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.


  1. Wow you are turning into "Miss Manners", who would have thought!!!! Love that your are
    nuturing the spirit of capitalism in these young women. I will be sending kernels. Keep them selling. Can't wai to hear about Paris

  2. Yeah, I was able to figure out your address. Wow, what a terrific blog. I love reading your thoughts and feelings about things you encounter.

    Thanks for the praise. All we ask is that you continue to pay it forward.

    You are truly remarkable and growing more so each day.
    Lots of love, Aunt