Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Adventures in Senegal

The Stomp Out Malaria Bootcamp was intensive, inspiring and by far one of the highlights of my Peace Corps service. Surrounded by 37 other PCVs from 14 different African countries, I learned about malaria best practices, current initiatives and got to speak with global leaders in the fight against this disease.

Peace Corps Benin meets Peace Corps Senegal, Thies, Senegal.
Over the course of two weeks, we explored different ways that PCVs can use their own resources and innovative technologies to combat malaria in their how countries and communities. We had the opportunity to meet a true hero in the fight, a local man who lost his daughter to malaria at age 12 and who, over the past 15 years has championed his community to become malaria free. In Senegal, where malaria is still one of the number one reasons for child mortality, this is a true miracle.



In addition to the hours of malaria work, we learned about conducting behavior change activities, piloting grassroots soccer and Moderating focus groups to determine doer vs non-doer behavior patterns. With the help of our amazing facilitator, we were critiqued on our presentation skills and given feedback on how to pursue careers in international development while marketing our peace corps skills in the modern age.

Piling into a sept-place, the easiest form of transport in Senegal.
Despite all the material that was covered, one of the most important parts of the experience was the networking. With people coming from as far as Madagascar and Zambia, I now have a better image of the scale of Peace Corps in Africa. And, I can't imagine serving anywhere but Benin. From late night trips to the local gelato spot and helping non French speakers navigate the fabric stalls of a west African market, I'm walking away with new connections, ideas and friends.

Before leaving Senegal, I got to explore a little bit more of this beautiful country. From Thies, a group of us hired a station wagon and headed for a night of desert camping in Lompoul. Located about 2 hours north of Thies, we were picked up by a open back tractor (imagine a hay ride), and driven out to Camp Desert. Upon our arrival, we were escorted to our site, where an inviting canvas tent awaited us.
Rains moving across the desert.
The desert was beautiful and immense, sand dunes stretching in all directions. Camels relaxed under the shade of a few trees and we enjoyed the solitude that only vast emptiness can bring. As we sat in silence, a rain storm began making its way across the sand, forcing us to take shelter in the communal eating tent. At night we gathered around a bonfire and danced to the beat of traditional drumming with the other visitors. It was an amazing experience.

Camp Desert, Lompoul, Senegal

From the desert, we headed north to the island of St. Louis, the former colonial capital of Senegal and Mauritania under French rule. The island, which is connected by a simple truss bridge to the mainland, is now a UNESCO world heritage site, and walking down the streets one can easily point out the colonial influence in the wooden shuttered architecture and beautiful rooftop gardens. We found a nice little B&B to spend the night and set off to explore the island.

Lompoul Desert, Senegal
Crossing another bridge, we came to the more populous part of town, away from the tourist hotels and home to hundreds of long horned sheep and colorful fishing boats. We roamed the streets, caught a glimpse of the ocean and then enjoyed a meal at the infamous Vietnamese restaurant, which didn't live up to its amazing reputation.

St. Louis, Senegal
At night we went to dance at the Iguana Bar, a Cuban club that only played top hits. The next morning, I enjoyed coffee from a garden patio and waited for the other girls to head to Dakar for our flights. We finally headed out, caught a taxi and left for the capital.

Fishing Boats, St. Louis, Senegal
With a couple hours to kills before my flight, I took the opportunity to wander to Pointe des Almadies, the most western point on continental Africa. Dakar itself is a bustling and developed city, well worth a trip back to explore Goree, the slave island, and the art scene.

Instead of heading straight back to Benin, I'm off to a couple weeks of much needed repose in America! Can't wait to see family, enjoy the cooler weather and eat more fresh blueberries than humanly possible.

In true fashion, Team Benin rocked meme tissu during the training!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Intro To Mapping: How You Can Help Plot Communities Worldwide!

Have you ever searched for your house using Google Earth? Used satellite imagery to scope out a new neighborhood, plan a trip or avoid traffic? Well, satellite imagery is incredibly useful, especially here in the Peace Corps!

While you have all seen pictures of my village, I've never actually shown you a map of my community.  Well, all of that is about to change!  Here in Senegal, Peace Corps Volunteers from across Africa are learning about the advantages and utilities of mapping to track public health, agricultural, economic and a various number of other initiatives.  Over the next two weeks, I will be working to plot out my village using an open-source tool called OpenStreetMap.  

And here's where you come in! As an open source database, you can help me map Adourekoman from your own living room.  Since I'm sure your wifi connection is much stronger than my own, I can assure you that this will be a fun, easy and informative experience.




So, get your computer ready, find a comfy seat and prepare yourself for an awesome (m)appy hour!
I've already located Adourekoman on the map, all you have to do is zoom in and start tracing!

Tracing is easy! I've done all the major buildings in Adourekoman.
Using the drawing tool, you can go in and add all the other houses in the community!
This is the first map of Adourekoman...ever!
I'm hoping that we can finish it up and use the map to start tracking projects.


So... How can you help?

2. Create a username and password
3. Search Adourekoman, Benin and select "Village Adourekoman, GlazouĂ©, Collines, Benin"


4. Click Edit and zoom in to see the outlines of community buildings
5. Using the "Area" tool, trace buildings


6. Select Building Features and Choose "House"



7. Click "Save" and add #PeaceCorps and #PCBenin to the "Changeset comment" textbox


8. Click the blue "Save" button and you're done!  You've helped map one more building in my community!

9. Continue adding, saving, and participating in the global mapping community!!

If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to reach out by email: beninvariant@gmail.com



Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Onward We STOMP

Hello from Senegal!

It's been a little while since my last update, but I can assure you that things have been exciting and busy post-camp. In addition to wrapping up the camp activities, I was back in village to implement some project follow-up before leaving country for a couple weeks.

Starting today, I will be participating in a malaria intensive two-week program called STOMP Out Malaria in Thies, Senegal. Volunteers from various Peace Corps posts across Africa are invited to this training to foster collaboration, learn about best practices and really dive deep into the problems of malaria endemic countries. I have the privilege of attending with two other Benin PCVs, Karsten and Nicole, both of whom serve on the Benin Against Malaria (BAM) Committee with me.

We left Benin yesterday morning and, like most travel in Benin, it was not smooth sailing. After grumbling about our airport drop-off time, we arrived at the airport at 7 am for a 10:30 am flight. We were dumbfounded when guards told us that the plane was already boarded and they wouldn't let us in. August 1st is Benin's Independance Day and the security was adamant that the airport was closing at 8 am. We talked our way into the airport, were rushed through baggage check and then waited patiently in the passport control line for about a half hour. When we approached the booth, we were yelled out for not completing the proper forms (what forms?!?) and then shuttled through security and into a mini van that sped us across the tarmac. We walked onto the plane only to find it full of people, none of whom seemed phased by the 3 hour change in departure time. Only in Benin would a flight leave hours early.

Once the plane took off, we were notified that there would be a brief stopover in Accra, Ghana en route to our layover destination in Abidjan, Ivory Coast. The plane ride was uneventful, but freezing cold, something I haven't experienced in months. We arrived in Abidjan for our layover and enjoyed a quick snack before boarding for Dakar. The second flight was equally uneventful, and slightly warmer. We touched down in Dakar about 10 hours after leaving Benin and were greeted by Peace Corps staff who escorted us out and drove us the the Peace Corps office in Dakar. Having arrived with the cohorts from Madagascar and Ethiopia, the nine of us set off to explore a little of Dakar. After scouting out the surrounding area, we headed back to catch a ride to the Peace Corps training site in Thies, where we will be based for the remainder of the training.

While West Africa has a similar beat, Senegal has some striking differences to Benin. First, the infrastructure is far more developed: roads are paved, lined with street lights and the major highway had electronic toll booths every couple miles. While we are so used to riding zems (motorcycles) as a means of transport, Senegal has no shortage of yellow taxis. Instead of negotiating with a zemijohn for a ride, taxis run on the meter (or atleast they are supposed to.) We arrived at the training site, which resembles our own in Lokossa. There are bunk houses, outdoor gazeboes, but everything exists on a much greater scale. In comparison to the program in Benin, Senegal hosts about 250 PCVs to our 75. So, in general, everything here just feels bigger.

After a night of restless sleep (think heat, humidity and mosquitoes), we got up for our only training-free morning this week. Nicole, Karsten and I decided to check out the city and wandered down towards the bustling market which was filled with horse carts, vegetable vendors, fabric shops and more flies than I could count. We found a shop with some different Senegalese prints and negotiated based on our knowledge of Beninese prices. Trying to beat the heat, we headed back to the training site, making a quick stop in an artists compound to scope out the local artisanal wares.

Training starts this afternoon and will continue until the 13th. We will be discussing our own programs in Benin, learning about malaria transmission, prevention and implementing behavior change initiatives based on various different models. It's going to be a grueling two weeks, but I'm excited to meet other PCVs, learn more about posts across Africa and share our experiences.


Sending love from the other side of West Africa!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Boys Reaching Out: A Photo Tribute

Camp season is over here in Benin, but I'm still running on the caffeine high and enjoying all the amazing pictures from the last week in Ouidah!  Thanks to the amazing Alex Peterson for putting this together!


Over the week, we covered so many topics including malaria, sexual health, human rights, art, music, hygiene and HIV/AIDS.  We took the kids on field trips to the Python Temple, Portuguese Slave Fort, and many saw the beach for the first time.  Back at camp, we played soccer, sang songs, completed an epic relay race and enjoyed countless laughs.  It truly was an amazing week!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Magic of Discovery: Boys of Summer 2016

One of the best parts of Camp BRO Ouidah is the location. Ouidah is the perfect trifecta of culture, history and the beach. While Benin is known as the birthplace of Voodoo, Ouidah is referred to as the Vatican of Voodoo, the mecca that is all Vodun. In addition to the myriad of statues scattered around the city representing various voodoo deities, there are temples, sacred forests and almost daily parades of different costumed spirits. Although it sometimes feels like a sleepy beach town, the cultural scene is alive and well.

Where voodoo is colorful and lively, Ouidah also has a dark history as one of the main slave ports in West Africa. Slave traders from the north would collect slaves in Allada, a city about 1 hour away, and march their “property” to the shores of the Atlantic. The only building that remains today is a Portuguese fort, that was burned down and reconstructed as a slave museum. Today, you can tour inside the battered ramparts, where slaves were lined up, valued and sold before making their way to the ships.

Sarah is a brave soul!
Yesterday, we took the boys on a tour of the Fort. It was eerie and sad as we watched these young men realize the horrors of the past. Hundreds of thousands of slaves passed through the stone gates, being ripped away from their family, their ancestral lands and their rich African culture. The boys learned about the slave trade and the role of the Dahomey kings in the sale of their own people. At the end of the tour, they asked us, “why?” Sometimes, we don't have the right answer.

Coming off the sobering field trip at the fort, we left this morning to visit the Python Temple of Ouidah. Perhaps one of the most touristy attractions in Benin, it is also a very important site for Voodoo worshippers. Pythons are holy animals in Voodoo and the temple hosts upwards of 50, ranging from small little babies to, what I would consider, monster-sized beasts. Having become a hysterical wreck during my last visit to the Temple a year ago, I swore I wouldn't hold another python, but I entered the walled enclosure with the boys and watched as each bravely wrapped a snake around their neck and smiled for a photo. At the end of our visit, Lainey and I stayed behind and snapped a few pictures, but kept our distance.

From the temple, the group started down the slave route, a 5 km walk from the slave market to the shore. Along the path, the slaves were put through 6 stages of cultural cleansing in the attempt to reduce them to nothing but property for their journey to the New World. Walking in shackles, the slaves renounced their homelands, families and loved ones. Many slaves died en route and were buried in a mass grave where we paused and had a moment of silence. As we walked, the boys began to realize what the walk actually meant. We were doing it leisurely, in memoriam, but for decades, this was a route of pain, loss and suffering.

The last stage of the slave route is the Point of No Return. Now recognized as a UNESCO Heritage Site, there is a large arch that represents the gateway to the New World and a life of Slavery. We walked through the gates and were greeted by the sand and ocean that laid on the other side. At the sight of the water, the boys began running. For most here, this was the first time they had seen the ocean. It was magical watching them sprint down to the shores, coming to rest on the top of a high dune, poised right above the splashing waves.

The magic of seeing the ocean for the first time!
The boys stood above the water in awe of the majestic immensity of the ocean. The blue water stretched for miles and the horizon was just a thin white line in the distance. They looked terrified. One volunteer jumped off the dune and ran towards the water, signaling for the boys to follow. Moments after reading pure fear in the faces, it was all smiles. The boys leaped into the incoming waves, collected water in their bottles to bring back home and cart-wheeled down the sand. I have never seen such an intense reaction of happiness from children; it was magical.

Felix and I at the beach!
Camp is all about letting children learn in a way that's fun, giving them the opportunities to grow unencumbered, providing them with the teamwork and life skills to be productive members of society and empowering them to be leaders in their community. Throughout the week, we have shown these boys both the darkness and beauty in this world. I am so proud of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, these boys and this amazing country I call home.

Camp BRO Ouidah 2016!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Motivate, Educate and Celebrate: Summer Camp Honors the Girls of Benin

Camp GLOW was everything I wanted it to be, and more. Much like attending camp as a child, I was sad to leave yesterday. The pouring rains were fitting for the voyage home; we danced, enjoyed road snacks and sang our favorite camp songs. From start to finish, it was a blast.

The week started with a pre-test to assess participants knowledge of various topics that would be covered over the course of the week. It touched on malaria, menstrual hygiene, resources for vioence against women, sanitation and nutrition. As a group, the average on day one was 40%, clearly not a passing grade. When I graded the post-tests however, I was elated to announce that the group achieved a 84% average, with several girls receiving perfect scores. So, not only was camp a fun experience, but an effective opportunity to educate and motivate these young girls to become leaders in their community and promoters of healthy habits in their homes.

There is no way camp would have succeeded without the tireless work of the other directors, our amazing team of volunteers and their wonderful homologues, adults in their communities who assisted run activities, explain lessons in terms that the girls could understand and monitor the girls at night. Their presence was an absolute blessing. One homologue even brought her baby, and little Ebenezer became a pillar of the Camp GLOW experience.

Despite the addition of educational sessions, we spent hours with the girls outside the classroom, challenging their creativity, teamwork and introducing them to new programs. Each day, girls chose to participate in one of four different activities: yoga, self-defense, computers or art. By the last day, the yoga girls were in perfect vinyasas, our self-defense girls were blocking and throwing jabs, our computer girls impressed us with their ability to use a mouse and open new programs and the art girls dazzled us with their portrait-drawing and cootie-catcher making skills. During the afternoon, we presented the girls with team challenges: relay races, egg drops, straw tower building competitions and a scavenger hunt. We watched as natural leaders emerged from each colored team and girls began to take care of each other. There's no doubt that each girl returned home with the memory and knowledge of forming 50 new friendships.

The power of camp and the importance of my work here came to a shattering halt on Wednesday morning when one of our campers, who had been complaining about a stomach ache since arriving, began vomiting during a session on reproductive health. We made the call to take her to the health center for a consultation, aware that it was unlikely to be malaria. At the health center, I sat with her while they took her temperature and vital signs. When she didn't have a fever, I suggested to the nurses that she do a pregnancy test. The city nurses sized up my 14-year-old camper with wide eyes but acquiesced. Five minutes later, with a positive result in my hands, I had the difficult responsibility to tell this young girl that she was pregnant. My stomach dropped as I watched her future flash before her eyes. While I don't know how she became pregnant, it was an instant reminder of the fate of many young girls here in Benin. Although this young woman was a top performing student in school, she will now be forced to drop out, and it is unlikely that she will ever return. The news crushed me, but I was happy to bring her back to camp, where I knew, despite her little secret, that she would find comfort in her new friends and enjoy a couple last days of just being a kid.


Camp, no matter where you are in the world, is a place of freedom, fun and friendships. Every girl, regardless of their village, background, age, grade level or economic upbringing, was given the opportunity to just enjoy a week away from home, free from daily chores, pumping water and caring for younger siblings. As a camp director, I walked away on cloud nine. The smiles and laughter were contagious and I feel like we did our part to motivate, educate and celebrate the girls of Benin.   

Saturday, July 16, 2016

These Girls Rock!

After an amazing week at camp, it's sad to say goodbye.  Our days have been jam packed with games, chants, educational sessions, team challenges and more smiles than I can count.  Here's a little sneak peek into the shenanigans of the last couple days up here in Parakou!