Bienvenue au Benin

I’m finally here!
Today (Thursday June 28) is our second full day in Benin. So far it’s been amazing: meeting all the other PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees, we become Volunteers when we swear in at the end of training), meeting all the Peace Corps staff, speaking français, feeling the heat, learning more about what I’m going to be doing for the next few months and then the next two years.
When we arrived in Benin, there were PC staffers to meet us at the airport. After getting through the customs area, there were current PCVs who are going to be training us, who greeted us with huge “Welcome to Benin!” signs and lots of cheering and clapping. We’re staying at a facility owned by the Catholic church, and staying in dorm-like rooms. Tomorrow, after our training during the day we will meet our host families in Porto Novo and move in with them, where we will be until we go to our village post!
Our training has so far included safety and security, basic health and the beginning of a long series of immunizations, a gender session that included how to turn down a marriage offer and how to urinate on the side of the road, administrative, IT, bike and zemi (zemidjans, motorbike taxis) orientation, and language orientation. Those whose resumes indicated they had a high level of French had phone interviews ahead of time. I “passed” mine, so was given the option to study local language instead of French during our language training and immersion. Tomorrow I will find out which of the three local languages they’ve chosen for training I will be studying – Fon, Dendi or Bariba. They will try to figure out what region we will be posted to today, then choose our language for us. The majority of people here will be working on French.
It’s been incredibly exciting just to meet everyone. There are 63 PCTs from the US, plus four who were PCVs in Cape Verde, where the Peace Corps has decided that they will end the mission. This is different from the Peace Corps evacuating Volunteers – with Cape Verde, PC basically decided that the country had reached a point where they were developed enough without PC. Everyone is from everywhere. The average age is around 25, but there are two older Trainees and one middle-aged one. There are two married couples (the Cape Verde Volunteers). There are four sectors:
– TEFL: Teaching English as a Foreign Language (my sector!)
– RCH: Rural Community Health
– EA: Environmental Action (environment/agriculture)
– CED: Community Economic Development
So far the feeling in the group is mostly excitement, mixed with a little apprehension and a lot of exhaustion. We’re all pretty tired and jet lagged but the adrenaline and the energy of the staff and Volunteer trainers are keeping us going.
In general, I feel incredibly excited but also very much at home – on the plane I had a few moments of “Oh my God, what am I getting myself into, how can I leave my family and other loved ones for so long?” but now I’m 100% sure that I made the right decision. I am incredibly excited to start learning a new language, to live with a host family, to continue meeting and talking to current Volunteers and those in my group, and to eventually get to my post and start integrating into my community. I feel blessed to be here with such a great program and am enjoying soaking up every minute of it.

*Just a few logistical things: I will have a cell phone probably tomorrow – Mom and Dad, I’ll send you my number, and I may ask other people for their number if it’s cheap to text. If you mail things to me, use USPS, and if you’re sending a package, if you can get it in a soft bubble envelope it won’t cost me money to receive it (but if you send it in anything else I’ll have to pay something to pick it up). I also have no idea how often I’ll have internet in the next few weeks – it may be often, it may be less often. As always, if you want to contact me send me an email or post on this blog!

Address

If you want to send me a letter, use the US Postal Service (same for packages, but they probably won’t get to Benin for three months). My mailing address is:

Katie Lootens
Corps de la Paix
B.P. 971
Contonou, Benin
West Africa

Even when I get to my post, if letters are sent to the above address the Peace Corps will get them to me. Can’t wait to hear from everyone!

Packing madness!

Only two days left! I’m leaving early Sunday morning for Philadelphia, where we will have about a day and a half of “staging.” This apparently consists of us meeting each other (there are about 60 PCVs, or Peace Corps Volunteers, leaving in our group for Benin), getting our State Department passports, and learning some quick “if you do these things you will be kicked out of PC” rules. Then we all get on a plane to Benin! As you might be able to tell from my light grasp of details, PC doesn’t tell us all that much, and also I’ve been too busy to read closely all the things I probably should read closely that they send to me.

Now I’m very busy with last-minute packing: my whole life for the next two years has to fit into two checked bags (one hiking backpack and one rolling duffel/suitcase) and a backpack. I keep thinking of things I might need and saying things out loud, like “more sunscreen!” or “stickers for the kids in my class!” and “definitely more sunscreen!” – it’s been a bit unnerving for people around me.

Thankfully I’ve been a bit too busy to really start freaking out. I’m sure that will come. But right now it doesn’t quite feel real, doesn’t really feel like I’m about to leave. I’m sure it will when I get to Benin and smell that burning trash smell I associate with West Africa.

I will hopefully post at least once more before I get to Benin, but if I don’t, when I get there, NO NEWS IS GOOD NEWS. PC will email my parents that I’m alive, but I likely won’t be able to purchase a cell phone or use a computer for several days in the craziness of the beginning of our training. If you’re really worried about me, and MUST know if I reach Benin alive, email my mom and she can tell you (email me for her address, I don’t think there’s anyone reading this who I don’t know, but you never know for sure).

As for training, the first week and a half (roughly) is language immersion, and I think we’ll be staying in a dorm-like place. I had a French interview about a week ago, and while my French is pretty rusty (I’m pretty sure I called Daniel my girlfriend instead of my boyfriend), I might have been declared competent enough to skip French training and move on to Fon, the language spoken widely across the south of Benin. After language training, we’ll go to homestays around Porto Novo, and during the day we’ll get training in language and culture, safety and security, as well as practical things like how to fix out bikes and how to use public transportation in Benin. I’ll also get training in teaching EFL (English as a Foreign Language. We don’t say ESL because for almost everyone I’ll be working with, English is a third, fourth or fifth language). At the end of training, we’ll get our post assignments and then I’ll swear in as a volunteer and begin my service!

Thanks everyone for all the support – you’ll hopefully be hearing from me soon!