No Classroom Left Behind

During the follow-up stages of the Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP) grant, there is a “Tell Your Story” section that PCVs must fill out to close their finished grant. Here is the story of the classroom construction project that I managed in partnership with the secondary school in my Peace Corps post, Agoua. I don’t mention it in the story, but I want to thank everyone who donated and supported this project!

In October, I began a conversation with the local secondary school about finishing four classrooms in disrepair and building an additional two classrooms. After two months of collaborating with the Parent/Teacher Association, the local authorities, and the school’s administration, I submitted a grant for 10,000 USD through the PCPP funding mechanism. After another three months, I received the funding and the school hired a contractor who began buying the materials needed to finish the four classrooms. Because of funding restraints, we budgeted to build the walls, pour the floors, fabricate the cement windows, and buy classroom doors. We did not include funding for plaster or paint, which would have given the classroom a finished look. Within five weeks, the four classrooms were completed and we began the construction of the two new classrooms. Along with constructing the classrooms, we allotted a portion of the funds for a photocopier that would be placed in the existing library to act as a money generating system that would allow the school to hire a librarian. Within the first month, we purchased and placed the photocopier in the library. Because we received the funds much later that anticipated, the school was not able to hire and train a librarian before the end of the school year, but they will do so before the start of the school year in October.

Around this time, an official from the ministry of education who is located in Abomey (a city approximately three hours south of my post) visited the school. I am unsure if he had heard we were building more classrooms or if it was just a routine visit, but he asked for a meeting. During the meeting he was very polite, thanked me personally for the work that Peace Corps does with the secondary schools around the country. He then began discussing school building construction projects. He cited that the government of Benin has a standard for the construction of a classroom, which he has noticed PCVs who conduct classroom construction projects do not normally follow. I replied that firstly, I did not feel comfortable speaking of behalf of Peace Corps but could forward his contact to someone who could discuss our construction project practices with him. Secondly, the funding for the classrooms we were building did not come from the government of Benin and therefore I, as a PCV, am not obligated to follow the government’s standard. I also explained that the ministry of education should make this standard clear to secondary schools’ administration so that they could then explain these standards to their volunteer counterparts. We each took the others concerns into consideration and the meeting ended on a friendly note.

After this meeting, I had a conference that did not permit me to stay in my community for the following two weeks. Because I had been working very closely with the director and it was evident he was dedicated to the project, I entrusted him with a large sum of funding needed during my absence. This portion of project funds was budgeted to cover the cost of the base and the walls of the two new classrooms. When I returned to my post in mid-May, only the base had been completed and I noticed that the base was much larger than our original floor plan. I inquired about this change, and the director told me that he decided to change the design of the classrooms in order to follow Beninese government regulations.

After this conversation, I was a bit discouraged because the director changed the project without informing me and I was unsure of where we would get the funding to cover the additional costs. I asked the director for a new budget and an action plan for finishing the building. The budget tripled and the timeline extended by five months. He believed when school restarted in October, the community would see the need for finishing the classrooms and would contribute the additional funding needed. Frustrated and confused at to how I should continue knowing that I was finishing my service in that community in August, I reached out to Peace Corps Benin’s M&E Specialist for help. In late May, the M&E Specialist called for a meeting with my school’s administration to evaluate the progress of the project. During this meeting she explained their responsibility to finish the project and reiterated my timeline and the importance of consulting the PCV before making major changes to a project such as they had.

After our meeting, I was scheduled to be out of my community for a few weeks and I was promised that the roof would be completed. When I returned in mid June only the walls had been completed. The director had agreed that is was the responsibility of the community to contribute the funds needed to cover the cost of the roof. I still have money left to pay for the door and desk, but not to cover the cost of the roof. I also believed that if I gave the money allotted for the doors and desks then they would use that to cover the cost of the roof and the classrooms would be left unfinished. So I continued to wait and see if progress would be made. By the beginning of July, still nothing had progressed. My Peace Corps counterpart was out of village due to medical issues, so I consulted my landlord, who has been a mentor to me during my two years of service. He had not been informed about the issues with this project and was upset with the developments. The next day he came to my house and informed me that he had visited the chief of the arrondissement (the supervisor of the previous PCVs), the king of Agoua, the president of the Parent/ Teacher Association, and other community officials, and they had reached an agreement to find the funds for the roof within the week. We then held a meeting to discuss the plan to finish the classrooms. By the end of the meeting, the community agreed to cover the cost of the roof and the school’s administration found additional funds from the previous school year to cover the cost of the cement floor, windows, and doors. Thus, to finish the classrooms, we would just need to plaster and paint the exterior and interior walls and buy desks. Together, we decided to use the left over funds from the PCPP to cover the cost of plastering and painting the walls, because the school would be able to send a request for the desks to the mayor’s office in October.

I completed my two years of service in Agoua on the 2nd of August and as I was leaving the walls were being painted. As of now, the construction of the two classrooms has been completed and will be ready for use by the beginning of the upcoming school year.

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The black hole we like to call the “Med Unit”

I had been in Benin for a little over sixteen months when I had my first long drawn out experience with the Peace Corps Benin Medical Unit. Mid way through service, every volunteer is required to have a “mid-service medical appointment.” It’s the time to see the dentist, to make sure that volunteers aren’t full whichever type of parasites we are normally filled with, and for the doctors to make sure the volunteer in the far north are, you know, still alive. I consider myself luck; before my mid-service med, I rarely had to visit the doctors – a dog bite that required a few rabies shots, a sprained ankle, a sinus infection, all just minor visits. During my first year, I could pass one of our two Peace Corps doctors in our bureau and, of course, they would smile at me and know that I was a PCV, but unless they looked at my file I doubt they would have known my name. That was until a few months ago.

 

In October, I met up with a few friends in a city in central Benin and together headed down to the capitol in a bush taxi for our mid-med appointments. Of course, we scheduled them all in the same week, as a mechanism to spend time with each other – for us, health wasn’t not our top priority. Going to the beach and eating good pizza was much more important. Traveling in Benin can, at good times, be unbearable. Traveling with other volunteers makes things like waiting two hours so the taxi driver can attend the mandatory Beninese flag ceremony they do eachMonday morning slightly less unbearable. So traveling together is a common practice amongst volunteers. But this one morning started off rough for me. Lets just say, I woke up having stomach problems. Half way through our 4-hour taxi ride, I started feeling really bad, fever-like symptoms, stomach pains, and nausea, the whole works. Now, public vomiting is unpleasant in any culture, but as a foreigner in Benin its something I never wanted to experience, especially with the overlaying fear of Ebola we had last fall. As our taxi finally stopped in the capitol, we realized this wasn’t our destination so we would have to wait for the next stop. But I couldn’t wait. I pushed my way out of the over crowed taxi only being able to utter the words “sortezsortez” As I stepped out, I moved to the side of the road and vomited. My friends said that I did it “like a champ”, so there’s that. As I finished and asked my friend to hand me my water to rinse out my mouth, I looked up to find people in all directions watching the “yovo” who just vomited all over the ground. The horrifying experience ended with the diagnosis of a bacterial infection and a prescription of ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic. 


I thought this was the worst of it. But oh how I was wrong. I had a few non-pervasive things to do during my mid-med check, removal a wart and a mole, visit to the dentist, clearing up a parasite I didn’t even know I had. But as I was about to head back to village, thinking this would be the last time that I would see the doctors for a while, I began having these overwhelming spells of fatigue. Fatigue like I had never felt before. I would contemplate moving parts of my body, but no part of my body would allow that to happen. I would radiate heat, but my internal fever wasn’t too bad. And then, a few hours would pass and Id feel normal again. Like nothing was wrong. This lasted about 48 hours before I mentioned it to a friend who had just finished a Malaria Test and Treat project in his village and had seen quite a few cases of malaria, and he was sure that I had malaria. I didn’t believe him. I had heard so many malaria horror stories from other volunteers about how terrible malaria was. How could the bacterial infection I had just the week before be worse then malaria? I was flabbergasted. We were at a friend’s house so we decided to do Rapid diagnostic test just for laughs. As it turned out I had malaria. That night, with a little shame, I began the treatment regiment knowing full and well that it wasn’t a fluke. Igot malaria because I didn’t want to upset my stomach by taking my prophylaxis when recovering from my bacterial infections. And then prolonging starting it back up in Cotonou, the utopia of this small country, as it’s sometimes hard to remember that it is still in Benin and a place where I could contract malaria. 

 

I was sure after this I would be done. I had been stuck in Cotonou for two weeks, during which I had taking two medications I had been able to avoid for a better part of my service. This was it. I was golden for the next few months. But as things go, that wasn’t the case. In December, I went down to Cotonou to see my best friend off to America for a visit home and to use the unlimited internet the PC workstations provide to finish the grant I was currently working on. As do somevolunteers, I decided I wanted to save money and took a road that is much worse to travel on but also shorter and about a dollar cheaper. I know, I know a dollar doesn’t seem like much, but for volunteers, at least in Benin, it is. This travel day began with me trying to save money and getting into a way over crowned taxi. But the day ended with me very angry at a not so very nice chauffeur and a herniated disc in my lower back. Only to have a mandatory two weeks on bed rest during the Christmas holiday. Not only could I not leave Cotonou (which wouldn’t have been too bad), but I wasn’t allowed to take motorcycle taxis, which unless you have wealthy expat friends is the primary form of transportation in the city. And just to make you have a little more pity on me, the med unit is white and cold with bars on the windows giving off a slight vibe of an insane asylum.  Not the place to spend Christmas.

 

Then while I was stuck in the med unit I got a call from my landlord. My neighbors had found my dog, that wasn’t just an animal to me, dead on my front porch. Reasons for her death are unknown, but I know there was no foul play. In a way to find closure, I assume she fell sick to African trypanosomiasis, commonly known as sleeping sickness and prevalent in West Africa. I also found out my supervisor, and closest friend in my village, had been transferred from my health center to a health center in the large city about an hour south. I would no long get to see or work with her everyday and when I got back to villageI’d have to find a new supervisorAnd lastly, my best friend in country was going back to the U.S. I knew we would still talk but she would be busy eating yummy American food and spending time with her family, and it would be awhile before things would be normal again. 

 

Like no other time in my life, I felt trapped. Applying for Peace Corps, I went in knowing I’d be giving up a lot of small day-to-day freedoms I’m permitted as a female in the U.S. Most of the time, I value the culture exchange and knowledge I gain through this experience over those small freedoms and the lack of control I have as a foreignerTo be clear, I’m in no way suppressed in Benin, but everyday I have to consider if my clothes are culturally appropriateif a friendship with a male counterpart will be misconstrued as something more, or if grabbing a beer after a hard day of work will be seen as unsuitable, all because I am a woman. On top of culturalguidelines, there are many Peace Corps rules volunteers must follow. The frequency that we leave our village, informing staff of our whereabouts when we are out of village, not being about to drive any motor vehicle, take specific medicines, and the list could go on. But knew, or accepted, most of that when I decided to join Peace Corps, I understand the reason for the rules and the lengths Peace Corps must go to secure our safety. But there’s only so much control I could let go of before I felt completely trapped and claustrophobic. My life in village in just two short weeks had been completely altered, my health was faulty, and the person I would talk this all through with was half a world away. 

 

For no other reason than I was unfairly given the most amazing parents, I was able to go home. Take a break. Drive a car. Ring in the New Year with friends. Go shopping with my best friend. Hug my niece and nephew. Have a beer with my brother. Watch a movie with my sister and brother-in-law. Feed the horses with my mom, which if you know me, you know how bad it must be if I actually am enjoying the task of feeding the horses. And have my favorite late night talks with my dad. 

 

Sometimes breaks are needed. Time to step back. Reflect. And take back control, which may just be realizing you won’t have control and that’s okay. I think too often volunteers’ fall into a trap of viewing their service an amusing reality survival TV show. The narrator saying, “who can make it through the hot season, without electricity, without running water, with unavoidable health calamities, failing projects, language barriers, and cultural confusion? Will you?” This happens to people everywhere. I know at my university I saw this happen to a few friends. Counting down the days until they can come up for breath. But the thing is, it doesn’t work. When you aren’t taking care of your wellbeing, you aren’t at your best and personal relationships suffer, work suffers, and your physical health suffers. And yes, there are the few who will view taking personal time as a weakness. That you just couldn’t hack it. Well, not that I’m an expert, but that’s baloney. After 21 months into my service, if I could give one piece of advice to someone starting the amazing adventure of Peace Corps, it would be to take care of yourself. Push your boundaries because you will learn more about yourself then you ever thought you would (possibly more than you will ever want to know). But know your limits, and more importantly, respect those limits.

Girls Girls Girls

Over a year ago, I tried to have my first girls’ soccer practice at CEG Agoua (the local middle school). Even though I had grown up with a father who, to put it lightly, disliked soccer and always tried to instill this dislike in his children, I decided to do a girls’ soccer team because in Benin, it is considered a male-only sport, and I had been told by other PCVs that most girls really loved to play it too.
Even though I knew that girls liked soccer just as much as boys, at first I was scared to form a girls’ soccer team. So many questions concerned me: Would the girls show up? Would they really want to do it? Would they quit because of the boys? How would I handle boys who might hang around the practice just to laugh? Could I find a counterpart in Agoua who would want to help me with this project? Would the predominately male administration at the school be open to and supportive of the project? So many factors worried me and made me think it would inevitably fail. But I decided to do it, although it took a little push.
Around this time, a female student, Angelique, who was about 16 years old, kept coming by my house. She told me she just wanted to introduce herself and say hello, but we talked a little more each time she came. Finally, I asked her if she was interested in playing soccer. She got really excited and said we could play at 7 a.m. on Saturday before her 8 a.m. class. So I agreed. When I got to the field that Saturday, there were already a couple of girls standing around. But Angelique wasn’t to be found, which was a little disappointing. The girls were standing in a group with some guys and they were all wearing athletic clothes. I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on because I had only been at my post for a month, but as I waited I realized they were waiting on their athletic teacher to start their sports class. I decided to asked them if they wanted to sign up for a soccer team. They all said yes, wrote down their names, but I couldn’t tell if it was just to please me or if they really wanted to play. After they signed up, I started to walk off the field back to my house. But as I turned, Angelique showed up. She asked if we could still play. I agreed and told her to invite the other girls to play too. I was really excited after this first interaction. I thought this could work. I wanted to yell, “SUCCESS!” But as it happened, only Angelique showed up to our first practice. Feeling defeated, I gave up on the idea of having a girls’ soccer club. Angelique kept coming to my house and we began to become good friends. In March, I decided to invite her to a weeklong overnight camp for girls, called Camp G.L.O.W., which would be held that June.
Along with Angelique, I invited another girl, Christelle, who had approached me a few times about playing soccer and having an English club. Over the week, I saw both girls begin to grow more confident. But it wasn’t until a few months after camp that I really saw the change. When school started in October, Christelle and Angelique came to visit me and again pleaded with me to have a girls’ soccer club. We made an agreement. I told them we could try a fun and interactive program called SKILLZ from Grassroots Soccer, which teaches participants about HIV and STDs, and I could get enough soccer balls for each participating girl to keep, but the two of them would have to get the girls to come. If the girls didn’t come, we couldn’t have a team. With their newly found confidence and better understanding of my role in village as a PCV, they said no problem.
The next day they had a list of girls who wanted to be in the club. At the first practice there were about 15 girls. I explained the SKILLZ program, the commitment they would make, and the potential activities we could do (including going to a soccer tournament in late May, if the club actually worked). They all agreed enthusiastically. The next day Angelique brought three more girls who wanted to participate. The next week we had a total of 22 girls at practice and did our first lesson of the SKILLZ program. The girls signed a contract, made up a club chant, and had a great time. Since then, we have met 12 times, finished 8 SKILLZ lessons, danced, watched movies, played soccer, and laughed a lot.
Most times in Peace Corps, projects don’t work. Not only do the ideas that a volunteer has before arriving in their host country change completely, but even the ideas they have after their first three months change. But then every once and a while, a project will work out. Maybe not perfectly, but they work in an unexpected, unanticipated way. The girls’ soccer club has had to change the time of our meetings because the school’s schedule changed and would have prevented 1about half the girls in the club from attending meetings. Of course, the boys from the school love to stick around while we practice and make it clear the soccer field is the boys’ field, not the girls’ field. And sadly, I don’t really have a consistent community counterpart who works with me on this activity, which worries me that the project won’t continue after I finish my service. But nothing can be perfect. I can’t know if this girls’ soccer club will continue after I leave, but I know these girls love attending club meetings every week. I know they are learning how to prevent HIV and STDs. Beyond that, I have seen each of them gain confidence and more importantly, smile.

CEG AGOUA Girl's Soccer Club

Two Worlds

I think that something every volunteer forgets from time to time during her service is that this isn’t just her journey, or her adventure, but this is a journey and an adventure that all of her family and friends are taking too. In August, I had two visitors who, for some reason beyond me, decided to pack their bags and take an adventure to Benin, West Africa. When it comes to Africa, Benin isn’t what you think of when traveling. Maybe Morocco, South Africa, Kenya, or Ghana. But Benin, let’s just say it’s not a tourist hot spot. So when one of my closest friends told me, before I left for my service that she was going to visit me. I responded, “Really? Well okay.” Then once I arrived in Benin, I instantly fell in love and was so excited to show her this country that was my new home. Then I traveled, and let’s just say Benin’s lacks when it comes to Western standards of traveling. And so many times I wondered if it was a good idea for her to come. Benin isn’t some tourist country where you can drink your mojito and easily avoid seeing the true lives of the people.

Benin is very underdeveloped and it’s not hidden like in many other places. But as more and more time passed, the more and more I fell in love with this country, the culture, the food (well some of it), and the people. And the less and less I noticed the underdevelopment. And so what can you want more than to share something you love with a close friend? I also quickly realized she was coming no matter anyone’s reservations and she was even bringing friends, which just knowing that got me through some of my tougher days in village. And so I made a fool proof itinerary, gave them loads of tips on packing, and had a plan: “Let them only see the things that make me love Benin, and hide all the rest.”

As anyone who’s been to Benin, or has traveled in general, could imagine my fool proof plan was not so fool proof in the end. It began with me having the time of their flight wrong and them waiting at the airport for me all the while I was thinking I would be there an hour early, which was only followed by travel mishaps, and tour guide issues, and many more small problems along the way

The whole time I was trying to make Benin perfect so my friends would love it how I do, I forgot it was their first time here. Unlike me, who Peace Corps graciously eased into life in Benin, they were thrown in headfirst. There was no time to ease them in, they only had two weeks to learn how to be in place, which had taken me 14 months to maneuver and I wouldn’t even claim to have it down yet.

Before in a blog I talked about goggles that make everything look upside down, but that after a while your eyes adjust to and upside down starts looking normal. And it took me months for things to start being normal, for example, riding motorcycle taxis, taking cold bucket baths, peeing in bushes and latrines, and I could go on. But they only had two weeks. Their whole trip was upside down. But I could no longer see it that way. They would ask me something one would think I would have most certainly prepared them for, but I hadn’t because I forgot that wasn’t normal in the Western world.

And so for the first time since I started my Peace Corps journey over a year ago, I had culture shock. I felt as if I was living in two worlds. Two worlds I understood, but I couldn’t get to truly understand each other. Two worlds I wanted to connect so badly, for each to love the other, and for each to understand other the way I did.

What I forgot is an adventure cannot be an adventure without the bad, without the mishaps or the do overs. An adventure includes learning and living and if everything is perfect how can you learn? How can you really see the truth? And without the truth, how can you really love? I forgot that I love Benin for the good and the bad, just as I love my own country for the good and bad. So how could I expect them to love Benin, if I wasn’t even letting them see it?

Their trip was an adventure for us all. We saw lions and elephants, we shared meals with friends in my community, we laughed, we cried, we lost it at times, but mostly we lived. And all I can hope is that Benin will always have a spot in their heart, maybe not as it does in mine, but in their own way.

All my family and friends are taking this adventure with me, whether they physically visit me in Benin, or send packages to a village they can’t even find on Google maps, or are just missing their sister at their baby shower, or always remember to pass around their phone at family events so all can say a short hello. This is their journey too. Living in two worlds has its challenges, which is what makes me so thankful to have family and friends who were and continue to be willing to take this journey with me.

It's a sorority thing.

It’s a sorority thing.

Beanies for Benin

Beanies for Benin

Matching Outfits, a Beninese tradition.

Matching Outfits, a Beninese tradition.

Big in Benin

Big in Benin

Just to See Her Smile

During the summer vacation from school, work slows down for volunteers in Benin, as many of us work in some capacity with schools. But this also creates an opportunity to host camps. This last summer, there were many camps that volunteers, and the students from their villages, could participate in. There are girls’ camps, such as Camp G.L.O.W (Girls Leading Our World) and Camp Espoir (Hope). There was an environment camp for boys and girls. And a boy’s camp called Camp B.R.O. (Boys Respecting Others). No matter where a volunteer is located geographically there was always an opportunity to participate in a camp. I participated in two Camp G.L.O.W. camps this year, a regional one and a larger one held just north of my region. Both were possibly some of the most memorable parts of my service so far, and it was because of something I realized during the first camp.

Camp G.L.O.W. Parakou is located in the large northern city called Parakou and is one of the largest camps held in Benin. How the camp works is each volunteer who participates, normally from the region or surrounding regions, invites two or three girls from their village to the camp. They travel to and from the camp with the girls and the girls stay overnight in Parakou at the campgrounds. Normally about twenty volunteers participate, which gives us about fifty girls each year. We work with local host country nationals and counterparts to organize it. We cover topics such as health, sexual health, professionalism, educational importance and tips, and general life skills. With each topic we include a women’s empowerment and gender equality component. This year they also had elective sessions each day such as arts and crafts, yoga, self-defense, spa & nail painting, and sports including volleyball, basketball, handball, and soccer.

I knew that I expected that this would be a life changing experience for the girls from my village. And it was, but what was surprising to me was how it was a life changing experience for the girls. A typical life for a young girl in Benin (and I am being very general) is helping out around the house by cooking, cleaning, fetching water, doing laundry, taking care of the younger siblings, and running errands into town; this all starting at the age four or five years old. It is not strange at all for me to see a five year old at a small store by herself buying something that’s needed for dinner. As they get older they attend school, while still having to complete their daily chores. For some, their education is very important to them, even if it is not important to their fathers. For others, education isn’t that important, and school is a time to get away from their homes and to scout out boys who will eventually become their husbands. But for most, if not all, undergoing sexual advances from male professors and faculty is a part of daily life. Now, they do make some time for some fun, a few homemade games here and there while dinner is cooking and chores are done, or gossiping with girlfriends while walking to and from school. But they have very different lives from a typical American girl, they have a much different life than the one that I had as a child. So participating in this camp was pretty polar opposite from their lives. For many this was the first time they had ever left their region and the first time they were really actually able to focus on themselves. But it was also one of the first times they were able to have fun, to really have fun. I saw this when I co-led the basketball sessions each day. They didn’t really know how to play, they bent most of the rules, and calling fouls was out of the question. But the pure happiness captured in their laughter made it clear that they weren’t worried about finishing their chores or being hit on by a teacher. And that laughter made all the work that we twenty volunteers and counterparts had done, completely worth it.

It’s an open debate if Peace Corps is a cultural exchange organization or if it is moving toward a development organization. But I don’t think that we can put one word on it. There is no argument that this camp facilitated cultural exchange. Now, do we know how this camp will help develop those girls or Benin right now? No, not yet. But I don’t think that’s what really matters here. Those girls might not remember all the valuable information thrown at them or all the different ways we Americans did things at camp. But I know that they will remember how they felt, their laughter, and that moment that their teammate threw the basketball at the goal and it happened to fall through the net. They will remember running to her and jumping on her, and laughing with her, because they earned a point. And that cannot be categorized.

Beninese Cuisine at its Finest

My favorite food item in Benin is something called wagasi. Wagasi is a cheese of sorts, much like mozzarella, and is made by a nomadic tribe called the Fulani. The Fulani move all over West African countries herding their cows as they go. They have their own language, many haven’t and won’t ever attend school, and they have a very distinct culture from the settled groups in West Africa. When I first came to Benin, I didn’t like wagasi, it has a rubber type texture and a district flavor different from anything I’d had before. I had this feeling about most Beninese foods. Luckily, in time, I acquired a palate for these new tastes and textures that I was consuming. And after a while, I even started craving these new and different types of foods.

Now Peace Corps volunteers use wagasi in many ways; crumbled as a substitute for ground beef in tacos, in spaghetti sauce, and even in Sloppy Joe’s sauce. Some volunteers battered the wagasi in corn flour and fried it to make mozzarella sticks. I’ve even tossed it into a buffalo wing sauce sent from America and eaten it with Ranch Dip (also from a package my mom sent me from America). Wagasi is a volunteer favorite. It’s not to expensive, it’s a nice change from the starch-loaded diet to which we are all too accustom, and it gives us protein and calcium that we normally lack. But there’s one down side to wagasi: it’s hard to find on a daily basis. There are many reasons for this, first being that the Fulani are nomadic and when they leave a region the wagasi goes with them. Secondly, during the dry season, their cows don’t produce enough milk to make wagasi. So it can normally only be found during the wet season in small villages. And lastly, the Fulani usually set up camp on the outskirts of villages, so it’s unlikely to find wagasi in boutiques, or in specific places at any time. But during the wet season, May, June, and July, I can usually find Fulani women carrying large plastic buckets with wagasi on their heads walking through village, but its very much coincidental. Now in larger cities, especially in the northern part of Benin, wagasi can almost always be found in daily markets. But it’s not a shelf storage type product, so buying it in large cities and bringing it back to my house isn’t really a possibility.

A few months ago, I was at the Health Center helping with Prenatal Consultations and I saw a Fulani woman with the plastic bucket on her head. Wet season had just started and I hadn’t seen wagasi for months, so I asked one of the trainees at the Health Center if she thought the woman walking on the road had wagasi in her plastic bucket. She said yes, and asked if I wanted to buy some. I said, of course! I never miss out on a chance to buy wagasi. She called the Fulani woman over. Then it got really interesting. As I mentioned before the Fulani have their own language. Fulani women rarely speak the local language, and almost never speak French. We asked her the prices, which consisted of showing coins until we revealed the right amount. It was a good price and I was really craving a Beninese wagasi meal, but I didn’t know how to prepare one. So I asked the trainee to make a deal. If I bought an extra wheel of wagasi and the rest of the ingredients, would she teach me how to make a traditional wagasi, sauce, and rice meal? She agreed, so I bought a few wheels of wagasi and went to a boutique next to the health center to get the rest of the ingredients we need.

I’ve only seen wagasi cooked one way in Benin, but I had never really seen the preparation of it. So that afternoon, we started preparing the meal. First, and most importantly, we boiled the wheels of wagasi for about ten minutes. Wagasi is unpasteurized and should be boiled very well before consumption. Once it was cooled, we cut it like a pie into eight or so pieces. Then we fried it in vegetable oil. After the sides of the wagasi had browned, it is ready and we set it aside. Then we started making the sauce. There a few difference Beninese sauce that can be made. If you are eating wagasi with “Yam Pile” (which is boiled and mashed yams), the most popular sauce is a peanut sauce. If you are eating it with rice, you normally find a tomato based sauce or a palm oil sauce. I’m sure there are more, I just don’t know about them yet. We decided to do the palm oil sauce. First we boiled the palm nuts, then we grinded them with our hands in a large bowl. And as they were being ground, a dark yellow sauce appeared from their insides. We added water to the bowl, stirred it, and filtered out the excess palm nuts. After, we poured the palm oil water into a pot, added ground garlic, onions, and tomato mix, salt, dried ground spices, a handful of whole hot peppers, and the fried wagasi. We let it cook for 30 or 40 minutes. While it was cooking, we started cooking the rice on another mud stove. We let the water reach a boil, and then added the uncooked rice and salt. Once the rice was finished, my friend put an abundance of it on a plate with a few pieces of wagasi, a few hot peppers, and a good amount of sauce. And voila, it was finished!

Although this recipe doesn’t sound too hard, I’ve tried to prepare a few Beninese meals at my house and I don’t know if there’s magic to the mud stoves, or something else, but I can never get it to taste just right. But I have one more year; hopefully I can get the hang of it by then and bring these delicious meals back home in America!

Peace Corps Blues

Recently, I hit my one-year mark in my Peace Corps service in Benin. Like many of my fellow volunteers I thought, “Wow, it’s already been a year. Man, it went by so fast.” But then I started thinking, “Wow, I still have 15 more months. How am I going to make it through?” During training, we had a session on the common emotions volunteers endure during their 27 months of service. Like most, my first year was mostly filled with highs, with a few lows. I had heard volunteers in the stage before me talk about how they were feeling, their anger, their jadedness, and their many thoughts about just calling it quits and ETing, or early terminating their service, and I never really understood their feelings. I mean, yes, I had had some awful days, some days when I felt like a complete failure, days I just missed home and my family more than anything, but I never thought about leaving, I just called a friend, and fellow volunteer, and knew tomorrow would bring a better day.

After I came back from my three-week vacation back home, I was really excited about the next year and all the projects that I would be doing. I had given a few presentations at home and I think the awe and amazement upon the faces in the crowd encouraged something inside me. I had almost completely forgotten the difficulties of living in a different culture than my own, the utter loneliness that follows from living in a village in the middle of Benin as a foreigner. I came back to Benin feeling higher on life than I think I did when I first came to Benin a year ago. I went back to village with souvenirs for all my local friends, and then reality set in. A loneliness that I hadn’t felt in a month hit me right in the face. The loneliness didn’t creep in, it didn’t introduce itself or give me any warning, it just smacked me in the face while I wasn’t paying any attention. Luckily, I had friends and “close-mates” who spent time talking me through this unforeseen experience and told me the feelings that I was having were normal.

Then I had one of those bad days that many of us happen. One annoying event occurs, which is inevitably followed by another, and then one more, and suddenly you find yourself crying alone in your house and truly considering leaving; not because you miss home, but because who hate the place in which you are. And, of course, not one of these events is overwhelmingly traumatic, but together they just made me think, “Why am I here? What good am I really doing, and at what expense to my sanity? Why should I stay in here? Who in my village would really care if I left?”

I have yet to find all the answers to those questions. And part of me knows there’s a sizable chance that I will be boarding a plane home in a year without any answers to those questions. But something is calling me to stay. Maybe it is knowing that the majority of volunteers feel this way at this point, and normally it gets better. I know it’s in part because of the support of friends, including my supervisor. A few days ago, I was explaining to her my frustration with the entitlement people offer up in place of appreciation that I accept and expect as a cultural difference. When I told her that I didn’t want to receive a prize, automatically she cut in and said, “You just went them to be happy. Happy with you, happy with your work, and happy in general.” She understood, which later I suspected was because she’s a mid-wife and often feels she’s not appreciated for the hours of hard work she does. And yes, I also feel guilty that maybe wanting my work, not just my money and whiteness, but my work, to be appreciated is self-regarding and should not be my intent as a volunteer.

Luckily another volunteer, and good friend, agreed with me, and so at least there are two of us who are morally insufficient. Along with this, she gave me some advice. She said to reflect upon how you have changed during your Peace Corps experience so far, and tell them to me. At first, I could only think about the ways in which I would conclude I have changed for the worst. For instance, before I came to Benin I had never have the yearning to hit another human being, like I often do when an annoying taxi chauffer takes my bags, or tells me what I want to hear instead of the truth, or trying to stuff 10 people into a 5-seater vehicle. She responds, but hey, you haven’t actually hit one, look at your patience. And she was right, I have gained a patience that I definitely learned while respecting another culture, and truly learning about another culture without judgment and thinking it worse than my own is easy, where as continuing to live in that said culture is a different thing completely.

We are often told in Peace Corps that we plant the seeds that we may never see grow into trees. This is a difficult truth to accept, especially in the midst of a 2 year service, but it is something I always try to keep in the back of my mind, especially when I get those “peace corps blues.”

PC Benin Dictionary

Every few months, I get together with my fellow PCVs in Benin. After not seeing other volunteers for a few weeks/ months, there is always a lot of catching up to do. Giving the latest scoop about each of our villages, giving lengthy stories (with animations) about our last crazy bowel movement, and talking about all the foods that we miss at home. Every time I find myself just listening to all of the different conversations that go on and I think, “If there was a non-PCV, American sitting with us, would they actually be able to understand what we are saying?” Not only do we speak a sort of franglais that is specific to West Africa, we also throw in some particular Peace Corps language (including an outrageous number of acronyms), some particular Peace Corps Benin lingo, and some local language (now remember there are well over 30 different local languages here). We then sometimes use French words, and add of an English ending. For example, chercher-ing, chercher is the French word for search. And can be used in sentence form comme ca, “Do anyone want to go chercher-ing for a spaghetti omelet?” Although for me, it is still much easier to speak English than it is to speak French. Sometimes when I call home I find it difficult not to use this new mix of vocabulary. Some French words just seem to work better, like accouchement and sensibilisation. So this is for you, newly accepted potential Benin PCTs or anyone else who is interested. Below is a PCV Benin dictionary (open to all, needed by only a few):

I’m gonna lassie ca – a phase I am told was started by the RCH 25. A very useful phase meaning “I’m gonna leave that one alone”

Just lassie – “Just leave it”

Paigne – the fabric that one wraps around their body.

Gadrone – a gravel road/ highway

Formation – Conference, or being trained on something

Cherchering – to go find

Mille – Thousand

Spaghetti Omelet – self-explanatory

Femme – Female

Piment – peppers, spices, or anything that makes your mouth burn

Colline – hill, or specifically the hills in the region named “the Collines”

Close-mate – another Peace Corps volunteer, who lives in a neighboring village

Pate – the oh so delicious, mixture of corn flour and water, served with a spicy or fishy tasting sauce, yum!

Yam Pile – think of sticky mashed potatoes, typically served with a mouth-watering peanut sauce and local cheese

Akassa – fermented pate. That is all you need to know about this one.

Atass– cooked rice and beans covered, of course, with piment sauce

Post-mate – when you are one of the lucky (or maybe not so lucky) volunteers who shares a village or ‘post’ with another volunteer

Tante – this can refer to an aunt, a regular woman, or more often a woman who works at a local bar/restaurant. Just be aware, in some areas this term refers to prostitutes. Know your regions!

Mamans – the name we call women who sell hot meals at street venues

Village Quoi – Basically it is just village-y

Comme ca – like that. Many a times we are asked “Tu va ou comme ca?” meaning “where are you going like that?” Don’t take offense to this; typically people are not judging you for your appearance, they just simply want to know where you are going.

Ou bien? – this helpful little phrase has many meanings, but is typically used in a situation like this: “should we go eat atassi, ou bien?” it can be thought of an ellipses or a “soo…?”

Sensibilsation – an event that can contain training or the exchange of information

C’est doux – This is good/ amazing/ sweet/ tasty/ etc.

Tu es la? Oui, je suis la! – An informal greeting literally meaning, “You are here? Yes, I am here”

Accouchment – birth, or birthing event

CS – Centre de Sante, Health Center

*If I missed any fellow PCV Benin, please add them in the comment section!

La Deuxième Femme

            A question that I was never asked before I came to Benin, a question that I never imagined I would be asked in my lifetime, and a question I wish young girls would never have to be asked again.

A few months ago, I was waiting to catch a bush taxi to go to Banté. I saw my supervisor’s husband drive by, I waved him down, we said our greetings, and then he asked me where I was going. I told him Banté, which was his destination as well, so he waved me into his car. Now, I have always liked Alex, he and Nadège are a very odd Beninese couple. I’ve seen them be affectionate in public, which is culturally bizarre, they only have two children and have both said, on numerous occasions, that they don’t plan on having anymore, which is unheard of in small villages, and she is his only wife. Now in American culture, one could believe the first two as being a little strange even for Americans (okay let’s think back 60 or so years), but the last wouldn’t have ever been normal. Here in Benin, it is normal, and although it is not legal, it is culturally acceptable and it’s actually thought to be strange when a man doesn’t have more than one wife.

As we embark on our 15-kilometer journey to Banté, avoiding the massive and encompassing pot holes in the road by going 20 mile an hour, we made small talk. I credit this to my inadequate French skills. But I enjoy the small talk, subjects like my dog and what I did for the holidays that a few days before keep us occupied for a while. And then, the inevitable question regarding my stay in Benin manifests itself into the conversation. Of course, I tell him I love Benin; I think the work that I am doing is gratifying and essential to my community as well as myself. I go on to say that there is no other place that I would rather be because I find this is the place for me at this point of my life. Or well, that what I would have said if my French vocabulary was slightly more comprehensive. So I went with “Oh oui, ca va bien. J’aime Agoua et le centre de santé. Et aussi, j’aime le travail beaucoup.” Then came the second inevitable question, do I want to stay in Benin forever and find myself a wonderful, beautiful Beninese husband? To this inescapable question, I have many answers. Sometimes I’m honest and say, “I don’t think so; I think I want to go back to the states, go to grad school, and get a career, then maybe I’ll think about a husband and the six children you think that I should have since, like you say, I have those child barring hips.” And, yes, that is not only an appropriate comment to make other times, especially when I’m talking with some random guy while we are waiting for a taxi. I make things up, “Oh yes, I already have a Beninese husband and I will live here forever,” or “Oh I’m married to another volunteer.” Or if I’m annoyed and a little frisky I might say, “Well I will only marry a man that does all the cooking and cleaning and watches the kids. So I can repose and simply take naps, all day long.” This usually baffles them and makes them laugh and say in local language to another local sitting close, “This foreign woman crazy! Men do the cleaning. Jamais! Men do the cooking. Jamais! Men watch the kids. Ah. Jamais!” Or at least that’s what my friends and I assume they are saying. But we say these lies because telling the truth typically leads to a proposal. How serious these proposals are, I may never know.

Alex and I are friends of sort so he already knew that I was not married. So I went with the truth and reiterated that I am don’t plan to look for a husband for a few years. And unexpectedly, he asked if I wanted to be his second wife. He continued says that we would only have two children, and he didn’t care if they were both girls as long as they were both healthy. You would think that this was a somewhat progressive conversation, if it weren’t that “second” in front of “wife” part. I laughed and smiled, but I was baffled. I felt uncomfortable because by American standards, having your boss and good friend’s husband ask you to be his second wife, or hit on you in sorts, is an inappropriate situation. I felt like I had betrayed Nadège in some way, and for the rest of the ride I felt anger toward Alex for putting me in that situation.

Upon reflection and conversations with other volunteers, I concluded that my supervisor’s husband was only kidding or in some indirect way only trying to say, “Well you’re a looker and quite the catch, so much so I would make you my second wife. Now that’s a compliment. Don’t ya see?” I felt less of a betrayer to Nadège months later when she mentioned that she wouldn’t have a problem with Alex taking a second wife. Although, knowing Nadège, she only said what she believed her culture deems right and not her true intents. I don’t think that she would be very good sharing her husband, and in my American mindset, I don’t blame her. No matter, this experience got me thinking; thinking about love and marriage and culture in particular.

I’m lucky. I’m lucky because I won’t ever have to know his true intentions. I have options. Options that many girls and women who I am surrounded by everyday will never have. I can say no and mean it. I don’t mind being asked if I want to be somebody’s wife, even his second wife, it’s a good laugh and makes life a little awkward for a few minutes, and there’s no harm in that. And in my narrow-minded, culturally subjective mind set, I wish it were a question that young girls in Benin would never have to be asked again. Because for most of these girls, (not all but most), it’s not a joke, or a good laugh, or even a moment of awkwardness. For these girls, it’s just reality.

Across cultures, there are certainly differences in the way we chose our partners, and the reasons behind these decisions vary. Love does not necessarily mean the same thing in every culture. But what about universal values, we have to share some of those, right? Is this just me thinking through my own cultural lens? Or is this a universal ideal that should be upheld all over the world? What is love? How do we define it? What rights should women have in regards to marriage? I suppose those are questions to ask, but there’s an even more important question: what happens when or if someone is being hurt by a culture of love/relationships? I don’t necessarily believe that polygamy hurts a “so-called” sanctity of marriage; but I think it is all situational. It depends on whether the woman has a choice to be in a polygamous relationship or not. Is she forced by the culture to be in a relationship like this, or is this her informed decision? I can’t give an answer as to whether polygamy is right or not, but I do strongly believe that women should have the right to choose and not be pressured nor forced into a polygamous relationship.

Camp GLOW Parakou 2014

Here is a little bit of information about a Camp that two girls from my village and I are participating in June! Enjoy!

What is it?

Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) is a week long camp for exceptional girls, selected by Peace Corps Volunteers, to come together and learn how to be leaders among their peers and receive education about important health and social issues affecting their communities. Camp GLOW is a Peace Corps initiative that started in Romania in 1995 with the purpose of promoting female empowerment. The program came to Benin in 2004 and has been widely successful; current volunteers are encouraging and educating promising young females all across the country.

What do we do?

Throughout the week, girls will live on a university campus and attend sessions that target vital public health concerns, emphasize the value of education, focus on developing life skills, and encourage creativity and critical thinking. Topics include: finding safe drinking water, sexual health, study skills, career planning, leadership, entrepreneurship, creative writing, and domestic violence. At the end of the week, girls will collaborate with their volunteer to discuss the ways they can bring what they have learned at camp back to their villages.

Why do we do it?

Most of the girls who attend Camp GLOW will have never before stepped foot on a university campus. They will have their first experiences with touching a keyboard, picking up a paintbrush, and being told that it’s not OK for a husband to hit his wife. The girls will be mentored by adult Beninese women who have been selected for the exceptional example they set as professional, progressive women as well as older girls (junior mentors) selected from last year’s camp as outstanding participants. Most importantly, the girls will be surrounded by positive encouragement. They will not be hit, they will not be constantly sent out for chores, and they will be reminded that they are special and valuable.

How can you help?

Camp GLOW is financed through the Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP). The project is posted online where friends and family of participating volunteers can come together to collectively finance the demand. Please follow this link: www.peacecorps.gov/donate and search our project number: 13-680-015 or my last name: Baug. You can read project details and contribute with your credit card directly through the site. If you have any additional questions concerning the budget or activities of the camp, please feel free to contact me (knbaug@syr.edu). If you are interested in sending supplies that we would like to use, but do not have access to in Benin, please contact me as well.