Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Whipping Fete

Once again I return after a long hiatus. I can blame this latest absence at least in part on my two summer visitors, Jessie and Sammy, who each promised to write a guest post describing their trips and never did – though I’m not sure they can excuse me for three months away. (Jessie has since begun Peace Corps service in Azerbaijan and started her own, much more regularly updated blog – I’ll post a link on the side – check it out!). I have even less of an excuse for procrastination these days because I now have – drum roll, please – internet in Penessoulou! It’s expensive and a bit slow because it’s routed through my cell phone, but nevertheless I find it incredible that I can check gmail after I pull water from the well. In short, technology is amazing and I am lazy. I apologize!

I won’t bore you with the details of all that’s happened since my last post (I can’t remember it all anyway), but suffice it to say that after a crazy travel- and visitor-filled summer I was glad to come back to Penessoulou at the end of September to start a new school year. This second year is already proving much easier and more enjoyable than the first. Teaching is still exhausting, but it’s a lot more fun now that I know the kids and the system. I was surprised by how much I missed my students this summer and how happy I was to see them when I came back. I’m beginning to realize how hard it will be to leave them, and I’m not looking forward to it! Highlights from the school year thus far include: me knocking over a table (it only had three legs!) and ever-so-gracefully falling on top of it on the first day; singing “If you’re happy and you know it,” in one class and hearing my other classes join in (I don’t think their teachers were very happy about it); and showing students pictures of my house and Marlborough in the snow (it blew their minds!).

Outside of school, my girls club is off to an auspicious start – the girls who came to Camp Success this summer have been very active in planning and running the club and we’ve had forty girls each week! – and English club will start next week. Add in my women’s group, law school applications, and the occasional trip or fete, I’ve been very, very busy… I love it!

I was inspired to post at long last because the past two days have been two of the best in my Peace Corps experience. I’ve just returned to Penessoulou from the Badjoude whipping fete, a Lokpa coming-of-age ceremony where boys and men demonstrate their readiness to defend the homeland by whipping each other with wooden chicotes, or whips.

Every Lokpa village has its own annual fete, but the Badjoude fete is known to be one of the best, and it didn’t disappoint. Bands of boys and men dressed in outlandish attire – ranging from (stuffed) bras and skirts to animal skins and feather headdresses – processed through the village singing, dancing, and drumming followed by crowds of spectators. When the groups met, combat erupted spontaneously. Leaders from each group loosely regulated the frenzy, assigning sparring partners and declaring winners, but mostly it was a free-for-all. Then suddenly, at the leaders’ signal, the fighting would become dancing and the party would continue on to the next battleground. Singing, dancing, eating, drinking, and, of course, whipping, went on from dawn ‘til dusk, and I’m sure continued ‘til long after we had gone.

Thirteen volunteers went to the celebration – eleven out-of-towners, plus our gracious hosts Rut and Heidi. In Badjoude, we were welcomed as honored guests. The king fed us not once but twice (yam pilee with delicious sauce, rice, and copious amounts of tchouk, a local millet beer) and the mayor’s deputy didn’t seem too offended when we only picked at his meal afterwards. They all told us again and again how proud and happy they were to have us celebrate with them; they had worried volunteers wouldn’t come back after last year’s tragedy. It meant a lot that we – Kate’s friends – were there. Though they didn’t say it, everywhere we went it was evident how much the people of Badjoude had cared for her and that Badjoude was really her village. It was easy to see why Kate loved Badjoude so much; Badjoude loved her, too.

We volunteers didn’t talk about Kate much during the trip – I don’t think anyone wanted to be the one to dampen the festive mood – but I’m sure I’m not the only one who couldn’t help but feel her presence throughout. From the moment we arrived in Ouake commune, greeted by one of the most brilliant sunsets I’ve ever seen, we were struck by the beauty and wonder of the place. The starry, pre-dawn sky when we awoke to prepare for the fête; the red, baobab-lined paths winding through the village; the mountains looming majestically in the distance; Kate would have noticed those things, and she would have wanted us to notice them too. I remembered Kate as we were swept up in the dancing melée, as we saluered the village elders, and even as we laughed at the crazy dancer licking a wild cat hide. Kate loved village life and would have reveled in the chance to celebrate with her friends and neighbors. The entire experience reminded me how fortunate I am to be in Benin, how fleeting my time here is, and how important it is to appreciate it while I’m here – and I think that’s exactly how Kate would have wanted it.

Though I’m sad she couldn’t be there to celebrate with us, I’m so grateful I got to see Badjoude and remember Kate on such a happy occasion. It seems only fitting to remember a person as joyous and cheerful as Kate with a celebration of all the things she cherished. It was a day she would have loved!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Accra is awesome!

Greetings from Accra! At some point I will have to write a post (and put up photos!) from our girls' camp last week (it was fantastic -- the best thing I have done in Peace Corps thus far), but while I have the chance I wanted to post a few lines about our trek to Ghana.

We arrived on Wednesday afternoon after a long but not-too-unpleasant day of traveling. We made it through all the borders without a hitch, and since we rented taxis at each junction we never had to wait around for anyone.

When we pulled into Accra, you would have thought that none of us had seen a city before -- we were pointing left and right, jaws dropping at the sight of manicured lawns and highway dividers, shopping centres and traffic lights. The streets of Accra are lined with "Akwaaba Obama!" posters from the President's visit last week; we're sad we missed him, but it's definitely cool to see the city decked out in Americana.

After we found our hotel, got cleaned up and changed some money, we went out for delicious Mexican food at a sports bar around the corner. We told the waiter it was my birthday (it almost is!), which earned us a free round of drinks from a creepy old guy and cake from a real birthday party nearby. Several pitchers of Star later, we went out dancing at a club and then somehow found our way to a reggae party on the beach -- an excellent start to our vacation!

The next morning, we meandered our way to the Ghana Peace Corps bureau (definitely not as nice as ours!) and then bee-lined over to the Accra Mall for a little taste of home. It was like stepping into another world -- beautiful clothes, expensive electronics, a food court, a book store...we didn't know what to do with ourselves. Again, I found myself feeling incredibly villageoise and out of place -- I felt like people must know that I didn't belong in this clean, air-conditioned paradise. I had to stifle the urge to greet everyone I met (in French, of course) and to discuter for prices. It was very bizarre.

But the best was yet to come. Walking through the mall, I had seen several movie posters; it occurred to me that maybe, just maybe, there was a movie theatre in the mall. I asked around and sure enough, tucked away on the second floor there was a cinema and it was playing the new Harry Potter movie! I couldn't have been more excited -- I immediately ran crazily around the mall telling the girls that we would get to see Harry Potter just days after it had come out in the States. We saw the movie (and met several Ghana PCVs in the theatre) later that afternoon. It was fantastic-- and such an amazing surprise!

Then, last night we treated ourselves to a fabulous sushi dinner at a nice restaurant downtown. Afterward, we made our way to a fun reggae bar, and then a few of us called it a night while others continued the party at a swanky nightclub. We really do love Accra!

Today we head to Krokrobite for some beachside R&R. This really is quite the vacation! More to come soon...

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A few more photos...

Amdiath, Suruma, Maldiath, and little buddies.

Matt, former Djougou volunteer, came back to visit and introduced me to his work partners, Nady and Dean. They run a scholarship program for underprivileged, at-risk girls and are in the process of building a dormitory to house the girls in Djougou.

A bird's eye view of a Djougou CEG.

Yes, that is a twig holding the power lines apart.

The Germans have a pet monkey!

Dismembered snake

Melissa, Serpent Slayer!

Bébé au dos

Maldiath seems a bit alarmed that I'm trying to put her on my back...

... but we got the hang of it!

Jessica's a pro

Benin in pictures, Part II

Maldiath, my favorite little munchkin, and her caterpillar from Mom!

An ominous sky as rain descends on Penessoulou

Planting mango trees on Arbor Day -- as Jessica said, we're real Peace Corps Volunteers now! We were some of the last to arrive, so we got prime planting spots -- a trash heap and the grave of an unsuccessful sapling from last year's planting. Let's hope our trees fare better...

Benin in pictures

It's been a while since I've posted any photos, so here's a smattering from the last few months...

On Easter Sunday, Jessica, Melissa and I introduced my Director and his family to the tradition of Easter egg hunts. The kids -- and the adults! -- got really into it.

Our finished products...ils sont jolis, non?

While the kids play, mom makes Easter dinner... goat! Mmm...

My Director's family at Joyce's baptism

Jessica and Lydie at the baptism

My little neighbors in their palm-leaf fort. I must admit, I was pretty impressed by their workmanship!

Jessica and Amdiath play "King of the Mountain," or "Mouton," in my front yard

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

It’s been so long since my last post that I don’t even know where to begin. I stopped writing after Kate’s death because I didn’t know what to say, and though I still don’t know what to say about it – what can one say about such senseless, terrible tragedy? – I don’t think I can keep using it as an excuse not to post here. What I will say about Kate is that she was a warm, wonderful person, an exemplary Peace Corps volunteer, and she is missed very much. We still don’t know enough about what happened to her or why, but I think we have learned enough to know that no explanation or justification will satisfy. Sometimes horrible things happen to good people, and Kate was one of the best.


My first school year in Benin ended last week – not officially, of course, but the national examinations have begun and grades have been calculated, so consequently all students have stopped coming to school. Although I’m certainly glad to have a break from lesson plans and grading and telling kids to be quiet, I’m sad that I won’t see my students for four months. They’ve been trying my patience lately as the vacation approached, but I usually have a lot of fun with them. Plus, I don’t know what I’m going to do with all my free time now that I’m not teaching!

Actually, that’s not entirely true – although I’ll certainly have more downtime this summer than I do when school is in session, I do have a lot planned for the next few months. Our regional girls’ camp is coming up in a few weeks, which will require quite a bit of preparation. We’ve invited 60 of the best and brightest girls from 15 schools in the Donga to a week-long camp in Djougou to talk about health, family planning, and career and life goals, play sports, and do crafts and other activities. We’ll also take a field trip up to Natitingou to visit a cyber café and a women’s bracelet-making cooperative. It will be the first time many of these girls have seen either of these “big” cities, so even the journey will be exciting – the rest of the program will be icing on the cake!

After the camp, I’m traveling with a group of PCVs to Ghana for some sight-seeing and beach-lounging. We’ll get back just in time to greet the newly-arrived Stagiaires and to celebrate my birthday (24! I’m old!) in Cotonou. My sister Jessie arrives for a two-week visit on the 27th, and after her departure I’m hoping to be joined by a few more visitors somewhere on the continent, details TBD. I’ll be working Stage the first few weeks in September, and by then it will be time to head back up north to get ready for school again…phew! See – my summer’s gone by already!
In addition to my travels and visits, I have several other work and personal goals for the summer. First on my list: learn more Anii! I was really working hard at it when I first got to Penessoulou – saluer-ing people as I passed, talking with Mamas in the marché, asking people to translate what they were saying – but as time has passed I’ve slipped more and more back into French and have become lazier about asking questions.

Then, I am determined to have my law school applications ready before Thanksgiving, which (again, considering my schedule) means I need to start writing personal statements and editing my C.V. as soon as possible. To facilitate this process, I’m looking into getting internet on my computer through my mobile phone – it’s expensive, but it might be worth it if it means I don’t have to spend weeks on end in the capital glued to the LSDAS website. Don’t get too excited – I don’t know if it will work – but it might soon be a lot easier (and cheaper!) for you to contact me! Stay tuned.

I also want to get to work on a few of the secondary projects I’m hoping to get started next year. I’m looking into helping my school set up a computer lab (they have the computers, but they need some additional equipment and assistance), and if it works out, Jessica (my post-mate in Bassila) and I might be able to teach some sort of computer literacy course in the fall. We’re also hoping to do some kind of sex education/health sensibilizations, either in the form of a weekly class or a few programs. (There is no sex education in Beninese schools, and as a result kids (and adults) are often woefully misinformed about the mechanics of reproduction and disease transmission. Being here gives me a new perspective on hot-button U.S. debates like abstinence-only sex education and school busing. Though I still have strong opinions on both topics, now I’m simply thankful that we can have those debates -- thankful that we have sex ed and school buses to fight about!) I’m also hoping to get a jump start on my English club by meeting with some students over the summer. So far I’ve only got three students sitting on my porch on Friday afternoons, but it’s a start!

Additionally, last weekend I was elected Scholarship Girls Coordinator by the Gender and Development Committee, which means that next year I’ll be in charge of administering and hopefully revitalizing Peace Corps Benin’s scholarship program for girls. Currently, the Scholarship Girls program sponsors about twenty high achieving, financially-needy girls in secondary school. Once a girl is selected for the program, her scholarship follows her through graduation, provided that she meets a few minimal academic requirements (when I say minimal, I mean minimal – i.e., you can only repeat a grade once). The program stopped taking on new students in 2005, in part due to a lack of renewed funding (I’m not exactly sure yet where the original funding came from). There were also problems with the program’s administration and monitoring (it’s difficult to track girls across the country, especially if there is no PCV in her school) and its structure. I’m hoping that we can deal with some of those problems this year and get the program re-funded so we can take on new girls in the future. It will take some work – probably more than I realize! – but I think that putting girls through school is one of the most (and maybe only) effective way to empower girls in this country, and Peace Corps volunteers are well-positioned to identify and support strong female students deserving of assistance. So, I really must get to work now on figuring out how to make this program work!

And, to procrastinate this lengthy to-do list, I’ve been watching copious amounts of West Wing (I’m already in the third season) and reading good books (rather, re-reading, at the moment – Anna Karenina). To be fair, I did have the excuse of being laid up at home for the past few days with what resembled amebiasis or giardia…I’m not sure which, but whatever it was, it wasn’t pleasant. It seems to be resolving itself, fortunately, so hopefully I’ll be back on track with my summer work soon!

I know I always say this, but I do hope to update this a bit more regularly in the future as well. These lengthy updates are all well and good, but I know I miss so much of the small stuff that really shapes my experience here when I’m writing about several months at once. For example, I might forget to describe how my neighbor kids rush outside ecstatically shouting “Avion! Avion! Avion!” whenever a plane flies overhead, or say that killing a chicken is a lot harder than it looks, or mention that my next-door neighbors’ baby (Maldiath, my favorite little munchkin) is starting to crawl and has her first tooth poking through! So for now, à toute à l'heure -- more to come!