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.