Sunday, December 16, 2012
The month that it all began! This is an exciting blog post, because a lot of the things I was thinking about and hoping to do in months one and two finally started to happen.
I built my first mud stove with Azara, a young mother who’s my neighbor. I had told several people that I would build stoves for them once they collected the clay and dried grass we need, and she was the first to get the materials together. The “clay” we use is actually the sand from termite mounds. There are a lot of termite mounds in this area, and the sand is very strong. I built the stove in the evening, with Azara and a young boy from her concession who I think is named Gbaguidi. We first mixed water with the mud and broke up most of the hardened chunks, and then mixed in little bits of dried grass. Then we found three tall rocks to place under the pot we were going to use. The pot has to rest on three rocks, and the stove is most efficient if the height of the space under the pot equals its radius. It took a while to find rocks of the right size. Next, we built the stove around the pot, and smoothed it with water. It felt sort of like playing or making a sandcastle at the beach, especially since I was doing it with people younger than me. We carved our names in the top of the stove, and took pictures.
The best part was about a week later. I’d traveled to Parakou, and dropped by Azara’s to see if the stove had dried well and been used while I was away. It was already blackened with soot from use, and she had made a second smaller stove to use with a little pot for sauce on her own! Her stove was a little different from mine, but it was great to see that she’d really learned what I’d taught her. She’s said that she uses the new stove a lot, and it uses less wood than cooking in the open on three stones.
Earlier this month, a team from an NGO called ICRISAT came to do a 4-day training in our garden. Most of the women from the gardening group attended, and we cleared the garden site of weeds, learned to build compost, created a plant “nursery” to prepare transplants, and built the garden beds with the help of some young men from the village. The pump and irrigation were being set up this past week. We should be planting in the next few weeks, I believe. There were some differences of opinions between the ICRISAT trainers and the Beninese staff supporting the garden as to whether it’s best to use only organic gardening methods, or a mix of organic and chemical fertilizers. So we’ve decided to use some extra garden beds for an experiment, trying out different gardening techniques. I’ll maintain the experiment. I’ll also use one of the beds to demonstrate new vegetables that they don’t often grow, like cucumbers.
I had my first English club meeting about two weeks ago. It was crazy – I led it with the help of two English teachers, and we guess that around 200 students attended! There are only 240 students in the school, and one class wasn’t able to come since they had class at the time we chose. So I think pretty much every student who was free came. We were in a small classroom, and students were sitting at desks, standing on desks, standing on the floor – the different levels making it feel sort of like a crowded stadium setup. The other two teachers did their best to keep everyone under control, while I taught them to sing “head, shoulders, knees, and toes.” I think we’ll do Christmas carols at our next meeting. We’re going to hold two sessions, one at 8 and one at 10 on Wednesdays, because the school director thinks absolutely every child should have the opportunity to attend English club. I hope at least some of them get bored, so I can get down to a more manageable 50 or less. But many of the kids have begun to greet me in English when they see me in village, so even if club is a bit crazy it’s inspiring them to practice!
I’m going to start doing Environmental Education and gardening with the elementary school soon. I met with all the teachers a week ago, and they all sounded interested. We’ve decided to do a school garden and tree nursery. Lots of details left to work out, but the school director will tell the students to gather the materials needed to build a fence over their Christmas vacation so we can start the garden in January or February. My hope is to have a big educational component to the garden, using it to teach about how plants grow, environmental issues, and other topics. Feel free to share ideas.
I've also begun to brainstorm ideas for how to encourage girl's education. Both the director of the primary school and of the secondary school have told me this is a priority for them. In our schools, as throughout Benin, girls often drop out of school. This is often because they get pregnant, even in primary school. (Primary school students are a bit older here than in the United States). The idea I'm considering now is to organize a monthly speaker series at the schools. I would like to invite professional women from the community who finished high school to tell the girls about their experiences. The director of the primary school thinks this is a great idea, and I'll pursue it further when I get back to village this week.
I’ve met a few times with the head of environmental programs for the mayor’s office. He is interested in me and other volunteers in the area participating in a latrine building and trash collection initiative they will be doing in 2013. More details to come as work gets started.
This past week, I’ve been in Parakou for our first “In-Service Training.” It was a great chance to see all the other Environment volunteers and hear what projects they’re working on. Everyone’s experiences have been really different, but we’re all trying to do good work. My counterpart from village attended the training as well, and we got the chance to develop project ideas together.
And the marathon – I’ve kept training, longest run 2 hours 45 minutes so far! And I’ve officially registered. It will be the first week in February.
Saturday, December 8, 2012
I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean
Whenever one door closes, I hope one more opens
Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance
And when you get the chance to sit it out or dance,
I hope you dance.
My theme song for Peace Corps so far has been “I hope you dance” by Lee Ann Womack. I’ve listened to it so many times on my ipod, especially when I need a little encouragement. It doesn’t always feel easy to dance – to live all the experiences here whole-heartedly, instead of holding back and “sitting it out” every now and then. But the rewards have been moments of amazing sweetness and inspiration.
There’ve been literal chances to take this song to heart. One of these, a favorite day in village so far, was October 23 - the day I made about 50 francs (around ten cents) for dancing in the marketplace. When learning about Benin, I read that although about one third of all Beninese identify voodoo as their primary religion, unofficially everyone participates or believes in traditional religion, spirits and such. I’ve definitely seen this to be true in Peonga, a very muslim village. In my first weeks, I would hear drumming every now and then – sometimes at late hours like 3 am. When I asked about it, I was told “that’s the fetiche.” Little by little, I’ve been learning more about what this means. One day, Nafisa from my concession invited me to go to the market to “see the people who dance.” I was told that a woman who was possessed by a spirit had passed away, and they were doing a ceremony to find out which of her descendants would be possessed by the spirit. A lot of people, including Nafisa and myself, went to the market to watch. All the candidates ran around in a circle for a while, and then crouched down in a line and waited for a long time, to see who would be possessed I think – Nafisa got bored and we went home.
More recently, a friend from my women’s group invited me to come see a fetiche ceremony/celebration in the market. A new group of girls had been initiated into the group in the village of people who have “fetiches”/spirits. From what my friend explained, these new intiates had been sequestered for a month and we were celebrating the completion of their initiation. We went to the market, where lots of people had come to watch. She brought two stools for us, and we got great seats right next to the musicians (playing drums, calabashes, and stringed instruments called gogeru). Being the only foreigner has it’s perks. Everyone sat or stood in a large circle. First, the new initiates – about 6 teenage girls – were led into the ring in a procession with everyone else who has a fetiche. This way I learned that my host mother in village, the mother in my concession, has a fetiche. Who knew? In the south there are a lot of secretive voudou cults, but things seem to be very open here. My friend explained that something had been taken from the new intiates and hidden at the beginning of their initiation process, and today they had to find it. They walked around the circle in a group, doing a sort of ritualized “search” stopping every few steps to crouch down and point at the ground, etc. Then all of the sudden they ran out of the ring as a group, and everyone cheered – “they’ve found it!” my friend said. They were carried back into the ring on people’s shoulders, like victorious soccer players, and gave some rings – the objects they were looking for- to a man sitting with the musicians who seemed to be important. As you can see, a lot of the ceremony was me watching things and not knowing exactly what was going on.
After this point, the ceremony was a celebration and dancing. Sometimes everyone danced in a circle, around the ring, and other times individuals danced in front of the drummers. True to my promise to myself not to “sit it out,” I took a turn dancing in front of the drummers and was given more than 50 CFA! When each dancer finished, people came up and gave them small change. I was told to keep part of what I was given, and to give part of it to the musicians by placing it inside one of the stringed instruments they were holding. To dance you had to take off your shoes, and stomp barefoot in the dusty red dirt in time with the drumming. The drumming really fills your body, resonating. There were quite a few babies strapped on the backs of the dancing women, and I thought how these children first learn to move to the music from the swaying of their mothers’ backs.
In a funny way, what this all reminded me of most was the bluegrass music festival/competition I went to in Frankin, West Virginia right before leaving for Peace Corps. Both were “culture” – the kind people study or tourists would visit – but both were living, not artificial or for display in any way. The form of the two festivals, bluegrass and fetiche, was very different, but the community feel was much the same. Families came to watch, kids ran around, refreshments were sold, people brought chairs and tried to find good seats and cheered for each other as they danced.
When I first got there, I asked if I could take pictures. Not only was it ok, but people kept encouraging me to take more! I got some good video as well. My ambitious hope is that the internet will smile upon me and allow me to post the video, but if not a few pictures will have to suffice.
Two months done! I realize I wasn’t able to post the last one until now – didn’t have internet access – so you’ll reading both at the same time. But I’m glad I’ve started doing these 1-month “taking stock” posts. At first I thought nothing new had been accomplished in this past month, but looking back through my journal I realize I have made a lot of progress in many ways.
We still haven’t done much actual gardening work yet. Part of it is because we’re waiting for a team from Niger to come give training to the women on how to grow plants using drip irrigation, and other topics. Because of budget, logistics, and other issues, the team hasn’t made it down yet. They should come any week now. The second reason we haven’t been gardening is the season – the rainy season just ended and harvest is in full swing. Almost every day, the women are in the fields, harvesting corn, peanuts, soy, cotton… My major victory, and really the defining factor of this month, has been going to the fields with the women to work with them. It took about a month of asking, but I finally convinced the one French-speaking woman in the women’s group to let me come harvest corn with her. After that breakthrough, I got to go thresh dried soy with some other women – hard work that involves whacking the dried soy plants over and over with a stick. Now, I go to the fields on any day that I don’t have something else important to do. Usually I go with the women from my concession. I’ve harvested a lot of corn, and recently we moved on to peanuts. Cotton will be next. Going to the fields makes such a big difference – now I never have long, empty unscheduled days to fill. Every time I go I learn something new about farming here, and it impresses people in village as well. I’ll write a longer post about the fields later.
Not environment related, but I’ve moved forward on starting an English club at the middle school. I sat in on several English classes the other week to see what is taught, and talked with the school’s two English teachers about doing a club. One teacher in particular was really enthusiastic, and will be a co-facilitator with me. Earlier this week he and I visited every class to announce the club and take down names of interested students. He is working to find a time for meetings when all the students will be free; we are thinking Saturday mornings.
The director of the elementary school has said I’m welcome to sit in on classes there too, which I plan to do soon.
Fulani Language Learning
My Fulani has progressed a lot this month. I’ve continued to meet with my tutor/informant in village at least once a week, to learn more vocabulary and phrases. I’m able to do greetings, tell people where I’m going and what kind of work I’m doing in the fields, what I bought at the market, etc. Every day, the conversations I have get a little more complex. The last time I went to the fields, I had a wonderful casual conversation with Bana, the woman from my concession, as we separated peanuts from their roots. She asked me the name of my country, whether I came in an airplane, how long it took to get here…I told her that we don’t have yams in America, that we do have rice and beans and corn, and that my parents will come to visit in about a year. My father likes spicy food, but Mom doesn’t at all. This was all in broken “tarzan” Fulani – to tell her how long it takes to fly to America, I said “Cotonou – evening – morning – afternoon – France. France – evening – morning – afternoon – America.” But the point got across.
The most amazing thing about my Fulani learning is that I’ve met a priest at the catholic mission in Kalale, the commune (like county) seat, who has been studying Fulani for 40 years and is widely considered an expert. People in my village know about him, and have told me he’s better at Fulani than they are. He teaches Fulani classes to the other priests and nuns at the catholic mission, and is letting me attend his class once a week for free! I went today for the first time, and it was wonderful. Three hours of grammar and cultural insights a week from him, immersion in Peonga, and vocab work with my tutor here once a week – I’ve fallen into the perfect language learning situation.
I haven’t built any mud stoves yet, but my counterpart and I have told several interested women what materials are required (mud and dried grasses) and they are working to collect them. Work in the fields is slowing this down, as well, but I should get some built next month!
I’ve been taking lots of notes for my Etude de Milieu/Community Study that I need to turn in to Peace Corps in about one month. Related to this are Food Security surveys that Peace Corps gave us to administer in our community. Basically, the survey asks questions about what people grow and what problems they face with agriculture and food security. I gave the survey to one community member who speaks French – it’s long, but I learned so much from that conversation. My counterpart has pulled together a list of people he thinks we can give the survey to, and I made extra photocopies today in Kalale so we can get started next week.
I’ve also met with several good resource people – in particular the man in charge of the Environment office at the mayor’s office, a man who works for an NGO working on trash collection. There may be opportunities to do projects with them in the future.
On a personal level, I’ve kept training for the Parakou marathon (longest run was 1 hour 30 min so far) and read lots of books. It’s been a mixed month, full of true “highest highs and lowest lows.” I’ve been brought to tears by it all, several times, and just as often been amazed at how wonderful everything is. One big lesson I’ve learned is that going through life’s “highest highs and lowest lows” isn’t that bad. When I heard that phrase before leaving for Peace Corps, I thought it sounded terrible, like a lot of suffering. But at least in my experience, it isn’t like a roller coaster, going up and down, up and down, without any change. Each truly low time, this month and in Benin as a whole, has led to a real lesson and growth, real change in me. Really, does anything feel better than having grown in a way you can see, than being on the victorious side of a challenge? My “victories” have been in a large part due to the great support I’ve gotten from Mom and Dad and everyone else at home, encouraging words and solid prayerful support when I’ve needed it. I may be far away, but I don’t feel alone. Thank you.
It’s the end of the rainy season. In the months that come, I’ll experience the dusty wind called the Harmattan for the first time, the green grass will dry up, and the cattle will be herded miles from the village looking for food. I’ll also have to start putting a bit more thought into how to get water.
Like most volunteers in Benin, I don’t have running water. When I arrived in village about three months ago, one of the first things I bought was a large black plastic water barrel, and several plastic basins. My water barrel lives behind my house, under the sloping tin roof, and whenever it rains I line up the plastic basins next to it and collect as much of the water running off the roof as I can. Up until very recently, I was able to get plenty of water to meet my needs this way. I boiled and filtered the water for drinking, and also used it for bucket baths, doing dishes and laundry, and washing my concrete floor.
But now, “whenever it rains” won’t be until spring. Figuring out my new water acquiring system took almost a month. Here’s a journal entry from October 15, a particularly memorable day in the saga:
Today being effectively out of rainwater to bathe in, I asked Nafisa (a girl from my compound) to help me collect well water for my bathing and dishwashing needs. I had bought a yellow “bidon” that had held vegetable oil previously earlier this week. I can see the advantage of buying these pre-washed, rather than from the oil seller like I did. How do you get an oily bidon to stop being oily? It involved four washes, two with hot water, and a special purchase of powdered soap to pour in with the hot water the second time. I thumped and rolled the bidon filled with boiling-hot sudsy water around my room, and used the water that leaked out to wash my floor at the same time. Then a bleach rinse, and finally my bidon smells like soap/bleach and not oil.
Today, Nafisa and I set out – her with the bidon, me with a smaller orange pail I bought at the market earlier today – to get water. We walked through the market – I didn’t think the market was on the way to the well. “Great – I chose market day to walk clumsily through village with an orange pail of water on my head.” We kept walking, and I figured out that we were going to the pump near the school. Farther than I’d been counting on for this second “water carrying on head” adventure. The pump was out of commission – broken I think – so she said we’d go to the well with the hand-crank mechanism that’s near the town government office. I tried to ask why we didn’t go to the well near our house. And I think the answer was that the water isn’t potable– people do things like wash in it. At the crank well the cover was locked and Nafisa ran off to get the key. She returned empty handed. I asked again if we could go to the well near the house, the water isn’t to drink, it’s just for washing – it doesn’t need to be potable. But she suggested that we go to the pump at the health center, she’d been told by another kid that they weren’t charging money there today (I hadn’t brought any small change with me). Ironically, this whole time, the sky looked like a menacing thunderstorm was on the way. We went to the health center, but the pump didn’t work – it was locked. We considered getting the key for a moment – I’m not sure if she asked or not – and then we headed home, finally to go to the well by the house. It started to thunder and rain, and we ran – Nafisa with my orange bucket on her head like a hat, a second kid carrying the yellow bidon on her head and me with a colorful scrap of cloth that Nafisa gave me. She’d had it along to cushion the heavy bidon on her head once we’d filled it, and I held on my head corners gathered under my chin like a peasant. Running through village was fun, one of those “This is Peace Corps” moments. Getting home, I quickly uncovered my black water barrel and lined up plastic bowls and buckets out back. Appropriately, I was wearing my pagne (wrap skirt) with the pattern of umbrellas on it during this adventure.
It took me a few more weeks to work out the system I’ll be using at least until the rainy season starts again, with the help of my counterpart (work partner/host). He helped me get two more bidons, bringing my total up to three. Whenever two are empty, I’ll pay Nafisa to get water for me. This way I’ll never run out. Right now all three bidons are full and lined up in my “living room” – 75 liters of water waiting to be used.
Whether it’s rainwater or well water or pump water, I’m so much more conscious of my water use here than I was in the states. People here take advantage of water wherever they can find it. Most people go to a stream or spring to wash their laundry, since this cuts back on the amount of water they need to bring to their home. During the rainy season, I even saw people washing their laundry in the road where it had been washed out. If they go to wash laundry, they also bring that day’s dirty dishes with them – why not? And at the end of washing the laundry and dishes, they usually take off and wash the clothes they are wearing, and then wash themselves. That much less water to fetch from the well. I’ve started to go along to the stream to wash my laundry, too.
It’s hard to explain how different water feels now that I’m in Peonga. When I’m walking through the village and I hear the sound of someone pouring a big basin of water from the well into their water barrel, it sounds so precious, like a treasure. When I take my bucket bath, I dunk my head in the bucket and swish my hair around first to imagine the feeling of being submerged in water. The other day we had a surprise rain shower – the rainy season is officially over. As I watched the drops fall from under the tin roof where I was sitting, I thought about how rain really is such a miracle – free water from the sky.
Every single task, washing dishes, clothes, or myself, makes me think about water and how precious it is. If you wish you too could experience water use “the Beninese way,” don’t worry – all you need is a bucket of water and the following simple step-by-step instructions for simple household tasks. I even measured out the amount of water I use for two of the tasks (Peace Corps volunteers have a lot of free time).
Supplies: a bucket of water or a stream, two large bowls or basins, a bar of soap
Put a little water into one of the basins, getting a couple pieces of clothing wet. Rub soap all over the clothes, paying attention to easily soiled areas – like the collar or underarms for a shirt. Scrub the shirt by rubbing it together in your hands, getting it wet repeatedly in the water, and “knead” it vigorously in the water, squeezing soapy water through the fabric. Wring it out and set it aside. Once you’ve washed several pieces of clothing and the water is looking dirty (or has turned bright green or blue or red if your clothes aren’t colorfast, like most clothes in Benin), throw the water out. Repeat the process, doing a second wash, for any of the clothes that were particularly dirty. Wring them out again. Put clean water in the basin, and rinse the clothes by putting them in the water and swishing them around vigorously. Wring them out thoroughly. Throw out the water. Add more clean water, rinse again. Wring clothes out again. Hang them to dry. Before putting them on the clothesline, flick each one several times to get rid of more water and also make sure no wrinkles dry into the fabric. I thought this last trick was particularly neat – no need for an iron here!
Supplies: one and a half liters of water, dirty dishes, a bar of soap, a small recycled black plastic bag
Pour a small amount of water into one of your dirty dishes. Get your little plastic bag soapy, and use it to scrub the dish. Pour the soapy water into a second dish, scrub it, pour it into a third dish, etc until the water is really too dirty to use any more. Throw it away. Wash all the dishes this way, then rinse them by pouring fresh water into the first one, swishing it around with your hand, pouring it into the second one, etc. You really need very little water to wash dishes.
Supplies: Three liters of water, a small plastic bowl, soap, sponge
Fill the bowl with water from your bucket. Kneel down next to the bucket, dunking your head and pouring the bowl of water over it at the same time to get all your hair wet. Standing up, pour one or two bowlfuls of water over the rest of your body. Soap up, paying special attention to your feet which are inevitably dusty and dirty, and rinse by pouring more bowlfuls of water over yourself. If it is raining and your bathing area is uncovered like mine, you can dispense with the bucket of water and enjoy a true “running water” shower!
One month down, 23 to go. Today is my official “one month anniversary” as a Peace Corps volunteer. I know when I read other people’s Peace Corps blogs, I wished there was more detail on what the work of Peace Corps was actually like. I’m going to try to write a work-related post on the 15th of every month – each anniversary – to keep track of what I’ve done.
As I’ve mentioned before, my primary job in Peonga is to work with a women’s gardening group. The group has been gardening for many years, but they recently received help from a partnership of SELF (an American NGO), ADF (another American NGO), and ADESKA (A Beninese NGO) to install a solar-powered pump and drip irrigation system. Most gardening here happens in the dry season, because this is when people are free – during the rainy season they work in the fields, growing staples like corn and yams. In past years the group had their garden near a stream, so they could water the plants. With the new irrigation system they’ve been able to move their site to a large, flat area near the village. The NGOs have helped them build a good metal chain-link fence around the new garden site, and the solar panels for the pump were recently installed. The land for the new garden has also been cleared and plowed using cattle, and soon they’ll pay some youth from the community to build long raised beds – each woman will have a raised bed to plant (including me!) Basically, there hasn’t been much actual gardening work that involves me yet. One day I went to the garden with the women when they were trying to remove tree stumps using axes – I was “allowed” to work for about 2 minutes, borrowing one of their axes. Another day, this past week, the women were collecting cow manure from around the village. This will be mixed with the soil when the beds are built, as a natural fertilizer. I spent some time helping on the manure expedition. Other than that, I’ve been focusing on getting to know some of the group members and waiting for when it’s time to plant. SELF/ADESKA will be organizing some training sessions for the women on topics like how to grow using drip irrigation, and I’m thinking that my role may be to help reinforce what’s taught during the trainings – since I’ll be working with the women in the garden every day. I will be growing plants that are new to them in my plot – I’ve bought lots of seeds, for things like watermelon, muskmelon, radishes, carrots, cabbage, lettuce… The women are also very interested in learning how to prepare nutritious meals for their kids using garden veggies, so once we’ve harvested some I’ll probably organize cooking demonstrations.
I’ve started to develop relationships with the Elementary and Middle schools in Peonga, meeting with both directors. In the Middle school, the director has expressed interest in my helping with their English club and supporting girl’s education. We’ve discussed having a girl’s club, and also participating in a “scholarship girl” program organized by Peace Corps that will allow me to mentor one girl from the school and help her buy school supplies. The school year just started, so the clubs have not gotten going yet. We’ve been working on organizing a selection committee for the scholarship girl. The committee has to include myself, the director, two members of the parent-teacher association, and another member of the community. Getting all these people organized sounds easier than it is – if anything, participating in the scholarship girl program is a good “low-risk” project that can teach me how things work in village and how much patience it takes to organize anything. Once these activities get off the ground, I plan to look into ways to do Environmental education at one or both of the schools.
In our training, we were also taught how to build fuel-conserving mud stoves. Almost everyone in my village cooks with wood, balancing their pot over the fire on three stones. Building a simple mud stove around the pot/stones can trap much more of the heat, greatly increasing fuel efficiency. At a recent meeting with the women’s group, I mentioned mud stoves. The women were very interested, saying that they use especially a lot of wood during harmattan, the cool windy part of the dry season that will be starting soon. They wanted to start building stoves right away, so I took down the names of a few of them that are interested. Tomorrow, I’ll be meeting with one of them to observe how much wood she currently uses to cook and to make plans to build my first stove at her house.
Finally, my counterpart has talked about organizing a project to promote Moringa growing in Peonga. Moringa is a tree that grows very quickly and has very nutritious leaves. The leaves can be eaten fresh, or dried and powdered. He’s already identified several interested people. On my recent trip into Parakou, I chatted with another volunteer who’s placed with an NGO that promotes Moringa to learn how we could partner with them.
I meant to write about what I’ve done, but there’s been a lot about what I’m going to do / hoping to do. That’s pretty indicative of this month, and the first months in general – a lot of it is laying groundwork for work to be done later. Offficially, the first three months are considered our community integration period. We’re working on written “community studies” that need to be submitted in December when we have our first in-service training. Writing all this out makes me sound very busy, but in reality most of my day is spent walking around and visiting with people, sitting at my compound reading and watching goats, lying on my cool concrete floor staring at the ceiling... I’ve been taking informal Fulani lessons one to three times a week, and practicing a lot. I’ve gotten good at greetings, and can ask people where they’re going and tell them where I’m going. Every day I learn a little more. I’ve finished seven books, and started training for the Parakou marathon in February.
That’s month one in a nutshell – on to month two!