Earlier this evening, I repacked my two suitcases and backpack to make room for more Benin souvenirs.  My embossed leather jewelry case is carefully wrapped next to my bronze chicken (don’t ask) and carved bull horn.  My silver Tuareg jewelry is stashed in my carry-on with a hand-appliqued tapestry and hand-woven fabric from my village.  I’m on the fence about buying a sword before I leave.  How would it look on my future living room wall?  Tacky or bad-ass?  I’ve spent too much time in West Africa to know whether anything is tasteful anymore.

Sunday morning, I moved out of my house in village.  It was difficult and a relief at the same time, since I feel that the ball is finally rolling on the next part of my life.  I’ve spent the last few days living (literally) in the Cotonou Peace Corps headquarters completing all the bureaucratic requirements before I can officially end my Peace Corps service: exit interviews with my boss and my boss’s boss, administrative forms, expense reimbursements, a final French evaluation, and all sorts of medical tests.  By now, though, I’ve done everything required except one last medical interview and a final, five-minute signature-and-stamp exit interview with the head administrative officer. 

My last good-byes to Beninese friends were difficult, but at least I’ll be able to keep in contact with them by phone.  I’m ready to go, mentally and otherwise.  I just hope it’s not too cold in London, where I’ll be spending the next two weeks before I head back to the U.S…all I have are flip-flops, khakis, and t-shirts!

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Last night, two of my volunteer friends dragged me to a new supermarket in Cotonou, Benin’s largest city.  They lured me with the promise that this supermarket would be special.  If you ask me, supermarkets in Benin are already very special.  They only exist in a small handful of cities across the country.  When they exist, they’re very modestly sized and have a small selection of Western, Lebanese, and Chinese packaged foods.  Only the wealthiest of the wealthy shop in places like that.

But I wasn’t doing anything last night, so I went to see the new supermarket.  It’s out past Peace Corps’ office, actually next to the port in a very sparsely populated area of the foreigners’ portion of Cotonou.  Pulling up on our zemidjans (motorcycle taxis), though, we could see that “supermarket” didn’t cover this new store.  It was a Wal-Mart.

Not actually a Wal-Mart, of course, but it might as well have been.  It was large, it was shaped like a box, it had sliding glass doors out front…and everything inside was sold in piles and rows, neatly stacked.  The two other volunteers and I spent almost two hours walking up and down the aisles and wondering what was happening to Benin.  We looked at cans of chilled duck liver, pre-prepared tapas, frozen pizzas, a wine section three times bigger than my house in village, and an enormous display of soaps, deoderants, and scented candles.  We all agreed that we might as well be back in the U.S., and none of us was happy at the thought.  I felt terribly out-of-place in my brightly-colored Beninese outfit.  Even the Beninese customers in the store were wearing Western clothes.

My friends and I were quiet by the end of our tour of the store.  We each felt the need to buy something.  I went to the produce section and picked out a single nectarine, an apricot, and five cherries – the first fresh American fruits I’ve had in two years.  The produce assistant bagged them individually, sealed the bags with green tape, and stapled a laser-printed receipt on each little baggy with the weight and total.  The fruit came out to about $3.

Yesterday was market day at my post.  If I’d wanted to go grocery shopping there, I would’ve had to pick my way through muddy aisles in a sea of little stalls made of scrap metal and woven palm fronds propped up on sticks.  I would’ve had to bargain for each item in the local language with women wrapped in traditional boombas.  I’ve long since mentally reconciled myself to the differences between American and Beninese grocery shopping…but it’s extremely unsettling to realize what a huge gulf is opening up between the rich and poor in Benin, that these two universes could exist not just on the same planet but in the same country.  As I count down the very few days before my departure, I’m starting to realize how much Benin has changed since I arrived in 2007 and how much it will continue to evolve after I leave.  If I come back in ten years, would I even recognize the country anymore?

Insulting someone in Goun, the language of my post, is tricky for Americans.  Labels that would be very insulting to Americans (Liar!  Coward!) aren’t actually very negative here.  On the other hand, labels that Americans would find laughably mild are deadly, deadly insults in Benin: Weak-willed.  Crazy.  And the worst of the worst: Impolite.

Yes – “impolite” is the worst thing you can ever call someone in Benin.  This is the insult that will cause people to gasp in disapproval at you no matter what the other person did to deserve it.  I couldn’t understand this during my first few months in-country, but my Goun lessons cleared it up after I arrived at post.  “Impolite” is actually an imperfect translation of the Goun/Fon word “jimakplon.”  “Ji” means “born,” “ma” means “not,” and “kplon” means “teach.”  What jimakplon really means is “born but not taught.”  You were born into this world but didn’t receive any social education.  In other words, you’re uncivilized.  You’re like an animal.  For one reason or another, this was initially translated as “impoli” (or “impolite” in English), and the translation’s stuck.

This word and almost all of the other terrible insults in Goun are serious because they’re actually insults against the parents of the person you’re talking to.  “Impolite” is a slur on the parents of the person you’re insulting, who didn’t give them a social education.  “You’re the son of your father!” is another popular insult.  These and all other insults that I’ve heard in Benin have been either in the local language or in direct French translations of the local language phrases.

I was fascinated by the Beninese’s choices of insults, and my Goun tutor was equally fascinated that labels like “coward” could be insulting to Americans.  This cultural difference in what makes an insult leads to a huge amount of stress for Peace Corps Volunteers in Benin, who find it very insulting to walk down the street and be called “Yovo!  Yovo!”  (Or “Whitey!  Whitey!”)…For the Beninese, being referred to by a physical characteristic is normal.  Obviously, we can’t say the same for Americans.

Other than studying how to insult people, I’ve been wrapping up my work here in Benin.  I turned in my grades to the school at the end of last week.  I’m the one and only teacher at my school who’s actually finished.  (Yay for American efficiency!)  The others are still trying to give all their quizes and calculate all their grades. 

I’d expected to leave Benin in late September, but in a surprise plot twist, I’ll actually be taking off in late July – July 23, to be exact.  I just bought my plane tickets today.  I’m stopping off in London from July 23-August 6, so if you’re in the area, drop me a message.

As I begin to close my service in here, I have very mixed feelings: surprise at an end to my Peace Corps service that snuck up on me, anxiety about readjusting to the U.S., envy for the volunteers who are extending their service into other countries, and stress about finding a job in what the BBC World Service has called a “catastrophic” economic situation in the U.S.  But I’m also excited to be starting out on something new.  I’ll get to discover my own country as if I were a foreigner.

So…do any of you know of a good non-profit or government agency that’s looking to hire a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer with French skills and lots of experience working with youth and program administration?

The new cycle of Peace Corps Benin volunteers have gotten their letters of invitation for Benin.  They have less than ten days to accept or decline, and I know they’ll be scouring the internet soon for packing advice.  So, before I forget, here’s my own commentary on Peace Corps Wiki’s (www.peacecorpswiki.org) “official” packing list for the country of Benin. 

GOOD THINGS TO BRING TO BENIN:

  1. good knives (You can’t find them here, and you can’t have them shipped.)
  2. a good, largish backpack for trips of up to a week (You’ll probably do a LOT of short trips in-country.)
  3. tampons (They are very, very expensive here.)
  4. two or three towels (You’ll never be lodged anywhere that provides towels.)
  5. a pair of very sturdy sandals, such as Chacos (You absolutely need these.  Don’t forget to get the 50% discount offered to Peace Corps volunteers.)
  6. measuring cups and spoons (You just can’t find American measuring cups and spoons here. Period.)
  7. hooks that you can stick to the wall to hang pictures, etc. (As opposed to knocking holes in your cement walls.)
  8. spices and seasonings (Only bring these if you like cooking and can see yourself doing that here.)
  9. voltage converter (If you’re going to need one, bring it from the U.S.  Unlike plug converters, which are cheap and available everywhere, these are expensive in Benin.)
  10. an eReader (If you like to read and can afford it, these are very handy.  Having one means that you won’t have to cart heavy sackfuls of books back and forth between the volunteer workstations and your village.  And the other volunteers will be very jealous.)
  11. a Netbook (I definitely recommend bringing a laptop with wireless capability to Benin.  Netbooks are small, very portable, and relatively inexpensive.  The odds are, you’ll be typing up a lot of documents for work and grant applications; having a laptop/Netbook will make you a more effective volunteer.)
  12. unlocked cell phone (If you have a cell phone already and can unlock it and bring it with you, you should do it.  Why bother spending all your pocket money on a new cell phone here when you already have one in the U.S.? Also, if you already have an unlocked cell phone with GSM, you might be able to hook it up to your handy Netbook or laptop and get internet from your post.  [It all depends on where Peace Corps puts you in Benin, so don’t get too excited.])
  13. whatever you need to relax (If you’re a knitter, bring your knitting supplies.  If you’re a musician, bring your instrument.  You’ll have a lot of downtime, and you’ll be stressed out a lot, so bring whatever you need to relieve the stress and pass the time.)

DON’T BRING THIS TO BENIN! (YOU’LL REGRET IT IF YOU DO):

  1. any French textbooks or dictionaries (Peace Corps will give them to you.)
  2. any travel guides to Benin or West Africa (We have a million copies of those in the libraries here since every single Peace Corps volunteer brings them.)
  3. beyond a two or three-months’ supply of shampoo, body lotion, etc. (You CAN find them in Benin.  They’re just a bit expensive.)
  4. cooking supplies if you’re not into cooking (If you didn’t cook for yourself regularly in the U.S., the odds are good you won’t cook much here.  There’s plenty of street food, so leave that garlic press at home.)
  5. books to read for pleasure (Trust this bookworm: there are PLENTY of good books here in the Peace Corps libraries to occupy you for two years.  I’ve found copies of everything from Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy to Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast and Alan Moore’s Watchmen.)

You really, honestly can bring everything you need in a hiking backpack (as your checked luggage) and a regular backpack (as your carry-on).  If you find yourself going past that quantity, you have too much stuff.

If you have any specific questions about packing or about Benin in general, please feel free to ask me.  I may not be able to get back to you for a few weeks, but I’ll always answer.

More about Kate:

Kate’s village’s response to her death has been very touching.  The entire community of Badjoudé was horrified and outraged that a foreign volunteer – THEIR  volunteer – had been killed.  For days after Kate’s death, her friends in the village would come to her house in the early morning and sit together on the ground there, in silent protest, for hours.  The next day, they’d come again.  They’re renaming the school where Kate taught in her honor.  I’ve never even heard of such a thing.  Around Wednesday of last week, there was a march of protest in Badjoudé down the town’s main road to protest Kate’s death and to burn off some of the anger the villagers feel towards whoever committed the crime.  The guilty party can count himself lucky if he gets to face a trial.

In memory of Kate Puzey, my friend and fellow volunteer, who was found outside her home in the North of Benin on Thursday.  The American embassy and Beninese police are investigating her death.

She was an extraordinary person, a gifted teacher, and a great friend.  We’ll all miss you, Kate.

 

Here we are with the other TEFL volunteers soon after arriving in Benin in the summer of 2007, celebrating after surviving our first week of teaching.  Kate’s the 7th from the left.

Kate1

 

Here we are again in July 2008, seasoned teachers celebrating the close of our first year in Benin.  Kate’s seated at my left.

Kate2

 

Postscript:

I see from my blog stats that a lot of people are finding this entry after searching for information on Kate.  I think it’s important – and Kate would also think it very important – to add that the kind of violent crime that found Kate is exceedingly rare in Benin.  In a small community like Badjoudé, where Kate lived, it’s almost unthinkable.  What Peace Corps has said in its statements to the press is absolutely true: Kate was highly respected and sincerely loved in her community, and I’m sure they mourn her loss at least as much as her American friends do.

We’ve just started the second semester in Benin.  Benin’s school calendar is very odd: the first semester starts in October and goes to the end of February, while the second semester is only from March to early June.  I believe it’s set up this way to compensate for how incredibly slowly some of Benin’s schools start up.  Even at my school, which is relatively well-organized, some teachers didn’t start holding class until mid-November. 

During our recent week-long break between semesters, the volunteers in my region of the country had an HIV/AIDS bike tour, cycling to eight different towns and villages to give basic HIV/AIDS information sessions to locals.  The idea behind the tour was that local Beninese in isolated villages would turn out to see the sweaty white people who’d arrived on bicycles and get some possibly life-saving information in the process. 

It was a big success; many of the people we spoke to, especially the rural women, didn’t even know what AIDS was.  The HIV virus only infects about 1.5% of the Beninese population, giving it a low profile in Benin.  The only trouble with this low profile is that it means many people have only a vague idea of what the virus does and how to keep from getting it.  During certain stops on our tour, we heard everything from “condoms will give you HIV” to “a traditional healer over thataway says he can cure AIDS, so what’s the big deal?”

At the sessions we held in a few small villages near my post, I saw many of my students and their parents in the audience.  (That made it a little awkward when I was holding a wooden phallus and demonstrating how to use a condom.)  They loved that I introduced myself in the local language and used scattered Goun words during my talks in French.  (We used local language translators for all our sessions to make sure that everyone understood.)

During the HIV/AIDS bike tour, I swiped a copy of Alan Moore’s Watchmen from the house of another volunteer and read it off and on during the first week of the new semester.  The young children in my concession got very excited about the graphic novel’s pictures.  When they saw the Nite Owl character, they thought he was a zangbeto, or a Beninese guardian of the night.  The author’s picture of Alan Moore on the back cover brought out “Jesus!  It’s Jesus!”  I doubt anyone’s ever made THAT mix-up before. 

The strangest pop culture misunderstandings can happen in Benin.  Many of Benin’s cheap consumer products are imported from China, with images of Asian and Western celebrities and characters.  These items never come with explanations, so the average Beninse person is left to make their own interpretations of what they see on their bags, clothing, and toys.  I see eighteen-year-old boys going to school with pink Barbie backpacks.  One of my colleagues at school likes to teach in dress slacks and a button-up pajama top with rows of teddy bears.  Fabric with a badminton shuttlecock pattern gets a cry of “Oh, look at the flowers!” 

I gave up trying to explain the “real” meaning of these pictures to my Beninese friends a long time ago because I found that they honestly don’t care.  The idea of American culture doesn’t mean enough to them to make them want to know how their t-shirt was meant to be seen in the country it was designed for. 

On the other hand, asking Beninese people to explain what the odder images mean – now THAT’s fun!  The other day, I was at an outdoor market looking at some sewing supplies.  I noticed a zipper for sale with a Snoopy zipper-pull.  “What’s that?” I asked the vendor, pointing at the grinning Snoopy.  “Is it a dog?”

“No, it’s not a dog,” she said firmly.  Then, she frowned and took a second glance at the chubby figure standing on its hind legs.  “Well…maybe it’s a dog.  But there’s something…just not right.”

Times are tough now at post.  Most local farmers are bringing in their okra crops, and for some reason, they’re getting paid far below the customary price.  A whole bushel basket of okra this year is worth only 100fcfa, or about 25 cents, to the middlemen who come to market from as far as Togo to load up their trucks with my area’s produce.  The farmers aren’t making a profit right now, so they aren’t doing business with anyone else in town.  Everyone’s suddenly found the cash flow into my post has dried up.  This is happening at exactly the same time that my school has started to crack down on students who haven’t paid this year’s tuition of 14,000fcfa ($28).  I have students who slump listlessly onto their desks in our afternoon classes because it’s 4pm and they haven’t eaten all day.  Or if they have eaten, it’s been only a sticky dough of boiled maize without sauce or a protein.  

“Are you hungry?  What do you want to eat?” I usually ask my students in English right before the lunch break, when they’re squirming on their benches and staring out the windows.

“Me, I want to eat the rice, sauce, and the fish,” Valerie says.  “Me, the pâte and the meat!” Fiacre calls out.  Right now, it’s only the children of wealthy families who are eating like that.  

Later: “What will you eat for dinner?” I ask Abel, the 2nde boy who lives in my concession.  He likes to practice his English with me.

“I will eat the gari,” he says.

Gari is nothing but dried and grated manioc.  I switch into French.  “Gari?  That’s it?  That doesn’t haven’t any nutritional value.”

“No, but that’s all I can afford right now,” he replies. 

Abel ends up earning a little money that evening to buy a real dinner, but many of my students are struggling to get by.  We have to hope that the next round of harvests will turn out better for everyone.

Those of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while may remember that I’ve been working with a primary school in a small village just outside my post.  I’ve spent this morning e-mailing out descriptions of our current project.  Here’s what we’re doing:

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A small village in Benin, West Africa, called Lowé is facing a big problem. Their primary school has no permanent classrooms and no way to build them alone. The parents of Lowé are looking for international partners to help them build three classrooms for their children to attend school safely and comfortably.

THE STORY OF EPP LOWE-HOUENOUSSOU

The village of Lowé is located in the southeastern portion of Benin, West Africa, in a beautiful river valley. Almost all of the few thousand adults who live in Lowé are farmers and fishermen. The village is close enough to the nearest town for villagers to be able to attend market day and send in their older children for secondary school, but too far for the extremely poor villagers to reach when it’s time to delivery a baby or to send their four-year-olds to start primary school.

For that reason, local children attend primary school in EPP (Public Primary School) Lowé-Houenoussou. Even though primary school education has been free for years in Benin, it’s a sacrifice for these parents to send their children to school at just the age when they’ve become useful for farm and housework. School supplies and uniforms also make a painful dent in their families’ income. It’s enough to say that the parents of Lowé passionately want a better future for their children. They want their children to be able to speak not just the local language, Goun, but also the national language, French, because they know that only the latter will permit their children to work in other areas of their country. They want their children to be able to read and write, and to master basic mathematics, so that these children will have options later in life.

In Benin, the national government should pay for the construction of necessary primary schools – but it often doesn’t. Since EPP Lowé’s founding, the students’ parents have worked for years without government support to build up their school. However, the local community is very poor, and after six years, the school still has no permanent classrooms. The students have class every day under temporary shelters made of woven palm leaves and corrugated metal sheets.

This almost wasn’t the case. Despite Lowé’s poverty, the local Women’s and Men’s Associations managed to raise enough money by 2007 to start construction on a modest building of three classrooms. Construction was less than halfway finished when disaster struck.

The rains of summer 2007 came harder and longer than anyone could remember seeing them. The swollen river flooded and destroyed the unfinished classroom building at Lowé. The parents of Lowé were sent back to square one, with a partially collapsed brick foundation on unsuitable ground to remind them of what they might have achieved.

Still, Lowé’s community didn’t give up. They located a new site for the school, further away from the river. They’ve started slowly and painfully retracing their steps to raise money for a building. Every year, however, that their children spend trying to study under improvised shelters in the ruins of their old, unfinished building is a waste. The children suffer when the sun is very strong. They’re flooded out when it rains. The school’s facilities are so obviously inadequate that some local parents don’t even bother sending their children to school. This is an enormous problem because without basic, effective primary school education, the children of Lowé will face serious limitations in their adult lives. They’re faced with a paradox: they can’t rise out of poverty without education, but their poverty is preventing them from becoming educated.

WHAT THEY NEED

The community of Lowé needs partners to help them finish their school. We’ve approached both the local government and the national Ministry for Preschool and Primary Education to no result. (Their village is small and politically unimportant, hence the lack of official interest.)

The total construction cost (materials, labor, and transport) is projected at about 19,000,000fcfa, or just over $37,000. (This figure is based on the current exchange rate of 510.551fcfa to $1. Building material and fuel prices in Benin are also subject to change.)

Lowé’s parents have pledged to meet 25% of the construction costs of a school – or around $9,000 – by giving their time, their labor, and locally available construction materials. We’re now looking for international partners to help meet the other 75% (about $28,000) of costs, which includes non-locally available construction materials, transport for these materials, and skilled labor.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

If you are interested in helping Lowé’s parents finish their school, please e-mail me, Mae Lindsey, Peace Corps Volunteer, at mae.lindsey@gmail.com. If enough people express interest in this project, we’ll be able to open it up for donations through the Peace Corps Partnership Program.

This is truly a great project to work with because every penny of your donation would go to the building costs – there’s no overheard whatsoever. You’d be directly partnering with a Beninese community to fill a desperate need and make a huge impact in the lives of these Beninese schoolchildren.

If you have any friends, family members, or colleagues who might be interested in working with the community of Lowé, please pass this opportunity on!

You can see pictures of EPP Lowé-Houenoussou and its students in their current facilities online at
http://picasaweb.google.com/mae.lindsey/EPPLoweABeninesePrimarySchool?feat=directlink.

If you’d like to learn more about Benin, please see its BBC country profile at http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/country_profiles/1064527.stm

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If you want to get involved, please e-mail me – and thanks to those of you who’ve expressed interest even before the project was started!  I’ll respond as soon as I have internet access again – probably on Friday, February 6, when I visit Cotonou for a meeting.

Here are some long-overdue photos of my house at post, cleaned and dressed up for the holidays.  As you can see, the floors are bare concrete.  The walls are also concrete, but I had them painted a few months after I moved in to make the place look nicer.  There isn’t any running water or plumbing, but it’s a very nice house by middle-class standards in Benin.  (If you’re wondering what my latrine looks like, picture a cement slab with a square hole in the middle, surrounded by walls of concrete and scrap metal.)  I have electricity, but it doesn’t power my stove.  The two large orange canisters that you see on the floor in my kitchen are gas tanks for the stove.  If I didn’t sleep under that blue mosquito net, I’d get eaten alive by mosquitoes every night.  There’s no glass on the windows, only mosquito netting and wooden shutters.  The front and back doors also have screen doors with mosquito netting.

Here’s my house from the outside:

My House

My House

Two views of my living room:

Living Room 1

Living Room 1

Living Room 2

 

Another of my bedroom:

Bedroom

Bedroom

 The second bedroom (which I use as a kitchen – most Beninese people would cook outdoors, in their front yards):

Kitchen

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, everyone!  I’ve decided to spend this holiday season at post and celebrate Beninese-style with my neighbors.  In Benin, Christmas is a children’s holiday.  On Thursday, all the local children will dress their best and go from house to house around town, asking for food, candy, cookies, and small coins.  (Sound a bit like an American October holiday?)  I’ve just made a quick run to Porto Novo to buy cookies and candy in bulk to give to those who come to my house.  I’ve invited my students, so I’m a little worried I’ll run out.  At this time of year, children also roam around town in groups, singing, beating on improvised drums, and dancing in costume for more small coins.  I created a minor sensation in my concession this last weekend when I put up a Santa Claus windsock on my front porch and taped paper snowflakes around my front door.  The paper snowflakes finally did what a year and a half of candy bribes and games didn’t: the local kids have decided that I’m a very cool person to have around….as long as I make paper snowflakes for them, too, that is.

New Year’s is the big holiday here.  Extended family from all over Benin and even farther afield gathers together for several days’ reunion.  The final celebration is New Year’s Eve, when everyone who’s anyone cooks an enormous feast and parties with firecrackers and food until midnight.

For my closest neighbors, unfortunately, normal holiday preparations have been put to one side.  One of the grown-up daughters in the family is in the hospital, very ill with malaria.  Malaria is very, very common in Benin and one of the biggest causes of death, especially for young children.  People around here are used to dealing with it and often don’t even bother to go to the hospital.  When they do, you know it’s very serious, so please keep this woman and her two young kids in your prayers.

Changing the subject, this school year has been interesting.  Most teachers didn’t start holding classes until mid-November because the state put a whole slew of new restrictions on whom the schools could hire to teach and how many hours they could work.  Then, after most Beninese secondary schools had more or less figured out how they’d manage, the Ministry for Secondary Education announced that they had no money this year and would give nothing to any Beninese secondary school.   Translation: no teacher salaries, no maintenance, no supplies.  If the schools wanted to hold class, they’d have to raise the money locally.  (A joke – most communities in Benin are way to poor to fund their schools.)  As you can imagine, that didn’t go over very well with anyone in Benin.  Now, a few months later, the Beninese government has been negotiated into saying that they’ll pay something to the secondary school teachers, sometime…in December…or January…probably.  My school has given loans to its teachers out of the school’s general resources to try and hold off a strike.  If the government does come through on paying its teachers, the teachers will repay the school out of their salaries.  If the salaries never arrive, there’ll be a massive strike starting in January or February, and my school will be almost broke from the unrepaid loans.

I’d write more, but I need to grab lunch and get back to post.  I have a stack of 200 midterms that need to be graded and a whole list of chores to do over the break.

Joyeux Noël et Heureuse Année!  À 2009!