Sunday, February 10, 2013

January 16 - Holidays in Benin

Holidays in Benin

Happy 2013!  It’s the end of the Holiday season.  Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s in Benin were certainly memorable.  Since I haven’t written about any of the holidays yet, here’s a summary of what I did for each:

Halloween was spent at the Parakou workstation with other volunteers.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I was not thinking about Halloween costumes when I packed my suitcase for Benin back in June.  But no challenge is insurmountable to the creative Peace Corps volunteer with hours to spare.  I spent several nights trying out costume ideas in my little house in village, using my camera’s self-timer function to see how each looked since I don’t have a mirror.  I settled on a fairy costume that I’m rather proud of – it was made entirely out of one tie-dyed, flowey skirt, two coat hangers, duct tape, and lots of safety pins. I gathered leaves near the workstation to pin on as a final touch.  Here’s a photo of me and my friend Lauren at the party, whose ballerina tutu is made out of the ubiquitous black plastic bags we find everywhere in Benin. 
Other costumes at the party included typical Beninese culinary dishes (two girls came as pounded yam with peanut sauce, and akassa – slightly fermented corn mash), Aladdin and Princess Jasmine, a Beninese schoolgirl…Activities included highly competitive bobbing for apples and carving watermelon.  For those of you who have never tried it, watermelon are great to carve – they work as well as pumpkins and the pulp is delicious to snack on as you’re working.  A new 4th of July tradition, perhaps?

I ended up double dipping for Thanksgiving, having two delicious dinners.  The first was in Kalale, the commune head (like county seat) about half an hour from where I live.  A young French couple lives there, and my closest Peace Corps volunteer (Devon in Bessassi) and I got together with them to make dinner on Thanksgiving day.  The couple lives at the office of SELF/ADESKA, the project that supports my community’s garden, and guests that night included a Canadian and a Rwandan expat living in Boston who were both in town to help the NGO install solar panels.  A very international thanksgiving.  And a very proud day – Devon and I produced stuffing, mashed potatoes, tomatoes in balsamic vinaigrette, pumpkin pie, banana cake, and chicken (reheated from an earlier meal), all on a two-burner gas stove.  Learning how to bake in a pot has been one of the coolest things about cooking in the Peace Corps. 

The next day I headed into Parakou to spend the weekend with a few other volunteers and have Thanksgiving dinner number two.  In Parakou our facilities were a bit more luxurious – a real oven, for example.  I led the dessert initiative, making papaya pie (similar to pumpkin) and apple crisp.  There was a real turkey (who was bought alive and met her demise in the front yard of the workstation earlier that day, with the help of the Peace Corps guard).  One of the more exciting moments was when the drippings from the roasting turkey caught the oven on fire.  But no permanent harm was done, and we enjoyed a delicious dinner.      

And Christmas.  Definitely the holiday I thought the most about over the past few months.  I’ve only spent one other Christmas away from home, and that was in Finland, a country that has plenty of snow and claims that Santa Claus comes not from the north pole, but from the northern city of Rovaniemi.  You can even visit him in person there.  So there is plenty of Christmas spirit.  This Beninese Christmas would definitely be different.

My Christmas celebration here began a few weeks ago, when I was at the Parakou workstation for a “wellness weekend” arranged by Peace Corps Benin’s Peer Support Network.  The weekend was timed to fall right at the end of our week of In Service Training in Parakou.  At the workstation we made paper snowflakes and other Christmas crafts, and a few of us who are Christmas carol fans sang all that we could remember.  In the evening a few of us watched Christmas specials like “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”.  It was a really great, heartwarming weekend – the first time I felt at all Christmassy. 

For Christmas itself, I got together with two other volunteers (Ashley and Devon) who live near me.  The day of Christmas eve, we met up in Kalale.  Someone we know at the mayor’s office had invited us to attend their children’s Christmas party.  It was an experience – hundreds of elementary school children sitting in rows of plastic chairs, being given presents.  The prize presents were two bikes, to be won by children in the older grades.  A quiz competition was held for each bike.  The first competition, for the older grades, began by all the kids lining up in front of the room.  As a preliminary elimination, each had to yell into a hand-held microphone “my name is ______.  I am ___ years old.  I am in ___ class.  I go to ____ school.  My director’s name is ___.”, in rapid-fire French.  Any hesitation, repetition, or mistakes and the kid was eliminated.  Less than half the kids made it through this first test.  Then came the quiz part – each kid had a hand-held slate, and they had to write answers to questions like “Who gives presents to children on Christmas”  and “Who is the president of Benin.”  After several hours of this sort of thing we three volunteers were pretty dazed and ready to be out of that loud, crowded room.  At the end refreshments were handed out to the kids, and I realized that the true miracle of Jesus’s feeding of the 8,000 might not be the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes, but the fact that he got the multitude to sit down and wait for food in an orderly manner.         

At the end of the day we headed to Bessassi, Devon’s post.  That evening we attended mass at the Catholic church.  A highlight was singing a Christmas carol to the congregation – I think we did quite well, although since all Beninese church music involves clapping they tried to clap along for a bit – which doesn’t go well with “Silent Night.”  The three of us sang more carols as we walked home through the village.  It was a pleasantly cool night.  Bessassi doesn’t have electricity, so the only lights were the stars and cookfires.  The entire scene, the singing, the sky, the mud houses, the occasional palm tree, made me feel like I was in a Christmas card of Jerusalem. 

Christmas morning we were woken up by drumming, clapping, and singing getting closer and closer – the Christians of Bessassi had come to greet us!  They surrounded the front door, and we all went out to dance with them.  Carolers, Beninese style.  Next was opening presents.  I had made stockings out of extra fabric from an outfit I had made, and hung them as a surprise the night before.  Ashley had made friendship bracelets for each of us, and I opened three letters I’d recently received from home – all three about Thanksgiving.  We were also gifted a live rooster by a friend of Devon’s who dropped by.  After presents we went to the Protestant church for their Christmas morning service, which involved more dancing and singing.  Christmas dinner was a delicious tuna noodle casserole and chocolate cake, and the Christians came by again for more drumming and singing in the evening.  A very Beninese Christmas.

New Year’s was at a workstation again – this time I went to Kandi, Benin’s northernmost workstation.  There were just 4 of us there, all environment volunteers, and we stayed up until past 4 in the morning playing board games like Settlers of Catan and Pictionary.  Nerdy, and great.  And the next day I baked up a huge quantity of sugar cookies, which I’ve been giving out to people in my village to appease them since I missed two holidays in a row here.  Next year at least one of the holidays will have to be in Peonga!     

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