Dec. 20, 2011 – Banikoara, Benin
I can’t remember where I left off, and I can’t seem to find a copy of my previous blog entry, and I can’t access the Internet right now, so this may be a little repetitive. Just consider it a “Previously, on Suzie’s blog … ” moment, if you will.
JULY: ONE DAY, AT GIRLS CAMP …
In July, we held the girls camp in Kandi, and I brought three girls (my neighbor Gloria and her two friends Faizath and Baké) from Banikoara. They were some of the smarter girls at the camp, participated a lot and the other volunteers couldn’t stop raving about them. Gloria and Baké are 13, and Faizath is 12.
The camp program included guest speakers on the topics of HIV/AIDS, female reproductive health, family planning, nutrition, hygiene, geography, importance of education and career, computer literacy, small business/entrepreneurship. There also were sessions on arts and crafts, sports and we showed an episode of “Planet Earth” each night. We also took the girls on a tour of the radio station.
The computer literacy session was held at a local NGO (non-governmental organization) in Kandi. This NGO, Techchild, has been in existence for about a year. It has brand-new computers, all equipped with Linux as their main operating system, which I thought was interesting and a very good example of how open-source software can be useful in developing countries. Granted, most of the computer work here in Benin is done on Windows and with Microsoft programs, so the need to know how to use both is extremely important, but for learning basic computer skills, Linux is perfect – free and easily accessible.
Techchild was founded by six Beninese people, some of whom live and work in Europe. Their belief is that development begins from within a country, not with foreign aid. It was so refreshing to hear this from the one founder who actually is in Kandi to run the NGO. They really want a Peace Corps volunteer, and my APCD knows this, so I hope he will post someone there next year.
There were 20-plus girls at the camp (most of the volunteers in the Alibori brought some participants), and I think they all had a pretty good time. Many of them developed friendships with girls from other towns and were sad to part ways at the end of camp.
It was a good experience, and volunteers Erika and Summer did a great job of running things. I was just one of the helpers, but it was a lot of work even for me, and I’m not sure I could take on the challenge of organizing and directing a camp myself. I participated in two girls camps this summer, and although I think camps are a great idea, I’m not sure I have the desire (stamina) to do that again next year. We’ll see how I feel when it’s closer to camp time.
JULY: AFTER THE CAMP
After the Kandi camp, I had some other projects to work on. I had been planning and preparing a basic computer literacy workshop for Sam, who is posted in Nikki, but for various reasons we didn’t get around to actually setting a date until late July. So I reviewed my materials and was all ready to go. Also, my friend Brandon, who was the second-closest volunteer to me distance-wise (he has since returned to the U.S. after completing his two-year service), needed me to transport a big box of soccer balls from Kandi to his post in Kerou, so I figured I could drop those off at his post on my way to Nikki. It’s a bit of a roundabout way to get to Nikki, which is on the other side of the country, but it was a way for me to avoid having to backtrack.
So a day after returning to Banikoara after camp, I dropped off the soccer balls in Kerou (I was able to hitch a ride in one of the air-conditioned Peace Corps SUVs because the APCDs for the environment program and for the community economic development program – CED is the new name of my program – were on their way to Kerou also to do some site development). Hanging out with Brandon is always fun, but he’s one of those big-personality people who speaks his mind, so he’s very much a love-him-or-hate-him kind of guy among the volunteers. But he’s a good guy and a really good volunteer, and I respect him a great deal. I can also tell him to his face when I think he’s being an idiot, and he’s fine with that, so there’s that.
While I was in Kerou, I also dropped off some Windows tutorial manuals I put together and did a little computer troubleshooting for one of Brandon’s colleagues. As I was mentally preparing myself for the workshop in Nikki, I got a call from Sam, who informed me that there was no electricity at his brand-new computer center. Obviously, it’s pretty hard to teach computer literacy without any electricity, so Sam said he’d see what he could do and get back to me. I headed to Parakou (a few hours south of Nikki) and waited to hear word from Sam on whether he had managed to get the electricity hooked up (this should have been taken care of by the mayor’s office, but dealing with local authorities, especially when funds are involved, can be a huge hassle). In the end, the electricity didn’t get hooked up to the computer center the week that the workshop was planned (and I had to head to other places after that, so I couldn’t stick around). It was disappointing because I had been planning this workshop since October 2010, but it isn’t uncommon for plans to fall through like this in Benin, so I just had to get over it.
Due to the change in schedule, I asked my APCD (OK, if you’ve forgotten what this is, it’s Associated Peace Corps Director – each of the four sectors/programs has one, and this person is in charge of the program. My APCD for Community Economic Development is Yves) if I could stop in Natitingou to visit fellow CED volunteer Veronica. I was chosen to be a trainer for the new trainees this year, and because most of my training was in Information and Communication Technology, I didn’t know all the ins and outs of the business skills the other CED volunteers got during training, so I wanted to go over some of that with Veronica before I started my stint as a trainer. Yves approved the request, and I first headed back up to Banikoara and then to Natitingou.
AUGUST: INDEPENDENCE DAY, BENINESE STYLE
My trip to Natitingou coincided with the official Independence Day celebrations (Independence Day is Aug. 1), which were held in Natitingou this year. There was a fair with goods from throughout West Africa, and a lot more people than Nati is used to seeing (a big difference from when I was there in June for the spelling bee). Unfortunately, Veronica fell ill shortly before my arrival and had to go down to Cotonou to see the Peace Corps doctors. Due to a miscommunication, I ended up arriving in Nati a day before she returned, so I had to kill some time, but I got to hang out with some volunteers I don’t see often, so that was nice. Jonny and his girlfriend, Mary, for example, were two of the coolest volunteers in country (they, too, have since finished their service), but because they live in Nati, I don’t get to see them much. Jonny, who is from New England, has an aunt who is Korean. Mary, a transfer to Benin after the Peace Corps program in Guinea was suspended, is from Arkansas and is a great baker and cook.
Because Veronica and I have birthdays in early August, and last year we celebrated together during training in Porto-Novo, we wanted to continue the tradition of celebrating together. After she finally made it back to Nati, Mary made us brownies, and we also bought vanilla ice cream at the supermarket. Clayton, the Peace Corps Volunteer Leader at the Nati workstation, also whipped up some sodabi (palm alcohol) margaritas for us. It was a great way to celebrate our birthdays.
On the work side, Veronica and I went over the intricacies of Personal Investment Planning – a tool that CED volunteers use often with people they meet/work with in village. It’s basically a personal budget that helps people keep track of their earnings and expenses. This was a topic that was going to be covered during the time I was scheduled to be a trainer, so I figured I ought to know more about it.
AUGUST: THE NEW TRAINEES
After my trip to Nati, I made a quick stop back in Banikoara before heading down to Porto-Novo for training (yes, there was a lot of what I call “yo-yo-ing” on my part over the past few months – going somewhere, then stopping in Banikoara for one night, then traveling down south for one thing or another). It was exciting to meet the new trainees, and not a single one of them early-terminated before swear-in! I think we had at least four that had ET’d before swear-in. The new trainees seem like a good bunch, and I think they’ll be good volunteers (they swore in Sept. 15, so they’re officially volunteers now).
In addition to the technical CED sessions (and I did a PowerPoint presentation on the use and existence of Information and Communication Technology in Benin), I was also on hand for a trip to Ouidah and also a trip to Cotonou for lunch at Country Director Bob’s house (we had sloppy joes, couscous salad and carrot cake to celebrate the birthday of one of the trainees).
After training, I returned to post for a couple of days and then accompanied a local woman who works with shea butter down to Cotonou for the national shea conference. It was her first trip to Cotonou, so that was really exciting! While down there for the shea conference, I also had my midservice physical (I checked out OK except for a case of amoebas, but I didn’t have any symptoms. The doctor gave me some medicine and now the amoebas are gone) and Bob invited me to accompany some other volunteers to Songhai. Peace Corps and Songhai are developing a new working partnership. Until now, Songhai was really only known as the place where we met every Tuesday during training, now Songhai actually wants Peace Corps to help it develop as an entity. For more info on Songhai, go here.
Anyway, much of Songhai’s work has to do with agriculture, waste management and food security, so the other volunteers involved were Sarah T. (an environment volunteer who will be extending for a third year and will work directly with Songhai), Dave C. (who will be extending for a third year and is the food security coordinator, a new position), Mark S. (who will be extending for a third year and is the shea coordinator, also a new position), Patrick (who works with the Beninese Moringa Association) and Julia (who teaches at an agricultural school).
SEPTEMBER: SO LONG, FAREWELL
September and early October were a little bittersweet. My group (PSL 23) had just completed a year in Benin, but we also had to bid farewell to the volunteers who were wrapping up their service and returning home. Luckily, my trip to Cotonou for my midservice physical coincided with the departure of some of my closest friends in PSL 22, so I got to say goodbye – but I hope to see a lot of them when I return to America, of course.
OCTOBER: TWO WEEKS AT SONGHAI
So I mentioned earlier that I accompanied some other volunteers to Songhai back in September. Well, it was decided that I would return in early October to do an analysis/consulting stint for two days regarding the center’s communications’ needs and infrastructure.
My main focus was to be the center’s website, but it turned out they had bigger problems than that – such as insufficient personnel to make sure the website could even be current. I conducted interviews to better understand the chain of command and communication, then wrote up a report.
During my stay, I met five volunteers from Israel who were at Songhai working on a marketing platform and database for three months. They were straight out of university and weren’t really sure what they would be doing until they got to Benin. Because I was working on computer/communication projects as well, they asked me to offer my input, so I did what I could. Eran, Gaal, Yair, Amit and Liora were some of the most fun and generous people I have ever met. We took all our meals together during my stay (Songhai allowed me to stay for free and to eat my meals for free, and the food there is incredibly good and fresh), shared some wine and beer, had interesting discussions about Africa, economics and politics, and I spent a few evenings with them as they played guitar and sang songs.
My last day at Songhai, they presented me with a goodbye letter featuring a group photo, a short note about how nice it was to meet me, and how I have a place to stay if I ever visit Israel (which I definitely plan to). I didn’t get to see them again before they left, and I miss them a lot.
OCTOBER: WEB DESIGN … I’M TEACHING THAT?
Immediately following my two weeks at Songhai, I traveled to Parakou to teach a five-day web design course. This was mostly for the benefit of Patrick’s organization, ABM (Beninese Moringa Association), but four other NGOs also were represented in my class.
Keep in mind, I had never taught a course on the subject, so while all my preparation served me well for like the first three days, the last two days were a bit of a challenge. Since five NGOs were represented at the course, not everyone was learning at the same speed. This meant I had to spend more time with some people while others were getting bored because they had mastered the exercise already.
Anyway, I survived, although I think a follow-up course is definitely needed. We have not scheduled one yet, because the holidays are just too difficult to work around.
The highlight of my stay was that we were able to complete (at least preliminarily) ABM’s website. Check it out at www.moringabenin.org. I started working on this in October 2010, and it’s finally up. That’s how long it takes to get some things done around here.
OCTOBER: CHINESE OR JAPANESE?
For Halloween, I decided to have a Chinese-style dress made so I could be “Chinoise,” since that’s what all the Beninese think I am anyway. The dress turned out nicely, but interestingly all the volunteers ended up thinking I was dressed as Japanese. Seriously, people, get your stereotypes right.
This year, we decided to have pie-centric Thanksgiving celebration in Kandi. That means we had almost nothing but pies: turkey pot pie, chicken pot pie, veggie pot pie, various dessert pies, etc. It was delicious. You should try it some time. My only suggestion would be to try to do a pie with a mashed potato crust – then it would really be all pies all the time.
DECEMBER: WHAT’S AHEAD?
The biggest news in December is that my Peace Corps Partnership Project to raise funds for a generator was completely funded, and merely days after I had submitted documents to have the amount reduced. We got the entire amount we had been asking for, and now I’m just waiting for my supervisor to return before we begin the implementation of the project.
I’m also working with a couple of other volunteers on planning a shea soap-making workshop in Banikoara.
I’ve completed my first website (for ABM), and after receiving just one request for help with a website in the first year of my service, I now have requests for at least four others, including one for the mayor’s office of Banikoara. Will I get all this done in less than a year? We’ll see.
I should mention that I am seriously considering staying in Benin for a third year. I would not stay in Banikoara, but would likely move to a food security-related position in Cotonou. I’m just not ready to leave yet, I guess. Ask me again in a few months, though.
And thank you again to all of you back home who offer me moral support, financial support (via donations to my projects) and care package support! I appreciate everything you do. A special shout-out to my cousin Carl, who came to the rescue with a giant box of Korean ramen when my dad was told he couldn’t send any from Korea.