Saturday, June 15, 2013

June 15 - The American Supper and Homework Club, and other adventures with Nafisa

Off and on, I have mentioned a 10-year-old girl named Nafisa in my posts.  As the best French speaker in my concession, she’s often my translator.  She also brings me my drinking water, carrying a big “bidon” (yellow carton) of water from the pump to my house on her head for 100f (about 20 cents) whenever I need it.  Child labor might be frowned upon in America, but when I asked the mother of my concession how I should get water this is what she suggested – and I do pay twice the going rate for water.  Nafisa loves the spending money.  She is also my “bouncer” – when I walk by the elementary school and am mobbed by screaming children, Nafisa runs into the crowd of kids and clears them away, shoving and pulling them by their uniforms.  Early in my service, it sometimes felt strange that my best friend was a 10-year-old.  But I’m used to it by now. 
Nafisa may be able to carry heavier loads on her head than me, work harder than me in the fields, and speak better French than any of the many adults in our concession.  But she still is 10, which I am sometimes reminded of in silly conversations we have.  Take her fixation with socks, for example.

One day several months ago, she asked me to buy her socks.  Socks?  I told her she wouldn’t be able to wear socks with the flip-flops she wears.  Yes, I will, she countered.  She said she wanted socks because, if you wear socks, you will be first place when they do running races at school.  “If you don’t have socks, you will be left behind,” she explained.  Perhaps socks, instead of sneakers, really are the secret to fast running.  When I ran the Parakou marathon, I did finish at about the same time as a young Beninese woman who was wearing only socks, no shoes at all.  I beat her, however, so I think the shoes do help. 

I did not end up buying Nafisa socks, even though we saw a beautiful brown pair with polka dots the next time we were at the market.  I thought it would be best for her to learn to save the money she got from fetching water and buy her own – and she did buy some, a little while later. 
Nafisa is my sidekick in a lot that I do.  One day, I wanted to walk to Boa Gando (a nearby village) to build some mud stoves.  I invited her to come along, and we brought my dirty laundry with us, stopping at a stream on the way to wash it.  We saw a tiny crocodile in the stream, and she taught me its name in Fulani: “Node”.  She also climbed a tree to get pick some fruit for me – a dry, hard fruit that I haden’t eaten before.  Nafisa had a great time making the mud stoves with me, and on the way home she talked enthusiastically about how she’ll be the one to build mud stoves for people when I’m gone.  She planned to make money doing it, first asking 200 f, then raising the price to 300f, then 500f – quite the business woman! 

Another favorite "Nafisa experience" was when we were doing laundry together and she saw the fitted sheet with blue roses that was issued to me by Peace Corps.  "That's perfect!"  she said.  Impressed by the beauty of the sheet, she told me I could make a lot of money if I set it up as a backdrop in the market and charged people money to take their photo in front of it.  There was a party in the market with a band the next day, and indeed there were several photo booths with photographers taking photos in front of brightly patterned backgrounds.  I didn't feel like going into the photo booth business, but as a compromise we tied my sheet up in our concession and spent an afternoon taking photos of each other. 

Nafisa has two good friends, Alia and Abiba.  Many months ago, the three of them started coming to my house in the evening to do homework.  I never invited them, they just started coming spontaneously.  Often I’d be cooking dinner when they came, and I’d share whatever I made – no matter how weird.  They eat it politely, even if it doesn’t have enough hot pepper for their taste.

At first they would bring their own notebooks from school and study their lessons.  Then, I started to borrow French-language picture books from a French friend of mine who lives in Kalale and works with the schools.  The first book I read with the girls was called “Emilie fait Pipi au Lit” – “Emily wets the bed.”  It took a bit of creativity, including pantomime, to teach them what the word “pipi” meant – but once they got it this book was their favorite! 

One night they brought their little slates and chalk, and we added math facts to our study sessions.  In school a lot of focus is on rote learning, and they do a lot of guessing – so I’ve been working to make sure they really understand what addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division mean.  One of them often comes up with a larger number than she started with when doing subtraction, but we’re working on it.

As much fun as the French picture books I borrow are, they are all written for children in France – and so the vocabulary isn’t always familiar to the girls.  It took me several weeks to realize they didn’t know the word “lit” – “bed” – because they always sleep on mats on the floor.  So now, the most recent addition to our study evenings is a book we’re making together.  It’s called “Gorado et ses Amis” – “Gorado and her friends.”  Every night I’m adding a few pages to it, and either I or they draw the illustrations.  So far, I have described my house and family in America.  The girls are very excited to meet Mom and Dad when they come to Benin, and carefully copied the names of all my family members – “Mike, Nancy, Nathan, Bethany” – from the book onto their slates.  They’ve learned that Dad likes to garden, Mom likes to draw, and Nathan can run fast and play the guitar. They helped draw a picture of Dad’s garden, patterning it after our garden here in Peonga with drip irrigation and lots of moringa trees.  As the book progresses, I plan to add the adventures I’ve had with the girls.  It’s fun because it relates to them, so they really try to understand what the story means instead of just copying the sounds of the words.

Here’s a picture of our most recent study session.  Sometimes I’m tired in the evenings, but it’s hard to say no to a group of 10 and 11 year old girls who come over during summer vacation to say “please, can we work on math and reading?  Please?!?”     


  1. How delightful! I feel I am there and can't wait to meet these girls. Please send me some French lessons to prepare.

  2. Bethany! It's been awhile since I caught up on your blog, but I love your writing!! It sounds like you've made quite the nice home and experience for yourself. Also, I think you should think about maybe publishing that children's book, depending on how it turns out. The world can always use more children's books, especially ones that explore cross-cultural investigation.