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. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

August 21 - Off the Beaten Path: getting to Peonga

Peonga is off the beaten path.  Very.  My journey there on Sunday, August 6, started at 4:45 am when my alarm clock went off.  After a bucket bath and a bowl of baobab “bouillie” (gruel) for breakfast, my host parents drove me to the intersection where I and other volunteers were to meet our bus.  Our counterparts from post were also there – they had come to Porto Novo to meet us.  The two previous days had been a workshop with them to go over the work we will do together.  Twilight turned to morning as we waited for our bus, got on, got off to take a more comfortable bus, and loaded luggage, finally leaving at 7:40 (instead of the official departure time of 7:15).  Our destination: Parakou, Benin’s second largest city, 7-8 hours away from Porto Novo.  Other than the speed bumps (which were placed in sets of 6, one right after the other, far too frequently along the road),  I enjoyed the ride.  It was our first real foray out of Porto Novo.  The first several hours the landscape was the lush palm tree plantations of the south (Palm oil is one of Benin’s primary exports).  We saw marshes and lagoons with lily pads, and people working in their fields.  The road, one of Benin’s main highways, was two lanes and relatively smoothly paved.  As we continued north, the vegetation changed.  Less palm trees, less intensely cultivated – more standard deciduous trees of various kinds.  After a “bathroom” (aka open field) and snack break in Bohicon, a major crossroads where the highway splits, we drove through the “collines” (hills) region with beautiful rock formations.  

We arrived in Parakou about 7 hours after leaving Porto Novo.  Most of us were spending the night there, continuing our trip the following day.  There’s a Peace Corps workstation in Parakou, but since all the beds there were full arrangements had been made for us to stay at a house owned by missionaries who were out of town.  It was a very nice, very American house.  Our counterparts stayed elsewhere, and most of us made plans with them for when/where we’d meet to continue our journeys the next day.  Mine just said he’d call me the next day when he’d arranged for transportation to Peonga.  The next morning, many of us went to the workstation to practice that essential Peace Corps skill of waiting.  I talked to my counterpart, and he told me we’d leave after 9.  After 9 is a very flexible time.  The waiting was made delightful by the presence of a basket of 6 puppies at the workstation.  Their mother, who belonged to a Peace Corps volunteer, had been hit by a car and they were staying at the workstation until other volunteers adopted them.  I had not expected to spend a morning cuddling with adorable puppies, but always expect the unexpected in Peace Corps.  

When “after 9” finally came, around noon, I and another volunteer going to the same region met my counterpart at the main road and had what will be the first of many bush taxi adventures.  A bush taxi is essentially a compact car with too many people in it – really the only way to get anywhere near Peonga.  In this case, there were 4 of us (plus a kid on her mother’s lap) in the back seat and two sharing the front passenger seat.  At one point, I was sitting towards the front of the seat – one person had to sit forward or we wouldn’t all fit – and the woman next to me kept falling asleep.  Her head rested behind me, her nose tickling my back.  Her little girl was also sleeping on me, and I was squished next to Devon, the other volunteer.  It was more comfortable than one would think, although my foot kept falling asleep.  The road to Nikki, a major town on the way, is in the process of being paved and the unpaved parts were relatively smooth red dirt.  After Nikki, the road was completely dirt and less good.  In a dusty roadside town named Derassi, my counterpart and I got out.  There we waited for probably half an hour, as he arranged for motorcycles to take us the final leg to Peonga.  It seemed like he was just waiting for people he knew.  Finally he found two to take us, my luggage was strapped to the back of one, and  I had the most beautiful motorcycle ride of my life.  We saw very few people – the occasional motorcycle, and women carrying large bowls of various things on their heads.  We passed through at least two herds of the beautiful, noble-looking Fulani cattle.  The sky was blue, with billowing clouds, and the scenery was open and green.  The ride took about half an hour.  We pulled up to the red mud “boutique” (convenience store) owned by my host and his wife, and my stay in Peonga began.  

My return from Peonga, a few days ago, was much the same as my trip there.  We took a different route, with a longer motorcycle ride (1 hour 45 min) and a more crowded bush taxi (15 people in a car meant for 7).  This is my life now!  I’ll be making at least the part of the trip to and from Parakou at least once a month, to do banking and spend some time at the workstation.  I realized recently that I’m four days travel from America – two days to get to the airport in Cotonou, and about two days of air travel to the US.  But as you’ll see from the other posts about site visit, my post is definitely worth it. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

August 20 - Photo Post!

August 20 - I'm back! And how to stay in touch.

I just got back from my 2-week post visit to Peonga!  Several blog posts are to come about my adventures there, so stay tuned.  Several of you have asked about other ways to stay in touch with me, especially my mailing address. I've finally gotten around to posting my address on this blog - it's at the right-hand side of the page.  I might get another address later, but this one should work fine for now. 

A shameless plug for contact from home: letters and care packages would be great!  I will have lots of free time at post, so I'll try to write back to anyone who writes to me and send it using a cool Beninese stamp.  For care packages, anything you can think of would be great.  Unperishable food, seasonings, etc.  Reading material is also a good idea.  We have a good book sharing system among volunteers here, so if you send me a paperback book, or magazine, or anything I'll pass it on once I'm done with it.  Padded envelopes are much better than boxes, since I have to pay a larger fee at the post office to receive a box. 

Another random e-care package idea: several of you suggested songs for me to listen to while in Peace Corps before I left.  I bought most of them and have been enjoying your soundtrack to my adventures.  If you come across a song you think I'd like and want to send me a "care package" without going through the trouble of mail, feel free to gift me music through i-tunes.  I will have internet on my laptop soon through the cell phone network, and  I promise I'll think of you as I listen to my ipod on rainy nights in my tin-roofed hut when I need to think of home.  

I also have a cell phone.  If you are my friend on facebook or have my e-mail address, contact me and I can share the number.  I'm not going to post it on the blog, but would love to chat. 

More interesting posts to come in the next few days!