinese Food, AND Japanese food. Woah! There is a Japanese restaurant called Daruma (very expensive but also very delicious) where I was able to mange a "tofu steak with mushroom sauce" that was absolutely delicious, and sample some avocado rolls from my friends sushi platter (apparently I have friends who don't like avocados). -- I had Vegetarian Pad Thai at the Thai restaurant around the corner, Bangkok Terrasse, which is one of my favorite Cotonou meals. -- Via volunteer delivery I had eggplant beignets and a tofu and mixed vegetable dish from our favorite Chinese restaurant Hai King. -- Normally when in Cotonou I eat almost entirely Indian food (and had none this week) -- so that was an interesting change! Thanks to others being adventurous I had a really fun week of food. 

Pizza (sometimes delivery)

Pizza is self explanatory. So far I have had great success getting two restaurants to make a cheese-free veggie pie for me. Bon Appetit (pictured) and also New Livingstones. Both of these restaurants are volunteer favorites -- Bon Appetit delivers to the bureau, and we make it worth their while for sure. New Livingstones is the closest thing you will find in this country to an American sports bar - and they have a really great happy hour. 

Chicken Land (usually delivery)

Yea I know everyone is probably thinking, "Really Zoe? A place called Chicken Land?" -- But Chicken Land is a really friendly little restaurant down the street from our office - they will deliver to us and even have been known to take special requests for sodas (that they will search for us) and things like "please bring extra ketchup." They have a reasonable priced salad and fries (the only things they serve are fries salad and grilled chicken) -- and they are incredibly friendly to Peace Corps volunteers. The other day I was there having salad and had asked them to slice up a mango for me (that I had bought on the way) and they even offered to put it in my salad!!! They are really great. 

Cooking at the Bureau

The most cost effective way of eating is Cotonou is to cook your own food. Unfortunately when you are sick, you don't always have the energy for that. So, while usually I do most of my cooking when I am down here, this week I actually cooked very few meals - most of which were just plain pasta (or pasta with a tomato cream sauce made using soy milk someone picked up for me). We did have one really exciting night of making a veggie pot pie -- and of course in the bureau I am generally known for my chocolate cake and the occasional cookie pie. So it wouldn't be a week in the bureau without a little bit of chocolate cake. Of course, I was sick, so single serving vegan chocolate peanut chew cake in the microwave is just what had to happen.


Sunday, April 13, 2014

PCV Project Donations

Peace Corps Volunteers all around the world would love your donations to help with community projects. Everything from camps, to new school buildings, to wells and latrines, there is a PCV somewhere trying to make it happen.

Peace Corps Volunteers do funded projects that rely on outside grant money (ie USAID), fund-raised money (Gender and Equality), special country specific donations (Kate Puzey Memorial Fund), and the ever so popular PCPP (where we post online and beg you for money – read on). We are not allowed to fund our own projects with personal money.

If you are wondering why this is the first time you are hearing of this on my blog, it is because I personally have  not chosen to do a large funded project in my community (there are arguments both for and against doing funded projects). I am however, hoping to help out with and bring girls to our local Camp GLOW, which is currently looking for funding. Camp GLOW (girls leading our world) is a annual PCV organized girls camp that is held for a week during the summer break.

"Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) is a weeklong girls' empowerment camp that has been organized annually nationwide since 2003. The camp brings together Beninese girls (ages 12-16), influential women within the community, and Peace Corps Volunteers. Throughout the week, the girls learn a variety of life skills to help them become better leaders and students in their communities. Topics covered include: personal financial planning, sexual health and hygiene, computer literacy, goal-setting, HIV/AIDS awareness, study and leadership skills, malaria prevention, and games to encourage cooperation among the girls. Girls also take excursions to national government institutions, in addition to meeting successful Beninese women in various professional roles. The camp's primary objective is to encourage girls to stay in school. Beninese women and men lead the camp sessions and facilitate discussions. Volunteers invite prominent women from their communities to serve as camp counselors. These women serve as role models for the girls. 
During the week, girls design strategies for sharing information learned at the camp with their communities and become leaders in their villages, schools, and families. At the end of the camp, the girls complete action plans and are given a "toolkit" for planning and executing a mini version of Camp GLOW in their communities. The communities are contributing by providing transportation of the girls to and from camp. While Camp GLOW provides these girls useful skills with which to become leaders, it also provides the opportunity to forge relationships with like-minded young women and female role models."

I know that if you are my facebook friend, you have already heard it. For the rest of you, I just want to say that hosting Camps is one of the best things (in my opinion) that PCVs are able to do for their host country. No matter the subject (we also have boys camps, business camps and environmental camps - to name a few) it is an opportunity to bring children together from different parts of the country, allow them to meet HCN role models, and talk to the children about the importance of staying in school, various health issues, and help them become role models in their community among their peers.

Even if you are not interested in donating to help out a camp, there are many other PCVs world wide currently looking for project donations in all sectors of Peace Corps work that can be found here. All of these projects are being run by amazing, hard working people (especially the Benin volunteers) who are working to better the lives of others, and as cultural ambassadors for you! :)

Click HERE if you would like to donate to camp glow. Project Funded!!! Thank YOU!!!
Click HERE to see all current PCV projects looking for donations.

FYI donations are tax deductible. 

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Font de Canaletes

Drinking from this fountain means I will be back in Barcelona some day.

In the mean time I am back in Benin and ready to take on these final few months!


Friday, April 4, 2014

Vegan Barcelona

Preparing for my vacation in Barcelona, I did a lot of research about where to eat. I was left with an impression (based on the internet) that we might have some trouble finding places to eat. Regionally – Catalonia isn't the best for vegan fare. This was definitely true when we made a day trip to Figueres, where my lunch consisted of a glass of wine and some bread. Barcelona however, was a really great city for vegan and vegetarian dining! 

My dad and I put together a list – of our favorite vegan/vegetarian dining experiences in BCN.
We meant to stop at 5 – but settled for 6.

Cat Bar was easily our favorite dining experience in Barcalona, not only was it close to where we were staying, but it was also incredibly delicious. If Cat Bar were in Philly, we would eat there all the time. I might even say that they have better burgers that our current go to veggie burger dive (dare I?) -- Car Bar is only open in the evenings (after 16h) and is closed on Sundays. They have a very basic menu, of 5 different vegan veggie burgers (bean, mushroom, eggplant, etc) as well as a daily burger special. You can get your burger served with patates bravas (a local specialty), english chips (aka fries) or a salad. Appetizers include soups salads and a hummus plate. We ate here 3 times, not out of necessity. The beer list, made up of all european vegan brews, was also incredible. My dad liked the Brew Dog beers from UK – I was partial to a local BCN beer - "Edge Porter"

Blue Project, a small lunchonette is located next to The Blue Project Foundation (an art gallery) right around the corner from the Museau Xocolate. They have weird hours, opening at 10h and closing at 20h – they have an al a carte menu all day, but only serve lunch from 13h until 16h. We ate here twice, once we stopped in for a snack not knowing what to expect, after which we decided we had to go back for lunch. They serve vegan and raw food (not entirely raw) – and their food was AMAZING and reasonably priced. Raw carrot cake, vegan Banana ice cream, grilled tofu sandwhiches --- and my dad said that sunflower bread on his raw sandwhich was the best raw bread he has ever had. If you are visiting the Chocolate Museum (which you should) go here for lunch after. Also fairly close to Picasso, and the Mammoth Museum (also incredible).

Mostly vegetarian, with a few vegan options. La Bascula does serve some seafood and egg dishes – they have copies of the menu in multiple languages so you should be fine. Really great warm vegan sandwich (and I am sure the rest of the menu is great too) and nice beer and wine options. The place has a super nice homey atmosphere.  Open from 13h until 23h, this is a late afternoon, order at the counter, and find a seat at a giant table type establishment. CASH ONLY. Incredibly friendly staff. 

Where we ate the first night, Teresa Carles is a fancier vegetarian restaurant with many vegan and a few raw options. Coming from Benin, my body just felt happier after eating a hearty and nutritious meal here. We shared a fruit and veggie salad (it had strawberries!!) – I ate the vegan lasagna for dinner (absolutely amazing) and my dad had the cashew cheese vegetable rolls. Aside from the typical wine and beer list they also offer juices and smoothies. Not the type of place you would eat at every night (like I said it is a bit fancier) but they are definitely worth checking out.

This is not a vegetarian restaurant BUT they offer a vegetarian fixed menu. Orgiens specializes in local Catalonia fare, which is what made this place really neat. We did not get to eat a lot of local specialties during our stay since the majority of them are meat and seafood heavy (although I did love the pan au tomate). – The vegetarian menu at Orgiens requires two people (and is rather expensive at 20 euro a person) – but this comes with 3 tapas style dishes, two appetizers, two entrees, and two deserts. A glass of wine for each person and a Catalan shot is brought to you with dessert. The menu is not flexible, meaning you will get one of everything (even if you both wanted the same entree) so we just split each dish in half and tried everything!! – Just as a heads up this menu is vegetarian (and seafood free – looking at you Air France) but it is not entirely vegan. For example one of the salads had goat cheese on it. Despite the price and the lack of flexibility we REALLY enjoyed our dining experience here and we were thankful to fine a Catalan restaurant that actually had a vegetarian dinner menu.

I was going to stop at 5 but this lunch chain was just too good to leave out. We went to the location on Princessa in the Bari Gotic/ El Born ish area. Wok to Walk is to go stir fry.. limited seating also available. The staff was amazing and friendly and they easily accommodate your dietary needs. You basically build your own dish, and can ask for any base to be made for you without eggs. Everything is fried up for you on the spot. And they clean the pans between each order. (They work in the open and I watched them do it). This was a quick easy inexpensive and filling meal with lots and lots of vegetarian options.


Sunday, March 30, 2014


I am so incredibly excited to be on vacation right now - Here are some pictures so far!!


Sunday, March 16, 2014

C'est Quoi Ca?

When I was home visiting the US of A I was asked to do another “What could this be?” post... Like the one I did back in April 2013. These days, everything seems to look so normal to me (and yet not at all) – so I had to take some time to figure out what pictures to post for another round. Here it is – I hope it's not too easy!

I think we all know the rules but I will repost them just in case.

Rules: Below are five pictures. Some are easy some are more difficult. In the comments tell me what is shown in each picture. There will be a prize again!! I'll pick a name, just like last time, everyone who [really] tries to answer will be included! (This means that you can peek at each others answers all you want).

Benin PCVs... This is for people at home.

One last caveot. Last time, Everything I pictured had been previously mentioned on the blog. This time? Not so much. You have until April 15th. Bonne Chance!!


1. Wagashi (local cheese)
2. Polio Vaccinators: this shows that no children live in my house and therefore none were vaccinated.
3. Body Powder
4. Beignets
5. Bissap
Winner: Sheryl

Monday, March 3, 2014

Integration 2.0

Just FYI this post is a lot of personal reflection. 

Over the weekend, as I was hosting what could potentially be (and is definitely one of) the last VAC/Oueme-Plateau meetings in my house. There was a lot of chat about work. New volunteers talking about current work. Teachers talking about school. Friends talking about aspirations to stay a 3rd year... and some of us talking about our aspirations to get out of here as soon we are given the Close of Service go ahead.

For me, in my second year, I feel acclimated and usually I am pretty happy, often frustrated, but that is all part of the job. As I think most of you know, the last few months have been rough for me on the work front, but I am trying my best and have found that my energy has best been focused on goals 2 and 3 of Peace Corps at this point – and a little less of goal 1. Goal 2 and 3 are cultural exchange, goal 1 is the actual physical work we do.

It is something I hesitate to talk about, because I think that it might be hard for some people to understand why 2 and 3 are both just as important as goal 1, and also that what I am going through right now in my service is something that is completely normal for a PCV.. I just seem to have had it happen much later than it does for most volunteers. Or maybe people just don't talk about it.

That isn't the point of this post... What I want to talk about how incredibly important community integration is in order to be a happy and successful volunteer.

This last month, aside from some small projects, I really feel like I have decided to throw myself and most of my time into what feels like “Integration Period 2.0.”

I don't know if you remember, but I spoke to you about Integration period way back when. Integration period is the 3 months following training, and before we are allowed to start any major projects. The goal of this period is to get acclimated to your community, make friends, and learn how to live on your own BEFORE you become stressed out over work goals. Lately, I have been spending a lot of my time doing the activities that make up our life during this early Peace Corps period. And I am very grateful for it.

I have been sitting with women in the markets and at the local boutiques, exploring both Misserete and Porto Novo, having conversations with my neighbors and my work partners (because even if we aren't doing a big project they are still a big part of my life here).. and it has made me realize a lot of things about my service.

Until recently (and probably for much longer than I would like to admit).. I was feeling really down on my experience and on the work that I have done as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

My recent, reaching out to my community has lead me to re-embrace what I am doing here, and to rekindle relationships that truly are the reason that I came here in the first place. By taking a step back, I have reminded myself why I am here. I realize now how much I have blossomed with the help of the cultural understanding and the language proficiency that comes with being a second year volunteer. Sitting and observing in central places (like the market) is not as overwhelming as it was back in 2012, and I am able to understand more, and feel more comfortable. I am able to better understand what I did right and what I did wrong in those early months, and it really is a shame that the early months where we integrate, are also the months where we are depressed and confused and at our highest discomforts of service. (Unfortunately, there is also no way around that – they kind of go hand in hand.) If I understood then, the things that I do now about this country and this culture (and could speak the language the way I do now).. I think that the past year and a half of my life would have been much easier. Which, oddly enough is incredibly relieving to know.

A month ago I was angry over how things have been going for me in this New Year... I can definitely say that I have taken a complete turn. I am thankful that in my second year my work load has seemed to lay off a bit, and I have been given this opportunity to really appreciate what it is that I am getting to experience here in Benin.

And the best part? Once I stopped nagging people about projects, work kind of re-appeared for itself. My Amour et Vie team got the go ahead for a health club, one of my really awesome work partners found me a (super enthusiastic) school garden in a small village that was looking for outside help, I am working with another volunteer to edit and update the PCBenin Cookbook (it gets issued to new volunteers every year), and I am hoping to bring girls to Camp Glow (Girls Leading Our World) in Porto this summer.

So while some the projects that I was pushing and pushing, never came through, and probably never will. I am much happier with this outcome. I am happier now that I don't feel like I am pulling teeth... and there is nothing better than working with people who are actually happy and excited to work with you.


Friday, February 21, 2014

That Time of Year

Lately, I have been getting emails from prospective Benin PCVs asking questions about living and working in Benin.

I love getting these e-mails. It is really great to hear that people are finding my blog useful, and it is wonderful to know that people feel comfortable e-mailing me with their questions. PLEASE if you have questions about Peace Corps or about Benin. Feel free to e-mail me, just remember it might take me a bit to get back to you, this is Africa after all.

Most of the questions that I get around about Benin's climate, and food, and occasionally they are about the application process and Peace Corps in general. So I am going to try to address some of the bigger questions here, (because I know not everyone with questions sends e-mails!) but like I said if you still have more questions, feel free to ask.

The Peace Corps application process has changed A LOT since I applied (yes in this short amount of time) – and honestly I have no idea how the current system works. Over on this side of the pond we have even heard rumors that current invited volunteers are being given options of countries. WHAT?!?? “Back in my day.” We were given one country and we could either take it or not do Peace Corps – and then we walked to school uphill in both directions.

Seriously though, back to Benin.

Benin is a tropical country with two very different climate regions. In the south it is hot and humid (think NJ in the summer time, or probably lots of other places that I'm not familiar with). The north is dry and has a hot season and a “cold” season known as harmatan. I have been told the north of Benin has a climate very similar to that of Arizona's. Both regions have rainy and dry seasons, however the traditional seasons have become out of wack due to recent climate change. How you deal with the heat has many factors, personal factors (such as where you are from and what weather you prefer), post factors (do you have electricity? A fan?) and regional in country factors. We all find ways to adjust to our climates, and it is really funny to hear the southerns complain about the dryness and being cold up north and vice-versa.

The language is more varied than the weather. There are over 50 languages in Benin. That is a lot for a large country, Benin is not a large country. During training everyone will be trained to speak French, and by french I mean African French. You will not start with a local language until at least half way through training, because you will not know your post, and therefore your language, until after French language training is over. The first month is used also for safety and security training, meetings with your program managers to discuss post preferences, and of course for the staff to get to know you so that they can place you well.

I am not going to lie. Food is the hardest part of being a PCV, at least here in Benin, we are not joking when we tell you to pack your suitcase full of snacks from home and buy your clothes when you get here. --- The variety of food, like the weather and the language, also varies drastically by region. Where I am posted I can get beans, veggies, rice, soja, fruit, and most other things year round. I also have easy access to “European Supermarkets” but they are very small and very over priced. In the north some volunteers have whole seasons where they can't even get beans. Volunteers in these villages would not be able to survive as a vegetarian. Peace Corps will not post strict vegetarians in these areas. Most volunteers do not have the access to variety that I have, and I have to be honest I am pretty sick of the food.

Lastly, and most importantly, am I glad I came to Benin for Peace Corps. Yes. I am. 

Peace Corps is hard, and there are really rough times. That being said Benin is a great country with great people. The people are friendly, and generally open to foreigners. Compared to some of our neighboring countries, Benin is a safe place to live. There is not war, and it is very rare that you will hear of rioting. People here want you to be comfortable, and they want you to sit with them and keep them company, even if you can not communicate with each other. People want to be your friend, and in a place where you know no one and nothing, a friendly host-country culture is incredibly important. Peace Corps is hard, but in my opinon, at this point in my service, it is completely worth the struggle. You will meet amazing people and learn more than you can imagine. Your service will change you, in a good way.

If you came across my blog because you are considering Peace Corps or PC Benin here are some of my posts that you might find helful. –

Things to do before you leave... or Thoughts on what to pack and Here.
Vegetarian in the Peace Corps
A wonderful place called Cotonou
What is transportation like?
The Peer Support Network
Long Distance Relationships

And don't forget to check out the blogs that I have linked on the right, most of them are blogs of volunteers that I am serving with here in Benin.


Monday, February 17, 2014

Shared Spaces

This weekend, after a few days of VAC and various other meetings the Cotonou Workstation Committee hosted a “Deep Clean” – basically the place needed to be cleaned – and it isn't really any one's job to do it – so as you can imagine in a room used by about 100 volunteers annually (if not more) the place was a little grimy.

The workstations consists of the kitchen, the library/dining room, two large sleeping spaces with bunks, a small study room (read: closet), an upstairs lounge and workspace, and the bathroom/shower area. It took 12 of us many hours to clean, and the place is probably the cleanest it has been since the office moved to the current building. Sorry to any PCVs from the past, but some of the things that we came across (ie lost and found from before 2012) would lead all of us to believe that this is probably the case.

While we all love our workspace in Cotonou, the problem with shared spaces is this: When no one is “truly” responsible, and no one is there all the time, everyone assumes someone else is going to clean up... and no one ever knows how long that pile of books/clothes/oranges has really been sitting there. We have the workstation committee (me and 3 other volunteers) who are in charge of making sure that we stay stocked, that the cable bill is paid, and that broken items get reported to be fixed – but the closest of us live an hour away and we are usually each there only once or twice a month. While we are “in charge” we are meant to be more as a contact point for administration, and a number for volunteers to call with questions, or to inform us if they go out to restock (toilet paper for example) so that we can reimburse them. Basically we work as the duct tape that keeps the place together, and the keys that keep the workstations money locked up. (Volunteers have to pay to sleep in the space, basically a small amount to cover things like toilet paper, shampoo, and coffee). I don't even know how many times I have gone into Cotonou only to realize we are out of very basic items, only left to wonder how long it has been that way. When no one is present and in charge, it is really hard to keep order. That being said, for all the complaints that we could come up with, I think we keep the place running very smoothly. AND I was really impressed by the group of volunteers who came down to help us with the clean up after the regional camp meeting.

I hope admin won't be too shocked by the giant pile of trash that we put out when they get to the office tomorrow. I was really upset with myself that I didn't remember to take a picture of the trash pile, and didn't think to take before and after shots of some of the rooms. BUT here are some pictures of our wonderful workstation, taken after and during the clean up. For those of you who have been wondering what it looks like.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

How does the time fly?

This week we emailed out the application form for next year's I'm sorry. This year's new Peer Support Network!! We have to chose the new members by the end of March, and then train them in June. Woah.

This got me thinking about how crazy fast the time has gone by. I know I sound like a broken record, but truly it never ceases to amaze me how fast Peace Corps service really is. (I really think I might talk about how fast the time is going - more than anything else on this blog).

Partially, I think it is because we are always in some sort of transition... This week I am going to break down the stages of Peace Corps service up until now - so maybe you can see what I mean when I say it is going really fast. Then maybe you will also understand why I talk about it so much.


Administration does a good job of breaking the time up so that we don't go crazy. The first three months (the hardest months) are training – while we are having the hardest time adjusting during these months, we are also insanely busy and being well taken care of. Then the first three months at post (the second hardest part of service) is strategically set up as an integration period, which ends with the first of a series of in-service training's. (aka we suffer for 3 months and then get to go to a hotel and be with other American's and eat well for a week). Then we go back to post to start work, (another 3-4 month chunk) before our second training. This is when most people also take their first vacations since WOW you have already passed the 6 month mark.

The “new group” is at the end of this period of service and they are currently doing their second training, taking breathers, and starting some real work. In various orders and what not. 

After the second training, you think things are going to slow down, but they don't. There are fundraisers and meetings, people are talking about camps and girls empowerment, and all of a sudden you are applying to be PSN or VAC or a Trainer, or to run the workstation – maybe you will even do an Amour et Vie team, and boom it is time for these various training workshops now too. (about 3 months after the last peace corps general training)..

Last week, at the wellness weekend, I had a few new volunteers say to me, something along the lines of “How are we going to survive here when you all leave?” – the sentiment, one I completely understand, is that at this point in your service, when you are being asked what second year projects and positions you want to fill, you have really only been at post for about 6 months. AND you can't imagine that you possibly know enough about work and about Benin to be filling any of these positions – and to train a new group of volunteers?!?! It is normal, we all felt that way last year too. It is true the longer you are here the more you know, but people seem to really come into their own in the second year, you will step up to the plate whether you realize you are doing it or not, and then next thing you know you are running the show and the group of volunteers that held your hand in year one have left the country (or at least in the case of last years group – most of them have left the country).

Anyway you become PSN, a trainer, VAC – or nothing at all if you so choose.. and as summer ends the old group leaves the new group swears in, and then you are getting invited to your mid-service conference. Wait are we half way done already? It has been over a year since your plane landed in country – more like a year and 3 months. At this point your in-service training is over and you are left alone to succeed, or flounder as gracefully as possible, at post.

So you finally have a footing, you are finally on your own with “no interruptions” – you finally know what you are doing. But.. oh wait it is the fete season (which at least here in Benin means not much is happening) – that is ok, most people chose to take a vacation around the holidays anyway. – New Years happens. If you want to go to grad school you should be sending in those applications right about now (if you haven't already). It is the year you are leaving and you are wondering where the time went and how on earth you are going to get any projects accomplished in the time remaining. – You started sending out applications for second year programs to the “new kids” so they can start thinking about what shoes they want to fill, and Administration starts sending out notifications about 3rd year positions. Yes, some people stay for a 3rd year. I know, I feel the same way.

This is where I am in my service. 

We are talking about COS (Close of Service) and COS trips, we are squeezing in our last vacation days before May hits (when we will no longer be allowed to leave the country until we COS).  We are looking at post-Peace Corps career options, waiting to hear back from graduate programs, thinking about staying, and reading about things like health insurance plans. We still have 6 months left, but by this point we know better than to count on it feeling that way. I mean it took us 6 months just to get settled in!


It is as a whirlwind, and while all of this is going on volunteers are working very hard at post to try to make things happen for their communities, and building a better understanding of Americans through personal relationships.

You really need the full two years to make a difference.

There are some very long days, and honestly January was the longest month so far.
Really though, I can't believe how fast the time has gone.

Highlight of my week? Teaching two men how to properly shuffle cards -- neither of them had ever even seen cards shuffled before and really were just enjoying watching me do it. BUT I insisted that they try. It was a good time, they made progress. 

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Wellness Weekend

As volunteers we spend a lot of time (no matter our sector) talking about our host country's health. Malaria... malnutrition.. HIV.. parasites.. and so on and so forth.

Sometimes we need to all take a breather, sit back, and think about our health as volunteers.

Both physical and mental. --- So this weekend we (the southern PSN members) hosted a “Wellness Weekend” for new volunteers who wished to spend the weekend in Cotonou taking a break WHILE learning how to keep themselves mentally healthy at post. PSN usually hosts a wellness weekend every year – but this year we are hosting a whole series (one in each region) in honor of the Peer Support Networks 10th anniversary here in Benin!

Of course, Cotonou isn't the most relaxing place – it is a big city – and our workstation is more like a bunker than an house (other regions literally have houses) since it is located inside the Peace Corps Headquarters – but we still had some super advantages to play towards for making our weekend a huge success.

We have the beach. One of the southern PSN members is a yoga instructor. We have some amazing cooks on our southern team (and no I'm not even talking about myself!) – and when all else fails – we have the ambassadors swimming pool. So Beach Yoga and Picnic? – sounds like a stress free weekend to me.

One of the major reasons that PSN does wellness weekends, is that (world wide) Peace Corps volunteers tend to drink to combat stress, not to mention other habits that when you are in a village can tend to make the 
isolation worse (cause I know anything about isolation) – things such as sitting around doing nothing, hiding in the house, dwelling on homesickness, and not eating right.

With a wellness weekend (especially one with yoga and meditation) – we can talk about ways to exercise even if it is in the small spaces of your village house, food that you can easily make in village to provide yourself with a more well rounded meal, and of course things you can do other than drink to combat those really really bad days that come as part of the Peace Corps experience. These things are really crucial, in my opinion, to a successful and fulfilling Peace Corps Service.

We ate lots of good food – and I think that everyone had a wonderful time and headed back to post feeling refreshed and ready to take on the world (or maybe just bake some cookie bars) :)

This was our program, no we didn't notice the typo until after we printed it, yes we just let it be because it is funny – and what better for wellness than a good laugh?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Yovo Factor

Being a white woman in Benin, I stand out. That is a fact. It also means that there are a lot of presumptions about me, for example I probably have a lot of money, and also I probably don't know how anything works in Africa. Hence the fact that when you go into a market, women will point at their produce and shout at you “Yovo, Orange – Yovo, Orange.” Yes thank you, I did know that is an orange, and no I still don't want to buy it.

Being different, especially in a way that makes you visually stand out, in a culture that is completely not your own, sometimes leads to funny scenarios where either A. You are accidentally making a spectacle of yourself; or B. Someone is accidentally making a spectacle of you (because they don't live with the Yovo factor in their own lives)

Sometimes you just want to be invisible – and count the days to America where you can blend in again without people watching your every move.


This week I made a spectacle of myself (as usual) but I thought this would be a funny story to tell. If it is just funny to me, I am sorry. I have been living here too long.

A few weeks ago my fan broke, a certain orange cat was involved, not naming any names.

It is the hot season right now, so after about a week and a half of “I'm not buying another fan, I rarely use it unless I have company and I have less than a year left.” - I broke down and asked my friendly neighborhood electronics salesman how much his fans were. He had 2 and they were both around 20 dollars (estimated equivalence). I told him “Thank you my friend, I will be back tomorrow to buy it,” and he told me “Goodbye, God bless you, See you tomorrow.” He is Nigerian, so I can actually quote him in English for you, which is probably the only reason I just did that.

Anyway, little known to me, the power had gone out in the whole region about an hour before said conversation. Meaning Porto, Misserete, and as far north as Adjohoun (probably further). So I go home relax get ready for the meeting I had in Adjohoun the next day – which didn't really happen either due to the fact that the power was out – or we misunderstood and were really having a meeting about a meeting in the first place.

After lunch, I was thinking to myself, well I told him I would come back today. Seems kind of silly to buy a fan when the power is out, but the power will be back and then I will have a fan.

So, as if to add to the spectacle (that I really should have realized I was about to create), I put on a yovotome clothes (long khaki shorts, and a t-shirt --- I almost always wear tissu dresses but I knew i'd be walking across village with a fan) and walk over to the market to buy my fan. I buy my fan (which happens to be bright red) and proceed to walk the (5 minutes normally) walk back to my house from the market.

First my bread lady stops me, “You need to take a moto” (mostly in hand gestures and local language) - I responded by pointing at my head and lifting the fan up and down. “No helmet, Not heavy.” – She says ok and I go on my way.

Then I am stopped by my fried food lady. “Where are you going with a fan?” – “Home,” I reply. To which she kindly informs me, “You can not use it there is no electricity!” I tell her I know but I just bought the fan and I have to get it home. She gets excited that it is brand new and asks how much I spent on it, I tell her and she is impressed because she bought a similar fan for more. Yovo has redeemed herself in this otherwise ridiculous fan walking scenario. Then of course she tells me to take a moto and the same head pointing and fan lifting ensues. I buy some donuts and keep walking.

This is less than a minute into the normal walk.

The rest of the way I was stopped 10 times buy strangers. “Yovo! there is no electricity you can't use the fan!!” – followed by explanations and “You should really take a moto!” – and so on. *I just want to add that this would not happen to a normal villager who (obviously) knows the power is out - and it would not be assumed they have money for a moto. 

I get home – and 10 minutes later the power comes back on.

This was Tuesday. During the week, I have had multiple friends in village (who didn't see me that day) ask me why on earth I was WALKING through village with a fan. – And I have had strangers come up to me and ask how my fan is doing. -- So yea, people are talking about it.

This place.

Other things that happened to me this week: Being given a soda and asked to go with a friend to a doctors appointment (sitting in the corner of the office drinking a soda – while the doctor keeps giving me funny looks and no one is talking to me), Almost getting trampled to death by a swarm of Marche Mama's (women selling things on their heads in the market) who were running from the police – it reminded me – very literally – of when small creatures scatter in the forest (because something bad is coming) in old cartoons, I had to reschedule a trip to the tailor – because I wasn't dressed quite properly to be changing in an open room, and OF COURSE being left alone with my bread ladies baby in the middle of the market – while she went to get more bread - aka lots of people staring wondering why this white woman is standing and awkwardly holding a 2 month old screaming African baby. 

Sometimes, you just have to laugh at yourself.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Peace Corps Language Archive: An RPCV Project

I recently received an e-mail from Ray Blakney, an RPCV who served in Mexico, and is a co-founder of live lingua. He asked if i wouldn't mind helping by sharing his project. As a third goal activity, he is currently working to compile an online archive of language training material for Peace Corps Volunteers (and language lovers) around the world. This is a free resource, and I am more than happy to help out by telling you about it!

The website description of his project is as follows:
"The U.S. Peace Corps has been sending volunteers from the United States to countries all over the world for over 50 years. In fact, Live Lingua was founded by one of these volunteers. During his training he was amazed at how quickly and effectively the language learning material worked. Live Lingua has contacted the Peace Corps offices in Washington D.C. to obtain permission to be a repository of these courses, but we do not own any rights to them. If anybody wants to use this material for commercial purposes they will need to contact the Peace Corps offices to get permission. We are offering this material free of charge with no cost or commercials. If you have information that would lead you to believe that some of this material is not public domain, or if you have some PC training material that we have missed please contact Enjoy the free language learning." 
The Peace Corps resources can be found at:

While the Peace Corps archive is 100% free, their website also offers actual language lessons through skype in more common languages -- these are not free but still might be interesting to anyone reading who is looking to learn a new language.

I will be posting a link on the side of the blog, so that those interested can find it later as well.


Monday, January 20, 2014


This past week has been all up and down the spectrum.

I have had good interactions and horrible interactions..

Examples of what I mean:

Just to brush the surface, the week started off with a 10 hour bus ride back from last weeks training – I had a woman tell me that she believes that all children in America carry guns (due to the things that she has seen on TV) – and me and my friends had a man lecture us on being racist (because we refused to give him food).

On the other end I met some of my close-mates work partners who seem to be genuinely great people (which you need an occasional dose of) – had a much needed girls lunch and market day, and I made friends with a woman who dyes her own fabrics in Porto Novo (and I am super excited to go see her shop soon!)

Even if sometimes our day to day interactions as Peace Corps Volunteers can be challenging, it is important to remember why we are here. We are here because we want to make a difference. One of the most important differences that we can make is changing the negative opinions (that an unfortunate number of people have) pertaining to Americans and American culture. Every week we hear things that are hard to hear, and see things that are hard to see. It is difficult to live in a culture so incredible different, but we were told that coming in.

So I had a rough week BUT – it ended with a party!
All is well that ends well, right?


Wemexwe is the annual fete of the valley.

Weme (aka Oueme) is the valley region that I live in, and Wemexwe is your equivalent of your typical County Fair. Only in Benin.

The fete took place in the village of Adjohoun. I went with two other volunteers. We were a little uncertain going in because we were not able to get our hand on any of the fete tissu – it sold out very fast – but once we got there and saw that we really weren't the only ones – the “our we properly dressed” concerns quickly faded.

The fete was huge – giant tents were set up where people had brought their own chair, blankets, and food (basically family picnics). The event was a four days the biggest day being Sunday (the day we went). The morning started with a mass (that we opted out of) and then the festivities continued with dancers, performers, musicians, vodun fetishes, super friendly vendors and lots of food and drink. People were forced to park their cars and walk about a half mile to the party, because it was just that crowded. What an amazing day full of cultural experiences and awesome people.

Multiple people have told me today that they saw me and my friends at the fete –
I guess we stand out or something.


Sunday, January 12, 2014

Natitingou & Amour et Vie

After about 10 hours of travel.. I got off the bus and my first thought of Natitingou was that it is dry, dusty, and... cold? It is currently the season of harmatan (which doesn't really exist in the south where I live – at least not in a true sense) and for those of us who live in the north – it is cold!

I am up in Nati for round two of Amour et Vie training.

Mostly training two is for feedback on the work that we have been doing for since August, as well as for talking about the plan for the next few months, a plan that will get our teams to be sustainable once we leave. We set up a game plan to continue doing demonstrations/sensitization in the village (and to find new groups to work with).. and we also discussed plans for starting a health club in the local CEG (high school) to talk about the subjects that we discuss in Amour & Vie: malaria, hygiene, sexual health and HIV prevention. Our current calendar gets us to the end of April, at which point they will be working mostly on their own for 4 months before I leave.

The workshop wasn't all work. We also brought the teams on a field trip to see the local Koda waterfalls, and I got a chance to see the workstation up here in Nati, eat some local food, see some local markets, and spent a lot of time catching up with friends.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

New Year Work Update

As of next week it will be 4 months until our Close of Service conference, where we learn all about going home. And then another 3 months most of us are packing to go.

Assuming I come home in August, I have just about 7 months left in my Peace Corps Service. Which, in reality, leaves most of us with only about 6 months to work in our villages.

So what will I do with my time?

Last year, my big project was a crop diversification project that I did with farming groups in the villages surrounding where I live. I believe, at least from my perspective, that it was very successful for some groups, and not so successful with others. A lot of that falls on the desire of the farmers to want to make it work. The truth is not everyone wants to change, even if it is the project that my host organization wanted me to do, it may not have (in the end) been something that all the farming groups that my host organization assigned me to work with, were actually interested in. All in all, I am really very proud of all of the work that I did last year, with my organization, and also with schools and with assistance from the mayor's office. --- Coming into 2014, I have to be honest, I feel a little stuck.

My “successful” projects are more or less finished. And I think that my community has just as much of an idea as to what to do with me, as I do. Our next quarterly report is due in March, and I am sweating over how few stories I have to report this quarter.

Lately, I have been feeling like I am doing absolutely nothing. Which in part is true, mostly due to poorly timed illnesses that took up most of the time between vacation and Christmas. Now, happens to be the fete season (Christmas and New Years and Voodoo Fete) so no one is really working anyway. In the other sense, sometimes we volunteers don't realize how much work we are actually doing. I would say I have a tendency to be hard on myself, but in this situation I think we all do.

It is hard to come off of a lot of time out of village, and land right into the month of no work due to holiday parties. It makes one lose focus of what work is actually being done. So I am going to take some time to update you on work: as in the work that will be happening during the next few months.

As most of you know, I have been having trouble identifying a new big project to work on in my community (and especially with my host organization) but that doesn't mean that I am not working on small things. I still have my Amour et Vie team, I wish to get the school garden up and running again later this month (I have reason to believe the water situation has been fixed BUT I refuse to get my hopes up), and we have plans to build a “community” garden behind my office, so that when farmers come to the office, they will see that the agents at the office do actually know what they are talking about. --- On the “volunteer community” side of things, I am helping to organize a PSN wellness weekend in Cotonou for the new volunteers in my region, I have plans to help facilitate a training at the end of the month, and as always my doors are open to volunteers who need a place to crash in/around Porto (I will apparently also be a stop along the route of a fundraiser marathon some volunteers will be running this spring!). It is funny how much the location of your post really does effect the way your service shapes itself.

There are some other (maybe bigger) projects in discussion at the time, but I don't want to talk about them yet (in case they don't happen!).


When I was little. My mom used to drag me along for long walks across town. Sometimes, these walks were a little too long for my little legs. So in order to get me to persevere and get home, my mom made up a game (actually to this day I am not quite sure why this was a game), where we would pick a target such as a tree, or a street sign, or a telephone pole. The goal of the game was to make it to that target and then the prize for making it to the target was picking another target... until eventually it was the house. I feel that I am in that part of my service.. its the home stretch.. and I have little markers set up to help me get there. I just have to keep my energy up, and not forget to look around to see all of the beautiful things about living and working in Benin. (No matter how much I just want to focus in on the checkpoints!)

Time is flying so incredibly fast.