Monday, October 4, 2010

The Year Mark

Get Back To Where You Once Belonged

For two weeks, at the end of August through the beginning of September, I returned to where it all began. As a trainer for stage (stage: the first nine weeks a new volunteer spends in country, learning language, skills, and techniques they then employ throughout their service), I was sent to Porto-Novo, the capital of Benin, to instruct the in-coming group of TEFL volunteers how to teach English in Benin.

At first, it was just plain weird. Almost immediately upon arrival, I was flooded with memories of my own time during stage – and most of them were uncomfortable and unpleasant. Porto-Novo, in my calm, subjective opinion, is an absolute wasteland. It is crowded, dirty, and filled with the most annoying racism I’ve ever encountered in this country. In Benin, the word for white-person in most southern local language dialects is “Yovo,” (but its usage can be extended to include anymore who is foreign, associates with white people, or has occidental behaviors or mannerism). EVERYWHERE I went, some Porto-Novan - be it man, woman, or child so small you can barely believe it can talk - screamed and pointed, “Yovo, yovo, bonsoir!” This was definitely an unhappy memory I know that I suppressed, because as soon as it heard their taunting on repeat, skipping away like a broken record, all the stress and frustration came rushing back to me, awakened and renewed. Everywhere smells like an odd mixture of urine, burning plastic, and things being fried in hot oil. I was there in the midst of the rainy season, so all the cracked and broken dirt roads were overflowing with red sludge and mud. I quickly realized that the Peace Corps Administration must hold stage in Porto-Novo for the same reason Frank Sinatra felt people chose to live in thrive in New York City: if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.

But I wasn’t there to judge the beauty and glamour of life in Porto-Novo. I had a very specific job: teaching new “stagiares” how to manage Beninese preteens while simultaneously teaching them basic English vocabulary and sentence structures. No small task, especially when you consider that a typical class size amounts to around fifty students and the vast majority of them despise English class. As I walked through the gates on my first day of training and onto the campus of CEG Davie, my old stage stomping grounds, I was taken aback my how full-circle I’d come. Everything looked exactly the same as I remembered it: bare, cement classrooms connected into a broad U-shape with venders hawking candy and a variety of oil-fried food options just outside the compound’s gates. Stagiares locked their Peace Corps-issued Trek bikes to the same trees we used last year. And as the newbies filed in, one after the other, they had the hard, worn, sleep-deprived look I know must have been across my face the entirety of my own stage experience. The more things change; the more they stay the same.

Teaching teachers was quite a role-reversal for me. Most days, my job was to sit in on two-hour long lessons and critique the stagiare teacher on his/her performance in front of the class for the day. Going in, I was completely intimidated by the whole idea of it: What do I say? How do I say it? What’s the most polite way to give someone bad news? But quickly, I got the hang out it. I found that most people actually don’t mind (even welcomed) criticism, so long as I had ideas to offer them on how to fix their mistakes. Easy enough, seeing as I had an entire year of in-class experiences under my belt to draw from. Most of the critiques were simple, basic things you’d expect: project your voice more, be stern when disciplining, move around the classroom while teaching, or bring in teaching aids to help your class better understand the material. I have to say, over the two weeks I worked as a trainer, I saw all the stagiares improve and gain confidence in themselves in front of the classroom. I even took away some great ideas I observed from watching them teach. Two weeks later, as I watched them all swear-into the Peace Corps, reciting he same oaths of service I avowed a year before, I could not have been prouder. Working as a trainer for stage was a rewarding experience, despite the location, and I’m glad to say that I’ve done it, but I will not be going back for seconds next year. You have my word on that.

Farewell to a Dear Friend

After my two weeks in Porto-Novo, all I wanted to do my go back to my village. I wanted to sleep in my bed, read my books, and shower with my own bucket of well water. But most of all, I wanted to see my cat. I really missed him after being away for almost three weeks. As soon as I got home, I opened the door, expecting to see Neebo’s happy little mug, but instead … there was nothing. I talked to my next-door neighbor who had been feeding him in my absence, and she said about four days before, he’d made a break for it and fled the house. I could understand that. Being cooped up in a cement box for three weeks would drive anything stir-crazy. My neighbor assured me she’d seen him and that he would return soon. So, I waited. For two days, I walked around my concession, calling his name into the thick, green African brush behind my house. I stalked around impatiently, jumping to attention each time I heard a pig squeal or a goat yell or baby crying, hoping it was Neebo announcing his victorious return. And for two days … nothing changed. No sighting of Neebo by anyone in the concession. I started to worry a little bit.

Three days after I’d return home, I make my last fruitless call into the thicket behind my house while on an early evening latrine break. I called his name, “Neebo, Neebo …” but it was to no avail. It was then that my neighbor-friend, an eleven year-old girl who runs the small supplies boutique in my concession (you may remember her from a previous blog as Can-Opener Girl) finally let me have it. See looked at me with sad eyes, not wanting to say it as much as I didn’t want to hear it.

- “He’s left.”
- “Yes, Baké, I know he left.”
- “But he is not coming back, Madame.”
- “How do you know this? Is he dead?”
- “Madame, Neebo was just too big and too beautiful. People are hungry. A thief took him, and they ate him. He went into the brush, and he’s not coming back.”

It was then that Baké made the hand motion that strikes a sick, maddening fear into the hearts of all Peace Corps Benin Volunteers. Sullenly, she drew her finger across her neck, in a throat-slicing motion, and repeated one last time, “He’s left.” I asked her if she was certain, and she nodded confidently. I thanked her for her honesty, used the latrine, and make it back into my house just before I broke down into tears. For a few days, I was a mess. I knew going into Beninese pet ownership that this could happen. Heck, I’d heard stories of it happening to other volunteers fairly frequently. But just like any of life’s other “common tragedies,” you don’t really think it can or will happen to you until it does. I was sad and disappointed. But I wasn’t angry at anyone or anything. It’s the culture here. Cats are food, and August is a rough month in Benin. Many people go hungry because the torrential rains wash away crops and destroy fields of vegetables. My hope is that whatever his fate was, Neebo died with purpose, and if that purpose was to become someone else’s dinner, at least a hungry villager ate well that night. To the credit of my neighbors, they were extremely supportive. They knew I was upset about losing my cat, and even though they couldn’t quite understand why, they rallied, bringing me plates of food and stopping by to give their condolences. The entire situation was one of the strangest, heartbreaking yet hear-warming, melodramatic cross-cultural experiences I’ve had during my service.

In ancient Egypt, when a person died, before they were admitted into the Afterlife, they were asked two questions by the gods. The postmortem fate of the dead lay in the answers to those two questions. The questions were: Did you have happiness in your life? Did you bring happiness to the lives of other people? From what I saw, Neebo had a very happy life: napping around the house all day, dueling to-the-death with grasshoppers and mice, greedily gobbling the remains of my macaroni and cheese and chicken salad sandwiches. And, gosh, did he ever make me happy. He was my partner in crime, my best little buddy at post, and my comrade on crusades against the perils of Beninese life. With that, I can only say that the highway to kitty heaven is open for you now, Neebo, and I know you’ve got the EZ Pass. Adieu, cher ami.

Stranger In A Strange Land

I suppose it is all a part of the natural progression of things. But, for all intents and purposes, Kalale is my home now. It’s where I feel most comfortable in this country. It’s where my house is, where all my belongings reside, where my Beninese friends and counterparts live, and where I work. After a year, it is only fitting that I’ve become accustomed to living life here and settling into familiar and happy routines and patterns. I’m independent and on my own out here, but I rarely ever feel lonely. Yet, as the dawning of a full-year at post has come and passed (September 27th , to be exact), I’ve come to an important realization as I throw myself headlong into my second and final year in Benin: no matter what, I am still a foreigner.

The death of Neebo and working stage were hard, in-your-face wake-up calls to me. I’d come to realize that no matter how much local language I’d mastered, how close I’d become with friends and colleagues in village, or how comfortable and attuned I’d become to my surrounding, I was still always going to be a Yovo, just another white girl in Africa – respected, but always different and apart.

Upon reflection of my last year here, I have to say I’ve definitely grown and learned and taken in so much more than I can realistically believe I could ever actually give back. I’ve come to think of the rewards of my service as small victories that benefit me or make me feel accomplished, and whatever progress I make, I am usually the one most pleased by it. I also accept that I’m completely jaded now. The faces of hungry children have stopped driving a stake through my heart. Seeing dead bodies lying on the side of the road doesn’t phase me as it used to. The open-air slaughter of animals is a natural part of eating in this country, and I’ve definitely jumped on the barbeque bandwagon.

I know the Beninese friends I’ve made genuinely like me. But I also realize that if it ever came down to defending me over one of their people, I’m on my own. I know that given the opportunity, any one of my neighbors would probably steal from me, because in their eyes, I have much more than they do simply because I’m American. I know they will lie to my face about anything, if the need arises. So, as begin my second year here, I no longer have to worry about integrating into my village. What I must balance now is acknowledging my own comfort level in this culture with the honest realization that I will never truly be a part of it. I also realize that, at the end of this year, I will have something no one else in my village will probably ever receive – a plane ticket home to America.

Three’s Company, Too!

Now that the incoming volunteers have officially sworn-in as real, live Peace Corps Volunteers, I am happy to report I have three new post mates in the commune of Kalale. Becca, an environmental volunteer who is within a five-minute walk from my house, has proven to be great company. She is extremely motivated, independent, and ready to work. She’s been doing an excellent job of meeting her work colleagues and making new friends. It’s been great fun to show her around the village and fielding the mundane questions that life in a small village inevitably brings to the forefront. In Dunkassa (approximately 30 km away) is another environmental volunteer, Bailey. Originally from Oregon, Bailey is very interested in land cultivation projects in her village. But she does enjoy coming into the commune head (where Becca and I live) to stock up on supplies, use our electricity, and take a shower (her showering area does not have a cement flooring, so she essentially bathes in dirt – G-d bless her!). Last, but hardly least, there is Tom in Bessassi (approximately 10 km away). Although he is close, we’ve had very few “Tom sightings,” in part because he has no cell-phone reception in his village, and also because he wants to throw himself head-first into village integration. I say, good for him! Every once in a while, when someone from Bessassi comes into Kalale, I ask how the white guy is doing. From all accounts, he’s doing great and he’s making all the villagers laugh. I’m sure there will be more on these three as the year goes on.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Ten Things

This week marks two very big milestones in my Peace Corps service. As of July 24th, 2010, I have officially been in Benin for one year. Even writing that sentence takes my breath away. It has been a wild, frustrating, eye-opening, wonderful year, and its anniversary brings a sense of achievement, peace, and excitement that I have never really felt before. Also, on August 1st, the country of Benin celebrated its 50th anniversary of independence from French colonial rule. For fifty years, Benin has been one of the few African country to remain a stable, functioning peaceful democracy - and that is a feat worthy of much celebration of acclaim (and trust me they did! - with parades, parties, and lots and lots of celebratory t-shirts).

In honor of these two events, I’ve decide to make a few Top Ten lists (assembled in no particular degree of superiority or inferiority) showing how I've changed, how I've grown, what I’ve learned, what I’ve accepted, and what I still want to conquer. And the lists go on…

Ten Things I Love About Africa

1. Tissu: Tissu is the French word for fabric, and no place does amazing fabric like Benin. They sell tissu everywhere - no matter how small the village, and everyone wears it all the time. You can wear it to be formal (in dresses and suits) or you can wear to be casual (in robes and sarongs you wear around the house or in your concession). It can multi-task as a towel, a shawl, a blanket, a sponge, as curtains and furniture upholstery …it’s very versatile. And the colors and prints - gold, deep purple, fiery orange, sunset pink, sky blue, crimson, and floral green with everything from animals to airplanes incorporated in the design. It’s a wonderful way to express your fashion sense, and it magically keeps you warm in the early morning breeze and cool during balmy afternoons. I love tissu, and I will be bringing lots of it back to America with me.

2. Igname Pilé: I never thought the day would come, but there is actually a bit of African cuisine I very much enjoy. In French, it’s called igname pilé (pounded yams for the non-francophones). Basically, it consists of mashed up African yams (similar in taste and texture to potatoes), salt, and water and has a gluey, firm consistency. But the thing that makes igname pilé great is the sauce. You can have it with tomato meat sauce, okra sauce (a.k.a. snot sauce because the resemblance is uncanny), or even peanut sauce (which is marvelous when done right). You eat it with your hands, taking off chunks from a plate sized portion of the yams and dunking it in a side dish of sauce. Rainy season means yams are out-of-season, so it’s a hard dish to find right now, and to my shock and bewilderment…I have actually found myself craving it. Hats off to all the African women who wake up at the crack of dawn to pound those yams in their large, carved wood basins - it is so good!

3. Harmattan: Harmattan is the perfect season. Imagine a time and place where for five months straight you can wake up knowing that the weather will be perfect - seventy degrees, sunny with a cooling breeze in the morning and at night, and zero chance of rain, EVER. It’s glorious, it’s fun, it’s refreshing - it’s the good life.

4. Salutations: It’s a crucial part of African culture to greet every person you meet during your day with a series of questions to get caught up on their daily life. The questions are the same everywhere (and granted, sometimes it gets to be too much when I'm not feeling all that friendly), but it is custom to ask: How is your day? Your work? Your health? Your family? Your children? You currently energy level? The thing that blows me away is that none of it is superficial. People are actually genuinely interested in the answers to these questions everyday and are offended if you do not take the time to ask them in response. West Africa is an open and friendly place, and it is quite nice coming from the Middle Atlantic region of the U.S.A. where you barely make eye contact with people walking down the street - let alone actually going out of your way to smile or say a simple, “Hello.”

5. Gri gri: Gri gri is a voodoo term for the evil spirits that curse you or generally just cause problems in your life. A child dies? It was the gri gri. Your plants never blossomed? You got gri gri-ed. You caught a nasty case malaria? You dissed the gods, and now the gri gri is after you. But it’s also an excellent scapegoat if you are so in need. Students forgot their homework? Forget that lame old “my dog ate it” excuse - it was the gri gri! It’s also a wonderful way to get people or children from touching things that are important to you (examples: computer, iPod, hand sanitizer). Ah! All those items have been mysteriously cursed by gri gri. People avoid touching it like a hot pot.

6. Naps: In this culture, it is not only accepted, but expected!, that you should take at least a three hour nap during the day at some point. The generally accepted period of time is between noon and 3 p.m. everyday, but you can easily find people lying sprawled out on a mat in the shade or in the branches of a tree at any time of day, snoozing away in a La La Land far, far away. If it’s a shopkeeper that’s asleep on the job, it is acceptable to wake them up to ask a question or make a purchase, but by and large, I just leave them conked out and move on to the next boutique. Everyone sells the same stuff at the same price anyway.

7. The 20-Hour Work Week: In Beninese culture, if you put in a twenty-hour week at work, you are overexerting yourself. In parts due to the fact that people are malnourished (and therefore lack energy reserves), the weather affects what you can do (if it too hot, working is difficult and no one goes anywhere if it rains), and most people are not consistently employed (crop-gatherers, tree-cutters, carpenters, or health care works are all seasonal jobs or work on a case-by-case basis). As a teacher, I have one of the most consistent, time-controlled jobs in this country, and it commands a decent amount of respect. To earn that respect, I all have to put in is a measly 20-hours per week.

8. Petit Culture: The social and work system here is sustained off of seniority and age-related hierarchy. Thus, if you are a child - be you boy or girl (a.k.a “petits“- the French word for “small“)- you are constantly in a state of doing obligated chores or favors to the older people around you. Therefore, I can essentially sit in my house like Jabba the Hutt and have small children come by my house to get anything or do anything I need - my laundry, sweeping my house, buying milk powder, toilet paper, phone credit. Picture this: You’re cooking and realize you’ve run out of salt - no problem: you’ve got a petit for that. You’ve just taken a shower and realize you have no phone credit to call your best Peace Corps friend - fuggedaboutit!: you’ve got a petit for that. Generally, I tend to overpay my petits, because they do better work and then there is always a healthy competition to see who I will hire to do my housework. But, often times, the smaller kids don’t want money - they want in on my awesome stash of American candy (Jolly Ranchers and Werther’s Originals are a huge hit over here). At least they have their priorities straight.

9. The Exchange Rate: I have some understanding that impending global contagion is a worldwide fear right now, but having American dollar bills in West Africa right now is better than gold. The exchange rate is awesome, and the amount of stuff you can buy for pennies on the U.S. dollar is almost absurd. Here’s what you can get in Benin for one American dollar: 60cL of beer, 40 cL of sangria, a five minute phone call to America, a Coke and a packet of cookies, a 20-pack of the most expensive cigarettes on the market, two rolls of toilet paper, a watch, a pair of sunglasses, a round-trip motorcycle taxi fare across Parakou, five pineapples or ten mangoes (in-season), and my personal favorite: a chocolate ice cream cone with sprinkles from Sun Foods.

10: The Fashion/Color Free-For-All: There is no gender/color bias in Benin. So, for ten year-old Beninese boy, it is completely acceptable for his favorite color to be pink and NO ONE in the school yard is going to beat him up after class for having that predilection. The colors men and women wear are astounding! No one bats an eye or questions the sexual orientation of a grown man walking down the street in a tight, hot pink, mesh t-shirt and skin-hugging, bell-bottom jeans bedazzled in rhinestones in the shape of butterflies: he is just expressing himself and looking very good doing it. Plastic flip flops and a suit is a completely acceptable, put-together outfit for a government official to wear to work. It has really made me rethink what is fashionable self-expression and let go of my own color biases. Yes, my dear little student Mohammed, your plastic purple sandals look very fetching today.

Ten Things I Hate About Africa

1. Gastro-intestinal Distress: There is no two ways around it; you live here long enough, you drink here long enough, you eat here long enough, and your internal plumbing will start to revolt against you. Every time I put something into my mouth here, I am taking a huge gamble, and I have lost on many, many occasions. Most Volunteers - grown men and women - have pooped their pants at least once in their service due to parasite habitation inside their innards (luckily, to date, this tragedy has yet to befall me). Chronic diarrhea, flagellation, and cramping is a way of life for all of us here, and it is miserable. There is no amount of Imodium to cure what I’ve got.

2. Transport: This is a mathematical truth: In hours, it takes LESS time to go from Philadelphia to Paris to Cotonou than it takes to get from Kalale to Cotonou. Getting anyway in this country is an expedition of Odysseus proportions. I am four hours from the only paved “superhighway” that goes through Benin, thus most of my travel is on beat-up, pot-hole ridden dirt paths that are impassable in the rain. A week straight of rain means I am literally trapped in my village until the sun comes out again. My main mode of transport is by bush taxi, which is essentially a beat-up sedan filled with no fewer than nine people at a time (the Beninese would think clown cars have tons of elbow room by comparison). The taxi station is a mess of drivers trying to grabbing you and your baggage in a desperate attempt to fill their cars. In cities, I get around by using motorcycle taxis which are often operated by drunk drivers or drivers with vision impairments (the practice of optometry has yet to hit Benin). The “safest” mode of transport, which I use the least frequently because they do not run a route to my village, is by public busses (giant, tin Chinese Greyhounds). However, during my service I had seen two horrific busses accidents that have left over thirty people dead and actually passed one as it burned to molten melt on the side of the road. Travel is scary, ridiculous, but absolutely necessary. All that is standing between me and a fatal crash is some luck and a Peace Corps-issued plastic helmet (which I wear ALWAYS).

3. Making Purchases: The main way of buying things for life and survival in Benin is by shanty stands or small boutiques. However, there are never any prices on anything. You must haggle for EVERYTHING. Often times, even the purchase of toilet paper or a bar of soap comes down to a name-calling, screaming match between me and the vender. Once we finally agree to a price, which can take minutes to do, another drama unfolds. No one in this country ever has change for anything, and if they do, they are hiding it from you. It doesn’t matter which size bill or coin denomination you hand the said vender; it is always followed by a sullen look of disappointment and the inevitable response of, “I cannot break this.” Well, of course you can! It’s five o’clock in the evening, your store has been busy all day, and we both know you have the change. Yet, always, it is a fight that ends in “petit” going to search for the change to break my money. We Volunteers hoard small money like it is going to run out, and it upsets us all to have to part with any of it (especially those of us who live in small villages where the problem is infinitely worse). It’s obnoxious and constant, and one of the most annoying aspects of my everyday routine.

4. Lack of Anonymity: I am a white, American woman with flowing, long auburn hair, and therefore, I am a celebrity. It doesn’t matter where I go or who I am with, I am constantly touched, stared at, and asked for my hand in marriage. I can make babies scream in terror or young boys giggle in hormonally-induced delight by just walking through my village on my way to school. Nothing I do is under the radar of the people around me. If I buy a tin of sardines for my cat, the villagers find out and gossip about how much money that silly American spends to fed her cat. If I leave the village for a weekend, everyone knows that I left, where I went, and when I’ve arrived back. I love my alone-time and my privacy, and I find this phenomenon to be quite an invasion, but I suppose it is better than being tortured or tormented for being different. So, I will take it for another year, but with poor grace.

5. “Cadeau” Culture: The French word for “gift” is “cadeau,” and because I am a white American, I am stereotyped as having tons of money. Yet, in so many ways, it’s hardly a stereotype. Although I live on a decent salary by Beninese standards (a little less than $200 dollars per month), I am far, far from the wealthiest person in my village. However, for generations now, it is well known that American, European, and Asian nations give large sums of money to African countries, because they are poor. That trickle down mentality is ingrained into them. Nongovernmental organizations headed by people of mostly white ethnicity come into Benin and just start throwing out money and supplies, and it has completely corrupted the Beninese mentality of work ethic. They honestly believe because I am white, I am rich, and therefore I MUST give them things, because they are African and poor. I am constantly begged for money for food, clothing, rent payments, car payments, and alcohol. The main problem I have is not a lack of generosity or compassion, but that by helping one person in need, I am EXPECTED to help everyone, even those who in relation, are not in need. Every gift is an expectation. Every return from a trip should be rewarded with some token of my travel. It’s disgusting, it’s selfish, it’s impolite, and it only fosters a mentality of Africans accepting hand-outs instead of working to make progress and money.

6. Food: As I have said time and time again, so I will repeat again: the food here sucks. What food there is, there is little of, and absolutely no variety. Food staples are macaroni, rice, tomatoes, onion, corn, and okra, and all fluctuate unexpectedly in-and-out of season and supply. There are also so many things that are just revolting to even think about ingesting: akassa (fermented corn meal dried in the sun for days), pate noir (black, fungus-looking yam mush made black by adding in charred yam skins), and every single part of a cow, sheep, bush rat, chicken, guinea fowl, goat, or pig you can imagine (feet, beaks, heads, tongues, hearts, brains, eyes, ears, intestines, skin, bone marrow). There are blood sauces and snot sauces. There are spices so hot and citrons so sour, you can burn your tongue for days on end. The appearances of real coffee, milk, juices, and fruits and vegetables are so few and far between. And oh, heaven help those Volunteers that discovered latten food allergies here.

7. Chauleur: I spent the majority of my last blog post whining about this particular Beninese season, and I really feel no reason to beat a dead horse, but honestly - it’s not the Sahara; it’s the Sa-HELL. For three months, the sun beats down Benin with a fury so ravenous you would assume it was out for total obliteration of all life on that earth. It’s survivable - I am a living testament to that - but the conditions you are subjected to almost want to make you beg for a swift and easy death. Can’t wait for next year (written with a morose, sarcastic expression).

8. Mosquitoes: Save for a few extremely weird and nerdy entomologists, who really likes mosquitoes? I loathe their very existence. The mosquitoes in Benin are everywhere, during all times of the year, but they seem to thrive in the South where it is humid, in places near water (rivers, lakes, streams, the ocean), and during the rainy seasons. Right now, it’s the rainy season in northern Benin, and there is not enough bug spray or mosquito netting in the world to save my sorry skin from being bitten to smithereens by those malaria-spreading little buggers. Malaria is an easily curable illness, and all Volunteers are on medication to prevent them from actually contracting the illness, but I have seen many of my friends fall victim to the “palu,” as it is called here. Essentially, you get an incredibly high fever, followed by a body-jarring attack of the chills and cold-sweats for about a week. You know you are getting better when you START to lose liver function. Mosquitoes and malaria: the “cadeau” that keeps on giving.

9. Latrines: I’ve officially been defecating into my tiny cement and tin, hole-in-the-floor, lean-to for a year now, and going in there and taking care of business is still the absolute worst part of my days. The latrines smell awful, I’ve had to master my aiming abilities or else I have a shit-load (pun intended) of work to clean up, and the only thing I have found to suppress the never-ending parade of cockroaches that infest my latrine is a small bottle of a white, powdery substance that I was pretty sure was poisoning me. It’s sad but true; one of my favorite sounds in the whole wide world right now is the sputtering whirlpool of a flushing toilet. I guess I have to look on the bright side; at least we have toilet paper in Benin, which is more than I can say for the Volunteers in neighboring Niger (don’t shake hands with those folks - just smile and nod).

10. Harassment: Even though for the most part, white foreigners are considered to be “good” by the Beninese people, it hardly stops them from consistently attacking me for and about everything. I am bombarded with people begging me to give them money, clothing, and food. The marriage proposals and cat-calls are never silenced. Mothers rush up to me with their screaming, terrified babies in hand, imploring me to touch their babies to give them good luck (some Beninese believe that Caucasian and Asian people are lucky) or to cure an illness. Grown men (even colleagues of mine at my school and husbands of friends of mine) touch me constantly, always pushing the boundaries to see what they can get away with. Women pull at my hair all the time, trying to get out strands or convince me to cut it all off and give it to them so they can weave it into their own heads. Once, while in a very large open market in Porto-Novo, I was actually chased by a woman wielding a dull knife trying to lop off all my wavy, auburn, thick, Beyoncé-esque hair. It’s crazy, but c’est la vie.

Ten Things That Africa Has Changed About Me

1. Je parle franÇais: Now, I would hardly go as far as to call myself a “fluent” speaker of the French language, but I can most certainly get around quite easily and efficiently living in a francophone country. I understand most all conversations that go on, and I am getting to a level where I can discuss topics such as politics, social behaviors, societal problems, and formulate arguments while sounding decently articulate in French. The only kicker here is for the first time in my life, I know exactly how it feels to be illiterate. Because I learned the language primarily through speaking it to other people, I cannot really read or write the language well. In fact, I recently founded a copy of the French children’s literature classic Le Petit Prince, and I had no idea what was going on or what the words are. French is very difficult to write, because it is in now way phonetic and many of the same letter combination create similar sounds (as it is in English), so reading and writing French is a loser’s game for me. It’s something to work on; a second-language acquisition hobby I can spend the rest of my life getting better at. For now, I am just working on building a solid foundation, and enjoying calling myself bilingual.

2. I Am One With Nature: Because I have electricity for such a limited period of time each day, my days are literally a race against the sun to get most of the basics accomplished. In order to wash my dishes, get my laundry dried, and take a shower, I have to make sure everything isset-up and done before the dusk begins to fall. My internal clock is now set to wake me up before the sun rises, before the roosters start crowing and the mosques start chanting. I find a ninety degree day to be comfortable and refreshing and a put a blanket over me and a sweater on when then temperature falls below seventy degrees or I’m in air conditioning for too long. I am constantly captivated by the natural beauty of the sunsets and starlit night skies that I have more than once been brought to tears or jumped up and down out of joy. I love the feel of the rain and the wind as it blows through the screen door during a storm, and the sound it makes as it pounds against my tin roof. I walk amongst free-roaming chickens, pigs, cows, goats, and horses with the same frequency and ignorance as I walk amongst people. It’s a beautiful world out there beyond my front door, and I am so glad I’ve been given the opportunity to open my eyes, take it in, and watch the effortless ease with which it unfolds around me.

3. I’ve Accepted The Things I Can’t Change: After living in Benin for a year and immersing myself in the culture, I’ve learned that there are certain things that I just can not and will not change. Professors will continue to bribe their female students with sex for better grades. Food venders will continue to pass out food, wipe their butts, shake hands, and change money with the same hand. I will be harassed and judged and asked for money everywhere I go because I am a American. I will constantly be told that I am fat (it’s a compliment here, but it’s still so very annoying) and that I should get married and have a baby because, at 23, I am very, very old. I have to accept that the majority of students at my school will never get past the seventh grade and will become embittered, whining Africans looking for hand-outs from anyone that will give it to them. I have accepted that the value on human life here is so much less important and that the death of children and adults to what would be easily curable diseases in the Developed World is normal. I can’t change these things. All I can do is educate the people I can, show compassion, live my life here as best as I can, and hope for a better future.

4. I Am a Teacher: With a few school year behind me, I realize that I am now a fully competent teacher. I am good at my job, and what’s more, I love doing it. I have no fear or anxiety getting up in front of a group of people - small or large - and waxing philosophic in two languages. I’ve adopted a slow, annunciated, strong teacher’s voice. I command a presence and can instruction non-verbally using body language, gestures, and tone. Teaching is a well-respected job here, and I love that I feel like I am actually contributing to bettering the lives of my students. It’s fun to watch my students grow and learn and have fun getting an education. I want them all to succeed; I want them all to flourish. It’s a great life skill, and I’m proud to have acquired it here.

5. I Look Different: It’s true. If you saw me now, you’d recognize me, but I would look a lot different. I’ve lost some weight from not really eating healthy for a year, and my recent yoga stint has help bring back some muscle tone and definition. My Italian and Puerto Rican sides have come out in full bloom, and my skin has a nice creamed-coffee perma-tan look now. My hair is crazy-colored. The bleach I put in my bathing water has bleached it so many colors that it looks like a sunset of browns, oranges, reds, and yellows, and it flows waving from the roots in a thick bundle. I look like I’ve been stranded on an island for a while, ship-wrecked and loving it. I’m usually chipper with a big smile on my face. I’m loving my lifestyle and it exudes out of me like rays of bright light. I’ve changed, but it’s all for the better.

6. I’ve Developed Patience: Before I left for Africa, I was as tightly wound and uptight as any other East Coast, Tri-City suburbanite. My patience had a half-life of the amount of time it takes to change the channel on the TV with a remote. But Africa has gotten under my skin. Of course, this change did not happen quickly or fluidly. I spent my first few months here completely frustrated by tardiness, plans that fell through at the last minute, waiting hours in a taxi station for the car to fill with passengers. But at some point, I just let it all go. I can’t tell you where or when it happened, but now it just does. I can entertain myself for hours playing games on my phone. I always keep a book on me for spur-of-the-moment reading-while-waiting material. I can teach the same lessons three days in a row until my students understand without being frustrated at all. This too is another life skill I am so glad I’ve acquired. Just relax. Just let go. Enjoy the ride and watch the scenery fly by you.

7. I Poop Talk: Nothing in America grossed me out more than people talking publicly about their bowel movements. I was always horrified and disgusted when people mentioned the frustration or enjoyment they received from their last trip to the John. But all that’s gone down the Crapper now. Amongst Volunteers and Beninese alike, talking poop is a very important and lively topic of conversation. I can talk poop all day - be it thick or thin, runny or chunky, blood-filled or bile-ridden, whether it’s happening too much or not enough. Poop. Poop. Poop. Everyone poops. I finally just found my own voice on the topic. So, by the way, how is your plumbing today?

8. Blame It On the Alcohol: I have a much, much higher alcohol tolerance now. In Benin, alcohol consumption is rampid, and I have absolutely adapted to that part of the culture. There is always a bar or a boutique selling alcohol, no matter how Muslim or small your village is. The local alcohol, “chuke,” (a fermented millet beverage) is so cheap, and after about two small bowls full, you are a very happy and functional tipsy. I still rarely drink in village, and most of my drinking occurs in big cities when I am with other Americans and Volunteers, but I can pound three 60cL bottles of beer and walk straight. Definitely couldn’t do that in America. I’m not sure it’s something to be so proud of, but it is a notable change nonetheless.

9. International Street Smarts: Growing up in a small, old dairy farm community in the hills of the Pocono Mountains, I never really needed street smarts. We kept our doors unlocked during the day, my sister used to keep her car keys in the ignition of her car, and I rarely looked before leaping across the View to my neighbor’s house. But here, I know I am a target. I watch what I say, not only because I am a single woman living alone, but I’m also a foreigner. I have lots of nice things in my house that my neighbors don’t (a laptop, a camera, porcelain dishware, a mobile phone, a very fat and edible cat). I never go out after the sun goes down by myself. I do consider myself and open and welcoming person, but I am constantly on my guard with male social visits after dark, most often preferring to go outside and join them inside of inviting them in. Again, this is a great life lessons. Sometimes, when you become comfortable in a foreign place, essentially when it becomes your home, it’s easy to forget the very real risks and dangers that are out there. Muggings, robberies, and assaults can happen anywhere in the world; you just have to keep your eyes open and your head in the game to stay safe.

10. I Am Living My Dream: Since my senior year in college, when I applied for the Peace Corps, it was my sole goal to have this experience - to travel, learn, and broaden my horizons. I have had the unique opportunity to see that dream realized. Every single day, I wake up and think to myself, “Holy cow, I live in Africa. This is insane!” And it truly is. Living here is ridiculous, absurd, nutty, and selfish. It’s something I am doing for me, because I think I will be a better person for it in the end, and along the way I may be able to change the lives of the people living life with me. This is probably the greatest change that has overcome me in the last year. If you believe in something long enough, if you pursue it with enough heart and integrity, you really can make your dreams come true. I am living proof of that, and I honestly can’t wait to continue changing, loving, and hating life here in Benin.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

To Everything: Turn, Turn, Turn

First and foremost, I’d like to begin by apologizing for not writing in such a long time. I know that I promised to keep writing as long as you keep reading, so it’s important I keep up my end of the deal. However, my goal in writing this blog was to maintain integrity and honesty within it. I was having a hard time writing, because I could not truly see many of the situations that have ensued over the last three months objectively : I was too deep inside the maelstrom to get any sense of clarity. After several months of drafting, I believe this blog update to be the clearest and more sincere representation of how my service has been over the past three months.

Also, I’d like to dedicate this blog to my Dad. Through his own rough and ragged road on the way to recovery he has shown me - even though we are thousands of miles apart - that dedication, perseverance, strong family ties, and a little faith can get you through the challenges of life you don’t see coming.

Thanks again to all of you who have let me whine, complain and offered advice and condolences on the phone or through emails over the past few months. I know I can be a lot to handle - even from thousands of miles away. Thank you again, from the very bottom of my heart.

Bienvenue au France

I think it was the bread that did me in. In the beginning of April, my Peace Corps confidant, Tracie and I broke out of Africa and into the First World - France! Out of happenstance and circumstance, we also were joined on our tour de force by our friends Jamee and Ben, Oh la la, c'est une belle vie! We started our sojourn in the outskirts of Brittany, in a little town of Falleron. Tracie, Ben, and I had the fortuitous opportunity to stay with an old friend of Ben's (a former missionary priest in Benin named Vincent) in the village of Falleron for a couple of days. We frolicked around the countryside, checked out all the beaches and historical sites - the oyster bays, the marina, old castles and churches, relics of World World II. Conveniently, Vincent's parents live next door, so for lunch and dinner, I had opportunity to take in some authentic French cuisine (and practice my newly acquired French language skills with real French people who spoke no English), and it was spellbinding. The meals went on for hours and the conversations rolled fluidly and effortlessly around the table. Every night felt like Thanksgiving dinner - smoked, salted ham, butter fresh from the family farm, pâte, foie gras, camembert, string beans in butter cream sauce - and oh, heavens, THE BREAD. If the French contributed nothing to the world other than their amazing ability to bake off loaf after loaf of crispy baguettes jewels, I'd still consider them to be one of the greatest civilizations in the world.

After three days in the French countryside, we went off to Paris - the City of Lights, the City of Love. After a brief stint at the nearest Western Union (I was promptly robbed of my wallet upon my arrival at Charles de Galle airport, so my parents had to wire me money *thanks again for that*), we check into our lovely little hotel. The location could not have been more perfect for two food-deprived Peace Corps volunteers: a 24-hour bakery across the street, a McDonald's on the corner, and several Asian eateries within walking distance of our nearest Metro stop. Together, the four of us conquered the city - romantic pictures by the Eiffel Tower, a morning walk up the endless stairs to La Scare Coeur, Les Champs d'Ellyses, authentic French onion soup and red wine at local cafes, and a eerie yet incredibly interesting subterranean tour of the Catacombs. We spent our nights eating sushi, pizza, fresh salads and soups, and of course ( I am but my mother's daughter) indulging in a plethora of regional wines. But really, again, I must go back to this - France to me, was all about the bread. Bread stuffed with cheese and meat. Baguettes smothered in brie for breakfast in the morning, and the smooth, subtly crispy oral extravaganza that was a bona fide croissant. After four days in one of the most beautiful, historical, magical cities on Earth, my stomach was stuffed to the brim, my heart was aflutter with romance, and even the rain and the cold was a refreshing reprieve from the hot, dry, desert of Kalale in April.

One week after our first foray back into "civilization," Tracie and I came back to Benin.

Returning back to Benin from France has been the hardest part of my Peace Corps experience thus far. It boggled my mind, after seeing tours of grand castles and churches built in the fourteenth and fifteenth century without the aid of modern technology: Why is Benin not capable of this? What did France have then that Africa lacks now? Of course, there are a whole host of answers to those questions (money, infrastructure, ingenuity), and all of them frustrated me. How could a country like Benin (poverty-stricken, under-educated, lacking in public transport, sanitation, and infrastructure), even exist on the same planet as France, as America? Dwelling on questions like these only leads to narrow, self-scrutinizing questions: What am I really doing here in Benin? Is anything that I'm doing, that I have done, actually making any difference? How am I ever going to muster eating baguette bread in Africa again???

La Chauleur

It was with those questions in mind, I returned back to teaching English in Sub-Saharan Africa. Let's go over a bit of geography first: Sub-Saharan Africa. Little Benin is located quite miraculously just below the drift of the Sahara Desert - the LARGEST, driest, and arguably the most godforsaken plot of space on the entire planet - and just a teensy bit above the Equator. When I arrived back from cold, rain-drenched Paris, I came into the midst of La Chauleur (the hot season). La Chauleur literally translates to “the hotness.” So, in effect, I went in warned.

Just how hot it would get, however, is still almost unimaginable to me. Temperatures reached well into the 110 degrees Fahrenheit range, but those are just numbers on a scale. What it felt like - that is another story in itself. Typically, in Kalale, it only rains during the rainy season. So, since I arrived in Kalale last October, it had not rained at all. Not even one little drop. During the windy season, as the harmattan zephyrs threw dust all around, I barely noticed the lack of rain. Everyday welcomed me with a blue cloudless sky, a steady, calm wind, and gorgeous sunsets spreading streaks of pink, red, violet, and amber across the twilight sky. But not during Chauleur. Chauleur was mean and heartless. The sun, so bright and forceful, created a heat wave so intense it felt like a smog cloud of fire. The intense heat turned the dirt roads into crags and craters, eroding away at any parts that contained the least bit of moisture. Each winding road in the village reminded me of a scab, raw and red, turning a ugly brown, unable to heal itself. Wells ran dry. All vegetation was suppressed underground to seek shelter from the violent solar rays (which meant no more onions, ochre, or tomatoes…the vegetable staples of my diet). There was no respite from this heat. Even at night, the arid climate remained steady in its course to bake me alive. My house is made of cement and capped off with a tin roof. Every single day and night, I was drenched in my own sweat. All over my body, especially in very inconvenient parts like the backs of my knees, the small of my back, and the crevices in my elbows, I developed heat rash. It is a plague of Biblical proportions. Tiny little bumps that resembled cystic acne protruded from my pores - red, glaring, and angry. The only thing that even mildly helped to numb the constant pain was dowsing myself in Gold Bond. In so doing, I began walking around town looking like an awkwardly sunburned ghost, and which made for good prodding and fodder for my Beninese neighbors. There is no electricity during the day, therefore, the was no fan or air conditioning unit to save me from my sweat-soaked stupor. Even the fan I had for the five hours of electricity I have during the evening acted more like a blow dryer than an acclimatizer; it just pushed hot air around the room in oscillating circles.

But my body was not the only thing affected by La Chauleur. Teaching English became a battle in and of itself. Not only was the heat conspiring against me, but so was another worthy adversary: a two month strike during February and March that tacked on seven additional weeks of school to the final semester. Now, instead of finishing school in early May, all the teachers would be teaching through the eye of the Chauleur storm. Days dragged on, my exercises were constantly interrupted by students begging to get a drink of water to cool themselves down (and how could I deny them, in the extreme heat, while I continuously took long pulls from my own Nalgene bottle?) and the irratation of having to focus, sit still, and endure in the excruciating environment.

A horrible thing happened one afternoon. I was passing out the grades to a quiz to a class of younger students, and they became supremely rowdy. They were hitting each other, storming my desk, arguing points of the quiz when I repeatedly reminded them I would review the quiz after all the grades were handed back. But the blame was on me. That afternoon, I lost control of my class. In my exhaustion and dehydration I stopped being an authority figure and started to just lie myself down like a mat to walk all over. As fate would have it, the Surveillant of the school came into my class, filled with rage, demanding from class to know why they were so disruptive. I kept quiet as he reamed the entire class out over their unruly behavior. It was the first time I had ever seen the Surveillant, the school's disciplinarian, but also my good friend in village and colleague at school, become so infuriated. That's when I noticed the thick, long, dark brown strip of leather he had in his hand - a cattle whip. I'd know since I started training to be a teacher in Benin that corporal punishment was protocol in schools, but never before had I seen it with my own eyes. One by one, he pointed at students, had them kneel before him with their palms facing outward, towards him; sternly, and with an expression as cold as ice, he beat one student after the other with the whip. Tears welled in their eyes. These students - my students- who I had grown to care for, known by name, developed a pleasant rapport with, were being beaten, because I lacked the wherewithal to discipline them. Racked with guilt, I could only watch about four of them being hit before I gathered my things and attempted to leave the room. But the Surveillant stopped me at the doorway. He looked at me politely but insistently and said, "Madame, I think you should stay and watch this. This is how Kalale reforms students who disrespect their teacher." I stood frozen for a moment - filled with guilt, anguish, heartbreak. But he was my superior and a man, and I knew enough about Beninese culture to note that although his tone was asking me to stay with polite regard, the subtext read quite clearly: I want you to see what happens to students here who misbehave. Stoically, I walked back to my desk at the front of my class and watched in shock and horror as all sixty of my students were lashed. In my heart, I knew I had failed them. I learned a very quick, very hard lesson that morning. It was no long "good enough" to just sit up and stand in front of the class and preach the grammar and phonetics of the English language. I had to teach them respect, I had to lead by example, no matter what conditions I was under - because I was a teacher, their teacher. I also realized the consequences of me not following through with my actions by the marks left across my students' hands and behinds.

I left class that day, head in hands, eyes filled with salty, burning tears and wallowed in self pity. When I finally cleared the wetness from my eyes and took in a deep breath, I saw that even despite the heat, the famine, the tedious work of living life in an African village, people all around me were surviving, even thriving.

I Will Survive

When the going gets tough, the tough get going. When you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose. These were hard times for me. Major adjustments in my life, testing my physical and mental ability to keep up with the oath I’d taken in September - to commit myself to Peace Corps service for two years. Yet, all around me were just ordinary people. Ordinary, everyday, average African people getting along just fine. The students whined, yes, but they still showed up to classes in large, steady numbers. The Mamans who served breakfast, lunch, and dinner in the village market still came to work everyday, food prepared and ready to eat. Granted, they were accustomed to La Chauleur, and I’m sure have adapted to the climate over generations in a way that my body never will over two years, but they were plugging along. So why couldn’t I? I remembered what I was here to do: to give students a skill that could help them improve their quality of life.

No one ever said that this was going to be easy. People actually told me I was a brave person to come to Africa and do what I was doing. I didn’t really understand what they saw or, even in their naivety, what they really meant. What I was doing was not a test of how good a teacher I was, how well I could endure in an environment under extreme conditions, or how good my French was. It was about making a promise to serve a community and sticking it out until the end. It was about the oath I made to the Peace Corps and my fellow volunteers - not to win every battle, not to be the best English teacher in Benin, but to continue to do my best work as best as I could and see it through until it was finished.

As it goes in life, even on the darkest nights, a few stars manage to peek through the clouds and twinkle in the night sky. That twinkle in during Chauleur was mango season. Oddly enough, the wonderfully delicious fruit thrives in hot, arid environments making Chauleur the ideal time to harvest mangoes. Just as luck would have it, the only shade blocking my house from the sun happens to be a four meter tall mango tree. All I had to do was step outside and puck a nice, round firm mango from the branch, pierce it with a knife, and dig right it, I suppose it was a fair trade - tomatoes and onions for mangoes. Mangoes are sweet, juicy, and filled with vitamins and nutrients. But mangoes are funny fruits. The outer rind of a mango is actually akin to poison ivy; it can make you extremely itchy, puffy and uncomfortable if you handle it too long. But just underneath all that tough rind is the most sweet, delicious, refreshing taste you can imagine on a parched, dry Chauleur day. In some ways, I felt like I was a mango. Chauleur had given me a tough, hard, even bitter exterior, but just below the surface lie the fruits of my patience.

The only thing that endured with more surefire gusto than the mangoes was our Girls Club. The girls had hit a great stride - all were attending practices and meetings on time. There was very little attitude from some of our more sassy girls. They were selling popcorn at World Cup screenings and school soccer matches faster than we could import the kernels from Parakou. They performed their routines and sketches for local events, did a community clean-up around the Health Center, and made quite a bit of money in the process (even enough to by themselves their very own drum to use for their performances). My little mangoes were growing, sprouting, and truly becoming the sweet little girls I always knew were hidden just beneath the surface.

Finally, on Friday, June 4, 2010 around 21:00 hours, the rain began to fall. It didn’t stop until early the next morning.

Down Came The Rain

Once it started raining like this, it didn’t stop. I woke up in the morning to warm sunshine, but the ground was still damp with the rain that had fallen the night before. It was almost magical. I got to keep my perfect, blue sky days without the heat, which was quelled by the soft, consistent, pitter-pattering rainfall against my tin roof at nighttime. Almost overnight it seemed, everything came into full bloom again. The beautiful red and purple blossoms flowered on the hibiscus trees. The dirt roads swelled with green flora. The rough crags and delves in the earth now held new green life. I woke up in the morning, in my own bed for the first time in two months, and searched for a spare blanket to cover myself from the slight chill left behind by the rain. I found the baguette bread in Parakou to be not only palatable again, but downright enjoyable! It was a thing of beauty, the stuff of myth and legends, and I think I could only believe it because it was happening right before my eyes.

The rest of the school year flew by in a flurry of final exams, grading papers, filling out report cards, and cataloguing who passed and failed. Out of all my classes - over 200 students in all - only eleven did not pass English for the year. I was extremely proud, of both them and me, because we’d made it through the first year of teaching English, and it was a success.

Just as the old child’s song goes, down comes the rain, and washes the spiders out. All the little spiders in my life - the heat rash, the lack of food, the intense heat, the never-ending school year - all were washed away nearly overnight with coming of the rainy season. I still have some actual spiders clinging to corners of my house, but if that is all I have to deal with for now, I say let them stay. It’s much nicer inside my house anyway.

The only fire the rain could not put out was the one raging all around the continent of Africa: a tremendous, howling, unabashed fever of supporters for the 2010 World Cup Games in South Africa. African identity amongst the countries of the continent is very important. The large victory for South Africa as host of the World Cup games was a small victory for all the countries of Africa. They even increased my electricity in Kalale to twenty-four hours per day, so that all the villagers could watch every game tha was televised. (I haven’t quite caught the football fever, so I used a lot of that extra energy to type out emails and watch movies, so it’s a win-win situation for me). The first game I watched was the United States versus England at a Peace Corps favorite bar/cafeteria in Parakou. They projected the match on a large screen, and about sixteen of us gathered around in our red, white, and blue to cheer on our home team. At the start of the match, they played the “Star Spangled Banner,” which inspired all of us to stand up and yell it at the top our lungs. Being in the Peace Corps has made me extremely patriotic. America may not be perfect; in fact, right now it’s overflowing with flaws and injustices. But take it from me, it’s a great place to be from.

During the last week of June, my post mate Jocylin and I packed up five of our top girls from Girls Club (the judging was based on grades, club meeting attendance, and overall behavior and rapport), and went to Parakou to participate in a week of Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World). The camp was funded in part by donations from local community groups and municipal offices and also by the generous donations of Peace Corps friends and family members (thank you to all who donated!). For one week, the girls participated in a myriad of activities from games, sports (I taught yoga), arts, crafts, journaling to taking in and discussing lectures and sessions on sexual health, financial planning, and how to contribute back to their communities. They ate three complete, healthy, nutritious meals a day and even had two snacks in between (I swear to this - one girl nearly cried out of joy when we handed her an apple. It was the first time she’d ever had one in her life). They attended field trips to the African Historic Museum and the Parakou University radio station. Because all of our Kalale girls had lots of experience performing in front of audiences, they excelled at talking about their Camp GLOW experience in a radio interview that was later aired throughout the Borgou region. But I had to admit, being a camp counselor was hard. The days were long (7:00 am - 10:00 pm, seven days straight), and watching over a massive group of preteens was exhausting. But it was all worth it to see the girls learning new things, making new friends from other villages, and having fun and enjoying being little girls. Save few a minor plights of malaria amongst the fifty girls, everything went off without a hitch. The most rewarding moment of camp however, came on the last day. We taught the girls the refrain verse of Aretha Franklin’s classic “Respect” in English. We translated the words into French for them, so they could understand the concept, but they quickly picked up on the rhythm and the flow of the original. When we played the song at the closing ceremony that evening, all the girls sang ‘Respect,” screaming their lungs out during the refrain. I loved watching them fail their arms in the air, swaying their little bodies back and forth to the “sock it to me, sock it tome, sock it to me” verse. When we told them that and African American woman was singing the song, they were even more impressed. That’s the thing about a good song; it doesn’t need translation - it just needs a beat and a chorus.

Out With The Old, In With The New

Tomorrow, I leave for the big city of Cotonou. I was voted VAC representative for the Borgou region, which means from now on, I will act as a liaison between the Peace Corps Benin administration and the volunteers of the Borgou region to address any problems or concerns they are having in their service. I think it’s a great position, because I get to debate, stand up for volunteer ideas and rights, and collaborate with my peers and staff to create a better service experience for everyone.

Yet, even cooler than that, on Friday, July 16th, a new group of potential volunteers will be arriving in country. It is a tradition for the preceding stage of volunteers to go down and greet the new stage, and it was a very fun, exciting event for me last year. I am all amped up to pay it forward. But, as change goes, when new stagieres come in, it means older volunteers are packing up their things and moving on their way. It will be sad to see some of my good friends and mentors leave, but I am thrilled to start anew with a fresh batch of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed newbies all ready to sign-up and change the world. It’s great to see that enthusiasm in people. It’s great to have the enthusiasm returned back to me.

It’s amazing what a difference one year, some hard work, a lot of learning, and a little rain can make.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

My African Life: Class, Corn, Can Openers, Kate, and a Crazy Cat

International Women’s Day Comes to Kalale

Hear ye! Hear ye! Women around the world - we are definitely making progress! Amidst the rubbish and rubble, from inside the mud huts and throughout my tiny village of Kalale, magistrates, mayors, community administrators, counselors, governmental officials, and functioniers from around the Borgou department came to my tiny, respectable commune of Kalale to support and celebrate the education, health, and protection of WOMEN. In the year of Our Lord 2010, on March 8th, thousands of Beninese citizens from surrounding cities and villages gathered to watch as Kalale hosted it’s first-ever fête for the advance of African women, and it was a party for the ages. There were prizes and awards, honorable guest speakers, traditional dances, skits, and presentations. But most of all - and perhaps most importantly - there was a beautiful and wondrous array of men and women from a variety of ethic backgrounds there to pay homage to the fairer sex.

In my small realm of esteem, our girls club, Club GLOW (Girls Leading Our World), was asked by the mayor of Kalale to present a dance routine and a skit of their own creation at the festival. For almost three months, our girls practiced weekly, and as show time neared, they practiced daily, to perfect their presentation. A week before they were slated to perform, the girls came to my house to practice their routine in an effort to guard it from public view before the Big Day. Taking a note from my Mom and Dad, I wanted to be an apt hostess, providing them with water, biscuits, and their favorite - popcorn! Hell hath no fury like fifteen Beninese preteens attacking a large metal bowl of salted popcorn. But all their hard work paid off grandly. When it was time to perform, the Kalale Club GLOW girls delivered - three dance routines an a wonderfully funny sketch about a young girl and her grandmother walking by a school, and other girls encouraging the young girl to come and practice her alphabet and reading. Literacy for women! (It is important to note that even here, in the commune head, 60% of women are illiterate and nearly 80% cannot speak the national language of French.)

I was proud as a peacock. Our girls did tremendously! As is custom, during their dance and skit, audience members showed their appreciation by placing bills of currency on the girls’ foreheads. The girls raised 35 mille francs CFA for Club GLOW (approximately $70 American). The talk around town the next few days of the girls’ performance was twofold: everyone loved their performance and thought it was insightful and inspiring, but they almost couldn’t help but notice they girls lacked … oh, how to put this as politely as most commenting villagers attempted to … couth. Essentially, the word on the street in Kalale was - Club GLOW was a group of brilliant, young, talented, intelligent, beautiful … brat children!

To be honest, my post mate and partner in advising the club, Jocylin, and I had taken note of this for a while. Most of our girls came from village families of means, meaning that they had enough money and support to not want for most of the essential items of life (food, shelter, education, clothing), but they still had a very “from the village” mindset that kept them from engendering basic social graces such as manners and tact. The girls did costume changes (which required them to disrobe quite a bit) in the presence of young men. They did not offer thanks or any signs of gratitude towards those who offered praise. They were greedy and rabid when it came to dispensing praise, commemorative t-shirts, and food. Jocylin and I had our work cut out for us, and so we started …

Jocylin and Loren’s Club GLOW Reform School for Girls

The name pretty much sums it up. We quickly realized, as advisors of a club thats sole intention was to support the integrity, advancement, education, and professionalism of young girls, we had better start with the basics.

Now granted, if you know anything about me as a person, you know that I am not the Queen of Social Graces. As a child, at dinner, my mother would regard quite matter-of-factly that my table manners were akin to those of Atilla the Hun. (Mom - I will have you know that I now live in a society where it is not only acceptable, but expected, that you eat with your hands.) I spent countless summers in Connecticut with my Aunt Arlene and Uncle Ray as they kindly and gently persuaded me into proper use of silverware at dinner, placing a napkin on my lap, chewing with my mouth closed, and blessing the table with a simple grace before eating like a civilized young women of good breeding. I picked up a thing or two along the way, and rather unexpectedly, I came into my role as Madame Loren Lee: Reform School Governess.

The goal was basic and clear-cut. The girls needed to learn how to behave in public like respectful young women if they ever intended to one day grow up and become respectable women. At our first club meeting after the International Women’s Day festival, we went over some social graces. Use, “s’il vous plait” to ask politely for something. If you are given a gift or regarded with a kindness, offer a gentle, “Merci.” Form lines to accept hand-outs given in mass. (Oddly enough, as I’ve mention before, line formation has never occurred to most Beninese people. It’s usually just a blob of people yelling and vying for position. It boggles my mind how this place has cell phone service, but refuse to form lines). We also explained that they now had developing female bodies that they were growing into their rightful feminine forms, and it was no longer appropriate to change in front of curious young boys. It was important they kept their cleavage, midriff, and backside covered at all times in public. The girls were very responsive. We did a few activities to demonstrate how each new social grace worked and affected not only their behavior but the behaviors of the people around them. Jocylin and I gave out stickers to the girls, if they formed a civilized line and said “please” and “thank you.” We practice eating politely and generously in public with large bowls of popcorn (we noticed they couldn’t get enough of the stuff, even if they were passing it around graciously and taking small, reasonable handfuls). Yet, just as my Mom, Aunt, and Uncle taught me, the road to being a Respectable Woman is long and paved with endless amounts of practice, patience, and - as to be expected - guffaws.

Kernels in Kalale

As you may have noticed, popcorn has been a reoccurring theme in this blog entry. In Kalale, corn is not a staple starch. It is hard to find it outside of the major cities. Likewise, the kernels used to make popcorn are just as scarce, therefore, having popcorn in village is a rare treat and a delicacy. So here we are, in a village with an open segment in the market for popcorn and girls club that has just recently raised 35 mille CFA performing at a festival.

As soon as Jocylin and I realized this, a light bulb when off in our minds: We found a niche market! The girls could sell popcorn and raise money for the club. Suddenly, my Girls Scout days of selling cookies came flooding back to me. They could use the money they had just earned and reinvested in the club - in themselves - in order to gain greater rewards, such as trips into a big city like Parakou for a nice dinner or new khaki uniforms and supplies for school. The market was in need and the opportunity for fundraising was endless. Jocylin and I proposed the idea to the girls, and they were all in agreement. Just as quickly, my year as a partner at PrintPOD, Inc. came back to me: the hours I spent in front of a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet with Mike crunching numbers on quantity, input, output, costs, values, gains, and expenses. We would apply the same business principles I learned in running a start-up company with organizing a popcorn vending operation. Once we crunched the numbers, we realized the girls stood to gain a hefty profit by selling their popcorn on Market Day, at school events, sporting games, and at administrative festivals.

And so, Kalale Korn was born! Jocylin and I showed the girls how to pop the kernels in a large metal bowl over a fire using oil and seasoning the corn with salt. It was easy; and the girls, being naturals at cooking over an open flame and knowing how to prepare food, were quick studies. In its premiere week of sales, the girls sold their popcorn at the middle school’s Track and Field Games Day. It has been a huge success thus far.

I really think this is the best example of what amazes me about the Peace Corps. As a teacher, I came in knowing exactly what I was going to be doing - teaching English - but never in my life did I think I would be using my small business background to help young girls became entrepreneurs. You learn to expand yourself, you learn the true depths of what you as an educated, experienced person have to share with other people, and you are given the opportunity to explore and challenge yourself to try it out. Let me tell you, firsthand, there is no feeling in the world that compares to looking at girl with empowerment and self-esteem glowing in her young, bright eyes and knowing that you help put that there.

Neebo’s Nook

Because many of you have asked about his well-being in e-mails, letters, and Facebook messages, I figured I would take this opportunity to let you know that my little man is doing just fine. Neebo is reigning supreme cat here in Kalale. He is far and away the fattest cat in town, and if I do say so myself, the sweetest and most handsome.

Neebo continues his Reign of Terror over cockroaches, lizards, mice and the like, which puts him in my good graces. In one of his most recent exploits, Neebo decided to climb the mango tree outside my house at 1:00 AM, only to find that he was too much of a scaredy-cat to climb down. So, being the doting pet owner that I am, I strapped on my head lamp in the middle of the night and climbed the mango tree in my nightgown to rescue dear Neebo from his summit. Most days he is much less adventurous and expends most of his energy napping away in various cool spots around the house.

All kidding aside, Neebo is an excellent cat. And, if you are so inclined to send me a package, please to remember my dear kitty. My Aunt Tracy has spoiled him, and he does enjoy American kitty treats.

Yes, We Can! (Opener)

It really is the little things in life that make you smile.

In my concession there is a small boutique that vends a lot of household basics: pasta, tomato sauce, candy, rice, toilet paper, things like that. In that boutique, almost everyday of the week, there is a twelve year-old girl named Baké. Baké, for all intents and purpose, is the indentured servant of the couple that lives at the end of my concession. She is the niece of Madame Felix, who owns the boutique. As is common practice here, Baké lives and works for Madame Felix , and in return, they educate, feed, and clothe her. For the most part, it is a symbiotic relationship.
One day, as I walked over to the boutique to buy some milk powder, I noticed Baké kneeling over a gigantic can of tomato paste, sweat flowing from every pore in her body, pounding away at the tin lid with a massive stone and a dull kitchen knife. I asked her if she needed any help. Of course, being the sweet girl she is, she said no and diligently pressed on attempting to open the tomato paste.

As I walked away from the shop, it suddenly dawned on me - I had a spare can opener lying around my house. My parents had sent me a really great super-grip opener from America, but being the second Volunteer to live a chez Americaine, I already had an old, duller opener in a bin somewhere. I quickly found it, and brought it out to Baké.

I hand it over to her and said, “Here a cadeau (a gift), for you.” She looked at me completely puzzled, but stretched out her arm to take the funny black and metal device. I realized she had no idea what it was. So, instead, I told her to hand me the big can of tomato paste. Easily, I placed the opener on the rim and began to crank. As I wound around the edge of the lid, Baké’s eyes began to glow with excitement. Then they began to tear as she realize how much easier it would all be from here on out. I handed her back the opened tin can and the opener, and she smiled at me with awe and amazement. I’m sure it mirrored the look on my face as well.

To think, all it took to crack that smile wide open was a can opener. Ah, alas, yet another mini miracle in Africa.

In Memory of Kate

This March 12th marked the one year anniversary of the death of Peace Corps Benin Volunteer Kate Puzey. In Cotonou, sixty Volunteers, along with Peace Corps Administrators, American Embassy workers, and the Ambassador to Benin, gathered together to memorialize the life and service of a fellow Volunteer. This being my first year in-country, I had never met Kate. I’d only even been told delightful stories of her work and her amazing personality by other Volunteers that knew her.

It was a simple ceremony held at the Peace Corps Benin Bureau Headquarters. It included a candle-lighting ceremony, words from friends and Volunteers, and speeches by Peace Corps Staff and the Ambassador. However, the segment of the ceremony that resonated most with me was a ten minute slide show of photos of Kate throughout her service. In those photos, she became real to me. I could relate to the girl sitting on the rocks of lagoon underneath a waterfall in Tanguetta; the teacher standing up at the blackboard in front a classroom of Beninese students; a helpful friend cooking food with a woman from her village. Through those photos, I saw fragments of memories that will become the landscape of my own service here in Benin. She was just like me. A young, hopeful, optimistic Volunteer who came to Benin to teach English and who learned so much more than she could ever be taught. As I mentioned, I never got to know Kate, but I feel in some ways, I do know her. We walked the same path; I am just following the footprints that she left behind.

Adieu, dear Kate.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Just A Small Town Girl

You’re What The French Call, “Villegois”

Oh, life in a little African village! Just as in America, there are some dramatic lifestyle differences between those of us who live in little towns scattered along dirt roads and those who live amongst the hustle and bustle of big city chaos. The shock and awe of the differences are evident in simple utterances quibbled back in forth on post visits between Volunteers:

From a city-kid: “Wait, what do you mean that you can’t buy baguette bread here? Where do you live?”
From a townie: “They are charging me HOW MANY francs for HOW MUCH rice? Do you spend all your money on food?!”

In small towns, everybody knows your name, and likewise, everyone expects a formal greeting at every meeting and re-meeting during the day. In large cities, you can blend in more easily among a large, diverse crowd, but sometimes, you don’t even really get to know your own neighbors. In little villages, the people are a little less civilized, the food is a little more authentic, and the smiles come from the heart. Village life suits me just fine. Here in Kalale, I’ve had the opportunity to delve into four very unique local languages, dance around a drum circle with old, bare-breasted tanties, show off my beloved hamlet to as a budding tour guide. Big city - eat your heart out … here’s my story of life on the wild side.

A Hello-Line Without a Chord in Its Butt

I recently read a quote from ex-pat and one-time New Yorker columnist Adam Gopnik, in which he says: “We breathe in our first language and swim in our second.” Nothing could be closer to the truth. I finally have reached a point in my French language ability where I know I can swim. I’m not going to drown if I’m suddenly thrust into an argument over the price of a piece of jewelry or a new shirt. Go, ahead, get me lost on the way to the bus station … I have the vocabulary to get me where I need to go. But at times, as I listen to the Michael Phelpses around me prattle off in lightening-speed français, I realize that I am still very much in the lap lane, putting my tail between my legs and surrendering to the doggie paddle. However, I am keeping afloat, so I figured now was about the time I should try my hand a learning some of the tribal tongues spoken in my village.

As I’ve forestated, there are four commonly spoken African languages in Kalale: Peuhl (the language of the Fulani tribe), Bo-ka (a language solely spoken in the commune of Kalale), Bariba (the most widely spoken language in the Borgou department), and Yoruba (the most commonly spoken tribal language in Nigeria). Because of our proximity to Nigeria, our unique cluster of Fulani tribe, and our outskirted position between the Alibori and Borgou departments of Benin, each language is easy to differentiate among when spoken, but you can never guess who speaks what. Sometimes, seeing and old woman cloaked in a Muslim hajab with broken teeth and a little bit of a cellulous demeanor, I’ll choose Bariba and greet her with, “A-BWAN-DOH” (or good morning) She, in turn, looks at me bug-eyed, as if I just went rambling away in English, and kindly responds, “NAH-PIN-DAY” (hello in Peuhl). It’s enough to drive a person mad, but that isn’t even the worst of it.

When speaking in another language, I’ve found that your brain in some way switches over and starts allowing you to think and process words different in the other language. In French, for instance, I am not twenty-three years old, but instead I have twenty-three years (this occurs in other romance languages as well). In French, I am not hot, but I have heat, or for that matter, coldness. Like my age, I am in possession of my temperature in French, the ruler of its domain and power, whereas, in English, it is a part of me and the very structure of who I am. What separates thinking in French from thinking in say, Peuhl, is that French language and culture progressed on a similar timeline and trajectory with the English language. The introduction of electricity and cell phones and motorcycles opened up the brain to a slew of new vocabulary without enough time for the rough edges of its formation to be smoothed over. There was no opportunity for progression like that. Like most developing countries, Benin went straight from being without telephones, without the infrastructure of land lines, to having cell phone towers in every commune head serving just about everyone you can shake a stick at with his or her own personal, portable, internet-accessible, music-playing, hand-held phone. Therefore, the progression of the vocabulary evolution became very rushed as well. So, you have great words like the Bo-ka term for mobile phone, “A-HA TA-QUE-SADA MA-FAN-DOH,” which literally translate to “a hello-line without a chord in its butt.” A “hello line” derived from the words for hello and clothesline are with words for a traditional, land line phone, which are very, very rare. Because a mobile phone is indeed a phone, but is not bound to any particular place with a “chord in its butt” or a line at the end of it, it has given its long and exasperating title, “a hello-line without a chord in its butt.” But it is hard to think in a language like that, when you can not predict where on Earth the origins of the word parts are coming from.

Sometimes, local language is just fun and funny. For instance, in a typical Beninese greeting, you go through a series of questions you ask a person in order to give them a respectful salutation. The greeting goes: “Hello! How are you? How is your work? How is your health? How is your family? How did you sleep?” Bariba is a wonderful language, with many responses being as simple as saying, very dismissively, “OH” (making sure to keep your mouth dramatically locked in the shape of an “O”) or grunting. Yet, in order to answer the question: “How is your health?” in a positive and chipper manner (the preferred method amongst those living in Kalale), you simply pump your fists in the air and say, “BONG! BONG!” Go ahead, say it. Do it. It’s great fun. You actually feel like you are in good health pumping away, wrists flailing in the air, saying cute phrases like that. Peuhl, on the other hand, is not so much fun as it is beautiful. You learn pull as an outsider, I think, because of the grace and elegant flow of the words. It is a like a ballet being dance using your tongue and breath as its stage. When Peuhl speakers get into heated or excited conversations, it almost seems as if they are singing at one another, competing over who can outshine the other in a choral recital.

Learning languages is a passion of mine, In my short life, I’ve studied five world languages and four tribal languages and I must say, I am only really fluent in one. I guess the moral of the story is to just breathe easy and keep swimming.

Band On The Run

I am not the first American to arrive in Africa and become completely enthralled by its music. In fact, I have a strong lineage of famous predecessors that have come to Africa with the sole purpose of being engulfed by its beats, ensnared by its drums, and brought to their feet, dancing, jumping, and jiving in simulation of the Africans themselves.

For millennia, it has been a global, cultural traditions for musicians to take their talents on the road, roaming from place to place, spreading their beats and harmonies, telling life histories with their lyrics, and in so doing, becoming a critical part of the social fabric. Kalale is no exception to this cross-cultural phenomenon, and it too has its own brand of visiting troubadours. One regular Friday morning, I trekked across town to my post mate’s concession and lo and behold, stumbled upon one of African’s finest traveling musicians. Armed with a small violin-type instruments made from hemp strings and a dried, hollowed out gourd, the troubador serenaded me. His lyrics were sweet and simple: “Bonjour, Madame, ah-hey, Bonjour, Madame.” Yet, his beats were complex, uplifting, and enchanting. I sat down next to him and let him sing to me as he smiled at with a wide, picket-fence grin in his frayed tunic. When his beautiful overture ended, I threw him a few francs and he thanked me generously. Truly, I was the one who was indebted. How many people wake up to their own, sweet personal serenade?

During the last weekend in February, in the village of Nikki, almost seventy kilometers due south of Kalale, there is an annual festival called Gaani that brings in people from all over Benin to celebrate the culture and traditions of the Bariba tribe. Thousands flock to Nikki for the weekend festivities to take in the art and crafts shows, watch the beautiful horse parade, and partake in a myriad of different traditional dances, music, and cuisine. In Kalale, the Bariba people here have been preparing to show off their musical inclinations for weeks. Relentless rehearsals of skits and shows flood our narrow, dirt alley ways, little by little filling the pathways of the village with music and dance. Last Sunday morning, after going into town to grab some brunch (and omelet sandwich at a local café), I was drawn into following a particularly rowdy crowd’s music. A dozen or so musicians gathered in the street, of the hems of a red dirt road banging away passionately at their instruments. There were leather and wood tom tom drums, gourd violins, tin and glass bottle xylophones, and of course, a herd of topless old woman, shaking their dignified, acrobatic, wrinkly bodies to the rhythm of the band. It was glorious.
At first I stood back in awe, kicking myself at another golden photo opportunity lost because I hadn’t thought to bring my camera. Then, a group of my students spotted me in the crowd (granted, I am quite easy to spot), and convinced me to go dancing with the women. At first I pleaded ineptitude. Then I argued that I born with two left feet, essentially rendering me incapable of coordination (which seemed to puzzle them enough until they actually looked at my feet … I suppose some idioms don’t quite translate). Finally, out of excuses and too intrigued not to try, I stepped up to the dance circle and started shaking my body with the women. They all spoke Bariba, and I spoke only European languages. But it didn’t matter. Feebly, I attempted to mimic their dances moves. Realizing quickly I stood no chance, I did what I do best… I channeled my inner Beyonce and started doing the bootylicious butt bump. Boy, oh boy, was that a crowd please. Much to my surprise, several of the women and young girls began copying me, giving dear Ms. Knowles a run for her money in the derriere-dropping department!
Sometimes, you just have to dance to the beat of your own tom tom drummer.

Les Tourists Americains

Kalale is currently the proud owner of what may become known as one of the Wonders of the Sustainable Third World. In a little village within the commune head of Kalale, are the Gardens of Basassi. The gardens are a model for Peace Corps Volunteers and attract visitors from all around the world to come and revel in the irrigation juggernaut that is the Solar Garden. Community run and operated, the gardens produce an enormous amount of agricultural products from the commune using a system of solar panels to operation irrigation pumps that keep the plants moist despite the desert-like arid climate. It truly is a marvel to behold.

Enter Ray and Bence. Ray and Bence are a tag-team group of IT consultants sent from San Francisco as project developers to oversee the achievements of their company’s funds. Two weeks of their five week-long business sojourn were to be spent recording and relaying the progress and development of the Gardens at Basassi. My post mate, Jocylin, an environmental volunteer, was working with the group, making sure they were able to oversee the technical aspects of their trip. I, on the other hand, quickly adapted to the role of Cultural Ambassador to Fun and Amusement in Kalale. It was my job to make sure they interacted with a wide group of different people, saw the fairs and wares of Market Day, and figured out where to get a nice, cold beer after a long day of working in the fields.

What surprised me most was how open they were to meeting the people of Kalale. They offered to come into my English classes as a part of a show-and-tell day. They spent the mornings teaching children’s songs (complete with hand motions) to my students. The play list included “The Itsy-Bitsy Spider,” the Beach Boys “Do Run Run,” the classic “If You’re Happy and You Know It.” The went snap-happy documenting their lessons through camera frames. My students, of course, enthusiastically mugged for the cameras, That very next afternoon, as I walked to school for my evening class, I saw a group of my students sitting in a circle jumbling the words while perfecting the motions to “Itsy-Bitsy Spider.“

As Cultural Ambassador to Fun and Amusement, I learned something very critical about my service. I am happy here. This village life suits me very well for where I’m at in my life, and I am more than proud to show it off whenever I get the chance. I’ve become comfortable and confident enough here to not only call his place my home away from home, but a place I can’t stop talking, writing, thinking, and caring about. Pull out the “Bienvenue” mat, Kalale - Madame Loren Lee is coming home.

An American Wish List a.k.a. Pandering for Packages

I must start off with this: Thank you, thank you, Merci beaucoup to everyone who has been kind to send me a care package here in Benin. The contents of this packages are cherished, beloved, shared, and enjoyed and each little package reminds me that there is someone out there - in a land far, far away - thinking of me. In an effort the quell the demand on my parents of interested person wondering what would be good items to send to Loren in Africa, I’ve decided to make a list of things that I need, things I would love, and things I’ve most certainly got a good supply of.
Again, thanks for sending, thanks for reading, thanks for caring. I love you all.

Food Items: I really cannot get enough of American food products. These are a great need. I am not eating the meat here (because I see the goat eating garbage and drinking turgid, green water the day before they barbeque it and attempt to serve it to me), so anything with protein is great. Also, candy is wonderful. I love popping hard candy and just letting the memories of America melt in my mouth, but they also are great bartering tools for young kids in my neighborhood who help me with chores but refuse to take money. I have access to filtered water here by pump, but refrigeration is limited and expensive. Therefore, I use water flavoring packets to make the temperate water go down the old pipes a little more smoothly. I suggest Hawaii Punch and Crystal Lite to-go mixes, but I have an adventurous palate and am always open to surprises. Also, I just have a small, gas table top stove here, but I can use food meals that are pre-packaged and just add water, butter, and milk (think Ramen and mac & cheese). Here are some ideas on the food front:

Twizzlers, canned meats (tuna, chicken, clams, salmon, ham), Slim Jims, beef jerky, M&Ms, hard candies, Ramen noodles, boxed macaroni and cheese, mashed potato packets, Alfredo, spaghetti, and pesto sauce mixes, soup packets, Pringles, rice seasonings, Power Bars, trail mix, granola, mixed cocktail nuts, dried fruit, brownie mix, cake batter, cookie mix, spray cheese, crackers.
American Media and Photos: As you know, I am an avid reader and news hound, so being without my fix of written and pictorial media does leave a hole in heart. I would love news article clippings, transcripts of important media sound bites, tabloids, journals, and magazines. Fashion magazines are excellent, because I use them as sources of inspiration of dress designs I have made here (and my African seamstress loves to see what is all the rage in America). Also, I can not get enough pictures of my friends and family. Please send me current or old photos of friends and family so I can proudly display them around my house. Having everyone around, even just on glossy paper, keeps the homesickness away.

Toiletry Items: I live in the Third World without running water, so I’m going to venture and say that it would be impossible for me to have too much antibacterial liquid hand sanitizer. Please send me the big bottles. I love the stuff! The hard, clean after-scent of rubbing alcohol has quickly become one of my favorite scents in all the world. Hell hath no fury like Loren on a microbe-killing spree. (Along this line, antibacterial hand wipes are also useful). I can always use Q-tips. The are a great, multitasking little tool, and I go through them quite quickly, so I could always use restocking. I have very attractive blood to mosquitoes, and my skin is usually painfully freckled with bite marks, so spare my skin and feel free to send some heavy-duty, alpha male bug spray. I’d much appreciate it.

Items I’m Well Stocked In: I’d like to say a special “Thanks” here to Mike and Jackie and the Holub family for making sure that I have everything I’d every need in the way of craft supplies, art materials, school, and office supplies. Also, as the second Volunteer living in my house, I inherited a generous amount of crafting supplies. I am actually so endowed with crayons that I had a Crayola Give-Away Day for the children living in my concession (and oh boy, did they love it). So, please, don’t waste the space in a package with any of the above. I’ve got more than my fair share and enough to go around the village.