Sunday, July 29, 2012

July 28 - Post Announcement!

For the next two years, I will be living in a two-room cement house with a tin roof, in a village of 8,000 with no electricity or running water. There are no paved roads in my entire commune (the Beninese equivalent of a county). Get out your detailed maps of Benin, and draw a big star with my name on it on…Peounga, Kalale Commune, Borgou District!

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!

A Disclaimer

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…

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

July 24 - I Get to Play Dress-up for Two Years Straight!

When I was little, “dress-up” was one of my favorite games.  I didn’t have the mass-produced, cheap satin Disney princess dresses; instead, all my dress-up costumes were real clothes that we got from thrift stores, hand-me-downs, or other sources.  There was a black-and-white former prom dress that I remember, several folky outfits that served for “little house on the prairie” reenactments, striped shirts that were great for pirates…and plenty home-made costumes from Halloween.  Dress-up morphed into full-blown living room theatre as I got older, the same costumes providing scope for historical plays based on the “American Girl” series and “Ranger Rick” stories about animals sharing environmental messages.   

 I distinctly remember worrying that I wouldn’t like to play dress-up any more when I grew up.  If I could go back in time, I would tell little six-year-old Bethany that she has nothing to worry about – I have successfully become an adult without loosing my love of dress-up.  And I’ve recently landed in the perfect setting for someone like me: West Africa.  Clothing here is all about bright colors and unique styles.  It’s possible to buy western-style shirts and other clothes, much of it used, but the majority of the outfits you’ll see on the street are locally-sewn out of brightly-patterned cotton cloth.  Many patterns are abstract, but I’ve seen ones with motifs of fish, birds, fruit, wrenches, computers, umbrellas, and families of chickens. Unlike in the United States, where it is very un-cool to run into someone else wearing the same outfit, in Benin people buy outfits out of matching fabric (or tissu) for all sorts of occasions – weddings, religious events, funerals, etc.   We’ve been told that, after speaking the language, wearing local clothing is one of the best actions we can take to become accepted by our communities.  

A little more than a week ago, my Bariba classmate Sarah and I went to the market with my very stylish host sister to buy tissu and get outfits made.  I ended up getting three different fabrics.  One, neon colors with umbrellas, was for a casual “pagne” to wear around the house.  A pagne is just two yards of fabric that women wear as a wrap-skirt whenever they’re dressing casually.  My second fabric, an abstract-looking pattern of flowers in blue, pink, and beige, was for a formal outfit to wear to church.  I have been attending mass with my family every Sunday, and church is a very formal affair here.  There are hundreds of people there, and every time I go I can count maybe one or two women at most wearing western-style clothing.  I only planned to get the pagne and the mass outfit, so my third fabric was the impulse buy.  I found a fabric with a pattern of little trees and hearts – and as an environment volunteer who may well be working with trees for the next two years, I had to have it!  My fantastic host sister did the bargaining for us, so we ended up getting all the fabric for a little more than $2 per yard.  (1,000 francs).

The next step was the tailor.  My sister called a tailor to come over to my house, and she brought photos of various clothing styles with her.  We chose photos for the styles we wanted, and then (with my host sister translating since the tailor didn’t speak French) discussed how to modify the styles.  With multiple languages being spoken and tailors own artistic sense, you never are completely sure what you’re going to get!  The sewing for two outfits and a hem on the pagne was about $14, or 7,000 francs.  Again, with bargaining help from my sister.

Our outifts were delivered on Friday!  It was very exciting to get the call from my host mom and rush home to try them on.  There to be sleevless, for example, the dress had sleeves - but all in all I'm pretty pleased with the results.   I’ve been having fun playing “dress-up” since then, modeling my “I love trees” dress at our weekend training session with the other volunteers, wearing my formal outfit to mass and living in my pagne when I’m at home.  I  look forward to more – it’s so cool to be somewhere I can wear outfits patterned with bright yellow umbrellas or featuring flared “mermaid” skirts in the name of cultural integration.  Fashion-wise, these two years are going to be great fun.  

 Sarah and I model our formal outfits.  More clothing photos to come when the internet obliges!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

July 19 - Mental Math in the Marketplace, and Other Quirks of the Bariba Language

In one of my earlier posts, I mentioned that I’m spending the first several weeks of Peace Corps Training here in Porto Novo learning Bariba, a language spoken in Northwestern Benin. I and my classmate (another EA volunteer) are two weeks into our Bariba-learning adventure now. It’s intense – most days we have language class from 8:00-12:30 and again from 1:30-5:00, with one half-hour break in both the morning and the afternoon. Some of the time is also spent learning about cross-cultural topics.

We started with greetings. This sounds like a simple enough topic, something that could probably be covered with the equivalent of “Hello, how are you?” But greetings are very, very important in Benin, even more so in the North than in the South. When I told my host father that I was learning Bariba, he said that up north I could expect to spend up to half an hour greeting someone else. Accordingly, we have learned a plethora of greetings for every occasion. There are the usual “good morning, good afternoon” ones, of course, but here are some of the more unique greetings that I’ve enjoyed:

KaKokoru – To greet someone who has just taken a shower

KaGura – To greet someone who is wet because of the rain

KaSuru – To thank someone from their patience, or to encourage someone to be patient when they’re faced with a difficult situation

After greetings, we learned how to introduce ourselves and talk about our families. And now, we’re working on vocabulary and expressions to use at the market. This includes numbers and currency. The numbers themselves are easy enough, although I’m still working on memorizing them. But in order purchase something that costs 200 francs, for example, it isn’t enough to know the number 200. Bariba has a word, “dala,” for 5 francs, and prices are discussed in terms of dala. The word for 200 is “goobu”, but if I want to talk about 200 francs I need to say “dalaweru,” or “5 times 40.” This means that, for the next two years, my grocery shopping will go something like this:

Bethany Approaches a Woman Selling Fruit

Bethany: Nye agede wokuru doramo? (How much for 10 bananas?)

Woman: Dalawata ka wokuru.

Bethany thinking: Hmm, “watakawokuru”, that means 70. So 5 x 70, that’s 350 francs. That’s too much! I want to pay 200 francs. So I need to offer less – I’ll offer 150 francs. 150, that’s 5 x 30. What was 30 again? That’s right, “tena.”

Bethany: Ya gobi kua too. Ko dalatena wi. (That’s too expensive. I’ll pay 150 francs)

And so on and so forth… I’ll keep you updated when I actually put all this in practice, but I’m anticipating a lot of long pauses as I do math in my head. And probably some silly mistakes as well. At least I’ll be able to amuse the vendors with my bumbling attempts at bargaining in Bariba!

At this point, I still don’t know for certain that I’ll be going to a Bariba community – although it’s likely, since this is the language Peace Corps chose for me to learn. I could, however, be in a community that speaks a smaller language in the larger Bariba region, or somewhere else altogether. Permanent site assignments will be announced in about one week!

N’kua N’sosi! (Until next time!)

Monday, July 9, 2012

Photos from June

Flying over the Sahara
First Day of Class in Cotonou!

July 8 - The Motto of Life in Benin: Doucement, Doucement

Doucement adv gently; softly; slowly

Definition courtesy of Collins French School Dictionary & Grammar
Two weeks into my life as a Peace Corps trainee, two weeks into my immersion in Beninese French.  As I go about daily life, there are certain words that I hear over and over again.  The most frequent one is “Yovo,” a term for foreigner/white person – one of these days I’ll count how many times I hear it, and then maybe it will be the feature of a post.  The second most frequent word, and the one I want to focus on right now, is “doucement.”  The definition above is the official French dictionary definition, but it doesn’t come even close to summing up how versatile and well-used this word is in Benin.  If I were to write Benin’s definition of doucement, it would be something like this:

Doucement adv/ phrase/ command/ exclamation Hey, watch where you’re going! I’m sorry.  Be careful.  Slow down.  Take it easy.  Don’t stress out.  

Whenever I take a zemidjan (motorcycle taxi) to get around Porto Novo, the driver almost always says “doucement” to me as I (still somewhat clumsily) get on or off.  If I almost run into someone on my bike, they’ll say “doucement”.  If someone bumps into me in a crowded marketplace, they’ll say “doucement” If my host mom tells me to come to dinner and I get up too quickly or rush, she’ll say “doucement”.  If someone sees me trip, they’ll say “doucement.”  When my three-year-old host sister accidentally hit me with her hand, her mother told her “You must say ‘doucement!”  It can be frustrating living in a culture where the same word is used for “hey, watch where you’re going!” as “Sorry I just ran into you, my bad.”  You never quite know if someone is blaming you for being clumsy, or just apologizing for being clumsy themselves.

Doucement has been sneaking into my vocabulary as well.  I say it to my little host siblings as we walk along our rutted red dirt road, and wryly to my co Peace Corps trainees when one of us stumbles.  And however maddening it can sometimes be, “doucement” is pretty good advice for us as we take our first clumsy steps into life in Benin.  Slow down, don’t rush, do things gently.  If you walk doucement along the road, you’ll be able to notice and step aside for cars and motorcycles and avoid puddles and ruts.  If you try to move “doucement” through life you’ll have less collisions and pitfalls.  I took “doucement” as my motto in getting to know my host family and figuring out how to fit into their home.  We’re encouraged to help with chores, so the natural fast-paced American instinct is to want to clear my own place and help with dishes and work in the kitchen from day one.  But that’s not how it is in Benin.  Doucement, doucement.  Every few days I offered to help whenever my host mom was doing something.  Every now and then I’d sit in the kitchen and watch.  And finally, today, I was allowed to chop tomatoes and onions for the salad!  
As part of our cross-cultural training, we’ve been told several times that in Benin interpersonal relationships are valued more than individual accomplishment or productivity.  As I think about it, doucement is a term that fits well in a collective society like this.  In an individualistic society like the US, it makes sense that I’ll say something different when I’m the one who runs into you than if you’re the one who runs into me.  But here, it doesn’t really matter all that much who is at fault.  We’re all on the same bumpy, crowded road or in the same busy marketplace, and everyone needs to be reminded to go about life gently.         

July 8- What I'm Doing, Where I'm Living, Who I'm With

I want to do my best to post a combination of informative “what’s happening in my life” posts with more thoughtful posts that give insight on aspects of Beninese culture, my evolving thoughts on my work/role here, etc.  Here’s the informative post for this time around.  I’m about two weeks into Pre-Service Training (PST in the acronym-heavy Peace Corps world).  During this training period, I’m officially a PCT (Peace Corps Trainee).  I’m living with a host family in Porto Novo, Benin’s second largest city.  My family is great!  I live with my father and mother who are both grandparent-age, and their adopted daughter who helps around the house.  Their two grown daughters are married, but live in Porto Novo and come over almost every day with their young daughters.  The oldest of these “little host sisters” is 7, and the younger two are ages 3 and 2.  I have my own room, with a large bed.  Like all Peace Corps volunteers, I have a mosquito net to sleep under – it feels a bit like camping out in one of those tents I used to make in the living room out of kitchen chairs and bed sheets.  My family is relatively well off – they have a car, and the house has running water and electricity.  Electricity is actually pretty standard in Porto Novo.  They also have two TVs, since as my host Dad explained he and my host mom sometimes can’t agree on which program to watch.  The TVs are right next to each other, and most evenings we watch two different Brazilian soap operas (dubbed into French) at the same time.
The first five weeks of Pre Service Training are focused on language.  As I mentioned in an earlier post, those of us who speak French already were given the option to learn one of Benin’s local languages instead of taking French classes.  This is what I’m doing.  I and another Environmental Action Trainee were both assigned to learn Bariba, a language spoken in the northern half of Benin.  Although nothing’s certain, this means that we’re likely to be assigned to posts in the north once we begin our service.  We will be learning our final post assignments in about 20 days.  The two of us are the only people in our Bariba class.  We meet with our teacher at a different location every day – sometimes my home, sometimes my classmate’s home, and sometimes where our teacher lives.  We also visit Bariba-speaking families in the neighborhood to practice.  About once or twice a week, all 67 of us trainees meet together for whole group sessions on cross-cultural topics, safety, and health.  Our last one involved a Beninese dance workshop – lots of fun!
The next few weeks will officially be “language immersion.”  This means that all of our activities will be in French, and we’re only to speak French to one another.  For those of us learning local language, this doesn’t make as much of a difference – we’ll continue pretty much as we have so far.  We are already using French in ourBariba class, and we already usually speak French together.  But we won’t be having as many large group sessions, so the focus will be even more language-intensive.  At the end of language immersion, when we find out our site placements, we’ll have a short workshop with the counterparts we’ll be working with at site and then go to our sites for two weeks to get to know the community and what sort of work we should be doing.  After that, we’ll be back in Porto Novo for four weeks of technical training in our program areas (Environment for me).  

All in all, it’s been, intense, stressful, exhilarating, heartwarming, and many other adjectives, often all at the same time.  I’ve written journal entries that have started with “I feel stressed out by being here today” and, in the time it’s taken me to write the entry, something has happened that has changed my perspective entirely to “I love it here, I love everyone I’m with, etc.”  From what I understand, that’s a pretty good taste of what service as a whole will be like.