Saturday, October 6, 2012

October 6- Stories From My First Weeks as a Volunteer

One of the worst things about procrastinating on blog posts/ not having internet often is that it’s so hard to decide what in the world to write.  There’s so much!  I’ve been an official Peace Corps volunteer for about three weeks now.  This early part of service is focused on getting to know our communities.  I do lots of visiting people and walking around village.  The women’s gardening group I was invited to work with is getting a nice irrigation system with a solar-powered pump installed by an NGO, and they’re setting up a new garden.  We should start planting sometime this month, and when we do I will have my own plot in the garden to demonstrate growing new vegetables (like cabbage, lettuce, carrots, melons) that they don’t currently grow.  Not much gardening work going on right now, though.  I have started learning Fulani, with informal lessons twice a week and lots of opportunities to practice.  

This is my first real trip away from my post; I’m spending some time in Parakou, my regional capitol, to do banking, grocery shopping, and meet some of the other volunteers in the area.  At this point, I only have internet access once or twice a month – so sorry that I’ve been a bit out of touch. Here are a few stories about the past few weeks:
I Almost Became a TEFL Volunteer
After I’d been in post for about a week, I started to hear rumors that a volunteer was coming to our CEG (middle school) to teach English.  I was suspicious that these rumors might be about me – after all, no Peace Corps TEFL volunteers were assigned to my area.  I started to ask people where they heard this rumor.  “From the director,” they replied.  “Great” – I thought – if the director is spreading this rumor maybe I should talk to him about this.  To be fair, I had met with him earlier and offered to support the school in little ways, like helping with an English club, doing a peace corps-sponsored scholarship for one of the female students, and maybe starting a girl’s club to help girls stay in school.  We’d also talked about Environmental Education opportunities.  So maybe he’d just gotten a little over excited about me?  I dropped by his house one day, and while we were chatting tactfully asked “Oh, I’ve heard that there’s a volunteer coming to teach English.  Is there someone else coming (I knew this wasn’t the case), or are people talking about me?”  He told me that it was me, and I explained that I’m happy to help in little ways but I need to keep my schedule free to do environmental work, like gardening.  He said this was fine, and it was all cleared up.  But I still wonder if I hadn’t said anything, would someone have showed up at my house one Monday morning, saying “hurry, you’re late for class!!!!”?  
Is that Someone Beatboxing, or a Goat Sneezing?
In the compound where my house is, there are lots of goats and sheep.  Lots of them.  They basically just sit around and steal yams from children when they’re not looking, or knock the lids off of pots cooking over the fire to eat the food.  I’ve started to recognize individual ones.  There’s a three-legged sheep that lost one of it’s legs in a hunting trap (it does quite well limping around even so).  There’s at least one goat that likes to sit next to my chair when I’m reading outside and grind it’s teeth.  And one night, I heard a sound under my window that sounded exactly like someone beat boxing.  “Is that someone beat boxing, or is it a goat?”  I wondered in my half-asleep state.  I managed to identify the goat in question the next day, a black one that sneezes in rhythm.  There’s another goat that makes a sound that is exactly like someone screaming – “wuahhhh!” after every sneeze.  “sneeze.  Wuahhhh!  Sneeze. Wuahhhh!”  I have no idea why.  
“Can I See Your Knife?  The Old Lady Said You Can Have this Cat!”
For my first few weeks, there was a young woman living in my compound who speaks very good French.  But she actually lives in Kalale, the commune (county) capital, and she and her husband recently moved back home after their visit.  So now the best French speaker is in elementary school, making it a bit harder to communicate beyond greetings.  It leads to some interesting miscommunications.  The other night, while I was making dinner by headlamp, Nafisi (the elementary school girl) came to my door and I thought she said “The woman who is here visiting wants to see your knife (couteau).”  “My knife?/ Mon couteau?”  “Yes.”  “The thing that I use for cutting?”  “Yes.”  I thought this was a little weird.  Maybe she wanted to see my swiss army knife?  It’s pretty cool.  I try to keep most of my more expensive/flashy things like that hidden in my room, so I decided to go get the kitchen knife I’d bought in the market.  As I went into my room to get it, looking confused, Nafisi said “Where you are with your Dad.”  “Oh, photo, not couteau?”  “Yes.”  So I got out my photo album, and showed my pictures from home to the woman who was visiting.  We stood outside looking at them by flashlight.  Nafisi especially wanted her to see the picture of me and Dad canoeing at permanent rapids in New York.  While we were looking at the photos, I realized that a small cat was walking around us and miaowing.  “Oh, the old lady (la vieille) said that you can have this cat.”  Nafisi said.  In Benin, referring to the family’s grandmother as “la vielle” is a term of respect.  La vieille’s cat had recently had kittens, and I’d asked for one – but the kittens were still tiny babies.  This was an older kitten - maybe it was from an earlier litter?  I’d never seen it before.  But anyway, now I have a cat! 
Baby Husbands and 40-Year-Old Son-in-Laws
In Benin, people love joking about relationships.  Especially about husbands.  Here’s a typical exchange that happened when I was in Peonga for post visit, between me and two middle-aged men:[
Man # 1:  I want to give you as a wife to him.  Points to Man #2
Me: You have to ask my father first.
Man #1:  Where is your father?
Me: He’s in America.
Man #1 to Man #2 Ok.  If you give me money to buy gas for my motorcycle, I’ll go to America to talk to her father.  
Me: Good luck with the ocean.
This particular interchange was in French, so I was able to follow it – but many of the husband jokes are in Fulani.  I know the Fulani word for husband (gorko), but not much else right now.  So to me, they go somewhat like this:
Person:  gibberish gibberish blah blah husband gibberish
Me:  Hahahahaha!
Husband jokes are not confined to people my age or older.  It’s pretty common in Benin to joke about children, too.  There’s one family I visit almost every day that jokes that I’m married to Habilou, their baby boy.  Whenever I visit I spend some time holding him – as far as husbands go he’s quite nice, doesn’t bother me or ask me to do housework or anything.  On the flip side, I had a man who is at least 40 tell me he wants to marry my baby daughter if I ever have one.  So I also have a son-in-law.  Nice to know that my daughter, at least, will not be an old maid if it’s too late for me…

September 12 - Thoughts Before Swear-In

Meant to post this about a month ago, but haven't had internet - so here you go!
Tomorrow morning, I and the 64 others in our training group will board a bus for the Ambassador’s house in Cotonou.  There, our trainers, Peace Corps staff, host families, and all of Benin (or anyone who is interested in watching the televised broadcast, anyway) will watch us take our oaths to become official Peace Corps volunteers.  The past four weeks since our post visits have gone by very fast.  We’ve been doing technical training – for us Environmental Action volunteers, this has meant learning gardening techniques, how to build improved woodburning stoves out of mud, how to set up a tree nursery and graft and plant trees, and how to conduct environmental education activities in schools.  Our training was a mix of classroom and hands-on activities, and we paid several visits to a village near Porto Novo for practical experience working with gardeners and building mud stoves.  We also had a group of students come to our training site, to let us practice delivering environmental education lessons.  I wish I’d stayed more up to date on blogging these past weeks, but hopefully you’ll get to learn about all of the things we learned in more depth when I actually implement them at post.  
The morning after our swear-in ceremony we leave very early in the morning to move to our posts.  Many of us feel sort of the same right now as when we left the United States for Benin.  Nervous and apprehensive, but also happy and excited.  We’ve been in Benin for about two and a half months now.  While new things happen every day, a lot of things about living here have already become normal, second nature.  Here are a few small things that were new in June, but now seem normal to me.  
Speaking French, and learning second language(s) like Bariba and Fulani in French.
Waking up to the sounds of chickens and turkeys in the yard.
Gingerly eating fish with all its bones in it.  It’s a bit like taking a mouthful of food with lots of needles in it, sorting them out in your mouth, and spitting them out without getting pricked.  
Buying an entire pineapple, cut into chunks and served in a little black plastic bag with a toothpick, for less than 25 cents.  Eating said entire pineapple with great joy.
Buying a satisfying lunch of rice, beans, and sauce from a mama at the side of the street for 50 cents.  You tell her how much you want to pay, in this case 200 francs (about 50 cents), and she serves it to you on a plastic plate.  You sit on a bench near her stall and eat it right there.  
Taking a morning commute that involves hailing a zemidjan (motorcycle taxi), negotiating the price (usually 200 or 250 francs), and riding through crowded mud streets, around puddles of muddy water, to a chorus of “Yovo! Yovo!”  from passers-by.  
Letting a zemidjan go, refusing to ride, even if I’m late, if he refuses to go down 50 francs (the equivalent of 10 cents).  
Watching Brazilian soap operas, dubbed into French, with my host family every weeknight – and hanging on every word.
Seeing vendors carrying everything from shirts to oranges to dvds on their heads.