Monday, April 21, 2014

As Jesus Rises, so too shall the Roof

No Peeps, no chocolate bunnies, no egg hunts or ages-2+ plastic grass… Another holiday in village, another reminder of how bizarre my life is.

Easter, according to my neighbors, is the biggest party in Houeda. Saturday at midnight, there was a procession of children drumming and singing. Sunday afternoon, everyone choked down spaghetti, rather than their preferred nightly dish of sauce with pâte (a hardened mixture of corn flour and water. Think hard cream of wheat, but corn-flavored… I should really do a food blog one of these days). And Sunday evening, the blaring music came. Adults drank, children danced, babies cried, and the yovo took a peek and then stayed inside with a batch of burned cookies and a kitten she high-jacked from her concession family when they weren’t looking (I have mice now, I needed him to make my house smell all cat-y!). The music continued until 6 AM Monday, provided a short break for more singing and screaming of “ALLELUIA!” and then started back up until mid morning...

Meanwhile, down on the farm, my supervisor Moïse (French for “Moses.” This is ironic. You’ll see why.) invited 40 people from his congregation, plus me, to “receive the light.” Moïse is part of a New Age Japanese religion, “Mahikari.” Wiki it.

After two years, I sometimes find it difficult to be shocked by things here… But to see a group of Beninese men, women, and children face north and chant incantations in Japanese, I was humbled by how little I’ve seen or have come to understand about this world.

The ceremony began with ten minutes of chanting in Japanese, bowing, and clapping. I was then introduced to a kind older woman named Jeanne, who asked politely if she could now give me the light of God. I was instructed to close my eyes as she raised her hands over me for another ten minutes. Through later observation, I found that most people passing on the light (those in Jeanne’s position) used this time to check their phones with their free hands. I thought that was funny… Step three, I was instructed to turn around for another ten minutes while Jeanne periodically touched pressure points on my head, neck, and back, politely saying “excuse me, dear Michelle, you will now receive light at point number ___” with each gentle touch. At the end, we bowed and clapped together, thanking god for sharing his light with me… A truly bizarre experience, but it meant a great deal to Moïse for me to finally receive the light of his faith.

Folks back home, you may be confused. You may be wondering what the hell is up with my small African village, full of party-hardy Christians and practitioners of New Age Eastern religions? Valid question.

Benin is historically and culturally noted as the birthplace of voodoo, the traditional animist religion that has spread across West Africa to Haiti and Louisiana, famous for goddesses and infamous for dolls and jinxing. And while it is still the most prominent religion in the rural regions of southern Benin, most people today identify with several religions at once. In fact, it’s an amazing harmony that people have established here, allowing to each their own, hardly scoffing at one who is an animist at heart, but a Catholic on Sundays.

Though the mixing of such starkly different religions can seem incongruous, it’s a testament to all of the changes to which this place and this culture have been subjected – through colonization, through globalization, through the status of a developing country. I remember a conversation I had with my maman when I first moved to village, about the perils of poverty and the prominence of religion here (Have I mentioned this? Faith in god is mentioned quite frequently in conversation, it’s used to market various products, it’s the basis of the local music and film industries, it’s advertised on bumper stickers, license plates, and delivery trucks…). Anyway, she said that “to live here, it’s necessary that you believe in god. Because there is little we can do and it’s god who will take care.”And as most people here live so close to nature and have so few means to control it, it’s impossible to abandon traditional beliefs about the powers of wind and water, for example… But frankly, the benefits that come with joining a church of the missionaries are also understandable. Churches are typically the largest, nicest buildings here. Funds for development so often have spiritual strings attached, and the ceremonies themselves have been strategically tailored to the African ceremonial traditions, incorporating a great deal of song and dance.

And so, no one seems to blame anyone else for their religious choice(s), and they are especially willing to try anything once. It’s an admirable part of this culture, the peaceable religious component, though somewhat of an anomaly here, as it’s still in my opinion a culture very much concerned with homogeneity and definition. I guess the general rule is that as long as you believe in something, you’re good…

Well, that’s all for my monthly story / cultural commentary… Just a few holidays to go until I can properly celebrate them in my own American way! It will be once again sad to miss family birthdays and the 4th of July, but I’ll be happy to make it home in time for the big four – Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year! In the mean time, 2014 is already 33% over, and that’s wild.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Glow, Baby, GLOW!

Friends, Family, and Gender Equality Enthusiasts:
Each year, Peace Corps Benin hosts Camp GLOW ("Girls Leading Our World") in the country's capital of Porto Novo.
For one week in July, 50 Beninese girls (ages 12-16) will join influential women from their communities, along with Peace Corps Volunteers, to learn a variety of life skills, build confidence, and become better leaders and students. The camp's primary objective is to encourage girls to stay in school, but we have a lot of fun too!
To make this camp possible in 2014, we need your help! 
Donations can be made here to help us raise our goal of $5368.53.

GLOW is among my favorite activities of Peace Corps service. The confidence these girls gain in one week is astonishing and can have an incredible impact on their performance in school and decisions during adolescence. I can't wait to host this year's camp! 

Any and all contributions are much appreciated. 
Shine on, and go GLOW!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Strike Tour

My big event in March was a 5-day bike tour around the south-west corner of the country. I joined five other volunteers from all sectors (Education, Health, Business Development, and Environmental Action) to present to over 600 high school students.

Our goal was to raise awareness and encourage high school students to make smart choices about staying in school and planning for their futures by delaying sex or practicing safe sex and family planning. The theme, “Je planifie parce-que j’espère” (I plan because I hope), addressed the four main reasons to practice family planning. F.P. can allow them to complete their educations, maintain their personal and family health, assure prosperity for the future, and contribute to environmental sustainability.

The greatest challenges were not the arduous kilometers covered by bike, nor the heat rashes spawned from hours spent sweating through the upper-90s of hot season. Rather, we fell into the hands of fate as we conducted our tour of multiple high schools in the midst of a nation-wide teacher (and student!) strike.

While the strike had officially started in February due to several teachers being owed salaries from the year before, school in most communities continued as usual. In my community, most teachers kept attending school lest their names be placed on a black list. But only a week before the tour, I had arrived at the high school for my weekly Girls / English club (everything has become a “slash English” club these days) and discovered a ghost town. That very morning, a group of activists had raided the school, insisting all of the teachers and students go home so that the government may take their strike seriously.

“The rebels!” my school director drunkenly lamented to me from his sad, empty school. I couldn't help but think back to the largest teacher strike I can remember, state-side in Wisconsin, and that between administration members like this school director and the unresponsive President of Benin, there seem to be some regular Scott Walkers here too, labeling the act of standing up for your rights and your paycheck as “rebellious.” To be fair, there are a multitude of differences between Benin and Wisconsin, Yayi Boni and Walker... And in the cultural context, the preferred method here would be to keep on working, though maybe not as hard, and to complain until something changed. I guess that didn’t work well enough, because action was taken and the strike went on.

In retaliation, the government cut pay for all teachers, even those still working, and the strike extended from secondary schools to primary and university, and now, to the students themselves.

If a strike continues for a certain period of time (3 months?), the year is declared null, and students must repeat a year. That’s the worst part. School here is not free, and those school fees will have gone to waste, never to be seen again. A year of school fees can make a huge difference, especially for girls, who often have to forgo school if there is only enough money in Papa’s pocket for one child’s fees and she has a brother. Thus, the students are the biggest losers here.

And so, they didn’t want to take it anymore either. They took to the streets, to the public squares, to the mayors’ offices, with songs and chants and youthful protests. But I’m not certain if they were organized or empowered enough to be recognized, and the strike goes on…

Several schools we visited then required a rallying of straggling students and teachers, waiting around hopefully for some work to do. An overall audience of 600 plus wasn't too shabby though, given the circumstances, and it was an exciting experience for the volunteers involved to see new parts of the country, improve our presentation skills, and witness the varying attitudes across communities.

This week, I rest my legs and continue trying to master the art of not sweating so much. It’s been a steady 99ο for the past 5 hours, and I’ll have to wait until June to get my April showers... Despite a hold on school activities, I find little projects here and there in the mean time. Coming up: a Beninese style bachelorette party for a fellow volunteer, and various “celebrations” of World Malaria Day – April 25! Be glad USA is Anopheles free!

With that, I'll wish you a happy spring time, and a happy belated Beninese St. Patty's Day:

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Queen of the Hippos

I’ve officially completed my tour of the “Peace Corps approved” countries surrounding Benin! While Niger and Nigeria are off-limits according to Peace Corps’ safety and security standards, Burkina Faso was my third and final neighbor to visit, following Togo / Ghana last November.

Two weeks ago, a ten hour bus ride took my travel buddy and me to the north of Benin where we stopped over for a day to enjoy the tasty cuisine, rolling landscape, and dry air that make that half of the country feel like an entirely different one from my home in the sticky south. The next morning at 3 am, we were off in a “tro tro” (think big white van large enough for 12 people – or in West Africa’s case, 24 –  that children all over America are told to avoid, regardless of how much candy is inside). The early morning trip to the border was a bizarre tour to pick up passengers and load sacs of grains and barrels of smuggled oil onto the top of the tro. As the sun rose and the heat settled, the adventure had only just begun.

We spent 2 nights in Burkina’s fun-to-say capital city, Ouagadougou, marveling at the similarities and differences from Benin: people are calmer, the city was cleaner and the roads more developed, everyone rode bikes everywhere (!), donkeys pulled carts, the expat community was more expansive, food was cheaper, and beer was better…  We were in a vacation mindset indeed. But having learned from the frustrations of previous West Africa travel, we were prepared to see that brokenness doesn’t know borders: men were still inconsiderately persistent, prices were still inflated for skin color, begging was more prevalent, and taxi drivers didn’t seem to know their way around as well as Benin’s motos.

Realizing we’d grudgingly have to forfeit some of our Benin Peace Corps Volunteer know-it-all status for that of a tourist, we agreed to call it an “exploration” from there on out. We moved on to discover the southwest corner of the country, via an 8 hour train to Bobo-Dioulasso!  The second largest city, Bobo was far more calm, clean, and scenic than Ouaga. Only 1 day and night to spend, but it was an enjoyable walk around a sleepy city, to see an old mosque of traditional architecture, enjoy local music, and taste the delicious yogurt that the country has been known for.

According to other travelers, “the only thing worth seeing” in Burkina Faso is Banfora. While this small town is the center of many attractions, I thought it paled in comparison to Bobo’s character and had little else to offer than a lovely hotel and proximity to tourist destinations. Each day we spent our mornings shuttling to the outskirts to see the sights.

An early morning wake up was necessary to catch the hippos while it was still cool enough for them to remain above water where they can be seen. Having read some horror stories about the danger of an angry hippo, I had my reservations as I stepped into a rickety pirogue (traditional canoe), paddled with a stick. The sight of the hippos was majestic however, as we closed in on a family of 12 waking up slowly near shore. We asked the guide to keep his distance, and at the snort and shake of one beastly potamus, I jumped a little! Recognizing my fear and uneasiness, the guide pulled up some weeds from the lake, and proceeded to braid me a beautiful crown and necklace. I smelled like a lake, but I was Queen of the Hippos for a day.

From there, we visited natural domes left by the receding of water and erosion of wind, as well as beautiful waterfalls, running strong in the dry season. The falls were surrounded in every direction by fields of sugar cane, irrigated by the run off. We noticed unexpectedly advanced irrigation equipment running all day long and were told the fields belong to a Saudi Arabian investor who exports the sugar cane and pays his Burkinabe workers well…  The evening before, we had met with a Burkina PCV from the region, who informed us that water was often shut off in many of the surrounding villages due to shortages. A sad truth, seen also in Benin and everywhere in the world I’m sure, that priority is given to those with money and power, even if a majority of people’s basic needs aren’t being met.

Day two of Banfora began with a long dusty ride through ever familiar red roads, past the sugar cane fields and hippo turn off. Mid morning, we found ourselves in the village of Sindou, boasting natural peaks of magma and eroded domes. The formations continue into Mali and are eerie enough for many a movie (Lonely Planet compares the place to the setting of “Planet of the Apes”!). I tested my fear of heights with a bit of climbing, and didn’t get very high.

The final destination was to a sacred Baobab tree, guarded by an ancient Rafiki man, who was ever enthusiastic to invite us INSIDE his tree. Yes, the trunk of this quintessential African tree can host 15 people if they are all small enough to crawl through the hole... 18 meters circumference, this tree is host not only to Rafiki man and tree-hugging tourists, but to bees and bats and termites, who aren’t afraid to coexist!

After a year and a half experiencing travel in West Africa, I think we did well to keep an appropriate perspective. It was a trip for further discovery of lands like the one we have come to call our own, and the times when we were able to feel relaxed and comfortable were always welcome. Most nights, we were able to enjoy a wonderful meal and tuck into air conditioned hotel rooms. We even got to watch some of the Olympics (spoicy)!

Now, back to “business as usual,” February is almost over and I’m in the 6 to 7 months-to-go mark. So very sadly, I move forward without my dear pet Geo, whose company and presence helped me through the last year and a half of life alone in my village. I hope I have the strength to go it alone, as work slows, weather warms, and cultural frustrations wear on me.

At this time, the journey continues, but the focus shifts. There are more adventures and experiences ahead, none of which will be anything like the one I have grown accustomed to in this part of the world. As always, thanks to everyone out there for the positive thoughts and support.  Stay warm!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Year of the Homecoming

I kicked off the holiday season by partying with 50-something preschoolers! One of my most enjoyable and successful activities since last April has been monthly meetings at a nearby preschool where I meet with the mamas of children under 5, and we discuss how to improve family health. From nutrition seminars and cooking demos to techniques of hand washing and good hygiene, there has been steady attendance among the mamas, and we’re starting to incorporate income generating activities like soap-making! The school director has become an enthusiastic and supportive work partner, and she made sure to have me as an honored guest at the Christmas party. All of the children received toy dolls or trucks, donated from a local NGO, and Santa Claus even showed up! Apparently the idea of a black Santa is outrageous here, because all the Kris Kringles I saw last December had their hands wrapped in wrapping paper and wore creepy white Santa masks, 3 of them, to cover the whole face… No wonder so many children screamed while on his lap.

I suppose I wouldn't be a true PCV without a picture of a bunch of African children around me... 
The little boy in the middle with his tongue out, Manzouk, is my favorite. I can rarely get through a session without him climbing onto my lap or tugging on my pant leg. They're a wild bunch, but a good time!

The festivities continued with a much welcomed visit from Megan, James, and Dad. We enjoyed many a Beninoise on the relaxing beach at Grand Popo, nearly sweated to death one night in my little house in the village, over-ate at my farm (seriously, I think they killed all the animals and harvested all the crops we spent 2013 raising…), and sought comfort from the heat and sickness in the lovely abode of the lovely Marie-Elise. Megan got adorable African baby fever and confused small children when standing next to me; James became an expert greeter and taught idioms to my English speaking friends; and Dad was recruited to give a certificate of completion to a woman he’d never met before. There are now many pictures of my father, random yovo chief man, validating a young woman’s graduation. Awkward for us all, but instigated with good intentions… We were made to feel like honored guests wherever we went, and I felt so honored that they came all the way here to spend their holidays with me!

To soften the blow of my family’s departure, I celebrated the New Year with Peace Corps beau and his family, Beninese style. January 1st in Benin is Halloween for adults, where people walk from place to place and are given food and drink until they can’t walk / eat / drink anymore! An enjoyable start to 2014, the Year of the Homecoming.

And so here I am, month one nearly down, and 8ish to go. January passed quickly, as I attended a 5-day training in Natitingou for my Amour et Vie team, and celebrated “WemeXwe,” the Festival of the Valley, with my friend Antoine. A four day event, WemeXwe brings people together from all over the region for cultural celebration, feasting, and awesome matching outfits!

Amour et Vie team field trip to Kota Falls in Natitingou

WemeXwe Festival with Antoine and Zoe - picnics, matching outfits, and crowds galore!

It’s hard to believe that the rest of the year won’t pass quickly as well, as 2014 is shaping up to be a busy year! I’ve got vacation days to use up, and each month brings a major event:
  • February – Burkina Faso road trip!; Helping out as a female counselor at a basketball camp!
  • March – 5 day bike tour through the Mono-Couffo region, educating high-schoolers about the importance of family planning.
  • April – World Malaria Day (04/25) mural painting at the preschool
  • May – Close of Service (COS) conference – a milestone, where I will find out my departure dates!
  • June – National Spelling Bee competition for high school students; Fundraiser with other volunteers, for which I will be running 40k across the country to raise money for gender equality efforts; Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World), for which I am a coordinator this year! I’ll keep you all posted within the next few months about how you can help with these awesome activities.
  • July – Camp BRO (Boys Respecting Others) for high-school boys
  • August / September – Homecoming?!?!?

I’ve heard that year 2 of service is infinitely more enjoyable, more quickly passing, and more productive. Of course, the next 8 months will still include many long, slow days, which somehow amount to the lightening flash that is this whole experience – a series of time sucks and in no time at all. Now, the current struggle is to remain present to this place and these people, and truly commit myself to the two year commitment I made. While at the same time, I know I should prepare for what lies ahead in my post Peace Corps life. As I complete this journey and prepare for the next, grand merci for all of the love and support from home. Heureuse Année, 2014!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

GHAN A little while, TO GO see places we haven’t BEN IN

I spent Thanksgiving week traveling to nearby countries of West Africa: Togo and Ghana. While I left home with a vacation mind-set, I believe I returned to Benin more exhausted, confused, and overwhelmed than I’ve felt in a while.

Though the overall cultural differences among countries surrounding Benin seem minimal on a surface level, the whole trip was a jolt back to my first few months in country – How do I get from here to there? How much should things cost? What should I keep in mind about culture, safety, etc.? But the neighboring country Togo was beautiful, and we stayed in a mountainous region of Kpalimé, rich in coffee and cocoa, a landscape and two agricultural products that Benin unfortunately lacks.

Ghana was another story... In my efforts to share my experience, I suppose I haven’t written much about language. This is somewhat ironic, since it accounted for about 70% of my Peace Corps training and now accounts for about 90% of my misunderstandings… I was therefore looking forward to and expecting a respite in Ghana, an English speaking country and the more advanced country of the region.

The moment I crossed the border however, I experienced a sort of paranoia – all of the sudden, people can understand me! No more talking with my travel companions in taxis, fearless of eavesdroppers. No more excuses for poorly executed transactions. No more easily tuning out hawkers and hecklers…

Accra is a large and developed city, incredible compared to Benin’s commercial capital of Cotonou – we’re talking trash removal systems, public transportation, paved roads and effective infrastructure… Simply crossing the border from Ghana into Togo was a ridiculously stark contrast of a Ghanaian paved 2-lane road, dropping off to a Togolese dirt road littered with potholes and mud puddles. 

All of this in mind, I was somehow surprised to find the prevalence of local language in Ghana to be just as strong as in Benin. For the first time, I realized how the Beninese and I must sound to the French. It was fascinating to witness the incorporation of the commercial language – English as I know it – with local language and West African culture. My own reactions were somewhat startling, as “white man, white man, hello!” was far more uncomfortable to hear than “yovo, yovo, bonsoir!” It was amazing that the same words and phrases were able to strike different chords when heard in my native tongue, and evidence of colonization from years ago was even more present when perceived in my own language.

While it was a valuable experience to see different parts of the region I live in, it was less of a vacation and more of an exploration, complete with all the standard struggles of West African life – long, hot hours in bush taxis, stomach woes, and mosquitoes. A sort of relief came over me when we reentered Benin. It may not be bustling with industry or boast a gorgeous landscape, but it is full of places I know, a culture I have come to understand more confidently, and a sense of comfort I didn't know I had before. With all of the distresses and discoveries, I was fortunate to have a supportive travel buddy in John, to whom I must give credit for the catchy title of this post and corresponding photo album!

I’m pleased to note that my next “vacation” will be right here in Benin, as I celebrate Christmas with Megan, James, and my dad (that makes round 2 for him in Benin – he’s a champ!). Family will be such a welcome treat, as the holiday season sadly feels lost for the second year in a row. But I know there won’t be time to dwell, as I’m down to 9 months and the 2014 Close of Service conference for my training group is already on the calendar! Time to start putting the next plans into action… Suggestions welcome :)

Happy holidays!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

America the Beautiful and English with Antoine

I was visiting a colleague when a friend of hers stopped by to visit. Perhaps in an effort to impress us, he arrogantly insisted he knew all about the differences between our cultures, though for half of the conversation, he was assuming I was French… His main points:
  • “If I left a cell phone on the table here, someone would steal it. And that would never happen in America. No one is poor or greedy in America.”
  • “If I want to buy a computer in America, but I don’t have money, the government will pay for it. Americans don’t have to work.”
  • “If I want to come visit you at your house in America, I have to call your secretary first and make an appointment. No one needs to be welcoming or friendly in America, because they don’t need their friends to give them money.”
That same day, I was stuck at school, waiting for a rainstorm to pass, when my school director started ranting: “I work 10 hour days here! I don’t make enough money! See how we suffer? If I lived in America, I would never feel this way!” While Americans probably don’t always consider how lucky they are comparatively, I’m sure that same rant has been expressed state-side. I explained to him that the life of an American teacher probably didn’t feel much different…

“But you get free coffee and meals in American schools, right?” he asked.
“Free lodging near the school”
“Longer lunch breaks?”
Definitely no (the Beninese lunch period is a 3 hour siesta)…

He asked me about an American teacher’s salary in Chicago (he did his master’s thesis on Barack Obama and is always looking for the opportunity to speak English or talk about the president). We made a mock budget, estimating what one earns and spends on food, housing, transportation, etc.

“You Americans can save some of your monthly paycheck!” he exclaimed. So I had him do the same thing for a Beninese teacher in a city. Same results… “Look,” I said, “one can save money here too.” He looked at me for a moment, and chuckled a little. “No, no we cannot… We have to go to parties on weekends.”

And when it comes to that cultural aspect, I simply cannot disagree. Saving money is near impossible in this culture, because one is expected to give money when a family member asks for it, even if it was reserved for something else. Now pair that with the fact that families are huge here (due to many factors: polygamy, a need for extra hands in the fields, a lack of family planning, etc…), jobs are hard to come by, and medical care is almost always necessary given the low health and hygiene standards of developing countries. This is why people will often spend money as soon as they have it – so that they don’t have to share. In Benin in particular, this results in a lot of half-built homes and buildings – piles of bricks and sand, that are in fact the family’s financial investment.

Furthermore, socially, the Beninese are expected to attend every party to which they’re invited, where they are obliged to spend large sums of money on matching outfits, food, drink, and contributions for the blow-out funeral ceremonies that take place almost every weekend. Not attending is a snub to that family. Again, families are huge, so that can come back to bite you and your kin in the ass one day. Alas, one cannot be both popular and rich, and in this culture, one is clearly preferred.

Once I was working with my environmental club students, discussing soil quality, and I tried to solve some confusion and lead them to the right answer by asking them a general question: “which is better, to be rich or poor?” They unanimously agreed “to be poor.” (I should know by now that I can’t give a normal lesson without getting a cultural one)… When I asked for an explanation, they said rich means greed and rich means everyone asks you for things. True enough, especially here, when even the richest man will try to assure you he is poor. If not to gain your sympathy, he will say so to avoid your open palm, to which a culturally competent Beninese pocket must oblige.

…It’s been a common theme lately, people complaining to me about how hard life is here, and how much easier it is in America, as if they could get off the plane and immediately have their pockets stuffed with cash. On more than one occasion, a mother has half-jokingly held her baby in front of my face, asking me to take him / her back to America with me.

Peace Corps goal 2 is about educating my host country about America. While my usual response to these occasions is to nod sympathetically, I feel like I’m feeding into a lie. Yes, America is wonderful. But as an American, I can recognize that my country has hardships of its own, despite the way it has presented itself and the achievement of the “American Dream” to the rest of the world. I wish we could find a way that allowed the rest of the world to have an “[Insert Country Name Here] Dream,” to set an example of success, rather than appear to be the only success. The ways of America, the beautiful, won’t necessarily work for others, as cultures are developed and valued so differently. How can we go about encouraging economic and social development with a new standard that doesn’t necessarily have to apply to ours, but makes each country into an ideal for itself?

Of course I will agree that people here struggle more in their own ways, especially as they have little to no support from the government. But what I am more bothered by is the way in which people who start such dialogues with me are usually doing so just to complain, or to seek an easy way out, rather than to find lasting solutions to their woes. While the man from my first story was also implying that Americans are less hospitable and generous, I can’t say that there is any more evidence of solidarity, or any less evidence of selfishness here. Only that the “every man for himself” or “what can I get from you?” mentality is universal, cloaked in its own cultural justifications.

This leads me to my second story…

"English with Antoine” has been a common note on my calendar since last April. Antoine is an English professor at the local secondary school, and he has become a sort of secondary project for me the past 6 months. Antoine has been participating in a series of tests that will allow him to work for the state as a translator. One day he showed up at my house and asked to practice his English with me. This is a common request from people I meet, but I had yet to tutor anyone privately. I agreed, fairly certain he’d be like the others and forget or not have the time to dedicate to actually improving. Much to my surprise, Antoine has a work ethic and a focus unlike any I’ve seen here. He comes to study several times a week, and we have taken to listening to NPR podcasts together, discussing the stories and clarifying vocabulary and pronunciation as we go. He is determined to land this new job.

In working with Antoine, I have recognized that he is somewhat of an anomaly in other ways too: he does pick and choose which parties he’d like to attend, and he saves up part of his paycheck for new English books or a fancy phone. He doesn’t enjoy drinking, or loud music, or going on dates. He doesn’t want to leave Benin forever, and he doesn’t think life is easy anywhere. Rather, he embraces this place as his home, and he therefore wants to make it better, despite the fact that he is an “atypical” member of his community and doesn’t entirely fit in with the masses’ ways of socializing or coping with the hardships of this country. People like Antoine are those who I enjoy working with: people who want to improve their own country, rather than leave it all together. He gives me hope for a grassroots movement, the kind comes from those who know and love their country, and also know what could be better about it. Those are the ones that will truly make development toward those “self-idealized” countries possible.
Enough of my development schpeel and culture ranting for now… My goal is only to be honest. Just as I feel a rekindled duty to realistically describe what life in America is like, as I see it, I also feel obliged to avoid romanticizing the Peace Corps experience that is two amazing, invaluable years of culture confusion. I hope my observations and generalizations have not come across as paternalistic or ethnocentric. I have learned so much so far here and there is a great deal left that I will never understand. I find a humbling comfort in it, knowing how much I do not know.

With all that in mind, the next 10 months will fly by. Year two will be eons more productive in the sense that my roles here are established, contacts have been made, and I have a success or two to my name. I also expect it to become somewhat more challenging however, to spend more time in the culture that I have learned to accommodate, yet not always appreciate. But Geo and I are healthy, and I’m looking forward to family visits for the holidays… Wishing you all a lovely fall; I’m glad that will be the season to welcome me home in 2014!