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!