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?