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!