Monday, March 28, 2016

Let's Get Serious

There is urine running down my calf, and its not my own.

Its a situation I've found myself in more times here than I can count. And in some ways its a blessing.

One thing they don't tell you about when you join the Peace Corps is that you become a full time babysitter, entertainer, object of extreme fascination. Here in Adourekoman, not a day goes by when I don't find myself sporting a child, molded to my back like a new appendage. It reminds me of intro biology and the idea of a symbiotic relationship. These kids breathe love into my life and all I have to do is deal with pee stains, crying, the occasional projectile vomit. I'm honestly not being sarcastic, on days when I need a little motivation, I have hundreds of smiling faces to turn to.

I measure success in smiles. 

The village observed Easter this weekend. It started with the last segment of the journey of the cross. For the past 14 weeks, a group has gathered to walk and pray through the village, commemorating Jesus' last march. I've always been invited to join them, but have watched from afar.

Saturday night brought the normally scheduled prayer session at the Catholic Church, complete with singing, dance and tam tams that echo through the town. There's a reason I've worn earplugs for the last nine months.
I took advantage of Sunday mass to do a long yoga session, walking out into the sunshine of the morning just as the herds were making their way home. People celebrated with quick family meals before heading out to the fields; the arrival of the rainy season means cultivation and no one is wasting time hanging around while there is corn to plant and beans to sow.

Having enjoyed a relaxing, albeit peep and bunny-less Easter, I went to bed to the sound of partying outside, soothed by the sound of life around me. What once used to bother me is now comforting. It makes this feel like home.

I was awoken today by loud knocking on my door. My 6:30 alarm hadn't gone off yet and I wasn't in any rush to jump out of bed. I lay there in silence, hoping they would give up, but no such luck. By 6:33 I was up, dressed, and greeting a party of 23 women who had come by for baby weighing.

Although I'd asked these women to come by two weeks ago, I appreciated that they finally showed up. We went through the routine greetings then settled down in a semi-circle in front of my house. One by one, we weighed the babies using a scale I rigged up on the shade tree in my yard. The babies giggled, some wailed, but no matter what, it made me smile.

Its amazing to think that babies born when I arrived in Benin are now starting to crawl, in a few months they'll be mobile. I see my own progress in their steps. For us, everything has been new. We've made the same mistakes (grinding pepper then touching our eyes) and have relied on other people to take care of us. While I don't want to paint the picture of being treated like a newborn, my point is that I'm part of a community that cares, works, triumphs and loves.

I found myself at an Easter Monday mass this afternoon. A makeshift church had been assembled at the base of a Colline. Although I couldn't follow the service, I understood why people were there. I saw joy and celebration in their eyes. The children danced around the aisles and a stranger handed me her newborn to hold. I pulled the child close to me, gazed into those curious little eyes and, all of a sudden, felt a warm liquid trickling down my leg. I smiled.

Its not that I've softened. Or even that things don't bother me anymore. But more that I've come to realize that some things are just completely out of my control.

Step back, appreciate what you have, and just remember not to take life too seriously. Its only pee after all.

Monday, March 21, 2016

World Water Day 2016!

Thing have been busy back in village!  I returned home from a training-packed weekend in Cotonou to cheering children and a dusty home-sweet-home.  This past week was filled with games, planting the first seeds of my garden and a village mosquito net repair day.  I'll share photos later!

Today, I want to talk about water!  World Water Day is tomorrow, March 22nd. It's a great opportunity to think about your own water footprint.  Maybe take a shorter shower, skip the car wash, turn off the water while brushing your teeth.  Before joining the Peace Corps, I took water for granted. Now, since all the water I use has to be carried on my head back from the pump, I've become water frugal.  Yes, I drink liters of water a day and shower more than I ever have in my life (averaging three times a day just to stay cool!), but water is a constant source of concern in my life.

In honor of world water day, I shared my concerns with a group of school children, to get their input on how water affects their everyday lives. We drew images of water related village activities and talked about how much time they spend fetching water.  I visited all the local pumps, one of which was broken at the time,  learning more about how water security impacts our lives.  Take a moment to check out the short video below and consider supporting Peace Corps water related initiatives worldwide at!!

Monday, March 7, 2016

March(ing) in the Heat

Things are heating up here in Benin, and I'm not just talking about the onset of chaleur. Although while I'm on the subject, allow me to vent; each day peaks out at about 105° and my cement house enjoys basking in the sun, soaking up all those glorious rays on sub Saharan heat, only to bless me with it each night in the form of sticky, sweaty sleeplessness. For those who know me, you're well aware that winter is one of my favorite season, and boy am I wishing for snow right about now. In the meantime, I'll settle for three showers a day, seeking out cool shade and the occasional ice cube, delivered like the messiah coming to bring hope to the fallen.

But that's not the type of heat I'm talking about. At almost nine months into my time in Benin, things are really starting to pick up. I've applied for a. Couple different committee positions and am almost done with training (our last, the Nutrition Summit, is early April and they are rewarding us by holding it in Parakou at a hotel with a pool!). Projects in village are well underway: my Care Group meets regularly to discuss various health issues, most recently the prevention and detection of Lassa Fever, my Amour et Vie team is preparing for our kickoff ceremony and I have started writing the grant for a solar panel installation at the health center (stay tuned for how YOU can help bring much needed light to Adourekoman!!) As a co-coordinator for a Girls Empowerment overnight camp this summer. I've been busy planning events and coordinating with other volunteers. In my spare time, I've been cooking more, doing daily P90x3 routines and have learned to crochet.  One thing I can't say about being here is that I'm bored!

The biggest news here in Benin has been the elections.  Out of an abundance of safety, the Peace Corps put all Volunteers in standfast mode, so in the event of unrest we  could quickly regroup and be accounted for. This means that I haven't left village in the past week, and its been a great opportunity to watch the elections unfold.

As I mentioned in another post, campaigns here are boisterous events. Leading up to Saturday, multiple caravans would roll through town, blast vuvuzelas (those loud horn noisemakers you hear at sporting events), throwing out pieces of paper with their candidates face and, sometimes, stopping to rally villagers and hand out money, salt, bouillon cubes, because the way to a Beninese heart is through their sodium intake.

The caravans stopped on Friday night for a mandatory no campaign day on Saturday. It was almost as if someone turned off the sound in village; everything became calm and quiet. People resumed their business as usual and I spent the day observing from under my shade tree, plugging along on my crochet blanket (as if I'll ever need a blanket here!) By Saturday night, the village seemed to be antsy with anticipation. People had their identification  cards at the ready and everyone knew who they were going vote for. I was told that people came around knocking on doors Saturday night, but I was fast asleep and oblivious to the world outside my little abode.

On Sunday, Daniel came over at 8 am beaming. He was the first person to vote in village and was so excited.  He was carrying around his portable radio, tuned into a local French channel, carefully following the elections across the country. If there was any sign of unrest, he would know. He assured me that everything was going well and urged me to go check out the voting area set up at the local primary school. I showered, threw on a pagne and we headed out together, radio in tow.

I have never voted in a presidential election at a polling station, having been in college in 2008 and in Laos in 2012. Even this year I'll be voting absentee .  I remember going with my parents to vote, and in some ways, the system was very much the same. In the school yard sat a group of volunteers and a handful of polling officials, identified by their matching white t-shirts and laminated name tags. I was told by other volunteers that their polls were guarded by the military police, or gendarmes, but that wasn't the case here. When someone came up to vote, their name was cross checked against the town roster and their face matched with that on their ID card. One approved, they were given a ballot and directed behind a wooden screen to choose their candidate.  Unlike electronic polling at home, these paper ballots were large, with each candidate identified by face and name, so that even the illiterate could vote. Although at first glance, the ballot reminded me of a framed photo of a fraternity pledge class, although this time it was co-ed and everyone wore a different outfit.  It finally dawned on me why, instead of shouting a candidates name, caravans would roll through village yelling "votez le chemise rouge!" As you can see by the ballot below, Zinsou is the only candidate in red. Here, color matters.

Election Officials check in voters and hand out ballots for Round One of Benin's Presidential election

After circling their candidate, ballots were folded up and placed in a locked box that appeared to be some sort of biohazard waste container.  On further examination, I noticed a sticker that said "URINE" on the side. Once the ballot was deposited, the voters left thumb was dipped in blue ink (the left because that is not the eating hand and the ink because its slightly more permanent, and far more fashionable than an "I voted' sticker. Despite the hazardous waste box, everything seemed to be organized, peaceful and well managed. In fact, after a couple minutes of poking around, which I asked permission to do, I was asked to leave by a polling official who thought my presence would swat voters. I'm not picking fights here, so I walked away.

Daniel spent the rest of the day glued to his radio, waiting for updates from the cities across the nation. Nothing made it onto the news, which was a good sign. By 5 pm, our polls had closed and the votes were tallied. Zinsou won in our village, and many of the surrounding areas. The call was placed to the arrondissement, where the numbers were checked and sent to the regional office. From there, votes get sent to Cotonou for a national count.

Its 10 am on Monday and I still don't know who won the election. With 33 candidates, its likely that there will be a second round of voting with the two leading candidates having a run off. If that's the case, we will go on standfast again and elections will happen in two weeks time.

Until then, I'll be heading to Cotonou for a couple days to get work done and do some malaria specific training. With our biannual report, or the Volunteer Reporting Form (VRF), due March 15th, it's bound to be a busy time at the workstation. I'm looking forward to an air conditioned sleep space and some delicious Indian food!