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.  

Monday, October 5, 2015

Yard to Table

It was two o’clock pm on a Thursday, a time when most of the village is enjoying their post-lunch repose.  The sun was high in the sky and the heat beat down on me as I walked home from the health center.  The children yelled “Bonjour Sharloti” (they can’t say Charlotte here), and rushed up to give me high fives.  I was crossing the road when I heard screaming.

But it wasn’t a human scream.  Not a woman in labor, not a heated argument among my neighbors.  No, it was a goat.

As I walked up to my house, I spotted it.  Beneath my big shade tree, a man was pulling a goat by his front legs to my neighbors.  I knew this was going to end in a bloody mess, and ultimately a goat stew.  

The man pulled the goat to a sandy area nearby, placed one foot on each pair of the goat’s legs and held his hand over the bleating beast’s mouth.  There was no saving the goat.  The man dug a little hole with the back of his machete, turned the goat’s head towards the ground, and, with one solid thrust with the machete, slit the goat’s neck.

I stood there in awe.  The bleating continued for several seconds but died down as the goat took it’s last breaths, blood squirting in pulsing blasts from the wound.  Then all was quiet.

It was at this point that I realized I would either have to become a vegetarian on the spot or accept butchering as a way of life here in my front yard.  I decided to stick with the latter, and ran back home to change into more appropriate butchering clothes.  If I had watched it die, I was committed to witnessing the entire process.

When I came back outside, my neighbor was already stoking a large fire.  The goat laid motionless next to a piece of roofing sheet metal and the machete.  She picked up the goat and threw it on top of the embers, allowing the hair to burn off.  She scraped the skin until it was smooth, rotating the animal over the flames.  After several minutes, she removed the hooves and twisted off the head, before placing the decapitated creature on the metal.

I pulled over a bench and sat down next to the woman.  With the help of her young daughter, the woman expertly butchered the goat, cutting from neck to tail.  She pried open the carcass with her bare hands, ripping apart the deep tissue protecting the internal organs.  Her daughter held the opening wide while her mother reached in and scooped up the innards, placing them in a metal bowl off to the side.  Flies began to swarm up and a pack of hungry dogs and chickens looked on with a drooling gaze.  

With the goat rinsed out, she placed the carcass on a large pile of bricks, away from the animals, and began to clean the organs.  She cut open the lungs, exposing the soft red tissue within.  When it came to the digestive tract, she skillfully squeezed the contents from the intestines, a greenish bile fluid that smelled so terrible I almost had to walk away.  She held the stomach in one hand and used the machete to slice down the middle.  The green mush began to spill out over the ground as she flipped the stomach inside out and scrapped out the contents, feeding it to the hovering dogs.  The inside was rough and lined with cilia, making the cleaning process all the more difficult.

Once the organs had been cleaned out and cubed, she began to roll up pieces of the stomach and tie it together with intestines.  The little sachets looked like expertly crafted white sushi rolls, and within a few minutes, neighbors started coming over to buy pieces of meat.  While I had been a curious onlooker until this point, speaking in broken Idaasha about eating goat, I decided I should lend a hand and help with the rest of the preparation.  

With two hands, I held one side of the goat while the woman cut down the middle, slicing through the spine.  The sheet metal was dripping in bodily fluids and the goat slipped down it’s grooves when we put it down.  Holding one half of the goat, we cut small chunks off, breaking the ribs and sawing through the rough hide.  The metal bowl was filled to the brim with large hunks of goat meat, ready for stewing.

The clean-up process was fairly simple.  Where there was blood and bile, the kids shoveled sand to bury the odor.  The metal sheet was rinsed off and laid in the sun to dry.  The meat was thrown into a large wok shaped dish on the fire with boiling water, where it began to simmer.  The woman added a bowl’s worth of freshly ground hot pepper and two seasoning cubes.  More woman and children came over to buy pieces of meat and fat, bringing their own bowls to collect the soup.  

After an hour on the fire, the meat was done.  I accepted a bowl and shared it with the kids around me, being careful to avoid the broken pieces of sharp vertebrae and intestine bundles that floated around ominously.  The meat was good: tender and flavorful.  I picked at it, gnawed on some of the tougher parts, and left the rest for the children, who happily devoured the rest.

As a Peace Corps Volunteer, one of our biggest tasks is to integrate with our community: learn their customs, eat their food, and if you’re lucky, pick up some of their language.  While the butchering of an animal is commonplace here, it is also a matter of survival.  I learned a lot about my neighbors in those four hours with the goat and while I don’t think I’ll ever butcher a goat on my own, at least I know that I can stomach it!