Friday, August 31, 2012
August 28 - The Day I Walked to Boa
I could easily write pages and pages about my two week visit to Peonga, and maybe that’s why I haven’t written much yet – it’s hard to choose what to tell. How can I sum up an entire place? Every day in Peonga was filled with some moments of inspiration, heartwarming interactions, learning and accomplishment, and other moments of extreme boredom and lack of direction and purpose. Site visit was easy and hard, exciting and slow, joyful and frustrating. One afternoon I got a phone call from a current volunteer in Peace Corps Benin’s peer support network, to ask how I was doing. I was sitting under a beautiful mango tree and feeling great, gushing about how great my site was to her over the phone. Just five hours later, after having spent a long evening sitting at my host family’s boutique (convenience store) with nothing to do, all the conversation around me in Fulani which I couldn’t understand, not interacting with anyone, I had a tearful phone conversation with someone from home about how frustrated I was and how I felt no sense of direction. Both conversations were completely true. The hardest part of post visit was feeling purposeful and filling my days while adjusting to the much, much slower village pace of life. This might not sound so hard, but there were times that it really got to me. The most wonderful aspects of post, on the other hand, were the breathtaking beauty of my village, and the wonderful connections I made with so many people.
One of my favorite days was August 11, the day I walked to Boa. That morning I called my counterpart to see if we were going to meet, and he told me he was in a neighboring town but would come right over to talk about my work. Having learned from experience that this meant I had at least an hour or so to wait, I decided to leave for a walk. I had the vague goal of walking to my future house in the village, and so I took that road. When I got near the big central tree in the village where old men often gather to sit and chat, I ran into a member of the women’s gardening group. She asked me if I was going to Aisatou’s house – Aisatou, who I had met before, is another member of the group. Why not, I thought – so I let her lead me to Aisatou’s house. She was happy to see me. Several other women were there as well, and through a very challenging conversation in Fulani that involved quite a bit of pantomime and the help of a few French-speaking adolescent girls, I learned that Aisatou and the other women were leaving for Boa to give their greetings to the Chief of the Arrondissement, whose mother had passed away that morning. Did I want to come? I had been so craving activity – of course I said yes. I made a quick call to my counterpart to ask about the change of plans, and then set off, on foot, to Boa.
Boa is seven kilometers from Peonga. A long walk, but I figured if the women could do it then so could I. We passed several motorcycles on the way, including some people that I knew. They were surprised to see me making the walk. I was offered a few rides, but couldn’t accept since I didn’t have my helmet. I’m glad I couldn’t, in a way – it felt so good to be doing something with the women, the way that they do it. If they have to get somewhere, they walk. None of the women in our little walking group knew any French, and my list of greetings in Fulani only goes so far. They kept trying to teach me phrases, but their method of teaching Fulani involves saying something for me to repeat. When I pronounce it right, they say something like “great, you’ve got it!” – but I have no idea what the phrase means. Regardless, it was a lot of fun to be with them. These are the women I will spend two years working, laughing, and joking with – and they wanted to spend time with me. The walk was beautiful. Some of the photos I posted about a week ago are from the road to Boa – it’s red dirt, through green countryside dotted with trees. It felt good to be walking to somewhere, not just walking around to take up time. I was on an adventure.
When we got to Boa, we went to give our regards to the Chef d’Arrondissement. I’d met him before – he is officially my supervisor. He was surprised to see me, and especially surprised I think that I’d come on foot. We sat and spoke with him a while, and then went outside in his yard to spend time with the other women who were there. It was drizzling, so we gathered under a tree. I was given a low stool to sit on. When the rain seemed to have let up a bit, we decided to head home. But it being the rainy season, we hadn’t even gotten out of Boa before the rain started up again. We took refuge in an open hut with a roof made of sticks, where a woman sells spices. After a bit the rain was coming down too hard and the roof was very leaky, so we moved to a one room tin-roofed hut nearby. A family was there. It looked like the hut is usually used for shea butter making. We sat on benches, with the family, mostly in silence. I showed my photo album from home that I carried with me, always a hit. At least an hour passed. Someone was sent to buy a plate of rice and sauce for me to eat somewhere in the village, since I was the only one there not fasting for Ramadan. It rained hard. Once again, they wanted to find someone on a motorcycle to take me home, and I explained that I couldn’t because I didn’t have my helmet. So we waited some more. The waiting was getting a little old, even though it was an adventure, and I imagined how great it would be if someone could invent a collapsible motorcycle helmet that I could carry around with me in my purse.
Finally, after a while, the rain was coming down a little less hard and a sweater and umbrella were found for me to borrow, so the women felt fine about heading out again. The walk home, in the rain, was even more of an adventure than the walk to Boa. The road wasn’t a road any more, it was a river. Covered in water up to my ankles, I wouldn’t have been able to guess that it was a road if I didn’t already know it. You couldn’t see the bottom, and it just looked like a stream winding its way through the fields. We walked along the “banks” most of the time, our flip flops getting stuck in the wet sand.
When we finally got home, I went back to the house to change out of my wet clothes and take what I felt was a well-deserved rest/nap. It was not to be, however. The room I was staying in had a door that opened up directly to the outside yard, and like usual I left it open to keep the room from being too hot. A cloth curtain was drawn closed across the door. I was lying on my bedwhen I heard someone call “kokoko” (the Beninese verbal equivalent of knocking) at the door. I opened the curtain; a young girl (probably about 13) was there. She spoke French, and told me that she’d come to greet me. I thanked her. She asked about the walk to Boa, and said “See, it wasn’t that far.” I realized that she was Aisatou’s daughter, and had been at her house that morning. I was eager to get back to my rest/nap, so I told her I was tired. “I’m tired, I’m going to take a nap, ok?” She said yes, but made no move to leave. Not really sure what to do, I pulled the curtain closed, about an inch from her face since she was leaning on the doorframe. I lay down on my bed, and could see her shadow still in the doorframe. I pretended to nap; she fidgeted, cleared her throat, shifted positions, and sang to herself, but did not leave. After a few minutes, she asked “Madame, do you want to go for a walk in the village?” I sort of wanted to take the nap, but I had really been wanting more activity in my days –be careful what you wish for. So I got out of bed and went for the walk with my new friend.
After that day, I got a bit of a reputation in village as the girl who walked to Boa. People I’d see while strolling around Peonga would say long Fulani sentences I didn’t understand that included the word “Boa”, I would pantomime walking, and we would laugh together. I later learned from Devon, the closest volunteer who lives about an hour away, that news of my adventure on foot has reached as far as her village. It was the perfect example of how serendipitous, unplanned opportunities can come up in Peace Corps. I left for a brief stroll around Peonga, and ended up with a day-long adventure and chance to bond with members of my women’s group, build up “street cred” in village, and establish a good relationship with the Chief of the Arrondissement. He invited me to attend the formal funeral a few days later, where I gave him an envelope with a small amount of money (the traditional way to give your respects at events like that). He later came by the boutique to thank me specifically for the support, and gave me a large bag of eggs as a gift.