Sunday, June 29, 2014

29 Jun - My amazing wedding adventure!

I recently had one of the biggest "this is why I joined Peace Corps" adventures of my service.  A few weeks ago, my "mama" (the mother in my concession where I stay) started telling me about a wedding that was coming up.  In my area, weddings are a lot different from what we're used to in the states.  The ceremony is brief, between the men of the families getting married, and the bride and groom aren't really involved.  The biggest part of the wedding is when the groom's family goes to the bride's house, during the night, and collects her to bring to her new house, along with her dowry.  The dowry, a huge collection of household items such as pots and mats and bowls and fabric, is then divided up between the members of the groom's family the next day.  In the case of this wedding, the groom was from my family.  So the morning of the wedding, the courtyard in front of my house was already busy with women making big pots of food for the guests (mainly extended family members) who would be around during the day.  

I've been to several weddings in my village, and usually they've been between two families who live relatively closeby.  One time I attended one (as a member of the groom's party) that was in a village 3k away, we walked there under the stars and then returned each carrying part of the dowry on our head.  I carried a huge stack of calabashes, very light-weight but I was still proud.  And because I carried part of the dowry I was given a bowl when it was divided up the next day.  That really made me feel part of things.

This wedding was different, however.  Far from being nearby, I was told that the bride lived past Nikki - a large town about an hour away by the main dirt road.  I had no idea where her village was, but agreed to go with the members of our family who went to collect her.  We left by motorcycles, and I quickly realized that what I expected would be a pretty standard trip to Nikki, a town I've been to many times before, was going to be much more adventurous.  After just half an hour we'd left anything that could be remotely considered a road and were driving along thin paths not even wide enough for two people to walk side by side.  Deeper, and deeper, and deeper into the bush, passing only small collections of thatched mud huts. We stopped frequently to fix one of the motorcycles, which were always breaking down, or to greet people the family knew.  People often expressed surprise when we told them where we were going, and kept mentioning something about the water.  And I soon found out why, when we pulled up to the side of a muddy river.  We had to ford it, me and Nafisa (my 10-year old friend) walking across with our bags on our shoulders so nothing got wet.  The water came up to my hips!  Then the men carried the motorcycles across one by one. 

 All in all, the trip took over three hours.  And we were taking the shortcut!  It was amazing driving so far into the middle of nowhere, and realizing how far off the beaten track I was.  My village is already an hour from the nearest paved road, already somewhere that few Americans would ever find themselves.  Now I was three hours further off the beaten track, making Peonga look like a bustling, centrally-located metropolis in comparison.

When we finally arrived at the bride's house, we greeted everyone there and settled in on a mat to eat some rice and wait for nightfall.  Everyone there knew my name, since they have connections to Peonga, and they really appreciated me being there.  It was nice, sitting on a mat under a tree with Nafisa, watching all the activity and listening to dozens of bright yellow birds who were busy building nests nearby. 
The bride's household

As it got dark, a car arrived with more members of the groom's party.  They'd taken the "long route" to the bride's house, on roads that were at least sort of passable by car.  We loaded the dowry up into the car, and then they collected the bride, singing outside her door until she came out crying.  Crying is considered necessary in a wedding here, although it does make it hard to know how the bride really feels about things.  We then all squeezed into the car - my mama had told me and Nafisa to take the car back since the motorcycles wouldn't be safe enough after dark - and then left for the long, long trip back home.  The car broke down on the way, of course, and our adventure ended after 1:00 am when we got home.  A long day, but one that really made me feel part of my family here in village. 

The bride's dowry, after being unloaded from the car in my concession

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

April 19 - The King of Nikki's Funeral!

I live in a very special post, and I've gotten to see many really remarkable cultural events.  Most were small-scale, local events, like the fetiche intitiations that happen regularly in Peonga.  Recently, however, the king of Nikki died and I got to attend his funeral.  (Nikki is a town about an hour and a half from my village by motorcycle). 

This was a huge deal.  The king of Nikki is the most important king of the Bariba people, a group that spreads throughout northern Benin and Nigeria.  Every year, all the lesser Bariba kings visit Nikki to pay tribute to the king and ride their richly-decorated horses in a festival known as Gaani.  This funeral was similarly large, with kings and their entourages coming from as far as Nigeria and Ghana.  Not all who came were Bariba; there were also kings from other ethnic groups in the south of Benin.  Benin's president, Boni Yayi, even flew in by helicopter to make a speech!  About five of us volunteers attended the event.  It was truly a once in a lifetime experience.

One of the kings from Nigeria (in the blue robe).  His body guards are in the blue and red outfits.  You can see the couch that will be set up for him to sit on in the left of the photo.  Also notice all the trumpeters announcing his presence behind him.
President Boni Yayi (in the black suit with his hand raised).  He passed right in front of where we were sitting.

Lots of opulent robes and outfits

The local bariba princes and kings performed examples of their horsemanship.  The bariba are renowned horsemen. 

A group of bariba horsemen

It wouldn't be a Beninese funeral without t-shirts and other favors!  I got one of those t-shirts.

One of the horsemen waiting on his horse

Friday, March 7, 2014

February 24 - What Peace Corps is Like Now

Was the last post I wrote really about Ramadan?  It’s certainly been a while.  I remember during our Peace Corps staging how we were told that you find lots of first year blogs online, about all the struggles of getting ones service started, but the writing falls off sharply once volunteers get into their second year.  I guess I’ve fallen into that trend.  So many things have happened that have made me think “what a good blog post topic!”  But that’s as far as the ideas have gotten.  So to get things going again, I’ll write about a very simple topic – what is Peace Corps like now, 4 months since I last wrote, and 6 months until the official end of my service?


1.       Peace Corps is Comfortable
It doesn't feel like a major accomplishment to get through a day now.  Sure, I have hard days - but it's sort of the same as having a hard day back in Boston, or in college - just a tough day in a place where I'm used to being, where I'm pretty comfortable.  I know how things work here, even if they are still sometimes frustrating.  I know what to expect.

2.       Peace Corps is Busy
I have a planner full of appointments, and slow days are a treat.  I may not be running around 8 hours a day, but I have a lot going on.  I'm working on a latrine project, and have a girl's club, and work in the garden, and do Peer Support network activities, and am helping design a visual aid about rice growing to be used all over West Africa, and organizing a Take our Daughters to Work event in Parakou, and... a whole lot.  I never, never expected Peace Corps to be so full of activity. 

3.       Peace Corps can go from frustrating to unbearably beautiful all in 24 hours

Last night, I was sitting on my bed in my sweaty hot house, reading – my front door was closed which means I’m done being public for the day, either asleep or getting close to it.  But some people were staying at my concession who aren’t usually there, and a few of them were gathered outside my open window – someone whispered “anasara” (white person/foreigner) in the window and I’m pretty sure they were peeking in at me through the curtains.  Frustrated at not having any privacy, I got upset and slammed my shutters shut, making them laugh and say “Gorado’s angry” in Fulani.  I lay there stewing and feeling bad about having gotten upset for a while before I fell asleep. 

This morning, after attending the morning service at the Assembly of God church, I had to go on a long, long motorcycle ride to Basso, a village about 50k away, to help with a survey in their garden.  We ended up leaving around 11:40, and even though being on a moving motorcycle helped the sun was blazing and it was HOT.  And the road was dusty, dusty.  My shirt was made of a fine mesh material, and my arms under the sleeves were covered with tiny specks of dust that had worked its way through the fabric.  15k into our trip, my motorcycle stopped and the driver went into a store to get something.  I was feeling frustrated, standing there in the sun, but soon he came back with two ice-cold bags of water, one for me.  (Water is often sold in machine-sealed bags here).  It was so cold, it was hard to drink fast, and I could feel the coldness inside me long after I’d finished drinking.  It felt so good. 

When we finally got to Basso, hot, hot, hot and dusty, I realized that it was their market day.  Parched again, I had my motorcycle stop at the market before going to the garden so we could look for something cold to drink.  We found some lukewarm bottles of soda – one orange Fanta and one Sprite – and I bought them for the two of us.  A fair exchange for my cold bag of water earlier.  I gulped down my Fanta at the garden – soda was never so good as it is here.  We had to stop by market on our way back to return the glass bottles.  Once there, my motorcycle said he had to go pray (it was around 2:00), and so I sat down in the shade next to the soda seller to wait for him to return.  The Basso market was beautiful and spacious, and full of Fulani, men in blue tunics and checkered scarves with swords on their shoulders, women in colorful outfits trimmed with lace, brightly striped shawls, coins woven into their hair.  Everyone was moving slowly like the mid-day heat demands, and it all seemed so graceful.  It’s hard to describe how happy I felt to be there, sitting next to the soda seller, watching her barter with the beautifully-dressed Fulani woman who was trying to get a good price for the skin lotion the woman also sold.  It was all so beautiful, such a wonderful place to be.  When my motorcycle driver finally returned, I almost wanted to thank him for making me wait.  (Of course I didn’t, since he has a way of being hours late and doesn’t need to be encouraged.)  But I was so grateful to have been there, and so happy that this is all part of my life. 

I guess in sharing this 24-hour period I mean to say that Peace Corps hasn’t changed that much.  It’s still up and down, but the wonderful, sweet, inspiring moments are the ones that stick with you.  24 hours ago, I was craving privacy, my own insulated world, the right to be alone with no one staring at me.  But on our way back from Basso, we passed a fancy white jeep with development workers from one agency or another, one of them American or European, passing through Basso on the way to somewhere – and I was glad I didn’t have the privacy of my own fancy jeep.  I’m sure there’s no one to stare in their windows, wherever they stay – but they also don’t have the pleasure of being stranded in a beautiful market stall like I was, with no choice but to slow down and appreciate where I was. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

19 Sept - Ramadan in Peonga

I’ve been in Benin for a bit more than a year now.  That means, that I’m experiencing holidays and seasons for the second time.  Last year, when I went for my two week post visit, my community (and all Muslim communities around the world) was fasting for Ramadan.  It was the end of the fast, and my host mother wasn’t fasting so it didn’t really impact my life much.  I ate and drank throughout the day as usual.  This year, however, I was in village for pretty much the entire fast.  I knew I wasn’t going to fast for the entire month, but I learned that children learn how to fast by doing one or two days at a time.  Early on during Ramadan (which lasted this year from July 9-August 7), I asked Nafisa (the 10-year-old) if she was fasting.  “Not today,” she said.  “But I am going to fast tomorrow.”  So I decided I’d try it the next day too.

Some background for those not all that familiar with Islam and with how Ramadan works: fasting for a month doesn’t mean you don’t eat or drink at all for the entire time.  The fast applies to daylight hours only.  So during Ramadan, those get up early before dawn to eat and drink, and then usually go to the mosque to pray.  Then they don’t eat or drink the entire day, until sunset.  At sunset they break the fast by drinking something, and then eat.  There are certain things, like oranges or dates, which are particularly traditional for breaking the fast*.

The night before my first day of fasting, I cooked extra dinner to set aside and filled up a large bottle of water to be ready for me the next morning.  I wasn’t exactly sure of the right time to eat in the morning, but I knew it was before dawn – so I set my alarm clock for around 4:45.  Early the next morning, I was woken by the call to prayer at the closest mosque – at 3:30 in the morning!  Was it time to get up?  I lit my kerosene lamp and opened my front door, and there was no sign of movement from anyone else in my compound.  It sounds silly, but I wanted them to know I’d gotten up – otherwise they might not believe I was really doing the fast correctly!  So I walked around a bit with my lantern, then sat, tired, in my front room waiting for time to pass.  By about 4:15 my tiredness was getting the best of me, even though they still didn’t seem to be up, so I ate and drank my morning meal and went back to bed.

This ended up being my pattern on days that I fasted.  Get up and eat and drink a bit before 5 (the 3:30 call to prayer was an anomaly), go back to bed to get up again at 7, my usual time.  I’d try to do my most active things, like working in the garden or studying Fulani with my tutor, in the morning.  Rest during the middle of the day, then maybe go out again in the evening.  In my village, everyone broke the fast at 7 pm.  On days that I was fasting, my compound gave me roasted corn, bouillie (porridge), and other delicious things right at 7.  And kids went from house to house selling additional snacks for breaking the fast; here are some cute boys who sold me peanuts one night:

As I’ve mentioned before, greetings are very important in my community.  “How’s your family?”  “How’s the heat?”  “How’s the rain?” During Ramadan, another greeting was added – “How’s the fast?”  On days I was fasting, it was nice to be able to reply – “The fast is going well.”  “Are you really fasting?”  “Yes, today I’m fasting.  But not tomorrow, I don’t know how to do it every day!”  It made me feel closer to my community, and many people seemed to really appreciate it.  “You try everything!”  I was told.  As someone working here, it was good for me to experience a bit of it firsthand.  It’s one thing to be told that meetings should be kept short in the afternoons because everyone is tired from fasting, and another thing to know how that part of the day feels.  Of course it is very different to do the entire fast.  I got a break every few days, which makes a big difference.  But I’m very glad I tried it like I did.  

Like many people in America, I have almost never had the experience of not eating when I was hungry.  If we’re only slightly hungry, or even if we’re bored, we reach for a snack.  So ironically, the hardest part of fasting was remembering not to eat. The first day, a kid came to my door to offer me some roasted corn in the afternoon.  I almost ate it before I remembered!   One day, I actually did forget.  I was in the garden, and some kids were looking at my cucumber plant.  “Do you eat that?” they asked.  “Yes, try it!”  I picked a cucumber and cut it up with my pocketknife to share, eating half myself before I remembered.  So that afternoon, when people asked me if I was fasting, I had to tell the truth – I was, but then I forgot!  Everyone got a big kick out of that, and it became a joke for the rest of Ramadan.  “What about today?  Are you fasting, or did you forget?”

Unfortunately, I had to miss the big end of Ramadan celebration since I was at a girl’s camp in Parakou for the last week.  But I did get a new Ramadan outfit!  I’ve mentioned Habilou in other blog posts, the baby who is officially my “husband” in village, according to a joke with my women’s group.  I was over at his family’s house (they are some of my favorite people in village), and a man came by selling fabric.  All the women went over to browse the selection, and I went to look to.  “Hey mom” I said to my “mother in law”, Habilou’s mother, “Are you going to buy me some fabric?”  “Sure, which one do you like?”  she said.  I pointed to one with butterflies, thinking we were just joking around the whole time.  But then she actually bought it for me, “from Habilou”!  I was really touched she would buy fabric for me.  Apparently, it is traditional for husbands to buy their wives fabric at the end of Ramadan since the wives have been working hard to make good end-of-fast meals every evening.  When I was told this, I pointed out that I hadn’t cooked for Habilou once – but was told that’s ok, he wasn’t fasting anyway.  

When I had my outfit made, I asked the tailor to make a little shirt for Habilou as a surprise.  It was a big hit with his family!  Here’s a picture of the two of us in our Ramadan outfits.  

*Since I’m not a Muslim, and since I’ve learned about Ramadan mainly by observing others in my community (most of which don’t speak French), I’m not a very accurate source for information.  There could easily be mistakes in this.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

July 15- Months 9 and 10 Work Post

I’ve been in Benin for a bit more than a year now, an official volunteer after training for exactly 10 months.  It’s hard to believe that it’s been so long.  I celebrated my one year arrival in country anniversary, June 27, in the best way I could imagine – welcoming the new group of 52 volunteers to Benin.  Myself and another volunteer were selected to be their trainers during orientation week.  It was a hectic time, running around making sure everyone got to the various interviews with program staff, had headshots taken, signed paperwork, got food to eat… all while answering question after question.  The new volunteers are wonderful, and their enthusiasm renewed my excitement for being here as well.  This is really a pretty neat thing we’re doing.  For now I’m back in post, but I’ll be traveling back south (where all the training takes place) in about a month to do technical training with the Environment volunteers. 

In village, the days of sitting around and wondering what to do are a distant memory.  Now, I’m always having to decide which projects to keep rolling and which to leave on the back burner.  The ones that are my priorites right now: a latrine-building project and a rice test plot. 


The first step in getting a home ready for a new volunteer in my area of Benin is often building their latrine.  This was the case for me; I was the very first person to use mine.  Interest in latrines has been growing, and some community members independently contacted my counterpart asking his advice on how to build them for their families.  We’ve decided to apply for Peace Corps funding to do a latrine project.  The community has formed a committee to help direct the project, seven individuals representing all the different ethnic groups in Peonga.  We’ve gotten a quote from a mason of the costs to build a latrine, and my counterpart and I took a “latrine tour” to count how many people currently have them and see which models are the most popular.  The next step is to meet with the committee to establish the details of the project, such as how much each person will be expected to contribute towards costs, and then I have a lot of writing to do to finish the grant application.  What I like most about this project is how it has been very community led.  I’ve been doing my best to ask lots of questions in meetings, and people have been eager to share ideas for how things should go.

SRI Rice

I’ve already written a bit about the training I attended about the System of Rice Intensification a few months ago.  Well, the rice season is starting in village, and I recently spent the morning measuring out three 10mx10m test plots with Goropeno, the farmer with whom I’m testing the system.  He’s collecting manure to apply to some of the plots, and we’ll be planting soon.  There’s a lot of interest in this rice system among other volunteers as well, and I’m actually on my way to a nearby volunteer’s post right now to help him set up a test plot.  If you’d like to learn more about SRI there is lots of information available online, for example at this site:

And other projects…

Of course there is other work going on as well.  I continue to work in my garden plot, and just re-planted a lot of it with things like green beans, beets, cucumbers, and the long shot: peas.  I know peas are a cool-weather plant, but it seems pretty cool to me right now – or maybe it’s just no longer unbearably hot.  And I bought the seeds in Benin (albeit in Aravan, the expensive WalMart-like store for expats in Cotonou).  If they work it will mean amazing culinary adventures are in store – I’ll keep you posted!  Pretty much all of what goes on in my garden plot is experimenting.  It may not be making the biggest difference in my community, but it’s fun – and if I stumble on something that works really well I can easily share it. 

In earlier posts I mentioned my “female role model” speakers series I planned in Peonga.  It was a great success!  I’ll post photos in another post.  I’m going to keep being involved in girl’s education efforts.  I’m bringing two girls from Peonga to camp GLOW (girls leading our world) in Parakou, a week-long sleepaway camp.   And I’m getting started on planning the Take our Daughters to Work program in Parakou for next year.

There’s also an environmental camp in Parakou this summer, and I’ll be bringing 4 kids.  I chose them by holding an essay contest at the secondary school.  Each student was asked to describe why it’s important to protect the environment, and then state an environmental problem in Peonga and propose a solution.  I chose two kids from the 6e (youngest) grade, and one each from the two older grades (5e and 4e).  Two are boys and two are girls.  They seem like really neat kids, and I look forward to getting to know them better at camp and then work together next year – perhaps with an environment club. 

And finally, I’ve found a new Fulani language tutor and am starting language classes again.  My new tutor, Vivian, is terrific.  She teaches Fulani women how to read and write in another city during the year, but is back in village for summer.  I’ve already had three lessons with her, and my language is progressing a lot.

I’m sure there’s much I’ve forgotten, but that’s a taste of what I’m doing for now.  More later!

Saturday, June 15, 2013

June 15 - The American Supper and Homework Club, and other adventures with Nafisa

Off and on, I have mentioned a 10-year-old girl named Nafisa in my posts.  As the best French speaker in my concession, she’s often my translator.  She also brings me my drinking water, carrying a big “bidon” (yellow carton) of water from the pump to my house on her head for 100f (about 20 cents) whenever I need it.  Child labor might be frowned upon in America, but when I asked the mother of my concession how I should get water this is what she suggested – and I do pay twice the going rate for water.  Nafisa loves the spending money.  She is also my “bouncer” – when I walk by the elementary school and am mobbed by screaming children, Nafisa runs into the crowd of kids and clears them away, shoving and pulling them by their uniforms.  Early in my service, it sometimes felt strange that my best friend was a 10-year-old.  But I’m used to it by now. 
Nafisa may be able to carry heavier loads on her head than me, work harder than me in the fields, and speak better French than any of the many adults in our concession.  But she still is 10, which I am sometimes reminded of in silly conversations we have.  Take her fixation with socks, for example.

One day several months ago, she asked me to buy her socks.  Socks?  I told her she wouldn’t be able to wear socks with the flip-flops she wears.  Yes, I will, she countered.  She said she wanted socks because, if you wear socks, you will be first place when they do running races at school.  “If you don’t have socks, you will be left behind,” she explained.  Perhaps socks, instead of sneakers, really are the secret to fast running.  When I ran the Parakou marathon, I did finish at about the same time as a young Beninese woman who was wearing only socks, no shoes at all.  I beat her, however, so I think the shoes do help. 

I did not end up buying Nafisa socks, even though we saw a beautiful brown pair with polka dots the next time we were at the market.  I thought it would be best for her to learn to save the money she got from fetching water and buy her own – and she did buy some, a little while later. 
Nafisa is my sidekick in a lot that I do.  One day, I wanted to walk to Boa Gando (a nearby village) to build some mud stoves.  I invited her to come along, and we brought my dirty laundry with us, stopping at a stream on the way to wash it.  We saw a tiny crocodile in the stream, and she taught me its name in Fulani: “Node”.  She also climbed a tree to get pick some fruit for me – a dry, hard fruit that I haden’t eaten before.  Nafisa had a great time making the mud stoves with me, and on the way home she talked enthusiastically about how she’ll be the one to build mud stoves for people when I’m gone.  She planned to make money doing it, first asking 200 f, then raising the price to 300f, then 500f – quite the business woman! 

Another favorite "Nafisa experience" was when we were doing laundry together and she saw the fitted sheet with blue roses that was issued to me by Peace Corps.  "That's perfect!"  she said.  Impressed by the beauty of the sheet, she told me I could make a lot of money if I set it up as a backdrop in the market and charged people money to take their photo in front of it.  There was a party in the market with a band the next day, and indeed there were several photo booths with photographers taking photos in front of brightly patterned backgrounds.  I didn't feel like going into the photo booth business, but as a compromise we tied my sheet up in our concession and spent an afternoon taking photos of each other. 

Nafisa has two good friends, Alia and Abiba.  Many months ago, the three of them started coming to my house in the evening to do homework.  I never invited them, they just started coming spontaneously.  Often I’d be cooking dinner when they came, and I’d share whatever I made – no matter how weird.  They eat it politely, even if it doesn’t have enough hot pepper for their taste.

At first they would bring their own notebooks from school and study their lessons.  Then, I started to borrow French-language picture books from a French friend of mine who lives in Kalale and works with the schools.  The first book I read with the girls was called “Emilie fait Pipi au Lit” – “Emily wets the bed.”  It took a bit of creativity, including pantomime, to teach them what the word “pipi” meant – but once they got it this book was their favorite! 

One night they brought their little slates and chalk, and we added math facts to our study sessions.  In school a lot of focus is on rote learning, and they do a lot of guessing – so I’ve been working to make sure they really understand what addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division mean.  One of them often comes up with a larger number than she started with when doing subtraction, but we’re working on it.

As much fun as the French picture books I borrow are, they are all written for children in France – and so the vocabulary isn’t always familiar to the girls.  It took me several weeks to realize they didn’t know the word “lit” – “bed” – because they always sleep on mats on the floor.  So now, the most recent addition to our study evenings is a book we’re making together.  It’s called “Gorado et ses Amis” – “Gorado and her friends.”  Every night I’m adding a few pages to it, and either I or they draw the illustrations.  So far, I have described my house and family in America.  The girls are very excited to meet Mom and Dad when they come to Benin, and carefully copied the names of all my family members – “Mike, Nancy, Nathan, Bethany” – from the book onto their slates.  They’ve learned that Dad likes to garden, Mom likes to draw, and Nathan can run fast and play the guitar. They helped draw a picture of Dad’s garden, patterning it after our garden here in Peonga with drip irrigation and lots of moringa trees.  As the book progresses, I plan to add the adventures I’ve had with the girls.  It’s fun because it relates to them, so they really try to understand what the story means instead of just copying the sounds of the words.

Here’s a picture of our most recent study session.  Sometimes I’m tired in the evenings, but it’s hard to say no to a group of 10 and 11 year old girls who come over during summer vacation to say “please, can we work on math and reading?  Please?!?”     

June 15 - Why Peace Corps is Hard

A lot of you have probably heard the “Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love” slogan about Peace Corps.  I’ve been here about a year now – one year on June 27 – and have done my best to share the experience through this blog.  I think most of my posts have confirmed the “love” part of that slogan – I do love this job.  It’s a truly amazing experience.  Whenever I leave or return to my village, I ride a motorcycle along beautiful red dirt roads, through fields that are now turning green again, past herds of white cattle and groups of brightly-dressed girls and women carrying big basins of water on their heads.  Dozens of people – the girls carrying water, men working in the fields or relaxing in the shade of trees – wave and call out my name.  “Gorado!  Gorado!”  The name I’ve been given means “One who has been sent from far away to achieve a mission, and returns with a good result.”  What a vote of confidence!  I have spent much of my life daydreaming over the photos and stories on the Peace Corps website, and now I’m taking the photos and living the stories.  I dance at fetiche ceremonies, walk through the rain with laughing groups of women to attend baptisms, get my hands dirty working in my garden. 

Yes, I love Peace Corps.  But the whole slogan is true, not just the “love” part – Peace Corps is tough.  It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  And if I really want to share this experience accurately, I should share what makes my experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Peonga, Benin in 2013 hard. 

I wrote at the beginning of this post about the dozens of people who joyfully call my name as they see me walking through village.  Children especially – I can never walk anywhere without a group of children running to join me, carry my bag, and fight over who gets to hold my hand.  When I’m in a good mood, which I often am, this is wonderful.  I love all the kids, I love greeting everyone.  But if I’m not in a good mood, I’m still supposed to smile, greet people, hold hands with the kids.  As I’m sitting in my house, people often poke their heads in the front door to look at me and say hi.  Often it’s great to have visitors, and I greet them cheerfully.  But sometimes I don’t feel up to it, sometimes I’d just like to read in peace.  It can be hard to always be on display, watched, talked about. 
It was especially hard recently, when my concession (the group of houses I live in, arranged around a courtyard) was full of visitors for a big fetiche ceremony.  Being in my little hut felt like living in a zoo exhibit.  When I got up each day and took my morning walk to the latrine, there were always lots of people watching me.  The best example of how little privacy there was – I was cooking in my living room one day (I don’t have a kitchen) when  a woman I didn’t know stepped in to say hi.  We greeted each other, then she pulled my chair over into a corner and said “I’m going to take a nap.”  And she did – she fell asleep right there in my chair!  In Peace Corps, you get all the chances you want to smile at people, practice your greetings, just generally get attention.  You also get all these things when you don’t want them.    

Another challenge, the one that’s really on my mind right now - it’s hard to know how to balance village life and the volunteer community.  When my father was in the Peace Corps in Nepal, he lived in the jungle in a tent.  Letters took months to reach him.  To reach the capital, and spend time with other volunteers, he had to take a multi-day trip (that went through India!)  Letters may still take months to reach me, but a lot about Peace Corps has changed since the 60s.  Communication, and therefore relationships within the volunteer community, are one big change.  I, and every volunteer in Benin, have a cell phone.  We can be in touch with each other instantly.  Many have e-mail at their posts.  I don’t, but can access it whenever I’m at my regional “work station” in the city of Parakou.  This increased communication make it easy to collaborate, which is terrific.  Before I built my first mud stove, I called a more experienced volunteer and had him talk me through it.  When I learned about a week of training about drip irrigation to be held at my garden, I sent a text message to my fellow environment volunteers and one made the trip down to attend the training with a member of his community.  He’s now working to implement a similar system at his post.

 In talking with Dad, I’ve learned that volunteers definitely collaborate more than they used to.  There are lots of committees – to work on gender issues or food security issues, to provide peer support to new volunteers, to help Peace Corps administrative staff determine policies.  There are lots of optional trainings, on topics like nutrition, live fencing, beekeeping, gardening – very relevant topics.  As volunteers, we have lots of chances to help one another.  This all sounds good, and it is good in a lot of ways.  But then take a look at my June.  This month, I have three separate trips to Cotonou, the capital.  The first trip, last week, was to attend training for the Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment committee (GenEQ).  I’ll be a member next year, as co-coordinator of the Take Our Daughters to Work program in Parakou.  Right now, I’m in Parakou on my way down to Cotonou again for Training of Trainers – I’ve been selected as one of the trainers for the new group of volunteers arriving in June.  The following week, I go to Cotonou again for Peer Support Network training, and to welcome the new group of volunteers when they arrive.   Because it takes so long (usually 2 days) to make the trip to Cotonou or back, I only have one or two days in village between each trip.  I’ve barely arrived when I leave again. 

This month is certainly an extreme case, and I really have no right to complain – I’ve done it to myself, I applied for each of these opportunities, and I really believe in the value of each of them.  I’ve always been one to volunteer for lots of extra-curricular things, such as clubs and student government in college.  But it’s one of the challenges of Peace Corps, at least today, at least in Benin.  How do you balance it?  Maybe in the past volunteers were dropped into their villages and essentially left there for two years, completely immersed in their communities whether they liked it or not.  But today, if you want that experience, you need to make it happen for yourself.  Some people do.  My closest volunteer, who I really admire, does her very best to spend at least a month in village between trips out.  I hope that by participating in all these committees and volunteer collaboration opportunities I don’t end up having missed out on the Peace Corps experience that she’s having, which is the one I think we all imagine.  I feel like I’m being useful, but am I being a Peace Corps volunteer?  For my entire life there will be plenty of committees to join and meetings to attend – but there is only about one year left to spend in Peonga.   

My Dad told me, before I came, that Peace Corps is what you make it.  This is true of a lot of jobs and experiences, but especially of Peace Corps.  Really, the fact that you determine your own experience so much is what makes Peace Corps hard.  Volunteers talk about dealing with guilt regularly – from the little guilt of “Should I be reading this book or learning more Fulani by speaking with my neighbor?  Why did I lose it and yell at those people who were staring at me?” to the bigger guilt of “Am I doing Peace Corps right?”  But of course I know that guilt really does no good.  So I guess I’ll just do the best I can to make the most of my days, in post, in Cotonou, at meetings, with other volunteers, with Beninese – and hope I'm happy with what I've made of my experience when I'm done.