During my first few weeks in Benin, I was told by a second year volunteer that I was about to step onto “the emotional roller coaster they call Peace Corps” because the experience is filled with “the highest highs and the lowest lows.” In the short last four months, I have to say I agree with that wise volunteer. In one day, I can feel like I have conquered the world and 10 minutes later I will have completely given up hope in humanity (luckily the latter doesn’t usually last too long). I don’t think that I can count the number of times that this happened to me. There will be euphoria, then sadness, then frustration, then contentment, then anger, then excitement, then confusion; I had never realized how many emotions we humans have.
One of my highest highs was during my site visit, because I came very close to seeing my first birth. I was in Savalou (the closest big city to Agoua) with the PC volunteer whom I replaced, and we were at my supervisor’s house because she had invited us to stay with her during the annual Yam Festival. The second day we were there, my supervisor (who is a midwife) and her husband had gone into town to get some things. While she was out her maid, Adgo, went missing for some time. So my supervisor’s sister decided to go looking for her. The other PCV and I were just hanging out in the living room, when one of the kids came back in and calmly tells me that her mother wants me to go outside. A little confused, but nothings new there, I headed for the back door. But as I went, I met the sister in the hallway and she was holding a tiny bundle. At first I couldn’t make out what it was she was holding. Maybe an animal, a plant, a random body part, I’ve learned the possibilities are endless here in Africa. But as I got closer I saw that it was a tiny baby who was still covered in blood and grass and wrapped in a paigne. I assume that they thought that since I was the health volunteer, I would know what to do. But we had not had technical training yet and I have no medical experience. I love my TLU education, but the closest class I took dealing with anything medical was Bioethics, which didn’t seem to help much in this situation. So I called out to the other PCV and told her to come in the hall. At that point, I was internally having a freak out moment. I still wasn’t sure whose baby it was (I could barely get out English words, let only French ones lol). The baby wasn’t crying, his eyes were closed, and I was so shocked by the situation that I could barely move. Luckily the other PCV stayed calm and knew what to do. She was an environmental volunteer, but had worked with the Health Center and read “Where There Are No Doctors”, a book that each RCH volunteer was given, of course, during technical training… which I have now begun to read. So the other PCV made sure he had a steady heartbeat and was breathing. Slowly he began to open his eyes. As she was checking out the baby, I had a random thought (or maybe not so random), “Where is the mother?” So I went out to look for Adgo. I found her slowly walking out of the field of high grass, calm and hiding the obvious pain that she was feeling. We called Nadege, my supervisor, and asked her if we should meet her at the hospital ou bien? Since the baby was doing fine and she was already in town, she said she would just run by the hospital and pick up the supplies that were needed to clean the baby and cut the umbilical cord. The other PCV got to cut the umbilical cord. Then we helped clean him up. Nadege also had to make sure everything inside the mother was fine, so I held the baby while the other PCV help Nadege do that. He was the cutest thing. Like I said, this was a high. I couldn’t stop going into the room he was sleeping in, I would just look at him and smile.
But this is where the story starts to get hard to write. The day after I arrived in Agoua after Swear-In, I stopped by the Health Center to say hellos and see Nadege. So I went back to Nadege’s house on the grounds, but she wasn’t there because she was in Cotonou visiting family. As I was leaving I saw Adgo. I was so excited to ask her how she and the baby were doing. I was just so excited to see how much he had grown. As I began to ask her how he was doing, I noticed that there wasn’t a baby on Adgo’s back. Women in Benin use paignes to wrap their babies on to their back. This is another one of their pretty ingenious multi-tasking techniques. Although, it can be kind of be alarming knowing that only a few tucks is holding a baby on the back of a woman who is riding a moto with both hands steadying the basin full of corn on the top of her head. All I can say is Beninese women have got the tuck down. Back to the baby. So I stood there smiling waiting for her to tell me that he was doing great and to show me how much he had grown, but instead she told me blankly that he was dead. In almost disbelief at what she said and more over how she said it and I guess not knowing what to say or even how to say it, I just said okay and walked away. I went up to Blandine, who is one of Nadege’s assistants, and asked her where Adgo’s baby was. At this point I guess I thought there was no way he was dead and that either she had misunderstood my question or I had misunderstood her answer. But Blandine, again in a matter of fact manner, said that he was gone. So I told her I didn’t understand. I wasn’t going to give up. I just knew I was just experiencing one of those many miscommunications that happen so often during a Peace Corps service. But then she said blankly, “Il est mort.” In utter shock, I left. I’m not sure if I was more shocked that he was dead or that I felt that I, an outsider, was more distraught he was gone then his mother and people at the Health Center.
I think a reason that I was so disturbed by this, was the lack of shock that everyone expressed. I kept imagining scenarios explaining why he died. Maybe he didn’t get his 0 month vaccinations. Maybe Adgo wasn’t sleeping under a mosquito net and he fell ill to malaria, which is deathly to infants. Maybe Adgo had given him water. Many women believe, or are told by old women in the community, that babies need water, along with breast milk, because they are hot and thirsty from the heat. But this isn’t the best practice, because 1) a baby can get all the nutrients, etc. he needs from breast milk, 2) there are usually parasites in the water here. Most adults are immune to them, but they can cause serious illness in children and infants. When Nadege returned, I asked her what happened, “Why did he die?” She said she was in Cotonou when it happened. But again the blankness and customariness to the situation was so apparent in her expression. She said they didn’t know for certain exactly what caused his death and they probably never would.
Death is something different here in Benin. When a person lives to an old age, there is a festival that lasts for days. Each child of the deceased rents a tent that they set up in the middle of town, they make food and have a supplies of every kind of alcohol thought possible, they play music through the night and they celebrate. They celebrate his long and bountiful life. It is really a sight to see. But when a child dies, there is a set period for mourning. It doesn’t last long. There is a volunteer who told me she had a five year old girl die in her village and they mourned, cried, shouted, and then buried her the very next day and the public morning period was over. Death is a constant in every culture. It doesn’t matter if one is in a small town in Texas or a petit village in Benin, death occurs. But the way people respond to this type of tragedy can differ from culture to culture, from family to family, from person to person. Talking with other volunteers it’s apparent that Peace Corps isn’t just an emotional roller coaster, but it’s an emotional roller coaster with a passenger who is blindfolded and who doesn’t know when the big drops are coming and can be sometimes caught off guard. There are so many unknowns and questions that seem to go unanswered and unexplained, like how a beautiful, newborn baby could go from healthy to dead in such a short time for no evident reason. As volunteers, and more specifically as a volunteer in Agoua, I can’t always expect to understand what’s going on. I live in a culture that is separated not only by a big sea but also by language, history, and (sadly) GDP. And although I would be naive to think this will be the last death of a beautiful baby that I will see in these next two years, I know that I will learn some answers to these questions as well as much more about this beautiful and different culture.