Saturday, April 23, 2016

Shelling: The Key to Cultural Integration

There are certain things you will always remember about people. Sometimes it's their scent, the texture of their favorite shirt, their voice on the other end of the telephone or even their favorite hobbies. For me, my grandfather conjures up all of these memories. He stands there smelling of grilled kielbasa or dish soap, the residual odor of a morning spent elbow deep at the kitchen sink. There's his soft, yet staticky, green fleece and no-name baseball cap with the insignia of a glove. It's the way he said “Cah-lee” in a heavy Bah-ston accent. And, it's the many hours I watched him sit at the kitchen table with a crossword puzzle.

Crosswords, sudokus, and card games are something I will always associate with my grandpa. He was a master. I admired his ability to dive into a puzzle with a pen, rarely hesitating with what letters to put in each box. He competed with my mother on the Sunday Times Puzzle, and I would always sneak a look at her answers before we had our evening chats. I wish I had the patience or endurance to tackle The puzzle, but alas, I'll resign myself to Boggle and the choice puzzles, which my mother still sends my via WhatsApp every week.

One thing that attracted me to puzzle time was the snacks. The activity was never complete without a bag of pretzels (extra dark specials, always), fresh fruit (no one picked a cantaloupe quite like GPA), Captain Crunch (growing up, we never ate sugary cereals, so this was a real treat!) or shelled nuts. No matter what it was, it was always delicious, and “extra special.”

I always knew that my grandparents were coming to visit when my mom bought unshelled peanuts. This struck me as strange: why buy something you need to put work into to eat? I mean, we all love lobster, but it's a once a year messy hassle! But, whether it was peanuts or pistachios, they always came in the shell. During card games or puzzle time, we would un-shell and chat, carefully pulling away the hard casing to reveal whatever was inside. Just like that, peanuts and puzzles became a tradition.

There have been many instances during my Peace Corps service where I've thought about my grandfather; in fact, I'd be lying if I said it wasn't daily. He never knew I'd move to West Africa, live in a small rural community and find a family in this tiny sliver of the world, but I know he'd be proud.

Integration is one of the largest challenges as a Peace Corps volunteer. We don't speak the language, understand the rituals or know how to prepare the cuisine. For the first few months at post, I just observed. I relished in my own silence, as I tried to pick up certain words, mannerisms and cooking techniques. I spent hours with women, sitting under the large shade tree, which we jokingly call l'arbre palabre (tree of words), braiding hair, painting nails, singing to babies, or shelling peanuts.

Shelling a peanut is a mindless task. The casing pops open under a little pressure and out rolls two, three, sometimes four nuts. Women buy peanuts (or in our village grow them) by the bag, several kilos at a time. Hours go by before you even make a dent in the supply. But, none the less, it has become one of my favorite village activities.

Becoming a true member of my community is like removing the protective casing from the little nut inside. I arrived in Benin excited at the potential for adventure and hungry for a challenge. But, I kept my guard up, worried about falling victim to loneliness or boredom. I stayed inside that shell. When I moved to Adourekoman, I met the people who would make this place feel like home. I loosened up. I danced with my neighbors, cooked with my friends and started to keep house like a true Beninese. I found myself in this new place and opened my heart to these people.

Now, ten months into my service, I have found a routine and a purpose. I am busy with work, but know when to pull back and enjoy quiet time under the tree. Once someone who shied away from monotony, I look forward to my afternoons shelling peanuts. It brings me closer to the people I have found, and even closer to those that I have lost.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Launching "Power Up Health!"

Can you believe that I have lived in Benin for ten months! I've witnessed births, given lessons on nutrition, malaria and disease prevention, and become a member of an amazing community.  While I often talk about the highlights of my experience, I can't help but share with you some of the challenges of living and working here.  

This week marks the launch of my newest initiative in Adourekoman!  Power Up Health is a full-scale approach to improving health care quality in my village and providing our Health Center with the resources it needs to function.  Please take a moment to learn more about this project in the video below:

This project is very important to me and my community.  In order to realize our dream of installing solar panels and providing on-site vaccinations, we need your help.

Please consider making a tax-free donation to this project through the Peace Corps website Here and thank you in advance for your readership and commitment to helping me serve the people of Benin!

Monday, April 18, 2016

Village (cat)astrophe

I did everything I was supposed to do. I cleaned the litter box, I let him roam free around the house, I deboned fish so he wouldn't choke and I splurged on hard boiled eggs for a protein supplement. And yet, I've lost another feline friend to the African wild.

Mulligan, who came into my life in February, was my second chance at Peace Corps Pet Motherhood. For those of you who don't remember, my first cat, Wobleoh (Wowo to all that knew him) moved with me to Adourekoman in August after my host family realized that they really couldn't have a cat in the house. Wowo stayed with me through my three months of post integration, travelled in my lap to trainings and kept my house free of creepy crawlies and other nasty local fauna.

Wowo went missing in February. Daniel called on a Saturday night while I was in Cotonou to break the news. He had been checking in on Wowo daily, refilling his water bowl and making sure he had enough to eat. One day, he just disappeared. Daniel was hysterical, guilt ridden and apologetic. I certainly didn't blame him for the disappearance.

When I returned to village, the town crier went around notifying each house that Wowo was gone. Women stopped by to see if "awi Charloti" had returned. Weeks passed and I gave up hope; wowo was not coming home.

I was fine. I knew that my skills as a pet owner weren't to blame. Wowo had simply wanted a life of freedom. But one afternoon, while sitting under the big shade tree, a man came by with terrible news. He admitted to eating Wowo.

I was aghast. I knew this man. He knew Wowo was my cat. I felt betrayed by my loving village. Then I realized: I don't know what it's like to be hungry (or eat cat for that matter). While I still tell myself that Wowo ran off and is safe in the bush, I'm okay with his demise. Some things are out of my control.

For a couple weeks, I contemplated getting another cat. But, the hot season was in full swing and I had moved my sleeping quarters to a tent in my walled in backyard. I didn't want little claws ripping at the netting. And I wasn't sure whether I could parent another pet.

In the end, the threat of camel spider season got the better of me and I gave in to Daniel's wife's attempts to find me another cat. One afternoon, we walked to the nearby village where her friend had a new litter of kittens. She picked one up and said it was perfect for me. That's how I became a two time cat owner.

We carried the kitten home in a cement sack while he purred and scratched his way out. We laughed as he jumped around in our arms and brought him to my house. For a day, he hid in that cement sack. Then, he started to explore. I named him Mulligan.

For the last couple weeks, Mulligan has had free range of the house. Unlike his predecessor, I didn't want him to be an indoor cat. I thought that if, one day, he got lost, he would be able to find his way home. The kids played with him everyday and he even took to spending the night at the neighbors house. I thought, "now I truly have a village cat."

But, all good things must come to an end. Mulley is MIA, presumed dead. He hasn't made an appearance at any of the surrounding houses but, luckily, no one has admitted to a little cat snack.  I miss the little guy and wish he was here to chase the lizards out of my living room.

Now, you must be thinking, "I hope she learned her lesson." To be honest, I don't know if I'll get another cat.  It's nice to have company and a reassuring defense against anything that lurks in the shadows. Maybe what I should do is train a lizard to catch spiders and turn cannibal; that won't happen.

Perhaps my house is cursed and I should pay a visit to the voodoo chief. Maybe he has something to say about a cat's nine lives. If anything it would make for a good story. 

Friday, April 15, 2016

From Rip to Repair: Closing the Gap on Malaria

Since coming to Benin, I've learned that you don't have to be in the health field to fight malaria. In honor of World Malaria Month, I will be posting about some of my experiences with malaria in Benin and my efforts to combat this illness.

As Peace Corps Volunteers, living and working among at-risk populations, we are in a unique position to stop malaria in our communities. Statistically, malaria is responsible for over 350,000 deaths annually in Sub-Saharan Africa, more than 50% of school absenteeism and costs upwards of 40% of public health spending in endemic countries. How is such a preventable illness capable of trapping people in a cycle of sickness, poverty and suffering? We may not have the answers, but we can help.

Unlike other health problems, anyone can fall victim to malaria. Whether you work with a women's group, English club, farmer's organization or spend afternoons playing with local children, you can implement malaria education into your daily life. One of my favorite projects so far was an impromptu net repair day in village:

It was a quiet Saturday. Due to the heavy rains overnight, most people were working their fields; elder women and children were left at home to prepare meals and complete housework. Instead of making my rounds to saluer the villagers, I set out with a needle, thread and some spare mosquito netting, all the necessities for net repair.

I walked through the village, knocking on doors, greeting my neighbors and inspecting bed nets. For anyone who has ever conducted a bed net gap identification, you know that most women complain that their nets are gate or dechiree. At each home, I asked to examine the nets, and together, we searched for holes and repaired them. The children raced each other to find any rips in the netting and delighted in their ability to sew them up. Mothers were ecstatic to learn that simple household objects could be used to fix their nets and prevent malaria in their family.

So proud of our anti-malaria efforts!
This photo was originally posted last month, then reposted by Peace Corps over social media. 

Not everything in Peace Corps should feel like a challenge, and mosquito net repair sessions are easy to implement and even easier to execute! While I'm working to motivate other volunteers to work together in their anti-malarial efforts, I urge them to give nets a new life (and save them from serving as the front line defense against hungry village goats!)

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Juggling Act

I attended circus camp as a child. I don't really remember how it happened, or why my mother decided to leave me in the care of an actual bunch of clowns, but that summer I found myself thrown into the world of Barnum and Bailey. The camp was held in the great Hall of the local Historical Society, a dated brick building, covered in creeping vines and hidden behind large oak trees. It's a magnificent structure, a remnant from an era of prosperity in what is now a crumbling area of town.

Boring is one word that you can't use to describe a circus. Over the course of two weeks, I learned how to tight rope walk, use stilts, walk on a rolling ball and balance on a see-saw like device they called a rolla-bolla. I remember falling off the thigh high rope, getting discouraged, but always hopping back on, determined to make it across to the other side. While I finally mastered the walk, stilts and loved the rolla-bolla so much I made my parents install one at home, I struggled to grasp the art of juggling.

Although not necessarily a circus act, we are were taught how to juggle. The progression was simple in concept: scarves, balls, rolling pins and finally the PhD level flaming swords (just kidding! There was probably a waiver for that!). The scarves were easy. Color coded, we learned how to let our hands do the work, waiting for the scarf to glide gently down to its position, ready to be tossed in the air again. After scarves, the balls proved to be a whole new challenge. I couldn't keep them in the air. I literally couldn't keep my eye on the ball. They tumbled to the ground, rolled away and I felt like a failure in the clown world. Luckily the circus was not my first career choice.

I learned a lot at circus camp and find myself reflecting on my failure to keep those balls in the air. We all have those moments; when there are only two balls, it's easy, one for each hand. At three, we have to divide our attention even more, always at risk for things to come crashing down.

While I still haven't mastered the balls or graduated to the pins, I've become a much more confident life juggler. We hear so much about finding work-life balance, making time for friends, family and ultimately reserving time for yourself.  Peace Corps is no different.

In some ways, being a Peace Corps Volunteer is a nonstop circus act. As the only white woman in my village, I am always the object the interest. People see me trying to "tight rope" the fine line between my 24/7 job, my personal life, my friendships both among other volunteers and members of my community, and the life I left behind at home. It truly is 27 months of juggling.

Luckily, I enjoy the circus. And I've been keeping busy (and somehow managed to keep all the balls airborne). Here are the highlights:

- Over the past month, I've weighed almost every child under age 3 in my community to assess rates of malnutrition.  This involved 6 am appointments with my Mother Leaders and lots of sleepy babies who weren't happy being hung from a sling in my front yard. Good news: almost every child is in the 80th percentile or higher!!

- As part of World Malaria Month, I have surveyed over 200 households in Village to determine mosquito net needs. We plan to do a large distribution in May after doing capacity building exercises for Malaria prevention behavior change with my women's health group. This new women led Malaria team is my sustainable approach to disease eradication in Adourekoman.

- Plans for girls camp (GLOW) are well underway. The grant that was submitted was approved and volunteers have already applied to participate. Now it's just lots of logistics, shopping and prep!

- I attended a Peace Corps nutrition summit and started a small scale moringa garden with children in Village. Now that the rains have arrived, everything is turning green and I'm excited to see some progress with the garden, despite my black thumb.

- Saturday was the lancement (kickoff) ceremony for my Amour et Vie team. Local authorities and elders showed up to support us and over a hundred women and children came to learn about Malaria prevention and dance to celebrate. I gave a welcome speech in Idaasha and now everyone in the commune thinks I'm fluent. Sorry to disappoint.

- After months of discussions, I finally submitted a grant to bring solar power to our health center. This project will provide lighting, refrigeration for on site vaccines and a proper delivery bed for our maternity. These much needed improvements will drastically change the quality of care we can provide to the community and I look forward to not having to hold a cell phone flashlight during births or suturing. Stay tuned for how you can help make this a reality!

It's been a wonderful couple weeks and I've loved spending time in Village, making new Peace Corps friends and truly launching into important programming in my community. Juggling is a joy, and no matter what happens to the balls in the air, I'm proud of my progress, integration and the amazing opportunities of this magical experience.