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!!

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