Sunday, December 27, 2015

Ikouadun Noëlie!

Of you don't count the time that we visited my uncle and had to endure a meal of extremely burnt deep fried turkey, or at least that's what he claimed it had been, I've never really celebrated Christmas. Sure I've attended holiday parties and even a couple Christmas Eve celebrations, but that's been the extent of my participation. As a Jew, Christmas always means Chinese takeout and a trip to the movies.

This year, Christmas was going to be different. I decided to stay in village and celebrate with my community there. I've already blogged about the preparations, the gifted boar and the excitement leading up yo Christmas eve. I had no idea what to expect.

The official partying started with a 'midnight' mass on the 24th that commenced at 10:15 and was over by 11:05... Can someone explain midnight to me?! The service was mostly singing, conducted by a local leader in Idaasha and took place in our candlelit catholic church. It really was beautiful.

I woke up on Christmas morning to wrap gifts, enjoy a leisurely cup of coffee and find out what time mass was taking place. At the market, I had bought pairs of earrings for all of the women who help me in village: send me food, do laundry, carry water etc. For the kids, I bought Angry Bird themed toy watches and NASCAR race cars. For everyone else, I stocked up on lots of bubble gum. With each item carefully wrapped in silver foil and tied with a bow of dental floss (PCVs get creative,) I headed out to wish everyone a Merry Christmas.

The young girls were thrilled with the gifts and it felt so good making them smile. It was just a tiny token of my gratitude for everything they do to make Adourekoman my home. The kids jumped at the watches and cars, and everyone wanted a piece of sugary gum, even though it was still early morning.

I headed back home to shower before mass, which was supposed to be at 9. Since it hadn't started by 10, I felt no rush to get to church and stopped by several houses on my way, acquiring a baby in the process.

Church was conducted by a priest from Glazoue and lasted a little over an hour. There was dancing, singing by both the chorale and youth chorus, and lots of gifts for the church leadership. When church let out at noon, everyone poured out, heading home for Christmas feasts.

Committed to bringing my own contribution to the meals, I rushed home to bake some chocolate cupcakes. Somehow I managed to come up with a recipe using jago powder (like swiss miss), but didn't take into account only being able to fit two cupcake cups in the dutch oven at a time. Fast forward 36 cupcakes and a couple hours and I was back outside, delivering baked goods and settling in for a communal meal of rice, spaghetti, ignam pile, akassa and too many sauces to count.

After making the rounds to a couple different families, I went home to nap quickly before going to Zaffe with Daniel to celebrate with the major there. We finally left village at 6 and enjoyed a heaping serving of chicken and beers with his family and some friends from his village.

By 8:30 we were back in Adourekoman, sufficiently stuffed and exhausted from a day of fete-ing. I called it a night and headed home to a stack of dishes and an attention seeking cat.

I woke up on Saturday to head out with the village chief and a bunch of children to a Christmas event on Glazoue. It turned out to be a 7+ hour ceremony sponsored by one of Benin's 50+ presidential candidates. He had invited over 1000 kids to receive a meal and gift. Although the event kicked off with pizzazz, despite starting 3 hours late, it started to when the Santa parade forgot to show up on time, making an awkward entrance during an important speech.

Gift giving was on an individual basis, but after child number 200, the rest became restless and chaos ensued. Eventually all the gifts were handed out and we were able to continue home, albeit 5 hours late.

On top of the Santas, people clamouring for time at the mic, and a dancing tam tam troupe that made impromptu appearances, there were about a dozen traditional voodoo fetish dancers popping in and out of the tents. As the only yovo on the crowd of thousands, I was an immediate target for their attention and after a while I abandoned my front row seat for a more protected, a shaded, chair towards the back.

In all, my first Beninese Christmas has been quite an adventure. And for some reason, I sense that its still not over. 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Ho(g)! Ho(g)! Ho(g)!

The holiday spirit has taken over Adourekoman! Everywhere I go people invite me to celebrate Christmas with them, offer me food or just wish me a Happy Holidays!

Although Christmas doesn't officially start until tonights midnight mass, preparations have been in full swing all week. On Tuesday night, I helped some women make Christmas cookies, which, like most Beninese foods, were deep fried slices of sugary dough. The Wednesday market in Glazoue was busier than I had ever seen it, with people stopping to pick up goods on route home and vendors filling their stalls with more merchandize than could ever be purchased.

In addition to the general excitement about Christmas, its the end of the cotton harvest here. The entire church yard is littered with heaping piles of fluffy cotton, giving it the appearance of snow mounds in a deserted parking lot. The villagers have been weighing the cotton on a large scale and each day a new truck comes to haul some away to a storage facility in Glazoue. Its quite the sight.

On Wednesday, I couldn't resist the temptation to throw myself into one of the huge piles. This started a full-on cotton jumping party which eventually progressed into an African snow ball fight. Its these moments of pure joy that I savor most.

Gift giving, although a huge part of Christmas celebrations in the States, is reserved for children here in village, and apparently the Peace Corps Volunteer. I returned home yesterday afternoon to a squealing boar parked on my stoop. Its arms and legs tied together with strips of mosquito net (see what I have to fight in the battle against malaria?!), the poor thing wiggled down the cement, coming to rest in my sandy front yard. Merry Christmas Charlotte.

Unsure what to do with the beast, but quite certain it would become dinner over the next several days, I walked over to my neighbor to inquire what I should do with it. Almost positive he had no idea what I was talking about, he walked away, only to return moments later with a stainless steel bowl and very sharp, yet somewhat rusted, machete. I played a little game of consistently refusing the machete before Mr. Neighbor finally got the hint and took the boar and the blade to his yard.

At this point, we had garnered quite an audience. Without hesitating, Mr Neighbor (whose real name is Intelligence,) straddled the boar, lifted up its snaggle-toothed mouth and sliced its throat. I gave a little scream as blood gushed out, pouring into the bowl below. Although it was dead, the animal continued to thrash for another couple minutes, as life spilled out of its body. Another butchery experience in the books.

With the gruesome part over, I hung around to watch a couple men chop up the carcass, clean the entrails and discuss who would get which choice pieces of meat: the eyes, tongue, lungs, liver, brain etc. Having taken a seat between the carving and the roaring fire, I helped salt the meat and tend to a brewing bowl of blood and inner organs.  As the guest of honor, I was expected to eat the first serving of congealed blood accompanied with a hunk of spongey liver. I took a bite, swallowed it whole and passed the bowl to the next person.

In an attempt to avoid consuming more mystery pork, I bee lined it to the health center to say goodnight to Daniel before heading home. Twenty minutes later, having just brushed my teeth, there was a knock at my door and a small child delivering more pork. I took the dish, said thanks and ate a couple pieces before treating wowo to a pork fat feast.

I'm really excited to celebrate Christmas here in Adourekoman this year. From what I can tell, its going to be a weekend of food, sodabi and lots of dancing. And, if I'm lucky, maybe even more meat! 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Six Months Happy

The decision to become a Peace Corps volunteer was not an easy one. In fact, when I received my invitation, I immediately doubted myself and decided to decline the invite. I was worried about being lonely, sad about missing out on events at home and unsure about my ability to live in a foreign environment without any of my modern amenities. I'm glad that, over the course of seven days last December, I struggled with the decision and ultimately went down the road of the unknown, the adventure and the challenge.

Despite often sharing the highlights of my life here, its not always easy. I've given up certain creature comforts: running water, coffee without the grinds, clean clothes that aren't covered in a layer of dust, electricity and exchanged them for solar showers, one cup French presses (I realize this is still a luxury and I'm so glad it made the packing list), language barriers, solar panels that barely work in the rural haze, and hand washing that leaves a trail of soap on everything I attempt to wash. Its been six months of change, adaptation and resiliency.

Some days here are easier than others. Some nights the bats living in my roof don't keep me up all night, the children don't start pounding on my door to play at 6 am, the zem driver actually has exact change and I can readily find a source of protein in village to accompany my heaping servings of carbohydrates. On other days, everything feels like a struggle. It feels like the country is fighting against us.

I'm lucky and spoiled in village. I have friends who have become family, a wonderful house which feels like home and a community that welcomes me with uncharacteristic Beninese smiles and open arms. I am blessed.

Being a Peace Corps Volunteer has been deemed "the toughest job you'll ever love," and I couldn't agree more. There are highs and lows. There are days that move so slowly, but then the surprise as another week passes by. I've learned a lot about myself, being independent and most importantly, how to ask for help. But by all means, this is not a life for everyone.

The Peace Corps is a choice. We are volunteers who choose to serve 27 months in a foreign community. We accept these challenges and are forced to create our own tools to overcome them. Just as we can choose to be here, we can choose to leave.

One of the hardest things for me here has been watching, talking and listening to my friends who decide to terminate their service. I fully respect their decisions; this is not an easy job, an easy place to live and its not for everyone. But as another person leaves my little Peace Corps family, its like a piece of me, and my experience here, gets ripped away.

I think its important to remember that everyone coming into Peace Corps has their own goals, motivations and experiences. Its crucial to recognize that you are in control of your own happiness. As I sit here, swinging in my hammock in Adourekoman, I can't imagine being in a better place. For others, too many days bring unsurmountable challenges.

I think the point of this post is two-fold. First, for anyone interested in the Peace Corps, you will, like I did, probably read countless blogs and articles about the PC experience. These will be both positive and negative. Until you try, however, they will not be yours. Trust yourself, take the risk and enjoy the ride.

Second, I am not one to easily admit failure.  I believe in countless second chances, working to rebuild the broken, and that there really is a light at the end of the tunnel if you keep trekking forward. Being in Benin has made me realize that certain things are not in my control: travel can take hours due to potholes, electricity in the nearby town can be out for days, and, in a village where people tell time by the height of the sun, I can rarely expect anyone to be "on time." If you join the Peace Corps, there is a way out. As much as you can provide for your community, its important to know that you, and your happiness, come first. I credit those who realize that this is not for them and, at the same time, mourn their absence.

Over the past six months, my PC family has dwindled, but my Beninese family has grown exponentially. I have found strength that I didn't know I possessed and been blown away by the people I've met on this journey.

As I hit the six month mark here in Benin, and look forward to everything that 2016 holds, its important to reflect about what you're doing and what you could be doing to become a happier and more fulfilled person. Sometimes its in the unexpected places, like a little village surrounded by crawling hills in rural Benin.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Trials of Travel

After nearly two weeks of training in Lokossa and three months of provisonal status, we were finally awarded certificates recognizing our completion of Peace Corps Benin's pre service requirements. Simply put, we are officially official volunteers.

So what's changed and what have I been doing for the past six months if not considered a volunteer? Well, since swearing-in in September, I have been working to get to know my community. I have spent hours at the health center, participated in polio vaccination campaigns, gone to the fields to pick beans and cotton, and talked with countless villagers while shelling peanuts, drinking sodabi or dancing at church. The integration period (which will continue indefinitely) challenged me to adapt to my new surroundings and rely and build a new support system that starts with me at the base. As we were still considered PC Trainees, we were restricted from traveling away from post and limited to two workstation days a month. Some of the best advice I got from other volunteers was to stay in site as much as possible during the first three months, so I only visited Cotonou once and spent the rest of my time in Adourekoman and the surrounding communities.

The training session called Tech 2, which spanned December 6-12 marked our last training hurdle on the way to PCV status. Our homologues joined us to discuss action plans at post, malaria initiatives and various forms of conflict resolution under a cultural lens. On December 14 we started a two day training on the Care Group model and were joined by those homologues. This culminated in a very successful mock sensibilization in the Lokossa community and I was really proud of Fortune, my homologue, who took the reins, asked all the right questions, kept the women engaged and is excited to implement the program in village.

While training was exhausting, we got to enjoy time after sessions with the other volunteers, many of whom I have not seen or heard from in several months. Unlike Adourekoman, which has no food vendors, Lokossa is a bone fide city complete with a pizza restaurant (it takes about 3 hours from order to eating but when there's cold beer that's OK), a schwarma place and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables.

As much as I enjoy the benefits of city(ish) life, I was so happy to return to village, but if course it wasn't an easy trip. We left the training site at 7:45 when the 7 am bus finally arrived to take us to Bohicon. Wowo cried most of the way but we ended up making great time, pulling into the bus "station" in a little over 2 hours. The bus was immediately swarmed by drivers, grabbing at our bags and rushing off to fill their vehicles. Fortune and I stayed on to go to the taxi station which is locates on the other side of town. Our driver returned to our mini bus angered at the realization that one of the passengers hadn't paid before running off to search for him. In the meantime, our mini bus was blocking the driveway and a large SUV kept purposefully rear-ending us so we would move out of the way. What's another couple dents though?

Our driver finally came back and drove us to find a taxi. Instead of a bush taxi, we loaded our stuff into another mini bus bound for Bante, but the driver promised us we could get off in Dassa. We grabbed some of Bohicon's infamous bread and took off. About an hour into the ride, the rear doors on the bus shot open and out rolled my hiking backpack, tumbling several times across the highway. The driver didn't seem to think anything of it until the other passengers insisted we go back to retrieve it. He slammed the bus into reverse, threw my badly beaten and ripped backpack into the back and set off. Note to self: never pack valuables in that backpack, never sit in the back row and always be thankful for Beninese mamans who always look out for me. When we pulled over in Dassa another hour later, I was happy to be out of the bus.

Unfortunately the one taxi in Dassa wasn't in any hurry to gt on the road and instead was fully consumed by a riveting game of mancala. Despite Fortune insisting that we needed to get back to village, it was another 45 minutes before we finally set off, with 11 people crammed into a standard 4 door sedan. Typical.

Kabole was another 35 minutes away, but luckily I wasn't sitting on the stick shift (yes that happens) or on the lap of several people in the back seat. Fortune and I were dropped off in a cloud of dust and managed to find zems (motos) to take us directly to Adourekoman. Sporting my helmet and guarding wowo with my life, we slowly made it down the terre rouge and to my house.

Pulling into Adourekoman a bunch of children rushed forward to say hi and help me unload my belongings. I was greeted with a layer of dust on the floor and piles of bat poop in each corner. Despite that, everything looks and feels just as I left it, just like home.

After sweeping and mopping, I decides to lay down for a hammock nap. Three hours later I awoke to the sound of knocking and the delivery of some welcome rice from a neighbor. I am one lucky PCV and I can't wait for what these next couple months bring. Right now its time to unpack- vaccinations and some real work can wait for tomorrow! 

Monday, December 14, 2015

The 24/7 Job

I have so much fun here, but sometimes its important to remind myself that Peace Corps is a job. Its a 24/7 job; we are watched in village, serve as educators and cultural ambassadors and have 2 years to become trust members of our community. While most of this just takes time, Peace Corps give us the tools and training to get it all done.

But even at training there's time for visiting my favorite fruit stand!

For the last 9 days, the volunteers from Stage 28 have been completing the last requirements for our technical training. Last week, our homologue's joined us for five days of malaria programming. We learned everything from biology, transmission, symptoms and prevention strategies. This was complemented by a visit from the CDC representative from the Presidents Malaria Initiative, who oversees all of the Malaria programming in Benin for the US government.

In addition to malaria, the volunteers got to cover some pertinent material for all of us, such as resiliency, overcoming local language barriers, staying healthy and getting our flu shots. Its been great to hear about people's successes and challenges as we hit the "three months at post" mark.

After enjoying a day off on Sunday, complete with soft serve ice cream poolside (there is one pool in Lokossa!) and a later afternoon movie, we kicked off the week with a Care Group training. For those of you who don't remember, the care group model is a sustainable village approach to disseminating health education materials. Fortune, the old village chief in Adourekoman and my host dad and language tutor, joined me today for the training. He seems really enthusiastic about getting this set up in village and ultimately improving community health!

Its been an adjustment from village life to a structured training schedule surrounded by other volunteers. I have found that I miss village, my house and my free time. But, I promise not to hermit myself in rural Africa! I loved getting to spend chanukah with some fellow volunteers; we managed to throw together latkes, matza ball soup and even found challah (tresse or braid bread) at a local bakery. I got my fix of the latke song and was reminded of Debbie Friedman's infamous lyrics, "wherever you go there's always someone Jewish!"

Peace Corps Menorah: Birthday candles in the dust

I'll be heading back to village on Wednesday with big plans for the end of the year and ways to kick off 2016!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Almost Officially Official

Its been a busy couple days as I've prepared to leave post for the final stage of my initial Peace Corps training! 

Although we swore in as PCVs in September, we have technically had provisional status barring successful completion of three months at post and a community assessment survey. 

Its been an amazing three months of integration, highlighted by endless smiles, new friends and countless Beninese adventures. 

Although this is in French, I invite everyone to take a look at my final community assessment presentation that I gave today to my colleagues and their homologues. If anything, enjoy the pictures!

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Thankful to the Core

It was just a normal Thursday: I woke up, boiled water for coffee, filled up my solar shower to wash off, got dressed in a full tissu ensemble, fed wowo, threw back the coffee, grabbed my helmet and headed out the door by 8 to meet Daniel for vaccinations.

Daniel had already left to get the vaccinations from another health center about 30 minutes away (the fridge in Zaffe has been broken for about a month, increasing the hassle of vaccination days), so I found someone leaving village who was happy to give me a ride.

When I arrived, our vaccination pagoda was already filled with mothers. We've had problems with tardiness and ever since we said they'd have to clear the hospital grounds they've been showing up earlier and earlier. The table in the middle was littered with piles of vaccination booklets waiting to be filled out and Daniel was sorting through vaccination cards to find the corresponding children to whom the books belonged.

The women chatted amongst themselves, giving breastfeeding advice to some of the new mothers. We had 12 newborns this week, which was a record in my two months here. I started to fill put the cards, organizing them by village (we vaccinate babies of Zaffe, Kabole and Egbessi in Zaffe on Thursday mornings) and vaccine type. Daniel had a lot of extra paperwork to do for each newborn record, so I quickly pulled together a quick sensibilization on "How to keep your child healthy" and found a woman who could translate for me. The women were really receptive and interested to learn about what types of food are healthy for children to complement breastfeeding after 6 months.

By 11:30 we were ready to start the actual vaccinations and thus commenced the next half hour of muffled cries and shrieks of pain from the little ones. It took extra time to do the 9 month old children, who are entered into a special register for completing all required vaccines then given a mosquito net for their family.

At 1, we had finished up all the paperwork, cleaned up the trash from dozens of syringes (the needles automatically go in a biohazard waste box) and walked across the road to eat lunch with the major of the Zaffe center, Richard, who's daughter was busy making us ignam pile.

After lunch, Daniel and I headed to Kpakpa-Zoume to vaccinate a couple other newborns because the vaccine vials expire once open and we only have a limited supply. We rode around trying to find houses and ended up walking around the village to greet people. By 4, we were back in Adourekoman.

Since I had decided not to go and celebrate Thanksgiving with fellow volunteers (its just too far for a couple day trip and I'll see everyone at training in a week!), I had told Daniel that I wanted to cook some food and share it with the health center staff, ie my Adourekoman family.

After two hours in my kitchen, I managed to scrape together mashed potatoes with caramelized onions and a mango crisp. I had doubts that they would eat either, but was happy when we sat down together at 6:30 and explained that the purpose of Thanksgiving is to acknowledge everything you are thankful for.

As predicted, the mashed potatoes were not spicy enough (they add the equivalent to jalepeno paste to everything here) and the mango crisp was too sweet for the Beninese taste buds. Regardless, Daniel enjoyed a whole plate of both before running off to the health center when another patient came by. I had also bought dinner rolls, which went over very well. I mean, who doesn't like fresh bread?!

It turned out to be a lovely Thanksgiving. I received messages and emails from friends and family all over the world. I am so thankful to be supported and surrounded by love on a daily basis. Peace Corps has reinforced by belief that behind every stranger is the makings of a new friend, and I know already that I have made life-long friends here in Benin.

So, despite being away from my family, both among other volunteers and at home, it was a fabulous holiday filled with babies, smiles, pimante free food and lots of new friends!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Fields of Smiles

Saturday was supposed to be the first meeting of my new English Club. I had planned a fun lesson and even arrived at the school fifteen minutes early to write the agenda on the board and get ready to greet the students.

15:00 rolled around and no one was there. 15:30, 15:45...16:00 and one kid showed up.  He apologized for being late, having rushed there from the fields and then promptly left to shower. 16:30, he returns with a friend. 16:50 I decide to reschedule for Sunday.

I was a little disheartened but knew that I could just try again the next day. I texted a friend who reminded me to keep my head up and "go be happy."

So, with most of the village put at their fields, what did I do? I went to say hi to some friends and visit my host family. The kids came running at me, latching onto my ankles and dancing around me. When I asked where their parents were, they told me that they were out at the fields. Although I wasn't exactly wearing bush clothes, we went out to the fields together.

The kids sprinted ahead of me shouting my arrival. Fortune and his wife were picking cotton under the setting African sun. I grabbed an empty sack and, much to everyone's surprise, started on a new row.  The kids joined in and when the baby started crying, we transferred her to my back. We giggled and threw the little puffs of fresh cotton at each other, our laughs echoing across the expanse of blooming white plants.

Its these moments of pure and simple joy that make this an experience of a lifetime. Its the smiles of children and the monotony of picking cotton that add to the beauty of my life here in Benin.

I am constantly reminded here that I control my own happiness. And despite the failure of my English club to meet up, it ended up being a perfect village Saturday.

Friday, November 20, 2015

What's Cooking: Leftover Rice?

Getting sick was one of my biggest fears about joining the Peace Corps. It wasn't necessarily the act of being ill, although that's wholly unpleasant, but it was that I'd be all alone and have to take care of myself in some foreign place.

After two bouts of illness here, I can attest that this has definitely not been the case. The first round, I had other volunteers to lean on, literally, and the support of great trainers who insisted I rest and delivered me a tree sized stalk of bananas. Over the weekend, it was my village that came to my aid. Word spread quickly that I was sick and next thing I knew, I was being inundated with casserole dishes of cooked rice, cheese and even a fresh watermelon.

The point of this post isn't to brag about how awesome Adourekoman is (I do that every day) or to tell you that getting sick is as inevitable as it is easy to deal with here. My point is to share a quick and easy recipe for when you have way-too-much-my-kitchen-was-overflowing leftover rice. I present to you Easy-Peasy Garlic Fried Rice.

Easy-Peasy Garlic Fried Rice

Leftover rice, or precooked rice
2 eggs
2 small onions
2 cloves garlic
1 small can of peas, or frozen (carrots and other veggies too if you have access!)
Vegetable oil
Soy sauce
Sesame oil

In a skillet, or wok if you're fancy and not in Peace Corps, heat about 1 tbs of vegetable oil. Dice onion and garlic and add to skillet. Cook until onion becomes translucent, several minutes. Add two eggs and scramble together with onion mixture. Add peas and other vegetables. Add rice and mix well.  Add soy sauce, amount varies by taste and amount of rice, until rice is a browner color (applicable even if using brown rice. Oh brown rice how I miss thee!) Drizzle with sesame oil (optional) and serve. Impress all of your neighbors with your transformed rice dish and yovo cooking skills.

So, this is definitely not the healthiest of dishes, but this is Peace Corps and we have to indulge ourselves once in a while!

Monday, November 16, 2015

Sing and Dance like an Adoureko(wo)man

Beninese people love music. In fact, I'm convinced they enjoy noise, at any decibel.  When it's paired with dancing, drums and alcohol, it's a party.

Under this rhetoric, Adourekoman parties all the time. Despite large planned events however, like funerals, one of the regular gatherings is the Sunday night tam tam circle in Okouta.

I may have not mentioned this before, but Adourekoman is actually two villages.  The first is Okouta, the second, and larger, is Adourekoman. The latter contains the church, school and health center.  There isn't really any difference between the people of the two villages, as they kind of seamlessly flow from one into the other, but on tam tam night, village loyalty comes out and the youth (technically anyone who's not an elder) from their respective villages participates in could be best described as a sing and dance off.

Yesterday's event started around 5 and I actually have no idea when it ended. When I left at 7, it felt like it was just getting going. A friend had found me a seat next to a man sporting a NY Yankees hat (I decided he was on the other team though I never actually asked), and had a great view of the circle.

On one side sat the elders, who were always served alcohol from each new bottle first. They didn't sing or play the drums, but instead acted as if they were holding court. If they disagreed with something sung, they would bang their canes on the ground to interject. When dancers came into the circle, they paid their respects by bowing at their feet (there is a photo of this below).

From what I was told, most of the songs last night were about a theoretical hunt, where each village was prophesizing the size of their potential kill. It ranged from large birds to cattle and other animals that could not be translated into French for me.

At one point, I was invited into the circle to dance. I accepted and entered as the only woman. They laughed and applauded as I did my infamous booty shake chicken wing dance. I'm unsure whether women are normally allowed to dance in the circle, but I was the only one. Women stood on the outside of the circle, with their kids, clapping and singing, but seemed to play an auxiliary role in the men's game.

So, when people ask what do you do when you don't have electricity, here's one answer. We hang out together, tell stories, sing songs, and enjoy the company of others. Sounds like a radical concept, or something reminiscent of summer nights by the campfire, but I love it.

(So log off your computer and go enjoy some tech free time with the people around you!)

Thursday, November 12, 2015

What's Cooking: Spicy Tuna Burgers

One of the biggest challenges when it comes to eating here is ensuring that I get enough protein. While I buy eggs by the dozen, well actually 15 for about $2, there are only so many hard boiled eggs one can eat. And although my goat butchering neighbor would love to send over some fresh meat, there's only so much stomach lining I can stomach.

So, in addition to adding beans to everything, I've decided to test out some recipes using canned tuna. Tuna here is sold packaged in sunflower oil and although I'd normally be weary of ancient cans of fish, its StarKist, so there you go.

A couple weeks ago I concocted an interesting white bean tuna salad complete with onion, red wine vinegar, capers and a variety of seasonings. I questioned my own palette as I ate it, but it actually wasn't half bad. And imagine all that beany fishy protein!

Over the weekend, I took it a step farther and made tuna burgers, significantly adapted for a Peace Corps Kitchen from the recipe here:

So here's my take at a simple tuna burger.  And if you have any other easy canned tuna recipes, send them my way!

Spicy Tuna Burgers

One can tuna, mine was packed in sunflower oil but not by choice
Fresh lemon juice and pulp of one lemon
2 T flour
1 egg
1 red onion, diced
2 T Dijon mustard, plus some on the side
Siracha or Tabasco sauce or anything with a kick
Mrs. Dash or other salt free seasoning
Capers, optional
Olive oil

Drain tuna and pour into a bowl. Add egg and chopped onion. Add lemon juice and pulp (and zest if you can). Add flour, one tablespoon at a time, stirring in between. Stir in mustard and season with salt free mixture. Add hot sauce and capers as desired. Add water if necessary to achieve a thinner consistency.

Heat a skillet with a little olive oil. When hot, drop large spoonfuls of the mixture into the pan. Cook each side until golden brown.  Remove from heat, serve warm. Drizzle with Siracha and Dijon mustard!  Enjoy!

Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Haricot Harvest

How much time have you spent thinking about where your food comes from? In school, I was exposed to Fast Food Nation which triggered a very brief stint of vegetarianism in my early teens. Growing up in a New England suburb, we had a small vegetable garden in our backyard which sometimes produced a few cucumbers, peppers or cherry tomatoes. For everything else, there was a grocery store down the road.

I never really thought about food access or availability until I got to Benin. If I wanted fruit out of season, I could find it. If I was trying out a new recipe with a unique ingredient, there was a specialty store in driving distance. Never have I modified my eating habits to the season.

And then I moved to Adourekoman. While some members of my community have secondary jobs: tailor, hairdresser, driver, etc. everyone here is first and foremost a farmer. The Collines are lush, with fertile soil that allows for great crop diversity, although the success of all farms depends on the rainy season which has been dismal this year. My village is surrounded by fields of corn, sorghum, soja (soy), cotton (the white puffs are in bloom now and are quite beautiful), peanuts, beans and vegetables that include pimante peppers, tomatoes, onions and okra. The Collines are also the number one producer of cashews, so during that season, you can access both the fruit and the nut.  If I haven't listed something above, there isn't access to it here, and during most of the year there still isn't access. Clearly diversification of the villageoise diet is a huge task and something I will try to tackle over the next two years. It is also important to note that life here revolves around the harvest. In fact we've had significantly decreased attendance at vaccination days because everyone is currently harvesting their beans and soja. It is a vicious cycle but how do you prioritize between eating your next meal or preventing polio in the future (I realize that's a grave comparison but hopefully you understand what I'm getting at.)

In my attempt to understand and integrate into my community, I decided to head to the fields last week with Daniel's wife. They have multiple different plots of land and this week they were picking beans in a field about 3 km from the village center.

I've always known that farming it hard work, but can now attest that a day spent bent over picking bean pods under the heat of the African sun is laborious. While the sun is essential for drying the beans, all I really wanted was a shade tree and something stronger than SPF 55.  Next time...

The beans that we were picking were planted in June. There are actually two harvesting cycles for beans here as it is a staple food in the diet. Attasi is a national dish composed of rice and beans and here in village they cook a mixture of beans and corn kernels which is also delicious.

When I got to the field around 8, other women were already hard at work.  Each had a large metal bowl and was picking the beans in rows across the field. I added my backpack to the pile of belongings and started to pick. While its hard work, its mindless and I honestly enjoyed moving down the rows pinching the dry beans off their vines. The women sang while they worked so the silence was filled with spiritual chants from a half dozen different voices. (And I say spiritual because Jesus sounds like Jesus, even in Idatchaa).

I picked for 4 hours before Daniel's wife insisted I take a break in the shade, and play with the restless baby who no longer wanted to be tied to his moms back. We sat on the edge of a tarp that was being used to collect all the picked beans and enjoyed some oranges that I had packed. After a half hour it was back to work.

By 3 pm, we were done. The pile of beans on the tarp was up to my hips and the women each grabbed a large sack to stuff with the crispy pods. When we were all packed up, we headed home, the women each carrying a large sack of crop on their heads.

Word spread quickly in village that I helped harvest Daniel's field. Women have stopped by to ask when I'm available to help them and some still don't believe that a yovo knows how to farm (I don't but they don't really need to know that).  Mostly it has given me village cred, which never hurts.

Having brought the beans back to village, we stored them in Daniel's cooking shack overnight. The next day, we spread them out in a thin sheet on a large tarp and stood watch for hungry goats/sheep/chickens who came grazing as they roasted in the sun. In the late afternoon, the women took large palm fronds and beats the beans to break open pods and release the seeds. This was a long process and it left the area scattered with bean pod carcasses. The last step was to assure that the beans had all been separated and picking out spoiled beans which was a tedious but social task.

So now I understand where beans come from. Or at least the white beans that I eat here. And while I don't have any future plans to head out to the fields, I'm one step closer to comprehending village life and the daily routine of my fabulous community.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Bienvenue Charlotte!

After a fantastic birthday weekend, I was looking forward to getting back to the calm and quiet (that's completely relative re: goats, chickens, children) of village life.

There are several ways to travel up to Adourekoman but I have found the mini bus system somewhat comfortable and generally reliable. I confirmed the departure time of noon with the driver and left myself plenty of time to get to the meeting spot. When I arrived, I was overwhelmed by the number of drivers running to grab my belongings, but luckily my driver recognized me (although how hard could that be given there are zero other white people waiting for a mini bus?) As expected, we waited until 2:30 to depart although this was no fault of the drivers. He had agreed to take another client and they were clearly running late. His patience had hit the ceiling and we pulled out of the gare, leaving everyone else in our muddy tracks.

We raced along the road, plowing down anyone who got in our way. Luckily no one was injured, as I'm sure we were exceeding 80 mph. I had staked out shotgun and had free reign over the radio, which was somewhat functional. Periodically the driver stopped for food, which involved slowing down on the side of the road while women ran towards us to sell their products. We shared a mid-ride snack of grilled snails and some sort of skewered mystery meat, both of which I was sure would make me sick. Somehow my stomach prevailed and I eventually made it home unscathed, and in record time.

When I got to Daniel's house, they already had dinner waiting for me. I was greeted by swarms of screaming children, who probably should have been in bed by 9.  I caught up on the events of the past weekend, shared some papaya and bread from the road and got the best birthday present ever.

On October 29, I had helped deliver a baby at the village health center. Although the labor was long and hard, a beautiful baby girl was welcomed into the world. As with all the babies here, I was the first to hold her and carry her to her mom once she was settled in our overnight room. I jokingly said that she should be named Charlotte so that we could be twins.

Since Beninese don't name children until several days after the birth, I found out yesterday that there is officially another little Charlotte running around (well not running yet) Adourekoman. I am so tickled, honored and appreciative of this wonderful community that I get to call home!

Monday, November 2, 2015

Birthdays, Brie and Another "City that Never Sleeps"

I had an absolutely wonderful birthday weekend here in Benin! Thanks to all my amazing Peace Corps friends for helping me celebrate being closer to 30 than I am to 20. Commencing my quarter life crisis momentarily.

Although I love being in village, and Daniel wanted to celebrate my birthday in Adourekoman, I came to Cotonou for the weekend. Beninese, well those in my village, don't really celebrate birthdays, well certainly not the extent that they celebrate deaths. If one does celebrate, it is customary for the person having the birthday to throw a party, which could include purchasing a cow for slaughter. I wasn't about to turn my front yard into a full on BBQ, so alas, Cotonou it is.

From Adourekoman, the trip to Cotonou can be anywhere from 4 to 9 hours, depending on the roads, traffic, mud levels, how impatient the driver is, whether or not the car is full, how many chickens are crossing the road, etc.  One thing I have absolutely given up on is the infamous question, "when will we get there?"

So, I managed to leave village on Friday morning by 6, after being told we were leaving at 4:30. The ride was pleasant and the driver speedy. I rolled in and out of sleep across the bumpy roads and red dirt landscape until we arrived around 11.  I headed straight to the Peace Corps workstation where I checked my mail, dropped off some paperwork and took advantage of the WiFi. There were a lot if people coming in for the weekend and it was nice to see lots of familiar faces.

In the afternoon, Emily, Melissa, Nicole and I went to grab schwarma at local spot before doing some necessary grocery shopping and some more business work at the office. To kick off the birthday festivities, we indulged in Ben and Jerry's Cookie Dough ice cream, which bring me back to my New England roots. Since I was staying with friends at their apartment, I left to drop off my bags before heading out for a birthday dinner at a local Indian restaurant.

Dinner was fantastic and the owner sent us a bottle of wine when hearing it was my birthday. I was convinced to stay out and went with a friend to a local bar where we met up with more peace corps volunteers and basked in the reality of the expat life. We finished the evening, and partied well into the morning, at a reggae bar called Jammin', where they turned off the music at midnight to sign Happy Birthday to me. And so it was, I officially turned 25 surrounded by amazing friends, cheap shots of some flaming alcohol and more dreads than I could count.

In the wee hours of Saturday morning, I got back to Lindsay and Ellen's house, where I spent some time admiring the view from their roof deck, before falling asleep to the soft him if a fan- life with electricity is one to be savored!

We woke up on Saturday to make brie stuffed pancakes complete with maple syrup, of the ultimate of glutinous birthday breakfasts. Lindsay and I headed to the grocery store to pick up food for dinner before returning home to grab our swimsuits and head to the embassy for open swim (the embassy pool is open to Peace Corps Volunteers from 2-6 pm on Saturdays, the only time when it us actually staffed by a lifeguard).

The pool was beautiful and refreshing. Many other pcvs showed up to take advantage of the water and lay in the sun.  Despite how much time we spend complaining about the heat, it all means nothing when your laying poolside in a bathing suit. There are certainly some perks to life near the equator.

From the embassy, we went back to the apartment to start dinner and get ready for Halloween. Although the holiday is not celebrated in Benin, the expat community never misses an opportunity to party. We started the evening at a local bar called Livingstone's, which has the infamous buy one get one happy hour, perfect for a PCV budget.

The place was packed but other volunteers had already staked out outdoor tables. After a couple hours of socializing, we walked to a Halloween party down the road. It was in full swing and people were rocking some great costumes. As the night wore on, the music got louder, people started dancing at at one point I tried a sip of some Beninese liquor that was bottled with a dead scorpion and rattle snake. This is the closest I will ever come to a snake by choice ever again!

Eventually we called it a night and headed home. Sunday was relaxing.  I spent the majority of the day charging my electronics, enjoying a hot shower and catching up with people at home. We cooked another fabulous dinner, invited over some friends and I spent some time admiring the Cotonou skyline before turning in.

I'm heading back to village today thankful for all of my amazing new friends who went out of their way to make this one of the beat birthdays yet. Thank you to everyone who sent messages and especially those of you who found a way to get mail to Benin (Grandma never fails to find the one Happy Halloween Birthday card that Hallmark makes each year!)

I feel so loved and can't wait to see what this next year brings! 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

What's Cooking?

While I've posted about what types of things I can buy at the market, and I assume this will change seasonally (I can't wait for mangoes and avocados!!), I haven't actually talked about what or how I cook.

For those who know me, cooking is one of my favorite activities. I love the science to coming up with a fantastic meal even though my non-recipe-following habits can drive people nuts. Here in Benin, cooking has presented new challenges. Not just in the types of food available but in the manner in which they are prepared.

When we moved to post, peace corps gave each volunteer an empty gas canister. This was a kind gesture as the cans themselves cost around $50, but after four failed attempts to fill the damn thing, I was seriously questioning their intentions. I finally got the can filled in Glazoue and hooked it up to a three burner stove that I inherited from a volunteer on their way out of country (score!!). So, that's my kitchen set up.

While I have been enjoying the basic stove top preparations, I branched out over the weekend and explored the world of the dutch oven. To do this, one uses a large pot, a smaller pot and a couple empty cans; i used tuna fish cans. Place the cans in the bottom of the large pot, place your small pot on top, uncovered, and place a lid on the large pot. This creates a hot chamber similar to an oven. Hello Baking!!

My first test recipe was a simple vanilla cake that turned out moist, flavourful and unlike anything else I have eaten so far in Benin. I used a modified "wacky cake" recipe to account for the small size of my pan and the lack of certain ingredients. Either way, it was easy, delicious and even my neighbors enjoyed it!

Modified Wacky Cake:
3/4 c flour
1/4 c sugar
1/2 t baking soda
1/4 t salt
3/4 t vanilla extract
2 1/2 T veg oil
1 c water

The beauty of a wacky cake is that it doesn't even require an extra mixing bowl! Just pour the dry ingredients into your baking dish, create two depressions (or three as the original recipe also calls for 1/2 t white vinegar), pour the wet ingredients in and stir. Bake until no longer liquid- it took about 15 minutes in my dutch oven but keep checking with a knife.  Voila! A simple stove top cake.

Motivated to try even more culinary concoctions, I decided to prepare brunch for myself on Saturday morning.  I settled on a Spanish style breakfast torta, which is very similar to a frittata.

Dutch oven torta: potato frittata
Potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
Onion, thinly sliced
Salt and pepper
Olive oil

The key to this is the preparation of the potatoes and onions. Instead of quickly pan sautéing them, you want to slowly cook them in the olive oil. Cook sliced potatoes and onions in about 1/2 inch of olive oil for roughly 30 minutes on low heat, or until the potatoes are soft and golden. I know this sounds like a ton of oil, but you can save it after for future recipes!! (I store it in a jar and use it for everything). Once your potatoes and onions are cooked, strain out the oil (and save!) and pour the mixture into the bottom of your baking dish. Add scrambled eggs seasoned with salt and pepper so that they cover the potatoes and onions and fill in the cracks in between. You don't want them swimming in egg but that wouldn't hurt. Bake until the egg is light and fluffy on top and the dish is crisp around the edges, again this was about 15 minutes for me, but keep checking it!

The result was a delicious breakfast treat that I ate the entire weekend!

Although my options are not extremely limited, I try to eat healthy and aim for balanced meals. Since I don't cook meat here, I've been learning how to cook dry beans and different ways to make canned tuna more exciting. Another new item on my repertoire is okra, which is basically the only vegetable regularly available in village (because the local farmers grow it).  Despite its slimy consistency, I've learned that its great roasted and adds texture and flavor to a veggie curry.

If you have any great okra recipes (not fried!), easy bean dishes or inventive canned tuna suggestions (next up is tuna burgers!), send them my way!

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Go Forth!

Religion pervades much of village life here in Benin. In Adourékoman there is a Catholic church, a mosque and a voodoo priest. The notion of a god is evident in local greetings; in Idaasha, when asked how you slept, one responds "praise god." While each person in the village has their own beliefs, it is interesting to note that everyone lives in harmony, and slight curiosity, or each other.

I am a reform Jew. Although I don't observe the sabbath on a weekly basis, follow the kosher laws, or attend services, Judaism is a large part of who I am as a person and a major contributor to how I interact with the world around me. When I joined the Peace Corps, I was aware that I may not want to disclose my religious views, but have found since arriving that everyone is very interested in religious differences, and more importantly, their similarities.

For me, Judaism has always revolved around my participation in a Jewish community. My family celebrated the holidays together, sang songs and instilled in me the importance of tzedakah and tikkun olam, justice and righteousness. These guiding principles are some of the key factors that drove me to Peace Corps: the desire to contribute and commit to the sustainable progress of a global community.

Commitment is one of the major pillars of Jewish belief. The 10 commandments lay the basis for Jewish law and observance. But, before the commandments, there was the covenant. Made between God and the future Jewish people, through Abram, the covenant binds Israelites to the hope of a promised land in return for their positive contribution to the world.

Now, you may be asking yourself, wow, she's really jumping the shark here in this post, but I promise there's a point to all this! This week, in the Hebrew calendar, marks the 12 year anniversary of my Bat Mitzvah, the ceremonial passage into Jewish womanhood. While some of my memories of the process are not the most enjoyable (I vividly remember sitting on my bottom bunk at summer camp trying to learn my Torah portion while my best friends completed Mad Libs and braided each others hair), the event itself signified my continued dedication to my community, Jewish teaching and ultimately the journey of finding my Jewish self.

On that weekend, a dozen years ago, I was called to the Torah to read the parsha L'ech Lecha.  At the beginning of Genesis, this chapter starts with the phrase "Go Forth," when god commands Abram to take his family and leave his home for a distant promised land. His commitment to this task, and the blessing he receives for following it, are the basis of Jewish belief.  Abram is told to "be a blessing," a phrase who's meaning has been debated for centuries.

Throughout the Bible, there are countless stories in which people are commanded to follow God's requests in exchange for a better future for their ancestors. Noah builds and ark, Moses listens to a burning bush (well he actually questions this and doubts his abilities) and leads his people out of Egypt, and Jonah sits in the belly of a whale in his quest to warn Nineva. Why do people seem to instill so much faith in a god that has allowed for destruction in the first place!? My point, though, is that it all starts with the covenant.

The phrase L'ech Lecha has been translated countless ways. In fact, for anyone who knows Hebrew, it exists in the reflexive tense and could literally be translated from "Go Forth" to "Go to Yourself." I find a lot of meaning and power in the latter statement. As Jews, I think we are constantly striving to create a better world and searching to find our place in it.  This brings me back to my decision to join the Peace Corps.

When I received my invitation to serve in Benin, in December 2014, I have every doubt in the world that I was not ready. I was afraid. I convinced myself that it would be a bad choice, that the unexpected was dangerous. I seriously considered rejecting the invite, drafting emails in my head with my notice of refusal. But then something changed. I knew I was up to the challenge. I was prepared to commit over two years of my life to improving the health of one tiny village in West Africa. I had the support of my family and the experience to make this one of the biggest adventures of my life. I was prepared to "go forth."

Now that I am here, and having recently hit the 4 month in Benin mark, I am realizing that going forth was really going to myself. I have a home here. I wake up every day with purpose and go to sleep at night knowing that I am making a little difference. I am finding myself here in Benin and I know its the best self I can be.

It's trite, but there really is some validity to the phrase "leap of faith." Whether you practice a  religion or not, the ultimate goal is to have faith in yourself. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

W(h)ater Is the Problem?

Anytime I hop on Facebook, or even open a new tab to the Google home page, I am told that its a special day: National Pizza Day, National Wear Green Day, I bet there's even National Rollerblade To Work Day. My point is that there are so many that we often lose the meaning of important ones.

Last Thursday was Global Hand Washing Day.  No, I didn't find out on Facebook or Google, but in a friendly email from our WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) Coordinator. The email contained a helpful guide a the importance of hand washing and some keys facts about hand washing practices.

Many of you reading this are probably thinking, "gross! Who doesn't wash their hands!?" Well, you are probably also reading in front of your computer, down the hall from a bathroom, where you have nonstop access to running water and soap.  Those are luxuries here in Benin.

I've been in Benin for close to four months, all the while living without running water. Showering involves bucket baths or, lucky for me, a solar shower which I have now installed in my backyard. Washing vegetables requires multiple bleach water soaks and even my drinking water is boiled before I filter it through a column filter. My toilet is a latrine pit, so it doesn't require any flushing. But, when it comes to hand washing, it gets a little complicated.

Most Beninese store water in large basins and use a bowl to scoop it out as needed. In my village, all our water comes from a couple different pumps, which I have been told may dry up during the dry season (that's another issue for another time). Some houses, like mine, have large rainwater cisterns. While they may use this water for drinking and cooking, I only use it for laundry, mopping and watering my garden. The main issue with the water storage systems is that when people go to wash their hands, they usually contaminate all their stored water in the process. We teach that for proper hand washing, water must be poured, not scooped.

Remember when I wrote about building Tippy Taps during training? Well, these simple devices are paramount to the hand washing cause. In fact, I'm planning on building one in the next couple weeks at our health center, where we still scoop.

Global Hand Washing Day prompted me to lead a short training during our vaccination session in Zaffe. I highlighted the importance if hand washing, reviewed proper technique and talked to the 12 women who were present about how they can promote hand washing at home (it only takes one pair of little grimy hands to ruin the water for everyone)!  We, well I, had a good time and the message seemed to get across.

Over the weekend, I was parousing NPR news when I came across this article.  I think it does a great job outlining the barriers to hand washing and offering some effective solutions. And, who knew about the goats!?! That is something I'll now need to consider here in Adourekoman!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Market(able) Integration

For weeks, I’ve mentioned visiting the Glazoue market each Wednesday, but I haven’t yet written about what I buy, what it looks like and what’s available.  As most of you are probably aware, there is no grocery store here in Adourekoman.  In fact, there are only a handful of boutiques where I can buy macaroni, cans of tomato paste (with or without mackerel chunks), soap, matches, phone credit and an assortment of various cheap bottles of liquor (or box sangria which isn’t half bad.)  During the day, or at dusk now that school has started, young girls walk around selling tomatoes, pimante (the Beninese spicy pepper), okra and pre-cooked soja (fried soy cubes).  Occasionally, I can buy cow cheese from a Peuhl woman (although I can always find a child to go buy it for me as they know the village much better than I do.)  While it seems like there may be many options here, I look forward each Wednesday to the large market in Glazoue, both to load up on produce and have a little escape from village life.

Glazoue is located 17 km from Adourekoman, at the intersection of the terre rouge and the paved goudrone (main rain).  The market each Wednesday is supposedly the third largest in Benin, attracting both venders and buyers from all over West Africa.  Each week, I leave village in the morning by zem, or moto- the only form of transportation out of my village, and head down the dirt road, stopping in Kabole, the first village on the main road, to charge some of my electronics.  A previous volunteer was placed in Glazoue, so we have a relationship with one of the restaurant owners who guards our belongings while we peruse the market.  For me, her electricity is crucial and as long as the power isn’t out, I get to juice up my computer, which is very exciting!

You can tell it’s market day the minute you turn onto the goudrone at Kabole.  Taxis zip past you carrying dozens of passengers inside and piled high with goods to bring to market.  Other cars line the road, waiting to bring shoppers to their next destination.  Every time I walk by, I’m hassled by drivers going to Cotonou or Parakou, because why would a young American like me live out here?!

Once you pass the taxi stand and groups of zem drivers, you enter upon the bulk goods section of the market.  Here, women have mats overflowing with corn, beans, or peanuts.  When I tried to buy 100 CFA of peanuts one day, they just laughed at me.  These ladies sell them by the cement sack, starting at 4000 CFA each.  You’re probably wondering, what’s a CFA?!  Well, simply, it’s the currency here, and in a majority of West Africa.  Currently, the exchange rate is about 600 CFA to the dollar, but it’s constantly changing.  I make the math easier for myself and think of it as 500 CFA = 1 USD.  That way I’m always getting a good deal.

Past the bulk dried goods are the bread ladies.  This section is dangerous, because the bread is so good!  You can buy both baguettes (pain sale) or sweet bread loaves (pain sucre).  One baguette costs 125 CFA and a sweet bread can range from 150-300 CFA depending on the size.  A loaf of sweet bread that is packaged similar to how we buy it in the US is about 300 CFA, but you can always barter when you buy more than one.  I’ve recently discovered that the sweet bread is sold in a mini bagel size fro 25 CFA and, while it’s no Lox Stock and Bagel, it’s really good (especially for breakfast sandwiches)!

As you turn the corner from the bread stands, veering off the paved road and through a narrow alley, you enter the main part of the market.  To the left is the woman who sells eggs, priced at 1250 CFA for 15 eggs, or half a case.  The more you buy, the cheaper they are, but there’s no way I can use eggs that quickly despite the fact that they don’t need to be refrigerated.  Beside the egg shop is a stall where I can buy oil (vegetable, 1200 CFA per bottle), mustard (700 CFA for a jar), toilet paper (250 CFA per roll), popcorn (700 CFA for a bag) and bleach (1200 per bottle), which is essential in the preparation of fresh fruits and vegetables.  

After this, the landmarks seem to disappear in the chaos that is the marketplace.  There are hundreds of stalls, women selling piles of onions, tomatoes, oranges, heaping bowls of spices of varying colors and rows upon rows of its (fabric).  If you aren’t careful, you’ll either step on a live duck, tied up and immobile, a small child, or get hit by a cart that’s racing between the rows, shuttling boxes of produce and other goods.  

Towards the back of the market are the women who sell the plastics (though, I bet growing up they weren’t told they should go into plastics…). Here you can find laundry baskets, plates, cups, bowls, cheaply made tupperware containers and other assorted imports.  Behind these vendors is the dead yovo section, or where salvation army donations come to die.  If you want a World Series t-shirt from 2002, you could probably find it here.

On the opposite side of the market if the butcher section.  While I have yet to venture into these stalls, you can smell them from a couple rows away.  Through the windows I’ve seen huge carcasses of beef and other animals, being butchered for sale.  Apparently I should be able to buy a roasted chicken for 2000 CFA, but I have yet to try that.

In addition to the fabrics, plastics and produce at the the market, there is also the vodun section where one can buy animal skulls, wooden carvings and other sorts of fetish (voodoo fetish) paraphernalia.   I rarely see anyone hanging around these stalls, but I don’t know if that has any sort of significance.

The final major section of the market is the electronics.  Want a charger for a 2008 Nokia cell phone, they got it.  Want a fan (I wish I had electricity sometimes!)? Want a radio, flashlight or fake Chinese iPhone?  It’s all there.

So, what do I usually buy?  Well, I’m really lucky in that I am often fed both lunch and dinner in village.  Daniel expects me to eat with him every day and even when I go home at meal times and cook for myself, a child shows up at my door with a plate of food.  His wife is a fantastic cook and these meals usually consist of rice or macaroni with a tomato sauce and either cheese, soda or fish.  As much as I want to eat more on my own, these communal meals are some of the only times we have to talk, plan activities or just share about our days.  I am going to make an effort however, to start eating more on my own and taking charge of my pasta/rice/pate/igname intake.

With that in mind, I bought a lot of fruits and veggies today:

2 pineapples (100 CFA each)
6 oranges (100 CFA)
200 CFA worth of small onions
200 CFA worth of tomatoes
100 CFA worth of sweet potatoes (this was the first time I’ve seen these!!)
100 CFA worth of lemons
1000 CFA worth of beans, probably about 2 kilos (I give these to Daniel’s wife and she makes amazing bean dishes for us!!)
2 heads of cabbage (300 CFA each)
1 yogurt (300 CFA each as a snack— no refrigeration in village)

This is no Saturday Farmer’s Market and certainly not your big box store. It’s overwhelming and chaotic.  But the people, smells and constant bartering in dozens of different languages, remind me that this is the real Benin. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Personnel Sans Retour

It’s Sunday morning and I’m sitting here in my hammock enjoying a cup of hot coffee.  There’s a light breeze drifting through my living room and I can hear children playing outside.  But, that’s not the only thing I hear.  Since Thursday morning, there has been nonstop music at my neighbors house.  24/7 the speaker system has been blasting Beninese beats while the generator cranks away, the scent of gasoline permeating the air.

Now, you may be wondering, why has there been a solid 72 hours of ground shaking music here in Adourekoman? Why has the village not slept?  Why have thousands of people poured in from around the country to visit?  Why have fires been going night and day, heating cauldrons of pate, ignams and rice?  The answer: a funeral.

What do you think of when I say funeral?  In the American context, funerals are somber events. We wear black. We write and listen to eulogies that honor the deceased. We mourn. In Benin, funerals are a whole other ballgame.  When someone dies, their body is brought to a morgue where it can stay for several months, until the family has collected enough money to throw a proper celebration.  While the body lays waiting for burial, the family throws small events in village and begins the preparations.  For the past several weekends, a speaker system has been brought in from Glazoue for dancing, drinking and donation garnering.    

This funeral was for a man in the Badjagou family.  And, since Adourekoman was started by the Badjagou’s and they still make up about 50% of the village population, it should be no surprise that this funeral was a big one.  

The cooking preparation started on Thursday.  After returning from vaccinations in Zaffe, I stopped to greet some women who were all gathered under one of the big shade trees. The coiffeur was there doing hair and the woman who walks around with a tower of nail polish on her head was giving pedicures.  This is all normal for a hot afternoon in village.  What was different was the number of peanut shells scattered on the ground.  For hours, they had been shelling peanuts to make peanut sauce for the funeral party.  I grabbed a seat and joined in, despite being a shelling novice and separating one shell to their three.  I was offered a piping hot cup of bouillie from a communal bowl and sipped it slowly.  I still don’t understand why the Beninese prefer hot food, especially during the heat of the afternoon.

After shelling more peanuts than I could count, I excused myself and wandered over to another group of women, who were busy making pate.  The women took turns standing next to the blazing fire, churning the corn meal within a huge pot.  As a joke, they handed me the paddle to stir the pate, but between the heat and the viscosity of the pate, I was exhausted after a couple minutes.  I retreated to the shade of a payote (like a pagoda) and talked with some of the women before finally heading home.

That evening, I went back outside to investigate the music scene.  Someone had strung up lights and people were busy dancing.  Most of the kids stood on the outskirts of the group, looking on.  When I walked up, I was pulled into a circle and took turns dancing with each person.  Although I’m a terrible dancer, they love it when I start flapping my arms and shaking my hips in my best imitation of their dance.  I probably look like a deranged chicken.

Trying to save myself from the grips of the dance circle, I walked over to the kids and started a conga line.  It took a little convincing for them to hold on to each other’s shoulders, but by the time we got going, I was leading a group of fifty kids in circles around the party.  Each time I broke off from the group, I was pulled back in to lead the line, resorting back to my chicken arm thrusts and spastic legs movements.  They loved it.

Two hours of dancing later, I was exhausted.  Daniel came to “rescue” me for dinner and the kids followed us home.  I promised them I would dance again, knowing full well that the music wasn’t going to stop anytime soon.  After dinner, I made a quick escape to my house, where I popped in ear plugs and fell asleep to loud pounding of the speaker system outside.  

Preparations continued on Friday.  The fires roared, the music blasted and people began pouring in.  I confirmed that the funeral mass started at 9 am on Saturday and again visited the groups of women who were busy cooking.

On Saturday morning, I got up and headed to the church at 8:45.  I should have remembered that 9 am was the Beninese time, so when the crowds gathered at the entrance and the ceremony started at 10:15, I wasn’t shocked.  People arrived in their best meme-tissu: the immediate family sporting a brown checker print, the family from Zaffe rocking a green diamond print with hints of yellow and orange, and the church choir wearing their special occasion ensemble of teal Jesus print.  The priest and his entourage arrived in a dark blue sedan and were welcomed like royalty.  We stood at the entrance of the church under a huge tent for several minutes while girls paraded around, holding gold-framed photos of the deceased and the priest said some initial prayers.  He used a large duster to flick water onto the casket, which was placed in the entranceway.  It wasn’t until we entered the church and took our seats when I finally laid eyes on the box.

The casket was carried in and set at the foot of the alter.  It was painted robin’s egg blue, decorated with large gold-colored handles and a large gold cross.  The top was curved like ocean waves and the sides read “Personnel Sans Retour.”  As if this wasn’t enough, the entire exterior was illuminated with blinking LED sting lights that glowed red, blue and green, casting a colorful glow on the dark cement floor.  The lights stayed lit throughout the entire mass and accompanied the man to his grave in the village cemetery.  Hey, the batteries will last longer than regular bulbs, right?

Mass was conducted in Idaasha.  There was dancing, singing and several rounds of money collections for the family.  Four different choirs had come in for the event, so the room echoed with the voices of dozens.  It was standing room only, and when it came time, they ran out of communion.  The whole event lasted a little over three hours, and I was happy to be out in the fresh air when it ended.  The mass emptied out into the church yard and everyone made their way to the cemetery down the road for the internment.  The proceedings were very similar to those in the US: the casket was lowered into the ground, words were said, and then the ground was filled in.  In the next couple weeks, cement will be poured over the ground, creating a tombstone that will display the name and age of the deceased.

From the cemetery, the crowds dispersed and the partying began.  Large tents had been erected at the church, school and at several different houses, where different branches of the family hosted their own festivities.  The thousands of plastic chairs that had arrived on Friday were soon filled with family and guests.  I made my way to my neighbors’ tents, where the women were busy serving platters of rice and the men were hurriedly passing out bottles of Beninois.  I accepted both and found a seat with some women.  The brass band that had been marching around all morning came to serenade me before moving on to another party.

After the rice and my first beer of the day, I ran home to grab my water bottle before hopping on to the next party.  I found a huge celebration in the back of the village and was invited to sit with the patrons, or honored guests, where I was served another beer and a heaping plate of ignam pile.  I dug in with my fingers, enjoying the freshly pounded ignams and peanut sauce.  I talked to many of the visitors, who had come in from the bigger cities and told them about my role here in Adourekoman.  Who knew funerals were a big networking event?!

From there, I made my way back to the center of the village where another tent was filled with a hired dance troupe performing traditional dance.  I stayed for a bit, but left for fear of being pulled in.  Navigating through the rest of the village, I wandered towards the school where a Rasta DJ was set up and a huge crowd of onlookers were watching a group of men sway back and forth to his music.  I was invited to join another group of family for ablo, a sweetened corn cake, and luckily was not offered another beer.  We ate and talked for a while before I moved on to another group, then finally went to the health center to check on Daniel.  Despite most of the village partying at the funeral, Daniel was swamped with patients, so I brought him some food.

Finishing the last case of malaria, Daniel and I went to greet a couple different Badjagou family members and pay our respects.  This involved more beer, piles of mutton and fresh soja (soy), which was by far the best I have tasted since coming to Benin.  It was now close to 7 pm and I was exhausted.  In one final attempt to funerate (funeral + celebrate), I explored the final tent, where a drum circle was just getting started.  I stayed for a little, and danced some more, before finally heading home. 

And now’s it’s Sunday.  The music is still going and I’ve been told it won’t stop until Monday night.  Apparently, they will be butchering a bull this afternoon for the remaining guests, so stay tuned for another Yard to Table story. 

Happy Sunday from exhausted-but-not-so-sleepy Adourekoman! 

Thursday, October 8, 2015

The Power of Choice

Regardless of whether or not you’ve been following along with the Presidential debates, those of you in the US should be aware of the current state of Planned Parenthood in the country.  With the Republican party threatening to cut all funding, the President in hearings being attacked for her salary and the celebration of National Pink Out Day last month, PP has been a headlining topic in national news. But, maybe it’s a good thing.  Did you ever think that Planned Parenthood and discussions of Reproductive Health would be the focus of our national political talks?

In my previous experiences abroad, reproductive health, and more specifically women’s reproductive health, have been taboo topics, spoken about only among women and often in secrecy.  The veiled status further propagates an environment where women have reduced access to healthcare, increased incidence of disease, and disadvantaged status in society.  It is often said that women are the key to successful and sustainable development.  By giving girls access to education (and keeping them in school), allowing women to participate in economic activities and enabling women to choose when they are ready to have children, communities as a whole will succeed.

Those three topics (education, economic development and health), are very broad and much of what the Peace Corps, and PC Benin specifically, is focused on addressing.  I’ll talk about all of them eventually, but want to focus here on the latter: birth spacing and the status of reproductive health access in Benin.

Last week, our small, two room health center, that operates with a staff of one nurse and two nurses aids, without electricity or running water, hosted a Family Planning day.  I had no idea what to expect.  We had learned about what types of birth control options exist in Benin, how to talk to women about the advantages of “birth spacing,” and how to explain the larger societal benefits of birth control.  When 43 women showed up, leaving standing room only in our small waiting area, I was elated. 

Women came from all over the area for a consult.  They poured in from Zaffe, Kabole, Kpakpa-Zoume, Adourekoman, Egbessi and Madengbe.  It was wonderful!  Some arrived with their husbands and some older women (30+) came with teenage sons who could speak french for them.  Once they registered with me, we began a short sen sensibilization (training), on their options.  In Benin, women have access to several different methods of birth control:

1. Daily Hormonal Pills, or compriments, are offered at our pharmacy.  Many women are not interested in this option because it requires taking a pill everyday— sounds familiar, right?  These are sold at approximately 50 cents per package.

2. Injections of Noristerat into the forearm are fairly common choice as it is effective for 2 months, relatively cheap (under $1) and women don’t have to disclose it to their partners.

3. The Jadelle implant is a hormonal device made of plastic that is inserted subdermally into the upper arm.  Right now, it is two pieces that are inserted in a v-formation after an injection of lidocaine to the area.  The is effective for two years and by far the most common choice for women in my region.  In fact, every woman who came to the clinic wanted a Jadelle implant, but we only have 11 in stock.  It costs about $4, but sometimes we receive free implants.  We are currently waiting for more to become available, at which time we will call the women to receive them.
4. IUD, Intrauterine Devices, or DIU en francais, are available in Benin.  These are effective for 10 years, but women are very reluctant to use them.  In my consults, women voiced concerns about the pain and subsequent pain to their partners.  While the nurse and I tried to explain that the malleable plastic would not cause these unwanted effects, women were dead set on avoiding IUDs.  

5.  There are several traditional methods of birth spacing that we promote here in Benin.  Women can purchase beaded necklaces, colliers, composed of 35 beads of varying colors that assist them in tracking their menstrual cycle and avoiding sexual intercourse during ovulation (this is similar to the calendar method in the states, but here, beads can often become toys for young children and I worry about the efficacy of keeping count).  We also promote MAMA, a method for lactating mothers with children under 6 months of age.  If they follow exclusive breastfeeding practices, their risk of unwanted pregnancy is significantly reduced.

6.  Finally, the transmission of HIV/AIDS and other STIs/STDs is always a risk of sexual activity.  We strongly campaign the use of condoms, both male and female, for use in all relations.  While the rate of HIV/AIDS in the Collines is relatively low, the only way to prevent transmission is through condom, or preservatifs en francais, usage.  Condoms are available everywhere, are cheap, and many people don’t have a problem using them (or so they say…).

The whole event lasted well into the afternoon, when we ran out of Jadelle implants, finished up with prenatal consultations (every Monday in Adourekoman) and had discussed FP options with each of the women.  Watching women take charge of their own reproductive health was empowering and bodes well for future workshops in the community.