In case your map doesn’t include that level of detail, my site is located in northeastern Benin. We learned our sites on Friday, and based on my info packet it seems like Peace Corps has given me my dream post. Here’s a summary of what Peounga’s like and what I’ll (theoretically) be doing there:
Agriculture and Environment
The area around Peounga is prominently agricultural – main crops are cotton, corn, and sorghum. Cattle herding/raising is equally important. My site is very close to a large national forest (the Three Rivers Forest) as well. The northeast of Benin is predominantly flat savannah, drier than the south. Temperature-wise, it varies quite dramatically depending on the season. It can be as high as 120 in the hot season (eek!), and as low as the 40s or 50s in the cooler season. Fortunately for me, the hot season isn’t until the spring – so I have time to prepare myself. Or at least get used to the idea.
The main languages in Peounga are Peul and Bariba. Traditionally, the Peul are nomadic herders and the Bariba are farmers. According to my Bariba teacher, today most Peul communities include some members who farm and others who herd. According to my info packet, “PCV (me!)should speak Peul. Bariba is a plus.” I’m very excited to learn Peul, and keep using and working on my Bariba. In learning about Benin, I thought it would be very cool to have a site/assignment that involved working with and learning about the Peuls, but I never imagined that it would actually happen.
I will be the first Peace Corps volunteer at this site. My primary focus will probably be working with women’s gardening groups in Peounga and other nearby villages. There are a primary and a secondary school in Peounga, and there may be opportunities to start an environmental club or do other environmental education activities. My info packet also mentions working with the national forest, and working to increase school attendance in the Gando and Peul communities, especially for young girls. According to my Bariba teacher, the term “Gando” refers to Bariba individuals who were raised in Peul families. In the past, children would sometimes be born to Bariba families in circumstances considered “inauspicious.” The families of these children wouldn’t keep them, giving them to Peul families to raise.
Getting to Peounga and Getting Around
As you may have gathered, Peounga is off the beaten track. I’ll be going for a two-week site visit soon, and getting there will involve a roughly 8-hour bus ride to Parakou (Benin’s second largest city). Peace Corps discourages traveling at night, so those of us going to Kalale commune will overnight in Parakou. The next day it will probably take an additional 5 ish hours to get to my future home. As I mentioned before, there are no paved roads in Kalale. On my map of Benin, like on most maps, there are several categories of roads. There are a few major paved highways, like the one to Parakou. In the unpaved category, there are (roughly translated from French) “principal road that is always passable,” “secondary road that is always passable,” “seasonal road or track/path,” and “other track/path suitable for motor vehicles.” Peounga is located on a road in the last category. I’m not quite sure what it means for a road to be below seasonal, but still suitable for motor vehicles - probably it’s just in bad/ almost unpassable condition all the time, not just in certain seasons. Either way, it will probably be slow going. When living there, my primary mode of public transportation will be zemidjans (motorcycle taxis). And, I imagine I’ll get good use of my mountain bike. There are several villages around Peounga where I’ll probably do work, all within 7-10 km or less. Time to work on those biking muscles!
In the Peace Corps, absolutely nothing is certain. My work especially could end up being very different from what’s described in the packet – especially since I’m opening a new site. My assignment is very self-directed and unstructured. Especially during the first year, getting projects going will probably be slow. Community members may wonder why I’m there. I may wonder why I’m there. But even if nothing about my job is certain, I can tell that there are many, many interesting things to learn about and explore in Peounga – Bariba and Peul culture, the balance between farming and herding, national forest use and management in Benin, gardening, issues with girl’s education… so I’m happy!
And To Reassure Any Who May Be Worried…
And lest you be worried about my living conditions in Peounga, let me compare my future home to my previous residence in Franklin, West Virginia.
Peounga has 8,000 residents. Franklin has 700.
Peounga has cell phone coverage with two different carriers. Our house in Franklin has no cell phone coverage, from any carrier.
In Peounga, I will probably be able to have internet through the cell phone network. Our house in Franklin has no internet.
So I will clearly take a step up in life with this move to Peounga.And I am currently taking reservations from all who enjoy riding motorcycles over rutted dirt roads, are prepared to sleep on my floor, and wish to visit…