Sunday, July 24, 2016

Boys Reaching Out: A Photo Tribute

Camp season is over here in Benin, but I'm still running on the caffeine high and enjoying all the amazing pictures from the last week in Ouidah!  Thanks to the amazing Alex Peterson for putting this together!

Over the week, we covered so many topics including malaria, sexual health, human rights, art, music, hygiene and HIV/AIDS.  We took the kids on field trips to the Python Temple, Portuguese Slave Fort, and many saw the beach for the first time.  Back at camp, we played soccer, sang songs, completed an epic relay race and enjoyed countless laughs.  It truly was an amazing week!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Magic of Discovery: Boys of Summer 2016

One of the best parts of Camp BRO Ouidah is the location. Ouidah is the perfect trifecta of culture, history and the beach. While Benin is known as the birthplace of Voodoo, Ouidah is referred to as the Vatican of Voodoo, the mecca that is all Vodun. In addition to the myriad of statues scattered around the city representing various voodoo deities, there are temples, sacred forests and almost daily parades of different costumed spirits. Although it sometimes feels like a sleepy beach town, the cultural scene is alive and well.

Where voodoo is colorful and lively, Ouidah also has a dark history as one of the main slave ports in West Africa. Slave traders from the north would collect slaves in Allada, a city about 1 hour away, and march their “property” to the shores of the Atlantic. The only building that remains today is a Portuguese fort, that was burned down and reconstructed as a slave museum. Today, you can tour inside the battered ramparts, where slaves were lined up, valued and sold before making their way to the ships.

Sarah is a brave soul!
Yesterday, we took the boys on a tour of the Fort. It was eerie and sad as we watched these young men realize the horrors of the past. Hundreds of thousands of slaves passed through the stone gates, being ripped away from their family, their ancestral lands and their rich African culture. The boys learned about the slave trade and the role of the Dahomey kings in the sale of their own people. At the end of the tour, they asked us, “why?” Sometimes, we don't have the right answer.

Coming off the sobering field trip at the fort, we left this morning to visit the Python Temple of Ouidah. Perhaps one of the most touristy attractions in Benin, it is also a very important site for Voodoo worshippers. Pythons are holy animals in Voodoo and the temple hosts upwards of 50, ranging from small little babies to, what I would consider, monster-sized beasts. Having become a hysterical wreck during my last visit to the Temple a year ago, I swore I wouldn't hold another python, but I entered the walled enclosure with the boys and watched as each bravely wrapped a snake around their neck and smiled for a photo. At the end of our visit, Lainey and I stayed behind and snapped a few pictures, but kept our distance.

From the temple, the group started down the slave route, a 5 km walk from the slave market to the shore. Along the path, the slaves were put through 6 stages of cultural cleansing in the attempt to reduce them to nothing but property for their journey to the New World. Walking in shackles, the slaves renounced their homelands, families and loved ones. Many slaves died en route and were buried in a mass grave where we paused and had a moment of silence. As we walked, the boys began to realize what the walk actually meant. We were doing it leisurely, in memoriam, but for decades, this was a route of pain, loss and suffering.

The last stage of the slave route is the Point of No Return. Now recognized as a UNESCO Heritage Site, there is a large arch that represents the gateway to the New World and a life of Slavery. We walked through the gates and were greeted by the sand and ocean that laid on the other side. At the sight of the water, the boys began running. For most here, this was the first time they had seen the ocean. It was magical watching them sprint down to the shores, coming to rest on the top of a high dune, poised right above the splashing waves.

The magic of seeing the ocean for the first time!
The boys stood above the water in awe of the majestic immensity of the ocean. The blue water stretched for miles and the horizon was just a thin white line in the distance. They looked terrified. One volunteer jumped off the dune and ran towards the water, signaling for the boys to follow. Moments after reading pure fear in the faces, it was all smiles. The boys leaped into the incoming waves, collected water in their bottles to bring back home and cart-wheeled down the sand. I have never seen such an intense reaction of happiness from children; it was magical.

Felix and I at the beach!
Camp is all about letting children learn in a way that's fun, giving them the opportunities to grow unencumbered, providing them with the teamwork and life skills to be productive members of society and empowering them to be leaders in their community. Throughout the week, we have shown these boys both the darkness and beauty in this world. I am so proud of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, these boys and this amazing country I call home.

Camp BRO Ouidah 2016!

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Motivate, Educate and Celebrate: Summer Camp Honors the Girls of Benin

Camp GLOW was everything I wanted it to be, and more. Much like attending camp as a child, I was sad to leave yesterday. The pouring rains were fitting for the voyage home; we danced, enjoyed road snacks and sang our favorite camp songs. From start to finish, it was a blast.

The week started with a pre-test to assess participants knowledge of various topics that would be covered over the course of the week. It touched on malaria, menstrual hygiene, resources for vioence against women, sanitation and nutrition. As a group, the average on day one was 40%, clearly not a passing grade. When I graded the post-tests however, I was elated to announce that the group achieved a 84% average, with several girls receiving perfect scores. So, not only was camp a fun experience, but an effective opportunity to educate and motivate these young girls to become leaders in their community and promoters of healthy habits in their homes.

There is no way camp would have succeeded without the tireless work of the other directors, our amazing team of volunteers and their wonderful homologues, adults in their communities who assisted run activities, explain lessons in terms that the girls could understand and monitor the girls at night. Their presence was an absolute blessing. One homologue even brought her baby, and little Ebenezer became a pillar of the Camp GLOW experience.

Despite the addition of educational sessions, we spent hours with the girls outside the classroom, challenging their creativity, teamwork and introducing them to new programs. Each day, girls chose to participate in one of four different activities: yoga, self-defense, computers or art. By the last day, the yoga girls were in perfect vinyasas, our self-defense girls were blocking and throwing jabs, our computer girls impressed us with their ability to use a mouse and open new programs and the art girls dazzled us with their portrait-drawing and cootie-catcher making skills. During the afternoon, we presented the girls with team challenges: relay races, egg drops, straw tower building competitions and a scavenger hunt. We watched as natural leaders emerged from each colored team and girls began to take care of each other. There's no doubt that each girl returned home with the memory and knowledge of forming 50 new friendships.

The power of camp and the importance of my work here came to a shattering halt on Wednesday morning when one of our campers, who had been complaining about a stomach ache since arriving, began vomiting during a session on reproductive health. We made the call to take her to the health center for a consultation, aware that it was unlikely to be malaria. At the health center, I sat with her while they took her temperature and vital signs. When she didn't have a fever, I suggested to the nurses that she do a pregnancy test. The city nurses sized up my 14-year-old camper with wide eyes but acquiesced. Five minutes later, with a positive result in my hands, I had the difficult responsibility to tell this young girl that she was pregnant. My stomach dropped as I watched her future flash before her eyes. While I don't know how she became pregnant, it was an instant reminder of the fate of many young girls here in Benin. Although this young woman was a top performing student in school, she will now be forced to drop out, and it is unlikely that she will ever return. The news crushed me, but I was happy to bring her back to camp, where I knew, despite her little secret, that she would find comfort in her new friends and enjoy a couple last days of just being a kid.

Camp, no matter where you are in the world, is a place of freedom, fun and friendships. Every girl, regardless of their village, background, age, grade level or economic upbringing, was given the opportunity to just enjoy a week away from home, free from daily chores, pumping water and caring for younger siblings. As a camp director, I walked away on cloud nine. The smiles and laughter were contagious and I feel like we did our part to motivate, educate and celebrate the girls of Benin.   

Saturday, July 16, 2016

These Girls Rock!

After an amazing week at camp, it's sad to say goodbye.  Our days have been jam packed with games, chants, educational sessions, team challenges and more smiles than I can count.  Here's a little sneak peek into the shenanigans of the last couple days up here in Parakou!

Monday, July 11, 2016

Let the Wild Rumpus Begin!!!

When I think of summer, I am brought back to my weeks at camp.  I remember making friendship bracelets, playing capture the flag, singing campfire songs and eating all the foods my parents would never let me have at home (ie. Fruit Loops and doughboys!)  As a Peace Corps Volunteer, I was so excited to learn about the summer camp programs that we offer to youth here in Benin.  Starting on Sunday, I kicked off two weeks of campy fun all over the country.

Welcome to Camp!!
Camp GLOW, or Girls Leading Our World, is a program offered to girls who have completed 6-4 eme level, the equivalent of American middle school.  This year there are several different GLOW programs across Benin, but I volunteered to coordinate the camp in Parakou, a city located about 4 hours north of Adourekoman.  For the last several months, I have been planning, budgeting and preparing for the camp with my two amazing co-coordinators!

This Sunday, I packed up a car, filled it with supplies ranging from soccer balls to moringa powder and wooden phalluses to friendship bracelet string.  In addition to being fun, camp is educative.  We have organized sessions on malaria, hand washing, leadership, goal setting, women's health, financial literacy, and so much more!  I invited 6 girls from Adourekoman to participate this year, and they all arrived early, smiling ear to ear and excited to head up!

Discussing the myths of malaria transmission!
Whether I was a camper or a counselor, I used to always get butterflies as I drove to camp for the summer.  This year, while riding shotgun in a Beninese bush taxi, those butterflies were back.  I couldn't wait to get started.  The trip was painless, which is a miracle itself here.  We arrived at the school where we are holding the camp, which functions as a technical school during the year, helped the girls install mosquito nets in their bunk rooms and gave them a tour of the site.  Its a great location, complete with three bunk rooms, a shower hall and multiple soccer fields and basketball courts.  

Once all the teams had arrived and settled in, the directors welcomed everyone to camp, taught the special GLOW cheer and played a couple rounds of lumberjack ninjas, my favorite game from the wonder years.  Dinner was akassa with fish, a treat for the girls, and afterwards they were all excited to go hang out and meet their new friends.  The girls have come from 8 different villages, so it's fascinating to watch girls interact in French and see them sharing their different cultures.

During "choice" time, the girls can choose between yoga,
self-defense, art and computers!
This morning, we started with a visit from the tailor, who measured each of the girls for school uniform dresses, which they will receive at the end of the week. John and I followed that with a session on malaria before another volunteer conducted a lesson on nutrition and a visiting volunteer taught the girls about the benefits of moringa and helped them plant seeds.  The afternoon was spent playing sports, learning the essentials of hand washing and making up team cheers.  

Over the course of the week, the girls will be participating in team activities that will force them to make friends, try new things and learn about a variety of different health and life skills.  Even after one day, there has been an amazing transformation as some of the girls have stepped out of their shells and emerged as leaders among their colored teams.

Tonight we capped off the day with ice cream sundaes.  Since ice cream is hard to come by, we used Fan Milk, a icy milk cream concoction that is sold in plastic sachets and squeezed into your mouth.  Each girl got her own sundae, complete with whipped cream, chocolate fudge sauce and crushed peanuts. Let's just say, there were no complaints here!

Camp continues this week with the girls, and I will be bringing boys down south next Sunday for Camp BRO (Boys Respecting Others).  Stay tuned for more camp updates and photos!

Friday, July 8, 2016

Relishing the Differences

Although there are some major differences between my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Benin and my pre-PC life, I'm always surprised by how many things have stayed the same over the past year. Sure, I live without running water and electricity, can't buy fresh produce on a daily basis while roaming through the aisles of a big grocery store and my definition of dressed now includes a sports bra and two meters of colorful fabric (which would have been a total fashion faux pas in my past life!) I don't want to exaggerate, but some aspects of life have gotten easier since moving to West Africa.

Being social in America always required making plans, getting ready, arriving on time and usually making small talk with strangers. Here in village, however, I am constantly entertaining. My house is a revolving door of women who come to say hi and make sure I'm eating, children who want bubble gum, tattoos or just some time to color away from home, and village leaders who stop in with new ideas on how to grow our community. I find myself boiling large pots of water to serve tea to my visitors, and always having snacks on hand for hungry kids.  While I never knew my neighbors in America, I have become family to the 2000 people living around me. There is something beautiful in sharing customs, goals and the mundane tasks of daily life with people who, on paper, appear so different.

As much as I integrate into Beninese culture and village life, I will always be an American, a foreigner. I don't think I'll ever enjoy eating a mayonnaise sandwich or refrain from cringing every time my neighbor slaughters a goat.   But, now I have these experiences, stories, and a new perspective on the patchwork of our global community. And for that I am so lucky.

This past week, I celebrated the Fourth of July surrounded by Peace Corps friends, both Beninese and American. Nothing says July 4th like cold beer, burgers and red, white and blue, no matter where you are in the world. I enjoyed teaching some of the Peace Corps staff how to build the perfect burger (with ketchup, mustard AND relish, of course) singing all the lyrics to "summer of '69," and watching them look quizically at potato salad that still had the skin. Although most people think my role as a PCV is strictly health related, I've realized it's so much more than that. I'm a cultural ambassador, a student and a member of a community that I truly love.

Benin has taught me that you can never walk alone in life. Despite how different the people around you may act, look, talk or dress, we all want the same things. Happiness is sharing, learning, growing and laughing, no matter where you are. 

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Labor of Love

Well, it certainly wasn't the love of labor. I've been struggling for a couple days trying to decide how I wanted to share this story from last week. It struck a chord that brought me to a shattering halt, reminding me that no matter where you are, everyone has their struggles. Sometimes we get caught up in the successes that we forget about the human factor. So, here we go.

It was quiet in the health center on Tuesday. A couple children had come in with cases of malaria, but other than that, everyone was just keeping busy with paperwork in preparation for our quarterly supervision visit. We had the new lights on in the consultation room and cell phones charging away in our new charging station. The only noise was a low moaning coming from the outer lobby.

Leonie is 18 years old, a good student and from a well respected family in the community. She was also in her 9th hour of labor. Since there's not much we can do to induce labor, it's a waiting game. The midwife kept checking on her and it was getting close. I took her hand and we walked to the delivery room. The pain was etched across her face. Beninese women never shout, scream, or swear. Somehow, they remain composed, taking each contraction with a wince and deep breath.  Leonie was no different.

Once on the bed, things moved quickly. I'm always shocked by how little pushing is actually required once we get the women on the table. She squeezed my hand and arched her back with every push, trying to stay as relaxed as possible. A minute later, the baby had arrived. We placed it on her chest and carefully cut the cord.  She didn't see the child, just threw her head to the side in agony. The birth had resulted in a total episiotomy, a procedure that we repair within minutes of delivering the placenta, but without any local anesthesia. I knew she was already in excruciating pain and I couldn't break the news to her that we'd have to stitch her up. I kept talking to her, counting deep breaths and complimenting her on her great job. Ironically, bon travail can mean both good work and good labor.

After delivering the placenta, Sabine started the sutures while the nurse aids cleaned up the baby. It was a healthy and beautiful baby boy!! Like each birth I attend, I immediately got all googly eyed, busying myself by making fishy faces and blowing raspberries. One of the aids was guiding Leonie through the process and she was a total trooper!

With the baby swaddled and in my cradled arms, I stood next to Leonie as she breathed through the resulting pain from non anesthesia stitches. I kept reminding her to breathe while counting to try and calm her down. After a couple minutes, I looked at her and asked if she wanted to hold the baby. I told her it was a healthy boy. I expected elation, but the look in her eyes was despair. She asked me to repeat it; yes, it's a boy. She began to sob.

I've seen many birth while here in Benin, and none have ended in tears. I had no idea what to do, so I did the first think that came to mind. I held the baby close and sang the lullaby that my dad used to sing to me every night. Somehow it calmed all three of us down. The vulnerable child in my arms, the weeping young woman on the table who had just endured the most intense pain of her life, and the only white girl in miles, feeling helpless.

I don't know why she was crying and I don't know what her situation is. I don't know the father and I don't know if she will ever continue her education. I do know, however, that this baby will be welcomed with open arms to my loving community and soon become a member of my growing village family. Life is a gift and health is a blessing. Leonie is just another of the strong women I've met along my path here, and I'm so proud of her, her resilience and the wonderful mother she will become.