Half a Year in Review

•January 4, 2012 • 1 Comment

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.

NOVEMBER: PIES-GIVING

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.

This Is Sure to Cure Your Insomnia

•July 17, 2011 • Leave a Comment

July 7, 2011 – Banikoara, Benin

So it’s been a long time since I posted anything on the blog, but it’s not for a lack of news. The past few months were eventful in so many different ways that sometimes it’s a little overwhelming to think about. Too much has happened to get into too fine a detail, but I’ll try my best to condense the events.

GHANA AND TOGO (End of March – Early-Mid April):

As I’ve written before, I was extremely excited about the opportunity to head to Ghana for the international shea conference. What is shea? Shea nuts (from the shea fruit) are gathered and transformed into shea butter, which is a popular product in beauty supplies in the West. Benin has a lot of shea trees and a lot of women in villages making shea butter (mostly to use as a cooking fat), but the work is extremely labor intensive and very rarely profitable.

Peace Corps is really pushing projects involving the shea industry, so they encourage us to get involved in our communities. I am working – or in the process of working – with two women’s groups in nearby Simperou. My main goals are to provide them with information and education on how to process the butter into value-added products, such as soap, and to find a local market for these products. In late August, Benin will hold its first national shea conference. Several SED volunteers were vital in bringing this to fruition.

A total of seven Peace Corps Benin volunteers attended the conference in Ghana. I ended up going by taxi from Cotonou with Andrea, Krista and Wendy (who did not attend the conference but was going to visit a friend who is a volunteer in Ghana). We stopped in Lome, Togo, for a few days to stay with the mother of one of Andrea’s college friends. Francesca, who is Ghanaian, was such a gracious host and cooked delicious meals for us every day. We went to the beach (with Francesca’s security guard so the locals wouldn’t bother us), the market and walked around the neighborhood. Lome seems like a cleaner more developed version of Cotonou, but in retrospect probably doesn’t have as much stuff to do.

After our stay in Lome, we headed to Ghana, where Andrea and Angee and I ended up staying with a former Peace Corps Ghana volunteer named Renae. A native of Yankton, S.D., of all places, Renae and another former volunteer now run a company called Global Mamas, which helps Ghanaian women artisans. Global Mamas has a store in Accra where you can buy the women’s wares, and the company also brings in volunteers to help with various aspects of the business. Many of the volunteers end up staying at Renae’s house, which is a converted restaurant (awesome kitchen!). A volunteer staying at Renae’s house at the same time we were was a woman named Nancy, an IT person whose mom, believe it or not, is originally from Pipestone (she is a Yseth). What are the odds of that?

Another volunteer, who arrived to do photography, was a woman from Rancho Cucamonga.

The conference itself was really interesting, logistically speaking. We were so busy because Peace Corps volunteers did not have to pay the registration fee if we agreed to help the organizers – West Africa Trade Hub. We did everything from working at the registration table, to operating computers for PowerPoint presentations (I did this a lot at the beginning) and helping with demonstrations. I didn’t get to go to as many sessions as I would have liked, but it really gave me an interesting perspective on how to run an international conference. I think we had about 400 people at one point. The good part was the great lunch buffet they gave us each day. I’m pretty sure I put on a few pounds, but it all came off, for reasons you’ll read of later.

One of the highlights was meeting Peace Corps volunteers from Ghana, Mali, Guinea and Togo. It’s interesting how Peace Corps operates differently in different countries. Just from talking to the other volunteers, it sounds like we actually have it good in Benin.

Accra was a fun city – almost a bit like America! There was a mall and an amazing supermarket, an Irish pub (which we went to often) and lots of good eateries. And they speak English, although it’s a bit like French in Benin, it’s not the kind of English we were used to – more like small small, as they say.

At the conclusion of the conference, Andrea and began traveling Ghana together, going to Cape Coast, where we stayed at a neat little hotel right on the beach. It was a combination of bungalows and bunk beds, but for about $7 a night for the bunk beds, it was a bargain. We visited Cape Coast Castle, the slave castle, and also the slave fort in Elmina, which I liked even better. We even spent a day at Coconut Grove Beach Resort, which has a private beach – we were the only people there, and they have guards to keep curious locals away.

Our next stop was Kakum National Park for the canopy walkway. It’s a narrow rope canopy suspended high above the forest floor. It was fun but really short. Honestly, I think they should let you go around on it twice to make it really worth your money.

After Kakum, we returned to Cape Coast to spend another night at the hotel, where we met a Ghana volunteer named Daniel (we were put in touch with him by Wendy’s friend) and his Brazilian friend Silvio. They were a blast to hang out with – we played cards all night. On top of that, Daniel was kind enough to give us the keys to his house in the Volta Region because we were headed there after our stop at the monkey sanctuary.

The next morning, we got on a tro-tro (a minibus taxi) at about 6:45 a.m. and got to Accra around 9:30 a.m. We found another tro-tro heading up to near Akossombo, where there is a cool suspension bridge, and then had to take several tro-tros to get to our destination in Tafi Atome. In all, it took us about 11 hours to get from Cape Coast to Tafi Atome, which was much longer than I was expecting. We got to the monkey sanctuary at about 6 p.m., settled into our guest room and were brought dinner. The next morning at 6 a.m. we went on a tour of the village to see the monkeys (they were out the previous evening, too). We were given bananas to feed them, and they jumped on our arms to get to them. After that there was a walk through the forest, breakfast was provided, and we then took an impromptu trip to Tafi Abuipe, a kente weaving village.

After our time in Tafi Atome and Tafi Abuipe, we went to Daniel’s village, where we spent the night before trekking up to the Wli waterfalls, which were breathtaking.

We had lunch in Wli before walking across the Ghana-Togo border, which was a REALLY long walk in sweltering heat with all our luggage in tow. I don’t recommend this route unless you have little to no baggage.

Once across the border, we needed two taxis to get to Kpalime (PAH-lee-may), where we met another Togo volunteer, Alex (Alexandra), who took us to dinner at a Flemish restaurant that had Belgian beer!  We were given Alex’s contact information by Whitney, one of the Togo volunteers we met at the shea conference – this is a big perk of being a Peace Corps volunteer and meeting volunteers from other countries.

During our stay in Kpalime, Andrea and I went on a hike in Kloto, a village up in the mountains where we saw some butterflies and learned about nature and more community based ecotourism.

After our time in Kpalime, we headed east to cross into Benin. We ended up in a minibus taxi with Alex, her homologue, and another Togo volunteer and his homologue – all four were heading to their version of In-Service Training, which is where Andrea and I were headed to next in Parakou.

Trying to find transportation across the border was a little tricky. Taxis weren’t guaranteeing they’d be going to Savalou (Andrea’s post, not far from the border), and zemidjans wanted an arm and a leg. Finally, we negotiated a price to Tchetti, then Savalou. Unfortunately, my zemidjan was in some kind of hurry – we zoomed past everyone and got to Savalou right before a torrential downpour. I waited and waited for Andrea, but she was nowhere in sight, and she had lost her phone in Ghana, so I had no way to contact her.

About an hour or so later, I got a call from her (she was using a stranger’s phone), and she informed me that her zem got a flat, and she basically had to get rides back into town with a truck, then a family. We finally met up as it started to get dark. We were originally going to stay in Savalou, but Andrea remembered she had left her keys in her bag in Cotonou (it was supposed to be sent up to Parakou on the Peace Corps shuttle), so we had to find a Plan B – staying with volunteer Brigitte in Dassa. We spent the night there, then got a taxi to Parakou the next morning.

TRAGIC TURN OF EVENTS (Mid-Late April):

We arrived in Parakou for our In-Service Training session with the rest of the Small Enterprise Development sector and our work partners, and none of us could have foreseen what was to occur. The second night we were there, one of our work partners died in a drowning accident at the pool at our hotel. Needless to say, we were all in shock and really had no interest in proceeding as planned. Our Country Director stopped by, and he provided a great deal of moral support – I actually had a chance to talk with him for a long time one-on-one,  so he knows who I am now and what I do at post. He also arranged for us to move to a different hotel, which was a good idea, since we were all pretty traumatized.

We ended up cutting our IST short a day, but we were still able to get some work done. Despite the tragic circumstances, I think this really helped us bond as a sector. I felt like after our first IST in January that we started to get along really well, and now tragedy had brought us even closer together.

The day I left Parakou to return to Banikoara, I was in the taxi when one of the other passengers turned out to be someone I know from post. He informed me that a United Nations Development Program worker that Summer and I knew was killed in a traffic accident a few weeks earlier. So I got to think about that the whole five hours to Kandi.

I decided to spend the night at the Kandi workstation (I was alone), because I really didn’t want to have to deal with trying to explain to everyone at post what I had just been through. Once I got to post, I still didn’t feel much like talking to anyone or eating (hence the weight loss), so I was kind of cooped up in my house for a couple of days before finally making my way back to work, where I struggled to motivate myself to do anything but stare into space.

But some time passed, and my fellow volunteers were a huge help in boosting morale and helping me (and others) get through all this, so was doing a lot better.

SPELLING BEE SWEEP (Late June):

One good thing that did happen recently was the National Spelling Bee (thanks to all of you who contributed and helped raise funds for the event). It was my first trip to Natitingou, and I took four kids to the competition. The journey there was grueling. We rented a taxi, and it should have taken five hours, but because of car trouble it took nine hours.

The chauffeur also wanted to take his “shortcut,” which meant going over the mountains. The road up the mountains didn’t look like it was made for cars, so I was skeptical. We got partly up the mountain when the car started to roll backward. The chauffeur’s friend jumped out and shoved a rock behind one of the wheels to help slow down the car. Then we were told to get out and climb to the top of the mountain while the taxi went up without us. The poor kids were exhausted.

But the trip was worth it. Natitingou is in the department of the Atacora, which is considered the most scenic part of Benin. Green, lush and mountainous. And the best part was two of the kids I brought won at the spelling bee! Mashoud,  from the public school CEG Banikoara, took the boys title, while Geraldine, from private school CS La Providence, won the girls title. Geraldine was an alternate, too.

WE’VE BEEN ROBBED (Early July):

The weekend of Fourth of July, a bunch of us went to the city of Djougou (I needed to go to the bank there and also get some software from another volunteer) for the annual Blitzkrieg. What’s that, you ask? It’s the weekend of soccer and American football against German volunteers. Our Peace Corps squad won the soccer game 1-0, thanks to our super player Doug, who is originally from Brazil (yeah, good advantage, right?). I missed the football game because the night of the soccer game, my hotel room was robbed. The two volunteers I was staying with and I forgot to lock our door, so someone entered in the middle of the night while we were sleeping and took all our cash, three cell phones, my camera, an iPod and a Macbook Pro. It was awful. We spoke to the gendarmes (law enforcement) the next day but are not optimistic. We even went to the local radio station to make a broadcast offering a reward. So far, nothing. We are majorly bummed.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the day I left Djougou, I had to wait six hours for my taxi to leave. Then, it broke down about five times, and I tripped getting out of the taxi on one occasion and got a nasty bruise on my knee. We got into Banikoara at about midnight, and with the power out in town I had to stumble my way to my house. But I got back safe and sound.

Anyway, so what’s next? This summer is going to be super busy – I have another girls camp I’ve been asked to help with next week (update: the camp just concluded and it was a success), then a computer workshop to conduct in Nikki, then I have to go train the new Peace Corps trainees who arrived here July 2.

And remember, I am still trying to raise funds for a generator for my community, so please contribute. Even if it’s just $5 or $10. Tell your friends, family, co-workers, neighbors. If everyone gives just a little, we can make this happen. After the past few months, I could use a little positive reinforcement. Here’s the link:

https://www.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=680-211

That’s all for now.

P.S. Things I wouldn’t mind receiving: Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce, Sriracha, garlic and herb seasoning, Jelly Bellys, drink mixes (lemonade, fruit punch, iced tea flavors), Febreeze.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hello, Again

•June 17, 2011 • Leave a Comment

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you will have noticed I haven’t posted anything in a very long time. Well, it’s a long story, but hopefully within the next month or so I’ll have the time to explain everything.

In the meantime, my community of Banikoara and I have managed to start our fundraising efforts to help the Community Multimedia Center acquire a generator for when we have our numerous power outages up north. The details are posted on the Peace Corps website (link is below), so go over and take a look, and please … if you can, donate, or at the very least tell your friends, family and co-workers about it. Everyone wants to help Africa, right?

Here’s the link:

Community Multimedia Center Generator Project

All the Kings’ Horses

•March 21, 2011 • Leave a Comment

(Post written Feb. 19, 2011 – Banikoara, Benin)

In February, some of my fellow volunteers and I were introduced to the traditional Bariba festival, la fete de la Gaani (GAH-nee). I’ve already forgotten exactly what the festival commemorates, but it has to do with the Bariba people (who originated in Nigeria, if I recall correctly) and the Bariba kingdom. There are also always lots of horses involved – basically, the many Bariba kings in the area come with their horses, do little races and make their horses “dance.”

The main Gaani festival in Benin takes place in the town of Nikki, which is on the eastern side of the country, not that far from the Nigerian border. Although the festival officially lasts only two days, there are celebrations for about four days leading up to that.

This year, the festival was held Feb. 15 and 16. The dates vary since the Bariba use a lunar calendar.

Sam, a Small Enterprise Development (SED) volunteer from Southern California, lives and works in Nikki, so he’s often put in charge of arranging Peace Corps’ participation in the event. This year, we had four main Peace Corps-related booths: the booth for the Beninese Moringa Association (Patrick’s host organization), the booth for a shea butter groupement (Mark’s groupement), a booth promoting tourist sites in Benin (mostly sites at which volunteers work), and a booth for Peace Corps, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

About 30 volunteers were in Nikki either to help out or just enjoy the festivities. I arrived on Sunday, Feb. 13, and helped out at the tourism, Moringa and Peace Corps booths. We handed out fliers, answered questions and tried our best to interact with the locals. Most of the time a group of kids would gather in front of the booths and just stare at us. That was a little annoying, but we had fun with them.

U.S. Ambassador Knight and Peace Corps Benin Country Director Bob Friedman also showed up and met with some of the volunteers on issues such as the future of Moringa, tourism and shea in Benin. I didn’t attend the meeting, but we all got to shake the ambassador’s hand, and we even had drinks with his PR guy and head of security (not to be confused with the ambassador’s bodyguard).

On the first official day of the festival, a group of us made our way to the grounds where they had the horse shows. The kings and their horses were ornately clad, and it was quite a beautiful sight. At first, we were stuck behind a bunch of Beninese people in what I guess would be considered a general admission area (there was no charge to see anything), but when a guy saw me and volunteer Heather W. trying in vain to get good photos, he ushered us into the ring where the horses and media were. It turns out there already were a bunch of non-Africans taking photos and shooting video there. So we got up close to the action, but the gendarmes kept pushing us and other people back, so we got moved around a bit. At one point, this crazy old lady came by with a big stick and started hitting people in the head (this is considered crowd control in Benin – a person walking around whipping people with sticks), and for a split second I was afraid we’d be crushed to death by a wave of people. But it turned out OK. Two volunteers, Patrick and Molly, were interviewed by the TV channel Canal 3.

The rest of the time, we fought through large crowds and endured the heat by drinking lots and lots of sachets (small bags) of water and sachets of bissap, a traditional, homemade Beninese beverage made by boiling dried hibiscus flowers and adding sugar and sometimes other extracts. Sometimes they freeze the little bags, sometimes they don’t. Luckily most of the ones at the Gaani were frozen. I love these little frozen drinks so much (you drink them by biting or chewing off a corner of the plastic bag), and was drinking them so often some volunteers suggested I might be addicted. No, I don’t have a problem!

At the end of the day, we unwound by having beers at Chez John, a nice hotel.

I was supposed to see Sam’s new computer center (he has asked me to do a three- or four-day computer workshop), but we ran out of time.

I’ll have lots of great memories of the Gaani in Nikki, including ramen omelets. Yes, it’s just as it sounds. An omelet filled with ramen noodles and some of the soup seasoning. It was sooooo good. I’m definitely making that when I get back to the U.S. I also ate this delicious dish made with sesame and a spicy sauce. I am craving both those things now that I’m back at post. Why can’t we have good food like that in Banikoara? Maybe it’s here and I just haven’t found it yet.
Coming soon: Lots of photos from Nikki on my Flickr site (http://www.flickr.com/photos/badart/).

GOD WOULDN’T DO THAT

I don’t think I’ve written about it yet, or maybe I have, but anyway in addition to getting called “Bature” (bah-TOO-ray), the Bariba word for foreigner, I also get called “Chinois,” or the French word for Chinese. This used to bug the crap out of me because I’d get called Chinese back in the U.S. by people who were clearly being ignorant. At least here, they are very used to the Chinese from all the aid work the Chinese do, so it’s almost a compliment. Still, I take the opportunity to inform them that a) I am American, b) my origin is Korean. Most people hear this and say, “Oh, OK, Korean” or “Oh, OK, American.”

But I ran into a guy at the Gaani festival in Nikki who was, well, pretty stubborn. He came to the Peace Corps booth while I was working, and he had a bag of ginseng candy that was very obviously Chinese because of all the Chinese writing on the front. Molly asked to see the bag, and as he showed it to her, he turned to me and said, “You can read this, right?” I told him, “No, I’m American.” Granted, I did at one time learn Chinese characters, but I have since forgotten most of them. Anyway, this guy, who was obviously from North Africa (he had that African-Middle Eastern look), did not accept my answer. I finally said that I was of Korean origin, and he indicated that he understood where Korea was and that there were two Koreas. I thought we were getting somewhere. Then he says, “But China, Korea, they are the same thing.”

Whaaaaat?

So I try to explain to him that they are different countries. And he says, “No, God would not do that.” Whatever that means.

He basically told me and Molly (who has dark hair and eyes) that we were not real Americans compared to the fair-haired and light-eyed volunteers who were in the booth with us.

I asked him where he was from and it turned out he was from northern Mali (where Tuaregs are from), and so I started to call him Togolese, saying Mali and Togo were the same. He kept insisting they weren’t, that they were different countries (umm … hello, my argument about China and Korea), but I kept calling him Togolese. I ran into him a couple of more times during the festival and he’d say “Chinese” and I’d say “Togolese,” and he’d smile. In the end it was like our inside joke.
But seriously, God wouldn’t do that?

Okaaaaaaay.

BRIEF SPELL …

I got back in town just in time for the first of two spelling bees I am holding in Banikoara. The first one, at CEG Banikoara, was held the morning of Saturday, Feb. 19, the day of Banikoara’s Gaani festival.

About 20 kids showed up, and we had two really strong winners, so I’m feeling good about their chances at the national bee. The kids and teachers seemed so interested in the competition that they are now talking about holding a monthly bee and maybe competing against other schools in the commune.

Next, I’ll be holding a couple of practice sessions and a second regional bee at CS La Providence, a private school in Banikoara.

GAANI, THE SEQUEL

So Feb. 19 was Banikoara’s Gaani festival. Bariba communities everywhere can hold their own Gaani festivals, they just can’t be held before the main one in Nikki. From my understanding, the king of Banikoara did not attend the festivities in Nikki this year – this could be due to the cost of transporting horses, entourage, etc., especially since Banikoara’s festival was right after Nikki’s.

Anyway, the festivities in Banikoara were on a much smaller scale. The festivities consisted of a 7 km pilgrimage, during which people follow the local kings (all on horses) in a big loop that features a handful of sacred sites/fetishes, at which they stop to pray and dance. One fetish is a hole in which they say a serpent used to live, and they offer it drink (I think an alcoholic beverage called tchouk, which is really tasty and such a shame to waste by pouring into a hole in the ground) in order to coax it out, but of course it doesn’t come out. Most of the fetishes are trees or tree trunks.

There’s lots of drumming and dancing, and people get all dressed up kind of like in Nikki.

Because I had only just gotten into town the day before, I wasn’t sure about what the schedule for the day was, so I stopped at the radio station after the spelling bee. I ran into Serge, who is an audio technician, and he told me the pilgrimage would be coming by the radio station around 1:30 p.m. So I went home and came back at that time, but was told by Ali, one of the radio’s reporters/anchors, that the pilgrimage was in fact not going to pass in front of the station but rather would be restricted to the area near the king’s residence and the big marche and post office. I thanked him for the info and told him I’d be heading there, but he said he was on his way there (to do a report), so we could go together. It was good timing. As a result of going with Ali, I gained entrance into the king’s residence, where I ran into Bandiri, the historian and retired teacher who is one of the nicest people in town. Bandiri took me on his moto to give me a tour of where the pilgrimage would be going (he was going to stay at the king’s residence, because it’s a long pilgrimage and he’s pretty old).

Once the pilgrimage got under way (I saw at least a half dozen non-Africans there, taking photos), I followed everyone and eventually ran into Nazif, a cool 13-year-old who is the son of the head of the gendarmes in Banikoara. He helped take me on paths that weren’t so dusty and helped get me closer to the action for photos (as the kid of the commander of the gendarmes, all the gendarmes know him). At one of the fetish sites, some guy who works for the king (or something) started taking me around to meet all the dignitaries and to places and people he thought I might want to take photos of. It was really nice of him, but he was also starting to bug me a little, because he’d grab me around the waste to lead me around and wouldn’t leave me alone – he didn’t do anything bad, it was just kind of annoying that he was there all the time. But he did get me to some good locations, so I can’t really complain.

After the pilgrimage made its way back to the king’s residence, I took a couple of photos of the king as he dismounted and as he had his feet washed. After that, I headed back home. My unofficial guide insisted on accompanying me at least most of the way. As a result, I decided to go straight to my neighbor Brigite’s house, since I was planning to stop there anyway. My guide said goodbye and went down another road as we approached Brigite’s road. As we were sitting in her house, someone came by to say that there were horses on the street, and we all ran out and found the horses from the festival racing up and down the street as they had in Nikki – but this was one street over from my house, so that was cool.

Happenings (aka This is not the abridged version)

•February 11, 2011 • 2 Comments

(Post written Feb. 7, 2011 – Banikoara, Benin)

A lot has happened since the last blog entry, so here are a few highlights (I kind of rushed this post, so it’s not as polished as I’d like).

BELATED HAPPY NEW YEAR:

The New Year’s festivities were fairly low key for me for the first time in a long time (no interpretive dancing by friends or bottles of Cristal). Here, in Benin, some people celebrate the eve, others the 1st and others celebrate both days. On New Year’s Day, my neighbors sent over their kids with some food (akassa and spicy tomato-and-onion jus/sauce – one of my favorite Beninese dishes) and a beer, for which I was very grateful (this was at about 11 a.m.). Later that day, my new friend Caroline came by. She is from Porto-Novo but was in Banikoara helping register people to vote. We had potato chips, cookies and talked about Benin and America. On the 2nd, my friend Denis invited me to his house, where his wife made akassa and jus, and we toasted the new year (his wife was tired, so I didn’t get to see her, which is too bad because she seems really nice).

I had turned down offers from volunteers to celebrate away from post because so many people in town had insisted I stick around to celebrate with them. But only one person ended up inviting me to anything, so it was a bit of a letdown, but I did have a good time with Caroline and Denis. Adapting to Beninese culture and behaviors is a never-ending process. When the Beninese say “No,” they sometimes mean yes. When they say “Yes,” they sometimes mean no. So they can invite you to something, but then that something either never takes place or you’re not reminded of it again.

20/20:

Some of you watched the ABC News “20/20” special on security in the Peace Corps. The episode focused on the 2009 murder of Kate Puzey, who was a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) volunteer in Benin. While I’m not saying Peace Corps is perfect (it is an American government agency, after all), it is important to note that Kate’s parents and some of the former volunteers interviewed for the program reportedly have said 20/20 sensationalized the bad aspects of Peace Corps while ignoring the good aspects.

Anyone who joins Peace Corps has to understand there are inherent risks. We are not going off to volunteer in small, quiet Midwestern towns. We are going to developing nations – nations that are unstable, potentially dangerous. But that’s where the help is needed most, so that’s where we go. Could Peace Corps do a better job of helping victims of crime? Sure. There’s always room for improvement.

You can still find Kate’s blog online. I recommend it. She was a talented writer. Kate’s blog.

NO MORE NIGER:

Speaking of dangers, Peace Corps evacuated its volunteers from Niger and suspended its program there. Niger’s southwest border is about a three-hour drive from my post (going northeast). Northern Niger already was off-limits to volunteers because of Al Qaida-related activity. Unfortunately, that activity moved farther south when two French citizens were kidnapped from a popular restaurant frequented by volunteers in the capital city of Niamey. The two men were killed during a rescue attempt.

I had hoped to travel to Niger to visit Niamey and also to see what are thought to be the last giraffes in West Africa. Alas, I won’t able to go now, unless Peace Corps lifts its restrictions. For a firsthand account, check out this blog.

IST:

IST, or In-Service Training, is a weeklong workshop new volunteers must attend about 3-4 months after moving to post. Each volunteer also usually brings his/her counterpart (or homologue). The sectors usually have separate ISTs. The SED-ICT sector had its IST in January in Porto-Novo, at the Songhai Center where we used to meet on Tuesdays during training. It was great to see everyone, and I feel like I really bonded with the SED volunteers. We’re the smallest sector (nine – 8 SED and 1 ICT).

In case you forgot (or I failed to ever mention it), the Songhai Center is a zero-waste, self-sustained NGO. They have a fishery, crops and orchards, raise fowl and bush rat, produce juices, syrups, soaps, cookies, dried fruits, soybean oil and other items on the spot. They also manage all their waste in an eco-friendly way (for example, animal waste is used as fertilizer or fish food). It’s a pretty cool place, and they also have a hotel of sorts to house guests (there are always foreigners there), as well as young Beninese people who come to Songhai to learn how to grow things the Songhai way. There is also a cyber café, several meeting rooms a restaurant and a buvette. Songhai was started by a Nigerian man, and there are three centers in Benin (Porto-Novo, Savalou and Parakou – the place where the volunteers got the turkeys for Thanksgiving).

I got to Porto-Novo a day early so I could spend the night with my host family. It was really great to see them (I helped my host sister Gloria set up a Facebook account), and they all got on me for losing so much weight (I’ve lost about 20 pounds since moving to post). But they had all lost weight, too (they agreed that that tends to happen once work and school start up again), so I poked fun right back at them.

I was the first person to arrive at Songhai that week and was accidentally given one of the nicer rooms reserved for the homologues. All the rooms had air-conditioning, but the nicer rooms reserved for the homologues had hot water, too. So I took a hot shower (first shower with hot water since leaving America!), because it is so humid in the south that you want to take a shower every five minutes. Later, I got a call from another volunteer, Angee, informing me she had arrived with other volunteers and that they were in another building. I realized I must have been assigned the wrong room, so I went to talk to the receptionist and she took care of the room situation, but it turned out our rooms had only cold water. Luckily, with the heat and humidity, cold water was actually quite welcome.

We also were well fed at Songhai. Breakfast consisted of an omelet, French bread, butter, Songhai’s own jam (usually mango or pineapple), tea or coffee. Lunch was usually a salad appetizer (one day it was a piece of cold pizza), then fish or chicken with tomato-and-onion jus, couscous or fries or pasta, and delicious Songhai yogurt. For dinner we were on our own, but during the week we went to two restaurants (I had steak and salad at one place and rabbit at another), to Andrea’s host family’s home and to the supermarket to buy items for a wine-and-cheese movie night. We watched “Grizzly Man” (which I recommend purely for its weirdness factor) by projecting it onto a wall using volunteer Rich’s computer and mini projector.

We also had snacks twice a day consisting of Songhai cookies and cakes, and Songhai fresh fruit juices and soy milk.
For the first IST (there is another one in April – at the same time I had hoped to hold the girls empowerment workshop, so that is being delayed indefinitely …), I invited Kare, whom I work with at the CMC. Next IST, I may bring my supervisor, Adam, or Daniel, who is in charge of development projects at the mayor’s office. Daniel was Summer’s homologue before she found a homologue closer to her home (we can have multiple homologues).

Part of the reason I want to invite Daniel is because Peace Corps is really pushing development of shea and Moringa in Benin. Shea, as in shea nuts used in products such as shea butter. Moringa, as in the miracle tree that could help combat malnutrition. Several SED volunteers are working with shea groupements (groupements are groups of people – often women – who work together in various stages of shea collection and transformation), and another volunteer is working with the newly formed Beninese Moringa Association, for which I am designing a website.

There are several groups that work with shea in the Banikoara commune, and I’d like to start working with them, too. I feel my work at the CMC is a bit limited, so I’d like to work on agri-business projects. A handful of SED volunteers are going to the global shea conference in Ghana, and I’m considering going, too.

END FOR ICT?

In ICT news, I heard a rumor (I brought it up with my APCD, but we never got around to really discussing it at IST) that Peace Corps Benin may be eliminating its ICT program. I hope this means they will simply be looking for SED volunteers who have more computer expertise. I think there is a need for ICT volunteers in Benin, but perhaps not nearly as much as a need for SED volunteers. So I’m now not only the sole ICT volunteer in Benin, but I also may be the last – at least until Benin catches up a bit in the area of information technology. It’s sad, but I get it.

THE CHALEUR IS ON:

So I left post for one week and what do I come back to? Ninety-degree weather! No warning. Nothing. The period of Chaleur (literally “heat” in French) wasn’t supposed to start until March, or so I was told. But it’s getting really warm now, and I miss the cold. I hope your care packages don’t melt or leak too much. I’ll gladly salvage what I can, though. Summer and I used spoons to eat a melted giant Hershey’s bar she received in a care package. Hey, chocolate is chocolate.

WORK IS GOING …

Mixed results on the work front. On the bright side, 44 kids showed up to the first spelling bee practice session – thanks in large part to the urging of one of the school’s English teachers, Claude. We spent most of the two hours explaining how the bee will work and going over pronunciation of the seven-page word list. The word list is daunting, and I wouldn’t be surprised if half the kids didn’t show up next week. I plan to bring some candies, though, and to award them during a mock bee.

Also on a positive note, I met with Adam, Daniel and Kare to really start planning our generator project for the Community Multimedia Center (yes, this means I will be soliciting some of you for donations). As I may have mentioned before, the CMC is the only place in the entire commune (pop. 200,000) that offers computer services and Internet access to the public. It offers classes, typing, printing, digital photos/printing, photocopying and binding. We are located right next to the biggest secondary school in the commune, too, so our clientele includes many teachers and students.

Unfortunately, Banikoara endures frequent power outages (ranging in length from minutes to days – as I write this, we have been without power for about the past 17 hours), rendering the CMC useless during these periods and denying the community these services. A generator would assure that everyone would have access at all times to the CMC’s services. I will be seeking funds for the generator through a program called the Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP). Peace Corps looks for 75 percent of the funds by reaching out to people whose contact information I provide (don’t worry, I will ask you for permission to put your name on the list before I do so) and also by posting the project proposal on a website so that anyone can donate. So, please, if you have a spare few bucks or know a church group or business or anyone who might be interested in helping (it’s tax deductible!), please tell them about this. I will have the web address for you if and when the proposal is approved by Peace Corps. Oh, and the community is responsible for 25 percent of the project costs, so I think Banikoara or the radio station will pay for the construction of the small building in which the generator will be housed. We hope to submit the initial proposal in March. Keep in mind also that if we fail to raise all the necessary funds, we will not receive any of the funds at all. The funds raised will go into a “global” fund.

(Update: I’m discovering that generators are more expensive than I had thought. Either that, or all the vendors we approach are quoting us ridiculous prices – don’t worry, I’m not doing the asking, or else they’d quote me a million dollars – but we really need to find one for the CMC. It’s the one, big noticeable problem they have at the moment. We’re still shopping around, but if anyone has any thoughts on how to raise about $20,000, let me know. The PCPP likes projects to be $5,000 or less, so we might have to scrap that and try something else.)

P.S. Krissy, the volunteer who is organizing the national spelling bee, also is seeking to fund it via PCPP, so when I know the web address, please go take a look and consider donating. This will help pay transportation costs for the four students I will take to the national contest (the taxi will cost about $200 to rent for the weekend – there is no other way to get all five of us to Natitingou and back without having to spend a night at a hotel each way).

On the frustrating side, I feel like I spend so much time waiting that I’m afraid my time in Benin will just fly by without my getting anything accomplished. Any time I ask people for information that they don’t happen to have in front of them, it involves a lot of phone tag, nagging on my part and sometimes (but not always) a result after several weeks. This is common when dealing with any governmental organization, such as the mayor’s office or the agriculture office. For the most part, everyone is very kind and seems helpful, but they really are busy or simply forgetful, I don’t know which. I will give them the benefit of the doubt and say busy.

Also, even though my predecessor taught the people at the CMC a lot of things about business management and marketing, it seems they no longer practice many of those things (if they practiced them at all). And remember the theft at the CMC last year? My supervisor made it clear the CMC should no longer be left unattended, and yet here I am, with no visible staff in sight. Oh, well.

This weekend it’s off to the Gaani festival in Nikki to help my fellow volunteers promote tourism and the Peace Corps (it’s the 50th anniversary of Peace Corps this year). The Gaani festival is a big celebration involving Bariba kings and horses. Hopefully, I’ll have time to take lots of photos!

N kua n sosi!

This Blog Gets a Crime Story

•January 2, 2011 • 3 Comments

(Post written Dec. 30, 2010 – Banikoara, Benin)

I can’t stress enough how much I enjoy living in Benin, and how much I enjoy the company of many of the people I’ve met here. But Benin, as with any country, has its ugly side, and it reared its head in Banikoara this week.

A little background …

There’s a 15-year-old kid I used to see a lot around the Community Multimedia Center. I always greeted him, but it never went beyond that. Finally, one day I made the mistake of asking him his name. He told me (I am omitting it from this post for reasons that will become clear soon), and then he said he had seen me in his neighborhood and that he’d like to stop by my house. I nodded politely, thinking he might do nothing more than stop by to say hello.

What followed was an annoying series of visits (day and night) during which he’d either be asking for help with getting songs on an MP3 player, wanting to put songs on his friends’ MP3 players or just to say hello. I helped him about twice, after that I realized this was ridiculous. This is not sustainable development work. I am not here to be putting songs on kids’ MP3 players. I had to put my foot down. But, of course, I didn’t want to be a bitch about it, so I tried to make up excuses at first, cutting him off at the door by saying “Oh, I’m really busy,” or “I was trying to sleep,” or “I’m actually on my way out.”

I figured I could soften the blow by having him limit his visits to my office at the CMC. That didn’t stop him from occasionally showing up at my house.

“He’s just a bit dense,” I’d think to myself.

But I always had a bad vibe about the kid. He’d come and sit in my office while I was working and say NOTHING. He’d play with my camera (without asking) and take a bunch of pictures of himself. He started to bring his friends to the CMC as well and ask to borrow my things (I always said no). It got to the point where I told him (in French), “Look, this is the last time I am helping you. After the first of the year, I am starting a bunch of projects and I’ll be too busy.” He seemed disappointed, but I didn’t see him for a while until about a week ago when he came by twice – once to ask to borrow the AC adapter for my laptop (because his friend’s laptop needed a charger – I said no) and another time to say he was just saying hello. I greeted him rather tersely, so he didn’t stick around long.

Then Thursday, I get this news from one of the photocopy ladies at the CMC – the kid and some of his friends have been arrested for stealing a bunch of stuff (laptops, music players, etc.) from the radio station and the CMC and possibly other people.

They had sold some of the stuff they had stolen and had broken other stuff while trying to “fix” it.

About a week earlier, my homologue Kare had told me to lock up the entire CMC if I was there by myself. He had said there had been a theft of a laptop from the radio station and that he, himself, had had some music players and a memory card stolen, so he wasn’t taking any chances.

Among the things stolen was Kare’s friend’s laptop (in addition to the other laptop), which had a broken AC adapter.

Broken AC adapter.

“Can we borrow your adapter?”

All the visits to my house.

It all made sense now.

Oh, by the way, everyone at the CMC kept calling this kid I know “The kid who comes to visit you,” which was super annoying because it made it sound like this kid was my friend (he was not) and I thought it made it sound like I could possibly be involved somehow. I started to feel guilty, thinking I had somehow brought this upon the radio station and CMC. I know I did not, but I’ve been here only three months and the last thing I need is to be part of a police matter.

But the kids involved me and my colleagues anyway.

After my supervisor, Adam, and Kare had met with the police, Adam asked to speak with me. He told me that one of the kids said that they found one of the music players at my house. Now, this could just be because they had forgotten where they had gotten all their loot, but it also gives the impression that maybe I took it from the CMC and then they got it from me. I start to stress out a little.

Adam asked if anything of mine was missing, and I said no. He said he wanted to make sure that I understood not everyone could be trusted. That I needed to watch out for certain people.

I never left the kid alone with any of my stuff, and I am extremely careful about my valuables, especially if I am having anyone over.

The kids also tried to put blame on another one of my CMC colleagues by saying that they were with him, then he went briefly to the radio station to talk to someone, and that’s when they grabbed some stuff. They also said he let them borrow one of the laptops – not true, as far as I know. So that colleague of mine is feeling the heat. Everyone’s been warned to not leave anyone alone at the radio or CMC. It’s probably a no-brainer move, but you’d like to think you live in a community where that’s not necessary. Unfortunately, here it now is.

So what’s going to happen to the kids? Justice here in Benin can be … well, inconsistent. The justice system can take its sweet time (for an example, do a search for “Kate Puzey” sometime). People can get out of prison by paying big “fines.”
Sometimes there’s even vigilante justice. Fortunately, I have not had to witness that last one, but some volunteers have. In parts of the southwest, there were reports that kids had been killed by people practicing witchcraft, and when villagers caught one of these alleged killers, they poured gasoline down his throat and set him on fire. This is not common by any means, but I have heard that it happens. We were warned during Peace Corps training that if we are in the vicinity of something that appears to be vigilante justice that we should get the hell out of there.

So I asked my colleagues what would happen to the kids, and they told me the cops were probably “en train de les frapper,” which, if taken literally, means they were probably getting a major beating by law enforcement authorities. I know that would never fly back home, but this is a different country with different ways of doing things. Keep in mind, I can’t confirm any of this, so I don’t know what happened, if anything.

Sometimes I fear that I am too cautious. That is hampers me in my quest to integrate into my community. But Peace Corps did warn us that the longer you are here and the more comfortable you feel, the more likely you are to let your guard down, so you must always try to be vigilant. I’m glad I still am.

The One Where I Complain About the Cold

•December 13, 2010 • Leave a Comment

(Post written Dec. 13, 2010 – Banikoara, Benin)

It’s December in Benin, and it is cold! OK, not freezing cold like it is back home in Minnesota (I heard the roof of the Metrodome caved in because of snow …), but a lot colder than you’d expect for Africa. One of my fellow PCVs asked for a Snuggie. Maybe I want one, too, but shipping is expensive. I guess we’ll just have to try to patch one together out of plastic bags and dirt.

I am gradually turning into even more of a temperature wuss. This started happening once I moved to California (my tolerance for cold went way down), and it’s only going to get worse here. I have a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt, but that’s the extent of my “cold weather” gear. I’m no longer going to make fun of the cattle herders who wear parkas and snow hats when it’s sunny and warm outside. OK, I’m still going to make fun of them, just not as much.

In more interesting news, I am working on several projects. The main thing I’m working on at the moment is an English spelling bee. This is actually part of another volunteer’s project (a national spelling bee), but she needs us to help her find contestants by holding local bees in our towns. A girl winner and a boy winner from each local bee get to go to Natitingou this summer for the national competition.

To be honest, the thought of organizing a spelling bee did not appeal to me. I had never been in one, much less organized one. And just because it gets shown on TV in America does not necessarily mean it is cool. Besides, I figured this would be the domain of volunteers who teach English. But I was beginning to feel restless, and useless, and I thought this might be a way for me to do some actual “work.”

So far, so good. I’ve met with the administrators at CEG Banikoara, the largest public secondary school in my town, to ask for permission and to explain what I was doing. I translated the rules from English into French with the help of one of my colleagues from the Community Multimedia Center and set a schedule of two practice sessions, followed by the actual competition in February.

As my colleague was helping me translate the rules, he said, “You know there are private schools here, too” (he said this in French, of course, but if I had typed that, most of you probably wouldn’t know what he had said). Actually, there are six secondary schools in my town, so if you choose just one, you inevitably run into the questions of why you didn’t pick another. Hey, the school I chose is the biggest in town, is public, is right next to my office, and I know some people there. I didn’t really put much thought into choosing a school, I just went with what I knew. But he has a point. If I’m to help my community, I really need to remember that there’s more than just one school in town.

This spring, I hope to invite girls from all six schools to a four-day workshop on girls empowerment. This is a popular project for volunteers (gender and development work is greatly encouraged, and grants are available for projects like this). I plan to break down the workshop as follows: Day 1 – Safe sex/STDs, unwanted pregnancies, domestic violence. Day 2 – Domestic violence continued, importance of staying in school. Day 3 – Importance of career. Day 4 – Girls get to shadow a local professional woman at her workplace in the morning, then return in the afternoon to share the experience with the others.

There’s a fairly high dropout rate among girls once they get to the higher grades of secondary school. Often, it’s because of teen pregnancy, but it’s also because they can’t afford the school fees. Sadly, some manage to pay for tuition by having sex for money.

I was talking about the girls workshop to a government finance worker who lives in my town, and he suggested I meet with the mayor to ask about additional funding. The way I figure it, I can probably get 50,000 fcfa (approximately $100) from Peace Corps’ GAD (Gender and Development) program, and that would be enough to provide food, transportation and supplies for about 16 girls. If the mayor is willing to put in an additional 50,000 fcfa in the upcoming budget, we could double the number to 32 and invite girls from a neighboring town.

Anyway, we went to the mayor’s office today, and he wasn’t there yet, so we’ll see.
In addition to the bee and workshop, I am trying to find a generator for the radio station and a building to house it in. I also want to help CEG Banikoara either fix its old computers or find newer ones (any companies out there want to help with that?). I’m also helping a couple of volunteers with their projects, so I’m busy, but there’s also a lot of waiting.

This past weekend was a busy one. I met with Claude, an English teacher at CEG Banikoara. Claude insists on speaking only English with me and that I do the same with him. He’s a cool guy, and he worked with a previous volunteer to organize an English club whose activities included a radio show. But he’s really busy so I don’t get to see him that much. I had spoken with him about the spelling bee, but I wanted to give him the instructions and to ask him to participate as the Beninese pronouncer – the bee organizer asks that there be an American pronouncer and a Beninese one, since students learn English from a Beninese teacher and might not always understand an American pronunciation.

On Sunday, I met with my neighbor Brigite, a math teacher who also is the wife of the guy in charge of the power company here. Brigite and her family used to live farther south, and she worked with a volunteer who taught English at her school. They worked on a girls sexuality workshop together, so I wanted her input on my idea.

The person I am seeking the most input from is Denis, an administrator at CEG Banikoara. He was the homologue of a former volunteer, and he has really good ideas about development (basically, that you have to do what you can on your own – you can’t wait for a handout), and he’s just a nice, fun guy. He and the former volunteer also did a girls workshop, and I’m using that as a guide for mine.

Other than that, I’m just waiting for Summer to return from her In-Service Training in Porto-Novo (my sector’s IST isn’t until next month). On the way, she stopped in Cotonou and got me a bottle of soy sauce, and now I’ll be able to make fried rice and share it with people. I can’t wait to see what they think of that.

 
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.