Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The immunization circus

Vaccination day is always a melange of comedy and chaos.  After another early morning run, Daniel and I set off with our cooler of vaccinations and backpack of syringes for Zaffe, the village 15ish km away towards Glazoue.  Vaccines are given to children at birth, then at intervals of 6, 10, 14 weeks and 9 months of age.  While it is the responsibility of the mother to remember to bring her baby to the follow up appointment, we write the dates of the next vaccine in her medical card book and, since it is a very social event for the women, many don't forget.  

This week we had 17 mothers from Zaffe, Glazoue, and Kabole at the center for vaccinations.  Once we found each child's vaccination chart, we weighed the babies to monitor their growth and completed the charts with the vaccine information and follow up appointment date. As of this month, the Beninese health department is switching from an oral polio immunization to a vaccine for children under 2 years of age.  We explained this to the mothers, who then entertained themselves with song and dance while we attacked the mountain of paperwork for vaccination dispensing.  Because the vaccines are free of charge, the government requires very regimented documentation of dispersal and completion of the required series.

When we finally finished with all the babies, and mothers who needed to finish their vaccinations, and the sobbing ended, Daniel, Richard (the major or the Zaffe Health Center) and I, snacked on some boiled corn in our vaccine pagoda before Daniel and I left for more vaccinations in Kpakpa-Zoume.  We arrived to six women sitting under a big tree at the entrance of the village and quickly conducted the immunization so to all the babies, including an adorable set of twins.  

In Beninese culture, twins are considered extremely sacred. If one twin dies, their mother carries around a wooden replica of the child so that his or her spirit can always be with her.  Since the twins have shared the womb, the remaining twin and the family can never again speak the name of the deceased as it may bring bad luck upon the surviving twin.  There are a couple sets of twins in Adourekoman and all are highly regarded as special to the community. 

After finishing vaccinations, Daniel and I returned to Adourekoman where we spent a couple hours with Sabine and her new baby Osnel, enjoying the shade and trying not to get eaten alive by the moucherones.  Like black fly season in New Hampshire, these little black bugs like to swarm your ankles and it feels like no amount of bug spray will keep them from devouring my legs.  I've resorting to wearing pants and long sleeves despite the heat, but have yet to commit myself to the abomination of socks and chacos :)

Although we worked on Thursday, it was a national and Muslim holiday in Benin called Tabaski.  There is a fairly large Muslim community in Adourekoman made up of the Peuhl ethnic group.  They live about 1 km from the main village and are known as the cattle herders, which means that there is always cheese available in the wet season.  Their dwellings are more basic mud structures in comparison to the cement houses in the village proper, but everything is built around a beautiful Tiffany blue mosque. While I had planned to go and witness their celebrations, I got pulled into a special mass that started behind my house around 8 pm and continued until well after 11, with songs, dancing and music pumped in by a large generator.  I'm not entirely sure why there was a mass of over 300 people behind my house and not at the church, but they have done it for three nights in a row and I enjoy watching the spectacle of the religious ceremonies.  Each time, I am invited over to eat at a neighbors house and always thanked profusely for accepting their invitations.

Friday was a quiet day here.  I spent the morning at the Health center with Daniel then retreated to my house for an afternoon of reading and laundry.  At 6:30 pm, Daniel announced that we were going to Glazoue to meet the major of the Health Center there, so I grabbed my helmet and we rode into town.  After briefly meeting his family, we left for a bar where they bought corn cakes, hard boiled eggs and beer.  Daniel jokes that if I ever want to become like a real Beninese, I need to eat and, more importantly, drink, like a Beninese.  I don't see that happening any time soon.

When we finally returned to Adourekoman at 9, I was told that there was a woman in labor at the Health Center.  I got there just in time to watch her give birth to a beautiful baby girl.  It was an amazing experience, being there in a small room, helping one of our nurses aids by holding our only light source, a small lantern.  Bernadite cleaned the baby and I got to hold it for the first time and share the news of the birth to her anxious father who was waiting outside.  Beninese women are amazing, and not even an hour after delivering, the mother was walking around, helping clean and making her way to a bed for the night.  Her family met her with new clothes, some food (pate is the best food post delivery...) and celebratory pagne.  When I checked on her the next morning, mother and baby we're doing well, the baby was eating and they were excited to head home that afternoon.

After the excitement of Friday night, Saturday was rather mellow.  I decided to go on a bike ride which was short lived due to two flat tires.  Luckily, I paid attention during training and know how to repair the holes-- thanks Papa Velo!  When I finally got back home on my squishy tires, I was greeted by six kids in my front yard.  Despite my better judgement, I invited them in and they watched curiously as I boiled water for coffee and made banana pancakes for breakfast. They were so intrigued that I made over a dozen little pancakes and west in my living room eating them together.  Before leaving, they washed all the dishes and we did temporary tattoos, which they love.

I enjoyed my coffee and decided that it was still cool enough out to start my backyard garden.  Using a small hoe that a child had left, I raked out a patch of dirt, churned the soil and using rows to organize it, planted snap pea, beet and arugula seeds that I brought with me from the U.S.  I'll keep you updated on the progress of my little garden, but seeing as I didn't inherit my grandfather's green thumb, I'm holding my breath.  

With my garden watered, I spent the afternoon with Daniel, seeing patients at the Health Center, before deciding to go visit Amanda in Kpakpa for the evening.  Daniel suggested I spend the night there and sent me with a travel mosquito net.  I arrived in Kpakpa by 6 and Amanda and I went to greet her supervisor, who invited us to his bar for a drink.  While we were sitting there, I heard a loud animal wail and realized that there was a goat in labor right in front of the buvette.  We were mesmerized by the goal, but had to leave before it actually gave birth.  

Amanda and I enjoyed dinner at Vincent's house, where his daughter had prepared pate and soja.  We hung out with him until 11, when we walked back to her house for the night.  I took advantage of her electricity to charge my electronics (the blog calls) which I really appreciated.  While I have no concerns about my own lack of electricity, it is nice to charge my phone and stay in contact with people!

We woke up this morning and wandered over to Vincent's for a breakfast of chai tea and fresh donuts, which Amanda calls yovo-dough-balls.  When warm, they are absolutely delicious, and I'm glad I don't have easy access to them in my village.  Since Amanda and Vincent were heading to church, I packed up my bags and rode back home where Worley was excited to see me.  Sunday is a quiet day here, but the health center has been bustling with cases of malaria- I have my work cut out for me!!

Homey in Dahomey

The transition from stageaire to full fledged volunteer in village has been wonderful. While I was originally concerned about feeling lonely here in Benin, the idea of boredom and isolation feel so remote even from my little home in Adourekoman.

After an eventful weekend of moving in, attending church and greeting members of the community, I kicked off the week at the Health Center, where I spent the majority of the day doing prenatal consultations with my supervisor, Odette.  Before we started the consultations, Odette and I gave a brief session on the family planning methods  available here in Adourekoman.  Since we have one of the more convenient centers, women come from all of the surrounding villages for health care.  We met with the women one on one to discuss their birth plans, check on their vaccination status, encourage proper nutrition and prescribe iron pills and folic acid.  The first woman that I consulted was named Charlotte, which felt serendipitous for my first day at work.  From the center, I went back home to continue unpacking and to fetch water with some of the kids. They love coming into my house and exploring, but are also a great help when it comes to weeding, doing dishes or sweeping the house.

On Tuesday, I decided to set out early and went on a sunrise jog to explore the dirt road that passes through my village towards Dassa.  It was so calm and serene, running alongside corn fields and rows of towering palm trees.  Daniel and I were scheduled to do vaccinations in Kpakpa-Zoume that morning, but Odette was at a training in Dassa, so we had to stay and cover the center.  I spent the day running inventory on our pharmacy and preparing the books for our monthly reports.  After handwriting and counting up hundreds of columns, it reminds you that there was a world before excel. While it's not exciting work, it passes the time and I can do it while talking to all the patients that come through, practicing Idaasha and playing with the kids.

Wednesday marked my first Glazoue market day as a Peace Corps Volunteer. Amanda and her homologue, Vincent, met me in Adourekoman at 10 and we drove to Galzoue together.  She had a lot of things on her shopping list, so I followed the two of them as they bartered for some plastic storage bins, a fan (a luxury for someone with electricity!) and a toilet seat (a luxury for someone with running water!). I stocked up on beans, oranges, bananas, cooking oil and mosquito repellant coils.  We attempted to visit the post office so I can send some letters, but it was closed.  I've since learned that they have a very odd schedule that may or may not be followed on a regular basis.  

That being said, I would love to send you mail from Benin!! Just send me your address, even if you think I already have it, to!  If you would like to send me some international snail mail, my address will remain the same for the next two years:

Charlotte Mailly, PCV
Corps de la Paix Americain
01 BP 971
Cotonou, Benin
Afrique de l'Ouest

Since I've moved in to my permanent home and started decorating, it's starting to feel "homey in Dahomey."  I've hung my hammock, strung photos and letters along the wall, used my new French press and enjoy my solar shower every evening.  Wobley is loving his new freedom and can often be found in the shade of my citronella plants or chasing lizards through the aloe bushes.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Moving Day (sans Uhaul!)

While parting ways with my Stage 28 family was difficult, I was so excited to load up my bush taxi and travel to Adourékoman! 

After swearing in on Thursday, the new volunteers travelled back to Lokossa where the members of PSN (peer support network) threw us a big party at a local hotel. We all rented out rooms and enjoyed a night full of dancing, drinks and the pool. Having one last night together made saying goodbye a little easier on Friday morning, when the RCH volunteers staying in the south loaded up onto a bus bound for Sé. The northern volunteers had already shipped all of their belongings up north and spent the night together on Lokossa. 

Returning to Sé to pack up all of my belongings was somewhat overwhelming, but I managed to get everything sorted in time for Saturday's early departure. On Friday night, the host families threw the remaining volunteers a going away party at Pole Nord with lots of Beninoise (the local beer) and a huge salad. We got to take family photos and say goodbye on last time to some volunteers.

On Saturday morning, I woke up bright and early for some last minute packing, family selfies, and to move everything out of my room to the gate for easy loading. It was a great idea until it started raining, but what's an adventure without a damp mattress? Luckily the rain stopped and my driver showed up within two hours of the scheduled pick up time. We loaded everything into the car, I said goodbye to my host family and we left to pick up Amanda in Hueyogbe. 

Amanda was ready when we got there and the driver quickly loaded her stuff onto the roof. She had some tearful goodbyes with her sisters but we were both really excited to be starting the next leg of this adventure. The first three minutes of our drive was uneventful, right until the bikes on the roof took out the power lines between two neighboring houses. We watched as our driver pried the tangled mess apart and within 5 minutes we were back on the road. 

The drive up to the Collines is scenic, with long stretches of open road and lush Colline terrain spanning in either direction. It took us a little over 6 hours to get to Adourékoman, which included three car breakdowns (something was wrong with a belt), a quick lunch break and the driver admitting to me that he didn't actually have directions after I questioned why he hadn't turned into my dirt road. 

We arrived in Adourékoman to a huge welcoming party of friendly faces who quickly unloaded my belongings into my new home. Since the last time I was here, they have installed new screen windows, screened doors and painted all the walls, not to mention cleaned everything including weeding my backyard. The house looks amazing!! I have a weeks worth of unpacking and organizing to do, but it's a great start. 

Wobley is settling in well to his new home. He has taken a liking to playing around in the aloe plants and chasing lizards in the yard. Soon enough he'll be catching mice and stalking spiders!

I received guests until late last night, people who were coming to say hi, bring me food and check out the new and improved house. Everyone has been so incredibly warm and friendly. 

Despite having dinner delivered last night by Daniel's life, I didn't want to eat  alone, so I wandered back over to his house and stayed to chat for a couple hours with everyone that stopped by. I met the director of a local nursery school and we talked about how we could potentially collaborate in the future. 

The first night in my new home was wonderful. I slept like a baby, there were no screaming children outside my door and even the roosters and goats don't bother me after 3 months here in Benin. I woke up to the sound of a crowd gathering in the road, waiting to welcome the new priest to the village for his first mass. I got dressed and joined the group, greeting everyone and accompanied the whole time by Marciano, Sabine's 4 year old who hasn't left my side since my arrival. 

When the priest finally arrived 2 hours later, the crowd formed a procession towards the church, where he conducted mass. While I hadn't planned on attending mass today, it was a great way to see everyone, say hi and dance a little. 

After mass, I came back home to organize the house before going to Daniels for a late afternoon lunch. As soon as I arrived, the carpenter stopped by to fix my couch and three girls came over to visit. I entertained them as well as I could but was exhausted and wanted to get back to unpacking. I will have to get better at living an interrupted life here. 

Adourékoman is absolutely amazing. Tomorrow, I'll head over to the health center in the morning and hopefully go into town to fill my gas tank so I can cook. In the meantime, I have a solar shower hanging for tonight and my solar panels have been cranking along all afternoon so that I can post this tonight. It's back to a simple life, but a life I love!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Swearing In!

"I, Charlotte Mailly do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”  

After a decade of thinking about joining the Peace Corps, a year of applications and medical appointments, three long months of countless training sessions, and hours of intensive language training, I am officially a Peace Corps Volunteer!

This morning, 46 volunteers were sworn in at the brand new U.S. Embassy in Cotonou. It was surreal and humbling to be surrounded by a new family of 45, brought together to go forth and make a difference. We were accompanied by our incredible training staff, PC Alum, Current Volunteers and numberous government representatives from Benin and the U.S. 

"I, Charlotte Mailly, promise to serve alongside the people of Benin. I promise to share my culture with an open heart and open mind. I promise to foster an understanding of the people of Benin, with creativity, cultural sensitivity, and respect. I will face the challenges of service with patience, humility, and determination. I will embrace the mission of world peace and friendship for as long as I serve and beyond. In the proud tradition of Peace Corps' legacy, and in the spirit of the Peace Corps family PST, present and future,

I am a Peace Corps Volunteer."

We are exhausted, elated and ready to serve!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Tapping Out

We are done with technical sessions, done with RCH post tests, done with sensibilization trainings and officially one week from swear in!

This week focused on sexual reproductive health, family planning and youth development. While much of our interactions with these topics will be through the Amour et Vie program (a Population Services International initiative that uses peer educators to teach topics such as HIV/AIDS, malaria, sanitation, and family planning), learning about the different methods of contraceptives available in Benin will be crucial to our role in health centers and in prenatal/postnatal consultations. 

After a visit from the Mobile Clinic Coordinator at PSI (they sponsor a large bus that drives to rural villages to do free contraceptive consultations, HIV tests and breast cancer and cervical cancer screenings!), we got to do a practicum exercise with local youth to teach about the importance of family planning and its accessibility in Sé. Our group was incredibly responsive to why FP is crucial for the health of not only the mother and child, but also of the family and community as a whole. Everyone participated in a game where we revealed the advantages and drawbacks to each type of birth control available at the local health center (hormonal pills, implants, injections, nonhormonal IUDs, condoms, the necklace) and then practiced putting a condom on a wooden penis. While I had anticipated the subject matter to be taboo, everyone asked great questions and some that through us for a loop. 

One of the most cited reasons for family planning here in Benin is to give time for the woman to regain her beauty after a pregnancy. Most of us have some major issues with the underlying belief that woman serve to service men, but it is a great example of the role of women here in Benin. As much as we want F(B)em(enin)ism to be a thing, it is rare and women are viewed as the caretaker and homemaker. Even in my own family, the women cook, clean and provide for my host dad, who has played no role in my interactions with my family. 

After successfully completing our final practicum, we were rewarded with several uninterrupted hours of language class (sarcasm) and a fun hands-on activity today. Since arriving in Benin, I've heard so many volunteers preach about the success of their Tippy Tap projects, so I was thrilled when we got to build our own today. 

A Tippy Tap is a very simple hand washing station, constructed of three sticks, a bottle and some string. After filling the bottle with water and puncturing a small hole in the bottle, one can slowly wash their hands under the small stream, thus saving water and promoting safe hygiene practices. I plan on building one at the health center in Adourékoman, where there is no running water and we are constantly going outside to wash our hands in a small, and unsanitary, bucket. 

Tomorrow is our last day of class and our final Language Proficiency Interview. These are conducted with a trained examiner and our scores are recorded, so the pressure is on!!

As things are winding down here in Sé, preparations for swear in are picking up. My dress is finished for next Thursday and I've been working tirelessly to nail down my speech for Saturday's host family party in Lokossa and the Swear In ceremony at the embassy next week. Although it will be broadcast on national television and radio, we won't be able to bring cameras into the embassy, but the official photographer will be sure to get lots of pictures. Until then, here's a sneak peek at my language for the next two years!!

E kona ko e kushe titi!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Welcome Wobley!!

I can't believe it's the last full week of training!! We (almost) made it!

It was an quasi-eventful weekend here in Sé and at the Goudjinou household. Saturday kicked off with my normal 7:05 wake up call, two hard boiled eggs and piping (not, scalding) cup of jago, which resembles an unsweetened hot chocolate. Leland met me at my gate at 7:32, just on schedule, and we proceeded down our sandy dirt road together towards school. 

No one likes Saturday school, even our teachers, so it's clear that they try to make it as enjoyable (bearable) as possible. This weekend, we focused on technical French language to cap up last weeks focus on diarrheal diseases in Benin. In doing so, we learned the proper French words for the fecal matter of almost any animal you can think of: bird is different than cow, which is different than human. Needless to say, we had some fun from the exercise. 

After what could have been a crappy morning, our teachers took us on a little field trip to the Pole Nord Hotel bar where they busted out cookies and let us order any soda we wanted (we get excited about the little things here!). They had planned a charades-like activity with a hat full of "americanisms" and wanted us to describe and guess them in French. Things such as a greasy spoon, dog tired, and penny wise but pound foolish, were pulled out of the hat and in the end Crystal, Christy and Emily had collected enough to be deemed the clear winners. 

When class was finally dismissed for the weekend, Emily and I stopped at the tailor to order our dresses for the swear in ceremony before continuing home for lunch. I'm really excited about the dress I designed and hope it comes out as well as I drew it (well actually much better because my drawing had no arms and no head). Although my house is usually bustling with kids, chickens and women cooking by the fire, it was oddly quiet, so I took advantage of the situation and got to Skype with my sister in Japan for over an hour, which was a real treat! 

After running through my data credit, Emily and I decided to venture to the market. The market here in Sé is every six days, but the Beninese system counts day one as the current market day, so by American counting it is every five days (but we are always confused). The market was mobbed with the after lunch crowd, but we managed to wind our way through the stalls, stopping to look at fabric and buy some fried plantains and fresh cucumbers. Personally, I love market days because it means that my family will prepare a beautiful fresh salad for me!

From the market, we met up with a couple other volunteers to make popcorn and watch a movie. We didn't end up finishing it, but it was nice to spend a quiet afternoon seemingly away from the chaos of the street below. I've realized that these "American moments" are really important to maintaining some level of stability here, as they provide a good escape from the constant noise (goats, kids, chickens and strangers) and cultural confusion. 

I returned home on Saturday to help my family prepare dinner, watch some tv with my brother and thoroughly sweep my room-- I don't know how it always seems like it was under attack from a sand monster. 

Unfortunately the concept of sleeping in hasn't made it to Benin, so I was woken on Sunday morning at 8:05 by loud knocking on my door and a host brother who was worried I was sick. When I emerged from my room, my grandmother laughed at the idea of sleeping through the roosters and was very concerned that my hot water would get too cold to drink for breakfast. As usual, it was still scalding and my boiled eggs were still lukewarm.  In an attempt to quietly integrate with my family and enjoy a lazy Sunday, I took out a coloring book and Eddy and I  spent the next two hours coloring, fighting over colored pencils and subsequently shredding our drawings. But what else can I expect from a two year old?

After spending some time attempting to pack up my room, Emily came over to cook lunch and hang out. We whipped up some amazing Mac and cheese with some real American cheddar cheese powder and favored every bite. As we were finishing up, my grandma came into the room with a sac, tied at the top, that contained something wriggling at the bottom. When I asked why the bag was moving, she produced a tiny kitten on a leash that she had just bought at the market to solve our mouse problem. At first, I was delighted to have a new cat in the house, but almost immediately, all hell broke loose as all the kids started sobbing and my sister ran away from the kitten in pure terror. The cat, which my grandma was now dangling from its neck, continued to meow innocently and my heart melted. 

And that's how I became a crazy cat lady here in Benin. When it was clear that my family was in no way ready to own a cat, I quickly whisked up the little fur ball and created a nice little home for him in my room. I named him Wobleoh, the Mina word for "Faire doucement," the English equivalent to take it easy, be careful or slow it down. The Beninese use doucement for everything, so it was only fitting that little Wobley's (every cat needs a nickname) name reflected his Sé upbringing and Beninese lifestyle. 

I'm happy to report that Wobley is doing well, eating everything (including paté) and is already litter trained (cats are amazing). He cuddled with me all night long and cries when he's not being held. Luckily, we only have another 11 days before we can finally get settled in our new rural abode in Adourékoman and have a place to call home.  

This is the final countdown to swear in and life as a real Peace Corps Volunteer!

Saturday, September 5, 2015

This I Believe

I know I am not going to change the world. I am not going to solve global health problems. I am not going to end hunger. But that is not why I joined the Peace Corps. 

Over the last couple weeks, I've been able to really reflect on my decision to commit two years of my life to volunteering in Benin. I've realized that effective change starts with people, not policy. That the desire to create a healthier community is more important than any treaty or list of actions written from an office continents away. That really living and understanding the problems on the ground can give way to sustainable development. 

Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way. After days of being sick with what I initially though was the regular course of travelers diarrhea, I was finally diagnosed with amoebas. As gross as it is, ingesting fecally contaminated food and water is a daily reality here in Benin. (and until I can prepare my own food and water it is hardly in my control).   Open defecation, the lack of hygienic practices, unsafe food preparation and improper water treatment are all issues that can easily be ameliorated to ensure community health. 

So that's why I'm here. While I have access to medications and modern amenities (sometimes and still not at American standards), that is not the world in which many rural Beninese live. But, I believe that with education and behavioral change activities, communities can lead better lives. 

I remain an idealist. I continue to find motivation from the world around me. I am living the life I want to live. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Body over Mind

How is it already September?! For most of my life, this time has signified a new semester, the start of swim season, the beginning of fall foliage and most importantly, apple picking. While there are none of those things this time around, this month marks the end of Peace Corps training and the transition to being a full fledged Peace Corps Volunteer!

It has been a long summer and an amazing privilege to explore Benin and become part of the PC community here. With only two weeks until swear-in, we are down to the wire with training and preparations. Unfortunately, I've been in Cotonou for a couple days recovering from the typical GI issues while acquiring some sort of respiratory problem. But alas, I've gotten to do a lot of reading, letter writing and have become well acquainted with the PC Bureau.  As some of you already know, I spent a good part of Monday taking the braids out of my hair. The curls are free and enjoying the African humidity. 

It's been a quiet couple days here and I  desperately miss my fellow RCHers in Sé. I'm looking forward to getting back to finish training this week and participating in our health center activities. 

Wishing everyone a happy September 1 and rabbit rabbit!