Saturday, March 16, 2013

February 14 - A Day in my Life

I’ve been wanting to do a “day in my life” post for a while, where I record pretty much everything I do during a random day.  So here’s what my February 14 was like.  Perhaps a bit more busy that some days, but otherwise it’s pretty typical.

Around 6:15, I was woken up by the sounds of the women in my concession sweeping the courtyard and starting their day.  I slept in until around 7, and then made my morning trip to the latrine – greeting the members of my concession family that I saw along the way.  “How are you this morning?  How’s your body?  How’s your fatigue?”  Then I moved my little wooden stool into my house’s open doorway, looking out into the concession, and read my weekly Bible Lesson.  Nafisa, my 10-year-old “sister,” was eating rice with sauce and offered me some.  I told her I was going to go buy bouillie- millet gruel- at the market for breakfast, and she told me they’d made bouillie next door.  My neighbors often make bouillie to sell.  I went next door with my bowl, to buy some.  They’d prepared a lot of bouillie for a baptism – it’s traditional to give away bouillie at baptisms – so I got my bouillie for free.  I got frustrated when they laughed at my Fulani as I tried to understand the situation.  I went into the room where the newborn was sleeping, to see it- it was a boy. 

Back home, I finished my Bible Lesson and got dressed.  Then Bana, my concession “mother,” dropped by and said “let’s go to the baptism.”  We headed next door, walking around the courtyard greeting everyone and then sitting with the other women.  There are certain things that happen at baptisms, such as shaving the baby’s head, but it’s mainly just socializing and a little dancing to drums.  It’s traditional to give money to the family – I gave them 200 francs- but it’s also traditional for them to hand out money as “favors.”  So I was given 100 francs.  Other traditional “favors” to give guests are sugar cubes and kola nuts.  I got a kola nut; an old man was throwing them at people, the first time I’d seen that at a baptism.  I shared mine with another woman, only eating a small bite- they’re very bitter. 

I left the baptism around 9:15 to meet my counterpart, Guene.  The door to his house wasn’t open, so I went to a place where they sell pounded yams in the mornings, next to our health center.  Both he and the “major”, the director of the health center, were there. “I didn’t even stop by your house, I knew I’d find both of you where they sell pounded yams!”  I joked.  We headed back to the health center, and met with two nurses to choose someone from the health center to attend a Peace Corps-organized seminar on nutrition with me.  A woman, one of the nurses, was chosen.  It will be fun to get to know her better, she’s new in Peonga.

Next, I walked to our CEG (secondary school) for English club.  I waited about half an hour for the teacher leading the club with me to show up.  Although not 200 kids any more, it’s still a huge group.  A big hit with the students was learning “The Hokey Pokey” – even more popular than our last song, “Head and Shoulders, Knees and Toes.” 

After English club, I went to study Fulani with Kadija, my tutor.  The class consisted largely of me asking questions about random Fulani words I’ve heard around.  My language is getting pretty good!  Around 12:30, we finished our lesson and I walked home.  I stopped at a “shade hut” – a covered area – where men were sitting and eating a powdery dish made of corn flour.  “Come eat!”  they said, so I bought some with beans for 50 francs.  The man who invited me to eat was Ali, who drives a zemidjan (motorcycle taxi).  I’ve often traveled with him when I’ve needed to go to nearby villages.  “You didn’t go to Derassi today?”  He asked.  Today was a major livestock market in Derassi, a village about an hour away.  “No, did you?” I asked.  “Yes, I just got back.”  “Did you buy a cow?”  I joked.  “No.”  “Why?”  “No money.”  All of this in fulani! 

After eating I kept walking home.  Two people, a man and a woman, each asked me to give them the Gaani Fete polo shirt I was wearing  (the one I won at the 6 k race I ran last month).  Near the market, I was intercepted by three small kids, including a cheerful little girl who’s a favorite of mine – she always wants to dance with me when she holds my hand.  All three of the kids held my hands.  There was bit of tussling about who would get to hold which fingers.  We got home, and I remembered I’d forgotten to give my cellphone to the cell phone charging business in town.  My battery was dead.  Back to the market, with 4 kids holding hands with me this time, two on each hand, and others tagging along behind. 

Then I finally got back home and had time to relax.  I did my dishes, and Millie my cat dropped by.  I fed her a meal of leftover sorghum porridge, cold rice, and dried fish.  Then she hopped on my lap and wrestled with my pen while I wrote in my journal.  Then read for a bit and worked on “decorating” my house.  I put Christmas cards – which I’d recently received – on the wall and set up my “kitchen” – meaning putting a square of linoleum I’d bought on my living room floor, under my stove.  It looks great.

At 5:00 the day had cooled off and I headed to the garden.  Everyone was transplanting lettuce and tomatoes into their garden beds, but since there weren’t enough watering cans for everyone I didn’t do much transplanting myself.  I spent most of the time talking with Guene, my counterpart, and Ruth, the teacher at one of the schools in Peonga.  She was there with some of her students, who have a bed in the garden.  I also spent some time weeding my bed, and prepared a natural insecticide out of neem leaves and hot peppers soaked in water, to apply the following day.  My cucumbers had some bugs starting to eat their leaves.  I walked home from the garden as the sun was setting, stopping at two different boutiques in the market to buy rice, dried beans, and powdered milk.

Once I got back home I read some more – the book I was working on today was “Blue Latitudes,” about Captain Cook’s voyages.  Then Nafisa, Alia (my two friends who are 10 and 11), and a group of about 15 other kids dropped by.  They were heading to the market to buy food to “faire fete” (make party) because of the baptism.  “Fairing fete” means pooling their money to cook food together.  I put in my 50 francs, and when they came back from market they proudly showed me what they bought: spaghetti, a little macaroni, gari, rice, tomato paste, and a maggi boullion cube.  “Fairing fete” is part playing house, part camping, and part brawl.  They all cooked the food over the cookfires in the yard, and then everyone brought their bowls and there was a lot of yelling and arguing involved in dividing up the food.  I removed myself from the fray of kids to sit on my stoop and enjoy the stars.  The food sharing fray started outside, then everyone moved into the nearby kitchen hut and shut the door.  I could hear lots of arguing going on inside, and then kids began to emerge victorious one by one with bowls of food.  My bowl was brought to me, and I ate some outside before going in and sharing the rest with Millie.  Then it was time to listen to my ipod and go to bed.
So there’s probably more detail than you ever wanted about a day in my life! 


Tuesday, March 5, 2013

February 15 - Month 5 Work Post

Whenever I sit down to write one of these monthly work update posts, it seems like the month has been impossibly long.  Was this all really in one month?  Here’s what I’ve been up to since January 15:
The team from ICRISAT, the NGO in Niger, visited our area again to give a second set of trainings.  The topics this time around included how to use the drip irrigation system, how to create and use natural pesticides, how to transplant and direct-seed garden vegetables, and organizational tips for gardening groups.  A fellow volunteer from Gomori, in far northern Benin, got a “technical exchange grant” from Peace Corps to attend some of the training and learn about the drip irrigation system.  He may be interested in installing a similar system in his area.  It was really cool to have someone else here, to show off my village!  In all I spent about two weeks attending garden training sessions, both in Peonga and in several other gardens.  Visiting the other gardens gave me the chance to see how other groups work and collect ideas for my own gardening group.  And it was fun to see more of the area. 

After the training in Peonga, we were finally ready to plant our garden!  As I may have mentioned before, I have my own bed in the garden. Fun fact: my garden bed is 56 square meters.  My house is about 20 square meters/ 225 square feet.  So my garden bed is almost three times as big as my house.  Many of the vegetables in my bed are ones that the women don’t often grow – it’s sort of an experimental/demonstration bed.  I’ve planted green beans, cucumbers, summer squash, cantelope, watermelon, cabbage, lettuce, carrots, radishes, and amaranth.  Basil and tomatoes will be transplanted into the bed soon.  So far everything other than the carrots has sprouted and is doing well!  Each bed in the garden is divided into two equal halves by a path running down the center.  I have planted the same plants in each half of my bed, and am demonstrating different ways to grow them on each side.  For example, for my green beans and cucumbers I’m demonstrating different methods of trellising.  I’ve been experimenting with natural pesticides that we learned about in training, crushing leaves from the neem tree and hot peppers in water to treat my plants for insects.  It seems to be working so far.
Women working weeding our plant nursery on a work day in the garden
In my last monthly update I wrote about the PAEFE BARKA Center, the school for students left out of the education system, and their garden with the fence that mysteriously burned down.  We learned that a local farmer had been burning his fields (a common practice this time of year) and had burned the fence by mistake.  To allow the kids to start gardening this year even though they don’t have a fence, we’ve given them one of the extra beds in the women’s garden.  They’ve been coming several times a week to water and transplant. 

Students at the public primary school are still collecting sorghum stalks to make the fence for their garden.  Last week, I visited each class with a teacher to tell them about our plans for a school garden.  The kids seemed really enthusiastic – we’ll see if the fence gets built though!

In my last update, I mentioned plans to do an experiment on organic agriculture techniques in the garden.  Well, in Peace Corps plans are always, always changing – we had to abandon this idea because SELF/ADESKA decided that the chemical fertilizers used in the garden would be mixed directly into the water before it goes through the irrigation system to the garden.  We considered doing the experiment by hand watering, but it didn’t seem like that could accurately be compared to the drip-irrigated beds.  Oh well, there’s plenty else to work on.

Mud Stoves

Not a whole lot of mud stove activity this month, I’ve been too busy with the garden.  I did visit Boa Gando again after my last post, and built one more mud stove.  It was a huge one, for making bouillie (millet gruel) to sell.  I haven’t been back again to see if it dried well.  I made another announcement about mud stoves to my women’s group here in Peonga and several women said they will collect the materials needed. 

Sanitation Work

I have had several meetings with a man in the mayor’s office in Kalale who is coordinating a latrine-building project.  They have secured funding to build latrines for families who need them and are prepared to contribute part of the cost.  They plan to begin the project in the town of Kalale itself and a few of the smaller villages in our Commune (county), and have chosen Peonga as one of the villages.  I will probably help with trainings/informational sessions about latrines and identifying potential families.  We may also be working together on a trash collection/management project in Peonga.  More details as all this develops. 

Secondary Projects

I’ve continued with the English club, although we’ve only had two meetings since the last post.  One was a question and answer session with the volunteer from Gomori and the oldest kids, and the other was a normal session.  It’s sometimes hard to fit English club in, with all the gardening work and my constantly changing schedule.  But it’s fun when it happens.

I’ve submitted a request for Peace Corps funding to support a project I’m planning to promote girls education here in Peonga.  My plan is to invite professional women from Peonga and surrounding areas to talk to girls in our secondary school about the importance of staying in school.  There will probably be four sessions, with two women speaking at each one.  I’ve requested funding to help with transportation for the women, and to print thank you t-shirts to give them.  It’s pretty common here to give a small gift to a speaker in situations like this.  I’m really excited about this project.

On a regional level, I’ve volunteered to help start a Take Our Daughters to Work program in Parakou, my regional capital.  Currently, Peace Corps organizes a program in Cotonou that allows Peace Corps volunteers in the south to bring girls from their communities to the city for a few days.  Each girl stays with a professional woman, called her “Mama Modele,” and shadows her at work.  The goal is for the girls to experience what it is like to be a working woman balancing home and work responsibilities.  Currently the program is open only to volunteers and girls in the south of Benin, but if we get it started in Parakou girls in the North will be able to benefit as well.  I’ve started to talk to other volunteers in the area and collect ideas for how to find professional women who could participate.