Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Culture of Crisis

We've all been there: the phone rings, you pick up, the person on the other end says "I have some bad news," and you brace yourself for what's coming next. Every terrible scenario flashes through your head and you remind yourself that no matter what, you can get through it. You've been here before.

Early Thursday morning, as we were leaving village for vaccination day in Zaffe, Daniel got a call that the Village Chief (CV) was involved in a horrible car accident. The first reports assumed all 6 passengers, Adourekoman's prized youth heading to Cotonou for university programs, and the driver (CV) were killed on impact. A shock wave reverberated through the community. Everyone was related to someone in that car. Mothers sobbed, children wept, but Daniel and I left to run vaccination day. The show must go on.

When we arrived in Zaffe, Daniel got another call. All the passengers were stable, having been successfully pulled through the wreckage of the car that was hit from the front and the side by passing trucks before rolling 50 meters and into a ditch. The driver remained in critical condition, but he was going to make it. Having been in that car before, I knew it was a miracle.

Despite the tragedy, but thankful for the improved reports from the hospital, Daniel and I continued with vaccinations. I gave a talk on complementary feeding, exclusive breastfeeding for children under 6 months, and how to maintain a nutritionally diverse diet for your family. Part of me was stalling, I didn't want to walk back into the crisis in village. But for some reason, I'm always the person rushing to the scene, spending time with the sick in the hospital, and comforting the family at the funeral of a loved one. With a grandmother who's calendar is filled with visits to nursing homes, shivas and funerals, always arriving with her infamous date nut bread, it must be in my blood.

The morning passed by and by one we were back in Adourekoman. Sabine, the CV's wife and one of my closest friends in village, was curled under a shade tree, phone close by, surrounded by a small crowd of women who were doing their best to pass the time. I did my best to express my apologies in broken Idaasha, and offered the sincerest prayer I could for this situation.

I spent much of the afternoon cleaning my house and preparing for a behavior change communication session for malaria, which was scheduled for 6 pm. At 5:30, I left the house, armed with a tattered mosquito net, repair kit and a pile of written materials. I found Daniel at the health center, buried under paperwork and a plethora of used rapid diagnosis tests for malaria. He was clearly too busy to come translate for me, so I set off to find another willing soul.

Next to the health center, at Sabine's house, the crowd had migrated. The fire was roaring as another local woman had come over to make a huge pot of pate. The kids were home from school and between the chaos of feeding and bathing them, it was unlikely I would find someone to accompany me to Camp Peulh. After I finally ran into Pauline, who walked with me to the Camp, we arrived there to learn that the women were unprepared and collecting water at the pump. We made our way back to village and I knew I had to sit with the women, play with the kids or do anything but hermit myself and avoid the crisis mode that had set in outside. I went home, made a heaping bowl of popcorn, grabbed my computer and went back to Sabine's.

The hungry crowd, stomachs unsettled by a day of nervous not-eating, devoured the popcorn. The kids and I huddled together to watch The Impossibles, one of the only PG movies I have available. The children, who had amassed to a group of about 30, huddled around the screen and were transported to a world of animation, heroes and superpowers. We spent the next 2 hours a world away.

I've dealt with a lot of different cultural scenarios since arriving in Benin. Most of the time, I'm surprised by how much I have to adapt to fit in with my community. But, in crisis mode, I felt at home. These people have become my family, and my heart aches with theirs.

The CV is doing better, still in the emergency department of the Abomey hospital. He makes progress every day and when I first wake up, I seek out the newest updates on his health.

Compassion is a human universal. We hurt and we heal. In the end, no matter where I am, I know that my neighbors are my community and we are stronger together. 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Learning to Dream

I've had a lot of "ah ha" moments here in Benin. Simple things like learning what cashew fruit looks like to more significant discoveries about human relationships and life in a rural African village. Despite everything I've learned, the moments I've treasured the most are those when, as a teacher, I can watch the evolution of comprehension.

When I started my English club this fall, I had all intention to keep it fun, upbeat, yet educational. I opened my doors to any students that wanted extra help with homework, regardless of the subject matter, and they poured in. After reviewing the same material with a particular student three nights in a row, I was convinced that he was more interested in spending time chez moi than actually learning the material. I relocated and changed my open door policy, limiting it to after 9 am and before 10 pm (many kids kept telling me they came by for help but I didn't answer my door. When asked what time they came by and they responded 5 am, I just laughed!)

While I can help with English, math, science and much of the Beninese curriculum, there are a couple subjects that I've really had to think about before launching into with any sense of understanding. One of the biggest surprises was the English curriculum in Terminal (equivalent to our senior year) that focuses on racial segregation and the Civil Rights Movement in America.

For the past couple months, I've been helping one student trudge through reading comprehension exercises that touch on racism and segregation. At first, I assumed he understood what the terms meant and spent more time breaking down the arguments in the exercises. When he asked me, after many hours, why this matters when people can just choose to change their skin color, I was aghast. Did he really think that the lotions marketed to tint skin tone can change the way you are perceived by society? When I asked him whether he knew about the slave trade, of which Benin was a huge player, he gave vague responses. He didn't know. Perhaps ignorance truly is bliss.

I'm not writing this to critique the educational system in Benin, but to prove that determination and Socratic thinking are essential to understanding. I walked the student through history, holding his hand as we started with colonialism, moving onto slavery, racial segregation and the problems that exist today. What began as a simple request for help with English opened the doors to a much bigger, and more important discussion, about the world we live in: where we've been and where we're going. Without that foundation, the English is pointless, secondary.

After ranting for a while (so much so that he hasn't asked for help since) and bringing in Daniel for help, I think the student finally grasped what the concept of racial segregation actually meant. Or at least he had a better understanding of how it relates to his life.

All my effort came to fruition when the English (and American Culture) club met last Sunday to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr Day. I started by explaining who he was and why he was so important. My student raised his hand and added that this is how racism manifested itself. Ah-ha!! He explained that the Civil Rights Movement fought for equal rights and cited Rosa Parks' bus boycott (a verb we added to our English verb list and the topic of a prior reading comprehension exercise) as an example of peaceful protest at the hands of racism.

After translating MLK's "I have a dream" speech, each student received paper to write down their own dreams. They ranged from visiting America to learning to speak English well and having western infrastructure here in Benin. While they didn't question the task, I challenged them to think creatively and dream big.

My impact here may be small. Sure, fewer kids will fall sick with malaria, some families may improve the nutritional value of their daily meals, and students may even succeed in English. While these are all important to me, I want people to ask questions. I don't want things to be taken at face value. I want kids to understand the why, how and what of the world.

The children of Adourekoman have a herculean task in front of them and the power to change how their community fares in the future. My goal is to teach them how to lead those lives, fulfill those dreams and remain resilient and determined in the face of failure. I have a dream. 

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

When Two Families Collide

Sharing my experiences in Benin through this blog, skype calls and snail mail is one thing.  Showing it is a whole other story.

This past week, my entire family was able to join me in a whirlwind adventure around Benin.  Here are some of the highlights, our travel itinerary and our favorite photos from their first African experience!

Our first sunshine selfie as we left Cotonou for our journey northbound.  The ladies took up the back of our mini bus while Dad rode shotgun.  Not only did this give us more napping space, but it saved Mom from watching all the near collisions out the front window.  Dad, as usual, kept shooting out a steady stream of questions that we all took turns translating.  God Bless our driver!

Mom kept herself occupied trying out my new guitar.  
While Maddie worked away at a friendship bracelet!

Dad rode shotgun and was responsible for "front-seat selfies!"

The Trip:

Day 1: Late night arrival in Cotonou, Benin

Everyone arrived safe and sound on the flight from Paris, wearing snow boots and long sleeved shirts that looked completely out of place among the sandals and shorts here in Benin.  We loaded up the car and rode to Calavi, where we kicked off the trip with a Beninoise, the Beninese beer, and hot showers.

Maddie enjoying her first FanChoco, the Frosty of Benin!
Day 2: Bohicon, Batik and Bound for Village

Picking out stamps for our batiks!
We woke up to enjoy a simple Beninese breakfast: Nescafe, omelette and a big bowl of sliced baguettes.  We made our way up to Bohicon, about 2 hours north, as everyone adjusted to the scenery outside.  Things that seem so normal now, like goats strapped to motorcycles and women carrying huge baskets overflowing with bread on their heads, elicited ohhs and awws from the back of the bus.

Maddie picking out her batiking stamps
Our first stop was a Batik session with Pauline, the owner of a art coop in Bohicon.  We each got to pick out a couple stamps and batik a meter of fabric.  After the wax set, we dyed the fabric, removed the wax and left the tapestries to dry.  Abby got to do her favorite color, pink!


It was late afternoon when we arrived in Adourekoman, another 2 hours north of Bohicon.  We were greeted with a swarm of happy kids who quickly became our village entourage.  Daniel and his wife prepared a wonderful meal of fried ignams and pimant sauce with soja, giving the family a taste of village cuisine.  Maddie and I camped out for the night while everyone else went to Dassa, excited for another village day.

Day 3: Market Day and Village Exploring

Having never seen, or ventured through, an African marketplace, the entire family was looking forward to participating in my Wednesday trip to the Glazoue market.  As I've mentioned before, this market is the third largest in Benin, being a central location for vendors from Cote D'Ivoire, Togo, Nigeria, and other surrounding countries.  We started the day with a stop at the attcheke stand, where everyone got their first bite of this Cote D'Ivoire delicacy.

Enjoying attcheke in the Glazoue market!

One of the highlights of market were the tissu stalls and the countless bowls of spices and foreign African foods that lined the alleys.  We tried to take pictures of the goods at the Vodun (Voodoo) section of the market, but the vendor wasn't too happy with us.
Mom and Dad at the Glazoue Marche

After a couple hours in the heat of the African sun, we headed back to village where Dad promptly fell asleep in my hammock.  The ladies cooled off with lemonade while getting acquainted with my house and playing with Wowo!  We ventured out in the afternoon for a more complete village tour, visiting the church, health center and Peuhl village.  
Dad enjoying village life with a new friend
Maddie and Abby quickly made friends in village

Cotton Angels!

After another jammed packed day in village, we rounded it out with another delicious meal chez Daniel.  Fortune brought over pentard meat (another poultry) and Vincent joined us from Kpakpa!

Day 4: The Dahomey Empire

Maddie and I woke up and put on our meme tissu, the agreed upon family outfit for our tour of the Dahomey kingdom.  After leaving the house to go buy doughnuts (the only hot food I can readily buy in village), we returned home to plates of macaroni delivered from Daniel's wife.

Let's recap the little boomba emergency of 2016: Word quickly spread in village that Maddie's boomba top was too big.  Not even 2 minutes later, we were shuttled to the tailor where Maddie was stripped of her shirt while it was immediately mended.
Maman's infamous maca

We finally left Adourekoman and met up with the rest of the clan in Dassa, where they had spent the night.  From Dassa, we visited a settlement of underground dwellings that were used to hide from slavery during the reign of the Dahomey kingdom and wars of enslavement.
The family sporting their meme tissu at the Archeological Park of Agongointo, outside Bohicon.

From there, we traveled down to Abomey where we toured the ruins of the Dahomey kings Ghezo and Glele.  The history was fascinating and gave me a whole new perspective about Benin.  My history buff parents even liked the tour!

Day 5: Off to the Beach!

After spending an exciting night in Azove, complete with lack of water, soupy ice cream and a real taste of life here in Benin, we packed up for our trip down to Grand Popo.  Before hitting the road, we stopped to tour Sebastian's (our driver and amazing guide) village.  Little did we know that he was the direct descendant of another empire! 
Visiting the Essou "Estate" with Sebastian Essou, our fearless driver and wonderful guide for the week.  The lion was the symbol of his great-grandfather who ruled over land outside of Abomey.

We arrived at Grand Popo just in time to enjoy an afternoon of sunshine on the beach.  It was Mom's first real tropical experience and everyone's first glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean from Africa!  Despite not being able to swim in the ocean due to rough currents, we all soaked in the gorgeous views and poolside payotes.

We were all smiles at the beach in Grand Popo

Catching up with Mom who enjoyed her first view of the Atlantic from this side of the world

They're too cute... I couldn't help myself.

We spent the night in a little Auberge along the ocean with a restaurant that specialized in seafood.  

Beachside dining!

Day 6: Ouidah and the Point of No Return

We bid farewell to the beach and headed an hour east to the city of Ouidah, a capital of Voodoo and the historic slave port of West Africa.  After a tour of the sacred forest, we explored the remains of a Portuguese fort that was used to hold and sell slaves before they were shipped to the New World.  After the tour, we drove along the 4 km Route d'esclaves, which connects the forts to the Port, where slaves boarded ships and, according to our guide, left their African spirits behind.

The city of Ouidah was bustling in preparation for the Annual Voodoo festival, which is celebrated on January 10th of each year.  We watched as they set up tents and vendors began to unload their wares.  Some of us partook in fresh coconut water while others turned away for the machete wielding coconut man.

The Point of No Return at the Ouidah Port
Day 7: Ganvie and Farewell!

We woke up in Ouidah to the sound of drums and the beginning of the Voodoo festival.  After a quick breakfast, we walked along the beach to the port where dancers were preparing for the festivites and chairs were being set up for all the guests.  We took our time in the craft stalls, bartering for earrings, tapestries and a hand carved chair that somehow miraculously fit in my Dad's suitcase for the trip home.  Although we didn't get to truly experience the festival, we had other exciting things in store for the day.

Ganvie is a stilt village located in Lake Nakoue, about 30 minutes north of Cotonou.  Known as the "Venice of Africa," the city houses about 30,000 people, who make their living harvesting their fresh water environment.  We met a guide at the boardwalk and enjoyed a breezy 20 minute boat ride to the heart of the city, passing fisherman and small boats along the way.

Boat with rice sack sail making it's way to Ganvie
While many houses are on stilts, like the one below, we were all surprised to see houses, churches, schools and even a couple hotels built up on man made islands in the middle of the lake!
The houses of Ganvie and the only mode of transport: boat

Dad and I enjoying an afternoon cruise to Ganvie
Making our way back to the mainland, we hopped back in the car bound for Cotonou.  We did a brief tour of the city, complete with drive-bys of Embassy row before enjoying dinner at my favorite Indian restaurant in town.

The week-long adventure came to a close when Sebastian and I dropped everyone off at the airport for their red-eye flight back to Paris.  I can't begin to tell you how wonderful it was to host my whole family here in my new home, how enlightening it was to see the country through their eyes, and how blessed I feel for their endless love and support.

Now it's time to adjust back to regular life here in Benin, start implementing all my plans for 2016 and getting ready for upcoming February trainings.  Stay tuned for some guest blogs as my family (as promised) will reflect back on their visit in Benin!

The whole family at Grand Popo

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Looking Forward by Looking Back: The Why

Welcome to 2016!! For the first couple weeks this year, I will be participating in the "Blogging Abroad Challenge."  The BloggingAbroad Community will receive a prompt each week via email and blogs will be featured at Blogging Abroad.  We begin the new year by looking back, where I've been and what's brought me here.  I hope that "leveling up" my blog will be an enriching experience for my readers as we launch into a new year together!

The journey to Peace Corps has been a long one.  I actually don’t remember when I first learned about the Peace Corps, but my love for travel and cultural exploration started in elementary school.  My interest in African culture (and fear of all arachnids) goes back to first grade when my class put on a play called “Ananzi the Spider.”  At home, I recall falling asleep each night listening to an audiobook named “Koi and the Kola Nuts.”  And, after my aunt and uncle returned from a trip to Ghana, I have fond memories of playing with a model fishing boat and dancing around in a gorgeous batik dress.  

Over the years, my family travelled around the United States, taking road trips to visit family, camping through the Canadian Eastern Provinces, and hiking in National Parks.  Each trip was highlighted by meeting strangers, learning about their culture and sharing parts of our own.  I used to despise my dad introducing himself to every random person at each road stop, but now relish my ability to make friends in any situation.  As we grew up, we had the opportunity to travel abroad, first to Israel where I was in awe of the people, the scenery and the chaos of a modern marketplace.  I prioritized learning languages throughout high school to enable me to participate vocally in the global community.

During my Junior year in High School, I became fascinated with Africa.  While everyone else chose to study the French Revolution in European History, I opted to research Colonialism, the Belgian Congo, and quickly became obsessed with the reign of King Leopold.  I knew that someday I would have to explore Africa on my own.

Although I spent my college years completing a degree in the sciences, I was adamant about building opportunities to study abroad.  I participated in a Global Medical Program setting up day clinics in rural Panama, taught Women’s reproductive health outside Varanasi, India, and finally touched down on African soil for a semester along the Swahili coast of East Africa.  My program focused on Islam and Swahili cultural identity and provided me with my first glimpse into the diversity of African cultures.  I officially caught the travel bug, and my desire to explore and share began to dominate my post graduate plans.

After graduating from college, I moved back home, somewhat discouraged by the declining job market but optimistic about what the future could hold.  It all came full circle when I was offered a job in Vientiane, Laos as a Program assistant for initiatives in land mine victim assistance, livelihood training and sustainable development.  I immediately fell in love with the Laotian culture, people, and food.  I saw the fruits of my labor and found fulfillment in working hand in hand to change the lives of others.  I began to question my desire to follow a career in medicine, seeking out opportunities that challenged me, brought me in contact with development and opened my eyes to the wealth of our global community. 

From Laos, I moved back to the States, enjoying two years in the medical field.  I enjoyed the work, was surrounded by intellectuals dedicated to changing lives, but felt that something was missing.  In July 2014, I decided to apply to the Peace Corps.  I was ready to pick up my life, dedicate over two years of service abroad and excited for the multitude of possibilities that the PC held.  I interviewed shortly after submitting an application and remember, with nervous excitement, opening an email with my nomination to Benin.

Several months past after that email and I had almost forgotten about Peace Corps.  I started to take on other responsibilities at work and established myself in the Boston area.  Every Tuesday, I volunteered in a free medical clinic and loved using my Spanish, and sometimes Swahili, to communicate with the patients.  In early December, I opened my email to find an invitation to join the Peace Corps.  Sitting at my desk at work, I broke into hives, excited and extremely terrified at the same time.  The next seven days were a blur of pro/con lists, calls with PC friends, encouragement from family, self-doubt and hours of research and Facebook stalking.  Right before the deadline, I accepted the invitation and took the plunge to join the Peace Corps family.

As I’ve written before, the decision to join the Peace Corps, and the months leading to staging in Washington, D.C., were not easy.  I had to say goodbye to friends, family and the comforts of home. The idea of leaving everything behind was scary, but mostly because I hadn’t realized how much I would gain from this experience; I can’t imagine not being here right now.  I have fallen in love with this country, learned to trust my instincts and found that the world really isn’t all that big.  

It’s a trite statement, but everything in life comes with making sacrifices.  Joining Peace Corps is no exception.  In accepting, I chose to enter into the unknown, prioritizing a commitment to the people of Benin and to the goals of a fifty plus year government organization. I hoped that the experience would be fulfilling, joyful and enlightening.  So far, it has been just that.

Grand Popo, Benin

It’s been a long road to Peace Corps, and the journey is far from over.  I thank everyone who has been there along the way and look forward to meeting all the strangers of tomorrow.  

<[1]Blogging Abroad's Boot Camp Blog Challenge: Starting January 2015>

Friday, January 1, 2016

Cheers to 2016!

I couldn't think of a better way to kick off 2016 than surrounded by new friends of the beach of Grand Popo in Benin. After a beautiful and sunny day, listening to the waves crash on the sandy shore, I counted down into the New Year with other volunteers, expats for Ghana and Nigeria, a group of Rastafarians, and tourists from Serbia and Finland.  Its a wonderful world.

The bonfire crackled, the reggae echoed and I know that 2016 has more adventure in store. Here's to another year of and all the endless possibilities!