Sunday, February 10, 2013

February 10 - Confessions of a Professional Athlete Accused of Doping and Suspected to be a Man


“People say that you got a shot to make you strong and that’s why you can run.”  I have an 11-year old friend, Alia, who tells me the rumors about me in town.  This is by far my favorite one.  Never in my wildest dreams did I ever imagine I’d be good enough at a sport to be accused of using performance-enhancing drugs.  My brother Nathan tells me that I’m just going through the rumors that all elite athletes face, and could get in touch with Lance Armstrong to tell him I know how he feels.

As I’ve mentioned in a few of my work posts, I’m training for the Parakou marathon.  I really didn’t expect to run while in the Peace Corps, although I did buy a pair of trail runners from REI before leaving (my only closed toed shoes) and packed 6 pairs of socks just in case.  I’m a very off-and-on runner in the states.  I got inspired to do a half marathon with a friend after watching the Boston Marathon for the first time, but after the half was done I literally didn’t run for about a year.  I figured I’d have enough to deal with in Peace Corps without adding running in.  Besides, I can’t stand running in the heat, and I imagined that everyone would stare at me. 

But when I visited Peonga on post visit, I realized several things.  1. It is actually pleasantly cool in the mornings, not hot at all.  2. Peonga is surrounded by 4 beautiful dirt roads through trees and fields with no traffic, perfect for exploring. 3. Everyone stares me no matter what I’m doing.  Add to the equation Cara, a fellow volunteer who has run several marathons and is convinced that it’s easy and wonderful and anyone can and should do it.  She talked several first-timers like me into training for Parakou.  After all, after my half marathon I thought I’d like to try a full marathon sometime – but only when I moved to a new place and had a lot of free time and could easily rearrange my life to accommodate training.  Well, I’ll never be in as new of a place with as much free time and as flexible of a schedule as now. 

 My first run was just 15 or 20 minutes long, right after I moved to village.  That day the victory was just getting out of the house and doing it – and I was helped by a beautiful sunrise that I saw out my window that was begging to be explored. Since then, I’ve been doing 3-4 runs a week, one getting progressively longer each week.  There are many more structured ways to train for a marathon, but this seems to be working for me.  There have been some really nice things about running in the mornings.  Peonga is very small, so after 5-10 minutes at the most I’m outside of the village running through the fields.  I’ve gotten to see the seasons change, watching different plants start flowering, different crops being harvested, and all the foliage dry up and get red and dusty as the dry season has progressed.  On long runs, I leave when it’s still dark and get to experience the day getting slowly light.  On one favorite run, I was running directly towards the full moon, watching it for more than an hour as the day dawned and it gradually faded into the sky.  I’ve gotten to see lots of different birds, and almost everyone I pass- whether on a motorcycle, in a truck headed to a market, or on foot leading a cow, has waved and smiled and cheered me on. 

I’m waxing poetic, and that might be because tomorrow is long run day and I’m trying to convince myself that running for 3 hours will be wonderful.   


7 days to marathon.  Not only have I been accused of doping, but I am also now, in a sense, a professional athlete – last week I made about $6 for running.

I’d gone to Nikki, a nearby large town, for a big festival called Gaani.  I’d been told there would be a race the morning of the festival, and I should go to the mayor’s office at 6 am to register.  The person who told me was going based on his experience in past years, and a volunteer who I know who works at the mayor’s office had heard nothing about a race.  Still, I got dressed in my running clothes and tiptoed over the many sleeping volunteers on the floor where I was staying.  It was still dark at 6 am and I wasn’t exactly sure where they mayor’s office was, so I asked directions several times.  The words for “mayor’s office” and “husband” are very similar in French, and I got a few confused looks – I wonder if I mixed it up a few times.  Either way, I did end up finding the mayor’s office, and a race.  True to Benin form, it started about 2 hours later than scheduled.  The race was a 6k.  Up until the last moment, I was the only woman registered.  In America, you usually find a mixed bag of people registered for races like this- a few serious athletes, several fit mothers with running strollers, many people of all ages who are just out for the personal victory of running 5 or 6 k.  Not so in Benin. All my fellow runners looked like well-trained soccer players in their mid-20s, complete with spiffy running outfits.  I made quite the contrast, the only woman, in my dusty running shoes, loose capris and stained Principia College t-shirt.  At the last moment, I was joined by two high school girls, one of which ran barefoot.  When the time came to start the race, we were all driven outside of town in a police car and an ambulance.  We were given a brief pep talk that consisted of “do everything you can to avoid accidents,” and were off.  Us three girls were by far the last in the race, and I came in dead last, behind even the girl with no shoes.  But as the 3rd place woman, I still won 3,000 francs, a Gaani festival polo shirt, a bottle of coke, and a 2013 wall calendar from MTN, a cell phone company.  Not bad!  My time was 28 minutes 28 seconds.  The winner came in around 16 minutes, so I don’t feel so bad for being last.  My next race will be much, much longer.   


Marathon was yesterday.  Wow, what an amazing experience – I can’t really figure out how to bottle it up into words.  I did it!  The race started at 6 am, when it was still dark.  Most runners met up in Parakou and were bussed to the starting line in Tchatchou, about 13 miles away.  But a fellow volunteer who is also an avid marathon runner happened to be stationed in Tchatchou, so several of us spent the night at her house right by the start.  The first half of the race was along the highway leading into Parakou, and the second half wove around the city, finishing at the catholic church sponsoring the race. 

On the official marathon poster, it is billed as “Un Marathon Atypique au Benin a Parakou” –“An Atypical Marathon in Benin in Parakou.”  The slogan was accurate.  Here are some of the ways this was truly an atypical marathon:

·         There were only about 120 runners. 

·         For the first half of the marathon, we ran past villages of mud huts.  Twice along the course, we were cheered on by groups that were drumming and dancing. 

·         The roads were not closed.  The first half of the marathon was on one of Benin’s largest north-south highways, so we were running on the shoulder being passed by big trucks.  The second half wove through town, so we had to watch for motorcycles and other traffic.  (There were police directing traffic at each major turn, so we did have help).

·         At each water station, we were given bottles of water – and immediately were chased by children calling “donne moi le bidon” – “give me the bottle.”  I felt like asking them, “don’t you know that I sort of need this water right now?” They were actually after the empty bottles, which can be reused, not the water – so I usually handed my bottle off to a kid when I was finished with it.

·         For 3 of the last 5 kilometers, a young Beninese woman ran alongside me.  This was her third marathon.  She was only wearing knee-high socks, no shoes.  Several of the male runners who passed me were wearing strapped, close-toed women’s sandals.    

·         After finishing, when I went to the booth to get my time, I noticed that I’d been written down as the 6th place finisher on the women’s list, but my name was crossed out.  When I asked why, they said “oh, we moved you to this list.”  And they took out the men’s list, where I was 35th.  I clarified that I am indeed a woman, and they assured me they would correct their records.  Clearly, they had recorded me as a woman, then for some reason someone said “wait, no, that can’t be right, she’s a man.”  I’m sure I registered as female on my form, and I don’t think I was looking particularly manly…maybe it was my superhuman strength and speed…Only, only in Benin. 

Seven volunteers ran the full marathon, and for four of us it was the first time.  The course limit was 5 hours, and we all finished on time!  Leading up to the marathon I seriously doubted I could do it.  My longest run, about 20 miles to another volunteer’s post, had been very, very challenging.  But during the dry season (now) the roads around me are very sandy, so it was sort of like training for a marathon on the beach.  Very scenic, but asphalt is a bit faster to run on.  And me and two other volunteers ended up being about the same pace, so we ran all but the last 10 k together.  Running with us was a young Beninese man who runs the marathon every year.  He really took us under his wing (I’m sure he could run faster), directing traffic, making sure we didn’t get lost (a real possibility on a course with so few runners), and staying back to run with whichever of us was falling behind.  As we got to the half marathon mark, I realized we were going to make it.  We were making good enough time that all we had to do was keep going, even if we slowed down we would make it under 5 hours.  From that point on, although it got physically more difficult with each kilometer, I felt progressively mentally more confident and better about myself – so the two sort of canceled each other out.  Every few kilometers we’d see the distance remaining painted on the road, and as the numbers got smaller we’d say to each other “23 k, what a small number!”  “16 k, that’s nothing!”  I ran the last 10 k by myself, a bit ahead of my two friends. My time: 4 hours, 37 minutes, 56 seconds.  Way, way better than I thought I could do.  I was sore and tired of course, but nothing hurt in particular – just general sore.  And I felt – still feel – so amazing.   
Our Beninese friend runs with Heidi, Kelly, and me

This marathon was sponsored by the Catholic Church, and the motto on my medal reads ‘”Tout par Amour, Rien par Force.”  “Everything by love, nothing by force.”  A very clear parallel to the text from the recent Christian Science Bible Lesson I was studying on Love: “With Love, all things are possible.”  On my last long run, the one that was so difficult, I dealt with a lot of hip pain.  I was limping half of it, and for the whole day afterwards.  I was afraid of that happening for the marathon, but it didn’t happen at all.  And I didn’t have the experience of “hitting the wall” that many marathon runners talk about either.  Really, the whole experience was so characterized by love.  Thanks those of you who were praying with me in the days leading up to the race, helping me see this experience as a spiritual one, an opportunity for me to learn more about my abilities as God’s child. 

My friend Cara talked a lot about marathon running as a metaphor for life.  And really, it is.  Life isn’t like a short race that’s a burst of speed and then you’re done.  In a marathon, your body hurts and complains but you just don’t listen, you continue running in the way you know you have to.  Life, perhaps especially Peace Corps, is a lot like that.  All kinds of mental complaints demand your attention and try to throw you off track, but you need to just keep moving forward, living your life in the way you’ve chosen to. 

It’s a struggle to sum all this up and this blog post is getting quite long – but I’m sure at least those of you who have done this will know what I’m trying to say.  Any other marathon runners have thoughts to share?  Even today, the day after, I’m pretty sure I want to do this again.  Maybe not next year, maybe not right away, but sometime.  I’d like to try an American marathon, maybe one with large crowds of runners and no need to dodge traffic…        
At the Finish

February 10 - Photo Post!

Mom mentioned that some more photos on the blog would be nice, so here is my February gift to all of you - the time and patience to upload these lovely photos.  A little picture of my life here in Benin.  Sorry they're a little small, but it was either that or hours, hours of upload time. 

A favorite photo from a church function during training in Porto Novo.  In case you were wondering whether I stick out here in Benin...

Walking to the fields in Peonga with women from my concession.

The first mud stove I built, with the family I built it with/for
Helping unload a basin of water during a compost-making training in Peonga's garden

Trampling corn stalks for the compost

Chatting with Fulani women at Gaani, a festival in Nikki, a nearby large town

My fulani outfit for Gaani fete

A wild elephant I saw in a village near mine

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!     

January 15 - Month 4 Blog Post

Wow, another month down – and things have actually gotten quite busy.  It’s a very new feeling.  At the beginning of this “month,” from the 15th to the 19th, I was in Parakou for a week of in-service training with my counterpart from village and all the rest of the Environmental Action volunteers.  One of the things we worked on was project design and management – the training was sometimes a bit tedious, but it was useful to talk about plans with my counterpart and share ideas.  It was also really fun to see what the other Environment volunteers have been up to and what their posts are like.  Not long after IST came Christmas and New Year’s, so I was out of post more often than usual.  But the weeks that I spent in post were packed with work.  Here’s what has happened:


Harvest time is over, so the women in my gardening group have had much more time to work on the garden.  We’ve been mainly focused on getting the garden beds ready for planting.  I helped the technicians employed by SELF/ADESKA lay the drip irrigation one day, and spent several days working on building garden beds with the women.  We’ve also been incorporating manure into the beds as an organic fertilizer.  I’ve set up 6 small beds to use for an experiment testing different organic agriculture techniques.   

I’ve been making plans for two school gardens – one at our public elementary school, and one for a new school that’s sponsored by an NGO and targets children who have been left behind in the education system.  Specifically, the school teaches students that have not started school and are too old to begin regular primary school, between the ages of 9 and 11.  They are taught in Fulani, with the instruction gradually transitioning into French.  The NGO asked the teacher of the school to organize a school garden to provide school lunches.  Along with my homologue, I have met with her several times to plan the garden.  We’ve chosen what to plant and made a schedule for planting to make sure that the vegetables will be ripe at different times.  The first step in any garden around here is to build a fence to keep sheep, goats, pigs, and cows out.  The children had almost finished the fence for the garden, made out of wood and sorghum stalks, when yesterday we learned that it had mysteriously been burned down.  No idea why that happened yet – it could possibly be an accident, since lots of people are burning the crop residue in their fields around now.  But either way it will put off our planting for a while.  The public school garden needs a fence too, and the students have been collecting the materials.

Mud Stoves

I built one more mud stove in Peonga, for my counterpart’s wife.  She seems to be using it a lot.  And on a recent run in a nearby village, Boa Gando, I met several women who were interested in mud stoves there.  I biked over there this morning, and built three stoves in the same concession before I had to head home.  It was great – we sort of had a “mud stove assembly line,”  with people preparing the clay and dried grass mixture for the next stove while others of us were shaping the stove we were currently working on.  I have plans to go back to Boa Gando and build more stoves on next Tuesday.


There are three garden technicians who work for SELF/ADESKA, and one of them is trained as a forester.  When I mentioned I’d like to learn more about the trees in our area, he got very excited and we made a plan to go on tree walks together.  He’s teaching me the scientific and local names for the trees we see, using an identification book I got from Peace Corps.  We’re taking pictures of each of the trees.  We’ve also plan to bring older people from Peonga with us on walks to teach us the traditional uses for each tree.  He wants to collect all this information into a book.  Either way, it should be useful to learn.

Other than that, my English club has continued – I now hold two sessions each Wednesday morning to accomidate all the kids.  It’s been fun.  Marathon training is going forward – I’m already tapering down my runs to get ready for the big day.  Longest one was 4 grueling hours!