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. 

Friday, May 31, 2013

Mid-March - My day as a Marché Mama*

My day as a Marché Mama*

In my Women’s Group Garden, we had a large public bed planted full of lettuce.  The produce from the public beds is meant to be sold for the profit of the group as a whole, to pay for things like supplies or repairs to the irrigation.  The only problem – not many people were coming to the garden to buy the lettuce, the women said it just doesn’t sell.  People aren’t much into salads here.  I was sure they were right, but wanted to find out just how hard it is to sell lettuce here.  So about a month and a half ago, I suggested that one of the women harvest a lot of lettuce from the public bed and bring it to our weekly market on Sunday to see if anyone would buy it.  I offered to go sit with the designated woman in the market to observe how things went.  Bana, my “host mother” from my concession and also a member of the gardening group, offered that her 10-year-old daughter Nafisa could sell the lettuce. 

Sunday came along.  I got back to my concession after church to find that they had harvested an enormous big metal basin of lettuce for the market, much more than I’d counted on.  We washed the lettuce together, and then I got things together for the market.  It felt sort of like packing for a picnic – I brought a colorful printed-cotton “pagne” (wrap skirt) to spread the lettuce on, an orange plastic bucket of water to sprinkle the lettuce with and keep it fresh, my umbrella in case it was too sunny, and my wooden stool to sit on.  Nafisa’s friends Alia and Abiba joined us as well, and we set off for the market.

From interning at Green String farm in the states, I learned a bit of how much work goes into taking part in a farmer’s market in the states.  You have to develop relationships with the people who organize the market, and pay to rent a stall, for example.  Anyone selling anything on the street in America needs a permit.  Not so in Benin; you just show up.  Lots of other people were already selling vegetables when we got to our market, but the girls chose a shady spot and we sat down on the ground with our lettuce.  As expected, business was not exactly brisk.  People were interested and asked what we were selling, but I did not get nearly as many stares as I expected.  Selling things in market is such a normal thing for women to do, that it wasn’t particularly odd that I the American was doing it too.  In fact, it probably seemed more odd to people that I was gardening and not bringing my vegetables to the market.

After a while with no takers, we moved to a busier spot in the market.  Little by little, we did sell some lettuce.  We were selling it in small bundles for 50 francs – about ten cents – and we only sold 800 f (about $1.75) worth in the three hours we spent in market.  I noticed some interesting things – most of the people who bought lettuce from us were educated men, probably those who had traveled or lived elsewhere.  Several of the people who stopped by asked how to prepare it – which made me decide to try making salads for my women’s group to demonstrate how it’s eaten.  Although business was slow, in the weeks following our market experiment it did seem that more and more people were stopping by the garden asking for lettuce.  Ironically, when people became interested in buying it, there was none left in the garden.  We’ll have to stagger our lettuce planting better next year to have a longer season.

Even just from a cultural perspective, it was interesting spending time as a “Marche Mama,” sitting on the ground to sell my vegetables for hours, instead of just being one of the customers breezing through the market on my way through village.  As a shopper in Benin, I’ve often bought something at the market only to find the vendor has no change.  I’ve given her my money and stood there, sometimes impatiently, as she says “there’s no change” and then sends a small child off somewhere to borrow change for me.  That day in the market, I found myself on the other side of that exchange – sending one of my assistant lettuce sellers off through the market to search for small change as a customer waited.  It was different, watching the bustle of the market from a vendor’s perspective.  It definitely showed me a new side of life in Peonga!

*”Marché” is the word for market in French, and the women who sell food at the market are often called Mamas

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

May 15- Month 8 work post (with video!)

Yes, I realize that there was no Month  7 work post – time has really started to fly!  Talking to other volunteers, we find it hard to believe that there was a time when it was a major victory to find enough to do to fill a day.  Here’s a summary of where I am work-wise:


Since my last work post, my garden has been a bit of an “emotional roller coaster.”  It peaked in a wonderful bounty of summer squash, cucumbers, melons, lettuce, greens, basil… I was feasting, and sending bags of produce to my neighboring volunteer.  But then, the bugs struck.  Everything grows faster in the African heat, but it also seems to get attacked harder.  I had a major infestation of aphids and others on my cucumbers and other plants, having to pull out a lot of them.  I tried preparing natural insecticides using Neem (a tree with oils in the leaves that deter bugs) but these work better as a preventative measure, and can’t get rid of an insect attack already well underway.  My green beans had a different problem – worms eating their roots and killing the whole plant.  In addition to the bugs, the heat made lots of my cantelopes split (although they were still edible).  And more recently, flies have started laying eggs in all my baby cantelopes and watermellons so they get filled with little worms and don’t grow. 

A sad story, true – but I recently cleared out most of the plants that were attacked and have re-planted new things.  The rainy season is starting, so the bug problems might be different now.  And I’m going to keep trying different natural pest control options.  Feel free to give suggestions! 

In the past two months, the students at our elementary school finished the fence for their school garden.  I worked with one of the classes to build the garden beds, and planted a seed nursery of lettuce with another class to transplant.  Unfortunately, none of the lettuce grew – the seeds I was using were pretty old.  There are only a few weeks left of school, but our current plan is to plant okra in the garden.  It may not ripen before the students leave for summer vacation, but perhaps the teachers who live near the school can enjoy it.  We’ll develop the garden really well next year! 

Mud Stoves

I’ve kept building them, recently making two for a teacher friend of mine and four for some women who live near the garden.  One of our goals when we build mud stoves is to teach people how to make them themselves, so they can do so when I’m no longer here.  My recent stove building experiences have been pretty successful in this way; when I came back to check on the stoves I built for my teacher friend, I found that she and others who live near her had built two more on their own! 


At the end of April/beginning of May, I got to attend a regional training about the “System of Rice Intensification” (SRI).  SRI is a rice-growing method developed in Madagascar that has been shown to increase yields.  Volunteers from Benin, Senegal, and the Gambia attended the training, along with Peace Corps staff from those countries – it was fun comparing notes on our Peace Corps experiences.  A highlight for me – one of the volunteers from Senegal is learning Fulani, and the Peace Corps staff members from Senegal and the Gambia were Fulani speakers!  There were lots of differences between their dialect and mine, but we could understand eachother and it really inspired me to work harder on my language learning.

After the regional training was over, my counterpart and a farmer from my village came to the training site for an informal one-day training in French, so they could see what I had learned.  We’re planning to install a test plot of SRI methods on the farmer’s land as soon as the rice season starts – any week now.  More about this later! 

Girl’s Education

At the end of April, I took a girl from my village to Cotonou, the capital, to participate in a “Take our Daughters to Work” event.  She met other girls from around Benin, and spent one day shadowing a professional woman in the workplace.  She had never traveled, and so really enjoyed the experience.  I will be leading efforts to expand this program to Parakou, the largest city in northern Benin, next year.

I am organizing a “speakers series” of professional women in Peonga this month.  This Wednesday and next, I will invite a variety of professional women to come meet with girls from Peonga’s primary and secondary schools and talk to them about the importance of staying in school.  The women will explain their own stories, why they stayed in school and how they got their current jobs.  As a gift to each speaker, we’ve printed t-shirts that read “Je Suis Une Mama Modele” – basically, I am a mama role-model.  I held a t-shirt design contest with the girls in the secondary school, and the girl with the winning design won a shirt herself.  I printed the shirts when I was in Cotonou for the Take our Daughters to Work trip.

That’s it for now, although I’m sure I’ve left a lot out.  And to give you a more visual picture of my work, here’s a short video of my garden (taken a few months ago, before the bug attacks).