Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Camp GLOW, and Five Weeks to Go

Peace Corps life is infamous for its slowness. Coming from a nation where even the food is fast, it takes Americans a great deal of time to adjust to the pace of a place. At the slightest expression of impatience, West Africans love to joke about how I am American, so “Tiiime ees moh-nee!” And while I hardly notice these days when I’ve been sitting for several hours in waiting, I know I am still not fully adjusted to the unhurried pace of Benin.

However, I’ve found myself in an interesting limbo, as was evidence from the whoosh of Camp GLOW. The week of camp was by far the fastest of these past two years for me… It was one week of “American time” during which I bustled all day, slept hard all night, and woke up hard every morning to be once more dictated by schedules and clocks. I loved the sense of purpose, ownership, and responsibility that came with the opportunity to plan and participate, but now, three weeks later, I still need an early bed time and a late sleep-in to recover… Five weeks from now, an unbounded amount of America just might wear me out! Here comes the reintegration period…

Camp was a phenomenal experience for the girls and counselors though, to get a glimpse
of another culture, learn from Beninese women they admire, meet their peers from other parts of the country, and to develop the leadership skills that will help them improve their communities.

Highlights of the week: a team-by-team fashion show to everyone's new favorite song, "Happy!" 

Team Blue struts it's stuff
Plus, the girls sang “Happy Birthday” to America on the 4th of July – in three different languages! Peace Corps sure does turn you into a patriot! 

Once again, as with most Peace Corps activities, the cultural component seems to be the most memorable.

4th of July relay races! Note the PCVs' enthusiasm for RW&B :)

Life will certainly slow down again now, at least for the next month, as I wrap up village projects, plan my departure, and say my goodbyes. I’m excited to be home again, but I’m not yet anxious to leave, which I consider a good thing. I’d like to finish strong and leave my community and this still foreign place on a good note, knowing I really did give it my best try for two years.

I’ll probably post again in August, one last note before I go. I’ll try not to become delusional and romanticize the challenges and realities of the past two years, but I suggest readers prepare for at least some sentimentality…

Wishing you all a happy camp season.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Spelling, Running, Glowing

Today, the new training group arrives, Peace Corps Benin 2014-2016, exactly two years after I did…

And exactly two months from today, I will move out of my village...


Oddly enough, I haven’t been doing much day-counting lately, which seems a good way to spend these last precious moments. I fluctuate between impatient and sentimental, and I thrive on the busy days that make this whirlwind of an experience feel like it has been worth the while.

June seemed to fly by. To start, I traveled with two of my English students, Hubert and Fleurette, to a national spelling bee. Little Flower had a rough time with the ten hour bus ride – her first cross country travel experience was an exhausting, sickening one, and it was a relief that she was at least able to take home third place!

Last week, Peace Corps Benin’s gender equality fundraiser, Tour du Benin, made it to my neck of the woods, and I ran a 15 mile leg to help raise money and awareness. Thanks to all those who contributed to support the runners – the committee raised over $3,000 toward future gender equality projects and activities!

The rest of the month has been consumed with my final large project, the co-coordinating of Camp GLOW, Peace Corps’ annual camp for girls, replicated nation and world-wide! Camp GLOW Porto Novo will begin next Sunday, welcoming 50 young girls from all over the south of Benin.

Camp GLOW strives to empower young women, so that they may become confident, motivated leaders in their communities. We recognize that the achievement of gender equality can serve as a solution to Benin's needs as a developing country, and through camp GLOW (as is the Peace Corps MO) we are supporting personal growth among the individuals who will make these solutions realities. This means encouraging girls to seize opportunities for leadership and independence, education of course being an important means for doing so. Throughout our week together, my fellow volunteers and I, as well as Beninese counselors, will be exposing participants to civic engagement, providing health education, promoting confidence-building activities, and offering mentorship from role-models such as professional women guest-speakers, Beninese counselors, and Peace Corps Volunteers. Additionally, we encourage girls to become well-rounded individuals through many other activities, including art and sports.

For the sake of more exciting and tangible ideas about what we’ll be up to at Camp GLOW, I’ll do my best to post pictures and stories in the next couple of weeks!

At that point, I’m sure my focus will have shifted as well: from final projects in village, to my Close of Service trip! John and I will be backpacking for three weeks in Italy, Greece, and France – a bona fide “food tour” for a couple of hungry RPCVs! More on that to come…

Until then, thanks for keeping the good vibes coming as my time here is quickly going!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

One Hundred (100)

And so, the months, weeks and days, they must have passed quickly after all…

As of my Close of Service conference earlier this month, at which I was assigned my departure date (August 28), today marks the start of my final 100 days in Benin!

Day counting has become somewhat of a ritual here. Bold diagonal lines ceremoniously end another day come and gone in all its glory and ennui, filling up two years of calendar space, and it’s clear that I have somehow taken to living this life in mile markers – typically three-month periods leading to a big event to look forward to, or sometimes simply the idea of “gotta get through this one and onto the next…” And I think this is the first time in two years that I have such little fear of the next stint. For the first time – just in time for the end – I feel bigger than the vastness of time I obsess over here. Maybe it’s because this is the end. Home is around the corner. I’ve almost made it. And it surely doesn’t hurt that I will be plenty busy with school events, long distance runs, rainy season gardens, summer camps, and a good amount of Peace Corps paperwork!

At this point in my service, the anxiety builds in a new way. Is three months enough to finish strong with my projects, leave my work partners and my community on good terms, and feel ready for my return home?  Stay tuned to find out, I suppose...

Happy summertime, friends. See you next season :)

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Thank You

A GRAND MERCI to everyone who has helped Camp GLOW meet its fundraising goal!

In only two weeks, we obtained enough money to cover all camp expenses – and $700 extra! – This extra money will be used toward other Peace Corps Partnership projects that need a boost.

Thank you so much for all of your generosity. This amazing opportunity wouldn't be possible without you!

If you didn't get the chance to donate but you’d still like to help out a 2014 project in Benin, check out the following activities:

Tour du Benin (Indiegogo) – A country-wide run from north to south, volunteers will run alongside host country nationals to promote and raise funds for gender equality efforts. I've got a 40 km leg in June!

Camp Bro (PCPP) – “Boys Respecting Others” is another week-long camp encouraging responsible, gender-equal behavior among adolescent boys.

National Spelling Bee (PCPP) – A country-wide English competition for middle schoolers qui aiment l’anglais!

Merci beaucoup!

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: