Sunday, December 27, 2015

Ikouadun Noëlie!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 24, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 21, 2015

Six Months Happy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The Trials of Travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 14, 2015

The 24/7 Job

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peace Corps Menorah: Birthday candles in the dust

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

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Almost Officially Official

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

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

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

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