Sunday, February 28, 2016

What's Cooking? Moringa tortillas and refried beans

Food here in Benin is tasty, spicy, and very carb heavy. Although atassi, the traditional rice and beans dish, pate, the dense corn flour staple and ignam pile, Benin's attempt at mashed potatoes, all have their redeeming qualities, sometimes we just need to switch it up.

In a region ruled by the annual rains, its hard to have a steady supply of fresh fruit or vegetables. To make up for the lack of greenness in my life, I've started adding moringa powder to almost everything I eat. Tasting a little like matcha, this super food is packed with vitamins and minerals, plus iron, calcium and potassium. Luckily its easy to grow and readily available here in Benin!!

Palette-wise, Benin leans towards the spicy side. Its hard to find a meal that doesn't contain pimant, the habanero-like-pepper that is often crushed into sauces or dried into a powder. But, pimant doesn't fulfill some of my other taste cravings. As a huge fan of Mexican food, I find myself dreaming of tacos, fresh salsa with cilantro (tomato season is coming and my cilantro is sprouting in my herb garden) and guacamole (this girl can't wait for avocado season!!)

For those of you also suffering from food withdrawal, or looking to start your day with a new super protein packed, vitamin rich, non pate meal, I give you:

Moringa Tortillas and Refried Beans

1/2 cup flour
1/4 cup water
1/8 teaspoon salt (a pinch!)
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 tablespoon oil
1/2 tablespoon Moringa powder

2 cups cooked beans (Boil beans in a 1:2 water ratio until soft. I like to add a couple cloves if smashed garlic and a pinch of salt to the pot)
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon oil
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/8 cup water (use boiled water if in Benin!!)

For the tortillas: Combine all dry ingredients in a bowl. Add water and oil and stir with a spoon until mixture resembles a dough. With clean hands, knead the dough and rip into small balls. Roll dough into flat circles, working from the inside out. In a frying pan, heat a small amount of oil. Place tortilla in pan and let cook for one minute. Flip and repeat. If your tortilla is too thick, it will be doughy in the center. Try to get it as thin as possible!

For the beans: Add onion, garlic and oil to a frying pan. Sauté with cumin and chili powder. Add beans and water. Using the back of a fork, smash the beans. Cook for an additional 5-7 minutes, browning throughout. Use salt and pepper to taste.

So, there you have it! Super easy, peace corps approved moringa tortillas and refried beans! Perfect for your Mexican food cravings and a great source of protein! 

Saturday, February 27, 2016

The World is Watching: Trumping as a Political Underdog

As we come into Super Tuesday, politics and the future of our country is probably on everyone's mind. While I don't think of myself as a political person, I've been following the debates from afar, attempting to stay up to date with the tumultuous scene. I'm not writing to bore you with my political views, but to share my own experience with the campaigns as an American abroad. 

While Adourekoman lies hidden down a red dirt road, deep in the heart of the Collines, we are not isolated from the rest of the world. As some of you may know, Benin's Presidential elections are quickly approaching. With only a week left until people go to the polls, our village has been inundated with flyers, campaigners, and candidate stickers. Houses appear to have been TP-ed overnight with campaign posters advertising one of the 36 candidates running in this years election.  In exchange for a free T-shirt, our quaint little village has become littered with paper (that will ironically make its way to a latrine) and people are donating their walls to the canvassing cause.

Feeling exhausted by politics? You're not alone!
In the big towns, candidates have set up large headquarters, holding rallies and serving as rest points along their campaign trail. On any given day you'll run into a caravan of supporters, parading behind trucks equipped with sound systems, blasting praise for their candidate. Its an exciting time and there's an energy surrounding this election. People are ready for change.

One of the front runners in this election is believed to be the face for such change in Benin. Born of a French mother and Beninese father, Zinsou has spent a significant part of his life outside of Benin. And yet, despite being removed from the region, the people, and the culture, most people in my village believe he's the man for the job.

When discussing the upcoming elections with a group of village elders, one man piped in to add that Donald Trump was like Lionel Zinsou. While lacking in political experience, the two men have seized, and are capitalizing on, their outsiderness to stir up the political scene. Not wanting to voice an opinion on either candidate, I listened as this man continued to tell his neighbors about what a wonderful president Donald Trump could be for the world.

As we sat around the table waiting for the cotton producers weekly meeting to start, this man shared that Donald Trump was quoted saying that "Africans are lazy." Instead of being disgusted, everyone around the table agreed; Africans are their own worse enemies to progress and development. I sat there in shock. Is this the leader who should be representing American ideals and values? Could he be the face of our nation for the rest of the world? (And, perhaps more importantly, do the people here think they are helpless, hopeless and too lazy to achieve the progress they dream of? And, do they associate his statement as a promise for aid in the future?)

Sometimes (usually) politics turns into a game of he said, she said.  It can (will) turn nasty, violent and (almost) always personal.  But ultimately, whoever we choose to represent our country must do just that. Money speaks mountains, but can it really create sustainable change? Are we more focused on the strategy of the game than on the outcome? America, the world is watching.  Even Adourekoman has its eyes on you!

It will be interesting to see how the elections proceed here and how the campaigns unravel at home. I hope that when it comes time to vote, people choose the person who will do the best job, and not the one handing out the free tchotchkes.

Campaign signs are a daily reminder of the upcoming presidential election, and the power of the pribt media.  
So, remember that while you may be feeling discouraged, exhausted or like your environment is being polluted by political fodder, you play a key part in this game. Get out there and vote--- if I can do it from Benin, you can too!

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Shit We Go Through: Celebrating 8 Months in Benin!

We've been in Benin for 8 months!! I'm not stating this as a countdown, or count-up as the case may be, but simply as yet another milestone passed.  This is the longest I've been in Africa, away from home and stayed in one place (although I do get to travel around Benin a lot and will admit the wanderlust of exploring more of West Africa is starting to kick in!)

I'm just emerging from a busy two weeks of training, planning and basically traveling the length of Benin. After leaving the Amour et Vie training in Bohicon, a group of us spent the day doing a batik class chez Pauline.  I decided to get a little crafty, free drawing with the wax then experimenting with a double dye bath.  Since I was the resident expert, having batiked with the family in January, I became the go-to wax stamping guide for the afternoon despite actually having no artistic skill and getting myself covered in wax.

Just a little batiking in Bohicon!
After a full afternoon inhaling the potentially hazardous fumes of the caustic baths, six of us hopped in a taxi (two front seat passengers and four in the back a la Benin) bound for Lokossa.  Despite being in a full car, the two hour bumpy ride passed fairly quickly.  Not much has changed at the training site since we were last there, and after grabbing our room keys we hurried off to our rooms which are now starting to feel like second homes.

Due to some scheduling issues, and some sheer luck on our part, we had a full day off in Lokossa.  Most of us took advantage of the running water to do laundry, the electricity to catch up on computer work, and the salad lady down the street to eat something green.  It was nice to just relax, not having to worry about kids running away or sitting through a 12-hour training day.

This week's training focused on Peace Corps Benin's WASH Programs.  WASH stands for Water and Sanitation Hygiene and is composed of all hand washing, hygiene and latrine usage activities. The first two days walked us through the steps to complete Community Led Total Sanitation (or CLTS), the process that uses behavior change communication techniques to publicly shame a village into building latrines.  Although that sounds harsh, the curriculum is usually well-received and succeeds at triggering the necessary change through activities nicknamed as "Shit mapping," "the shit walk," and "calculate the shit."  The ultimate goal is community eradication of open defecation practices and once people realize that the same flies that land on their shit also land on their food, they are usually motivated to change their ways.  

Since the CLTS curriculum is so structured, even though it is ultimately up to the community to stimulate the behavior change and never once can a facilitator hint at the project goal, we spent a full afternoon practicing at the training site with our homologues before spending the next morning in the field doing a real CLTS walk-through.  We were greeted by a group of village mamans, sitting around with drums, singing and taking turns dancing under a large shade tree.  Two homologues, those that could communicate in the local language, started with the shit mapping exercise, where villagers are asked to draw their village, their houses, schools, religious buildings, etc. Once complete, usually using local materials such as leaves, flowers, or sticks, piles of ash or sand are used to symbolize areas in the village that are used for open defecation.

An open defecation field was identified behind the secondary school, so we followed the village chief and other participants to the area to check it out.  And it was a goldmine of shit!  Asking people to point out different piles, standing close to swarms of flies and the stench of fresh feces, we could tell that they were starting to get disgusted.  Women covered their noses and men simply walked away.  We returned back to our map and through a series of other activities, 22 villagers volunteered to start constructing latrines in their compounds.  Since Peace Corps does not fund latrine building, this is a very sustainable approach because the project falls on the village and they realize that their health is in their hands.

Community "shit-mapping" in Attieme.
After an eventful morning in village, we got back to the training site to finish up the wash activities: learning how to sew reusable menstrual pads using strips of pagne, building tippy taps and discussing food sanitation and water treatment methods in Benin.  Our homologues really enjoyed the demonstration of the Earth Auger toilet, a composting latrine that is starting to make its way onto the Beninese market.  Although that is out of the reach of my village, I know that implementing some CLTS activities will be very useful to motivating people to use some of the beautiful latrines scattered around Adourekoman!

From training in Lokossa, I headed north up to Parakou, the northern capital city of Benin on the Nigeria side.  Its the most north I've been here and it was nice to enjoy the scenery from the seat of an air conditioned bus.  The city itself is much calmer than Cotonou, the people are friendly and the workstation has a homey feel, compared to the bureau in Cotonou.  I came up here to meet with Sierra and John, the two other directors for this summer's Camp GLOW.  GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) is celebrating it's 20th year as a Peace Corps programs that celebrates girls empowerment and leadership over the course of a one-week summer camp.  This year, we will be inviting 55 girls from around the region to participate in health sessions, creative thinking exercises and lots of other fun activities.  

It was a really productive weekend, full of trips to the market for supplies, good food and submitting my first Peace Corps grant.  Miraculously, the internet came back on and we were able to get a lot of computer work done and out of the way. Over the next couple months we will be meeting more regularly to build the schedule, finalize materials, coordinate catering and do everything that's required for implementing a project like this. We are all super excited and can't wait for summer!

Chaleur is finally upon us, bringing with it days that hover around 105 degrees and nights where you fall asleep an wake up in a pool of your own sweat.  I'm not sure how I'll survive until the rains come (trigger "I bless the rains down in Africa"), but it will probably involve lots of bucket baths and frequent trips to Glazoue for a cold drink.  

I'm heading back down to village today, hoping to score a seat on the infamous Baobob Express.  It will be a busy week of Care Group meetings, project planning and getting my Amour et Vie team kicked off, but I'm excited to get back, see friends and finally teach myself some new guitar chords!

Headscarfs are the key to staying "cool" in Benin!
If you're reading from a place that has a real winter, please send snowy thoughts my way!!

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Legacy: The Peace Corps' Approach

While I feel like I've spent countless days in trainings over the past 8 months (wow has it really been that long?!), this week was special. Last Monday, I left village with two kids and a homologue to participate in a week long training for Amour et Vie, a peer educator program sponsored by the international NGO Population Services International (PSI).

The goal of Amour et Vie is simple: train motivated youth to serve as community health educators. While the program targets descholarized youth, those who have dropped out of school to pursue trades such as seamstresses and moto drivers, the team can act as agents of change on a community scale.

The implementation of Amour et Vie started in early January, when I selected four girls and four boys from Adourekoman to interview for the two positions of peer educator on the team. The interviews consisted of presenting themselves to assess public speaking, singing a song to evaluate their ability to animate and asking health questions to have a baseline for their current knowledge level. I was really excited that Joseph and Elisabeth stepped up to the plate and were even more enthusiastic for the program than I was!

On Monday, we traveled together to Bohicon, crammed in the back of a taxi, laughing together as we were covered in red road dust because the car had no windows. Training kicked off with multiple ice breakers and then shifted to discussions about how to talk about health. Both kids (I say kid but they are both 16) participated by asking insightful questions and I was so impressed by their notes and dedication. Over the week, we covered a range of topics, from HIV/AIDS and family planning to hygiene and Lassa fever. By Thursday they had sat through countless hours of informational sessions and even I was checking out. But, they maintained attentive and when they were assigned to give a presentation about family planning and contraceptive availability in Benin, they wrote out a plan and practiced it, asking questions and using cheers and images to relay the information.

Yesterday, our team went out to the field and did our first health lesson. I was so impressed with my kids ability to navigate a somewhat taboo subject (family planting) and their maturity as they discussed the advantages and disadvantages of birth spacing. They even chose to do a condom demonstration and got me to do a cheer in Idaasha covering proper condom usage.  Our team was cohesive, excited and poised.

As a Volunteer, my goal here is to promote sustainable development. To do capacity building exercises and support education that will last far longer than my two years here in Benin. Sitting in a room of young Beninese, eager to change the health and behavior in their communities, was remarkable. These kids are the future of this country and the key to progress in Benin. I'm leaving this week with renewed hope and an overwhelming sense of pride. Its these moments that remind me why I'm here.

The Amour et Vie teams from Bante (left) and Adourekoman (right) after our first sensibilization!
Amour et Vie's motto is "Les jeunes qui guident le monde," or the youth who lead the world. The message is clear. Our legacy rests in the hands of these kids and I can attest that they are ready, they can be the change we need to see in the world.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

The good, the bad and the (b)ugly

After a week of training, I got back to village on Monday to a bunch of news. I'll start with the bad stuff:

First, my cat Wowo ran away/was eaten/got lost while I was away. Daniel was devastasted that he had disappeared in his care, but I assured him it will be OK. Maybe he'll turn up, maybe Benin will win this time.

Second, our village chief is still in a coma.  He was going to have tests done in Cotonou, but the hospital didn't have space/didn't want to accept him. Sabine was in Cotonou then returning back to Abomey where he has been for the last two weeks.  Although they keep saying that he gets better every day, I find it hard to believe. This is the first time I've seen Beninese people be truly optimistic about a terrible situation. While Sabine and the Chief remain in Abomey, their children have been absorbed by the village. His second wife has stepped forward to care for Sabine's kids. I hope that this tragic accident has a happy outcome, as he supports a large family and many kids who are bright and deserve the education he has provided them with.

Thirdly, a child died over the weekend from a snake bite. While this is also devastating news, it was a reminder that snakes are out there (and we all remember how I fee about that!) There have also been an increase in scorpion bites and stings arriving at the health center. So, here I am... Constant vigilance.

Fourth, while you are all probably aware of the Zika crisis in South America and more recently in the US, we are currently dealing with an outbreak of Lassa fever. All volunteers have been asked to stay out of their health centers and away from sick people. I assure you not to worry, we are all safe, and peace corps is monitoring the situation very closely.

And on that note, here are some of the awesome things that make it worth getting out of bed in the morning:

Lindsay and her friend Valerie came to visit village this weekend.  We got to tour market, enjoy Maman's ignam pile in Glazoue (arguably the best in Benin) and spend some time in Kpakpa, Amanda's old village, with her homologue Vincent.

Did you know that Benin is one of the world's leading producers of cashews? Well, cashew season has just started and the trees are full of cashew apples and the rich and crunchy nuts. I didn't know that cashew apples were even a thing, but the fruit, which is highly perishable and fairly astringent, is a great source of vitamins and other essential nutrients. Unfortunately, many people don't like the taste, but I think they're delicious and will do anything to get my hands on some fresh fruit. While you can buy cashew juice here, I'm going to experiment with some dried cashew fruit, syrup and maybe even a cake! Recipes to follow!

Rebecca and I kicked off a successful mosquito net distribution campaign yesterday and will spend the month of March doing behavior change sensibilizations and distributing over 300 nets. With the hot season looming before us, its critical that people continue to sleep under their nets. The mosquitoes stop at nothing!

On Monday, I leave for another two weeks of training.  The first will be one week with my Amour et Vie team, who will learn how best to serve as health peer educators in the community. I'm really excited to be working with Joseph and Elizabeth, who are both ecstatic about visiting and traveling to another part of Benin.

The second week of training will focus on Water, Sanitation and Hygiene, or WASH. We will be learning about Community Led Total Sanitation, a program that I worked on in Laos, and how to implement WASH activities in the schools. With all the health problems going around, its critical that people practice good hygiene, such as hand washing and latrine use!

It will be a fairly quiet weekend here as I play catch up with my village friends and get ready to leave on Monday. Stay tuned for  some recipes and updates from the field!