FIRST WEEK AT POST

I’m finishing up my first week at post (ok, so half-week, I only moved in on the 19th) and so far I love Daagbe! A quick update about my living situation:

My house is in a concession (walled area with multiple houses) with four other families, several of whom either speak some English, and/or are professors at local schools including my own. It’s right next to one of the mosques, so I can hear the call to prayer, which has become comforting rather than annoying (even the 5am one). It’s also across the street from the public primary school for Daagbe – a plus because I can use their latrines to throw away anything I don’t want kids playing with (like used razor blades) and because on school days there are beans and rice mamans who sell food for breakfast and lunch! This is especially awesome because I love beans and they are a great source of protein, but they also take a long time to cook – I don’t have the patience or the gas in my gas burner available to make beans on my own.

As for the house itself, I have two rooms plus a kitchen/bathroom area at the back, which is also enclosed and roofed (but not ceiling-ed: the roof for the kitchen  is just wood beams and corrugated metal sheets, which is not great in terms of trapping heat). There’s only one window, so there isn’t really much air circulation, but the house has two MAJOR selling points in terms of Peace Corps housing:

electricity, and running water, specifically a shower!!! This is a big deal – it’s kind of like I live in the Peace Corps Ritz. Now if I only bought myself an internet key, it’d be just like America! (not).

I inherited all of my furniture, but I need to talk to a carpenter at some point because there are some things I want to replace. I also need to talk to my landlord about the leak in the shower/toilet area, but to be honest it’s the best place there could be a leak – it’s already tiled and there’s a drain in the floor. But other than that, it’s starting to feel like home! Or it will once I stop being lazy and put the rest of my stuff away so I can put away my suitcases.

I haven’t bought an adapter yet for my plugs so I don’t have a ton of time to write updates – more will come later. I’m sure I’ll have lots of interesting stories as I get used to living in this new community, and as school starts! Officially the first day is October 1st, but the first week all I do is show up on time, write my name and when my class meets, and tell kids I’ll be starting class the next week. The idea of teaching is somewhat terrifying, but I’m sure I’ll get through it – stay tuned to hear how I deal with my first full-time job!

 

Palu Sensibilisation

Hi everyone! I’m writing this from another Volunteer’s house. Andrea is a second year English teacher Volunteer based in Atchoukpa, a village between Porto-Novo and my own village. She’s hosting me while Oro is out in Daagbe. I recognize that she didn’t really have a choice in the matter, Peace Corps basically just said “you’re going to have a new Volunteer stay with you these days, have fun” but it’s still really nice of her. It’s also a great chance to see how another Volunteer does things like handle being called “Yovo” or sets up her house. She’s also taught me how to carry water on my head, which thankfully I won’t really have to do since I have plumbing. but it’s still important to know for when the water service gets cut – this way I might not have to pay petits (children) to do it for me.

 

PALU SENSIBILISATION

 

Here in the south of Benin, malaria is a major concern. It kills more children under the age of 5 than all other diseases and accidents combined. And there are a lot of misconceptions about malaria, or lepaludisme (palu, for short). Some of the misconceptions are built into the local language: in Fon and Goun (the language I’m learning that is very similar to Fon and is spoken in the Oueme region and the southern Plateau region), the word for “malaria” literally means “disease from the sun.” This made sense back when people thought you got malaria from being in the sun, but is less helpful now when a Peace Corps Volunteer is ttrying to do a sensibilisation (training) on malaria.

 

While staying with Andrea, another Volunteer, during the time that Oro was out in my village, I went with her to her local maternity clinic to do a palu sensibilisation. One of the women health workers helped us translate to Goun for the 12 or so women that were there. We talked about where malaria comes from, and when the mosquitos that carry malaria come out (hint: at night. If you’re in Africa and you get a mosquito bite during the day you’re fine because it’s a different type of mosquito), and where mosquitos come from. One of the big misconceptions we dealt with today was people, including the pharmacist, believe mosquitos only breed in dirty water, not clean water. But they actually prefer clean water. And if you don’t have running water in your house as most people here don’t, it’s important to cover your water storage.

 

The session was actually a lot of fun – it only lasted about 20 minutes, any longer and they wouldn’t have paid attention. We also did it where the women already were: it didn’t require any extra effort on their part to attend the session. And even if they only picked up one new piece of information, that might be enough to induce a healthy behavior change. It’s small things like this that are going to change the world, and hopefully I’ll get to help!

 

 

Tissue

 

No, this post is not about Kleenex. Tissue is the French word for “fabric,” and here in Benin it means colorful printed wax fabric, typically cotton or cotton blend. When you think of African fabrics, this is it (it’s also on the design of this blog). Tissue outfits are everywhere! Unlike Uganda, where people typically only wore traditional outfits for big ceremonies, Beninese wear tissue quite often. It can be casual or very very formal, depending on the quality and type of fabric and of the type of outfit (and the presence of a hat for men).

 

To get an outfit of tissue, you first need to buy the fabric itself.

You go to the market and find the tissue mamas, pick out something you like, then get ready to “discouter” the price. For most cotton blend tissue, prices here in Porto-Novo range from 1000FCFA to 1500FCFA per meter, but the satiny fabric called “basin” can run up to 4000FCFA a meter. You typically buy in 2,4 or 6 meter pieces. For a long skirt or wrap skirt (called a pange, or “panya”) and shirt, or for a men’s outfit called a boomba, you need 4 meters. For a dress that isn’t down to your lower shins or ankles, you need 3 meters. Once you discouter the price and pay, you have completed step one to having a tissue outfit.

 

Step two is to go to a cotourier or tailleur and decide what type of outfit you want. Some cotouriers or tailleurs will come to your house to measure you and ask what you want. For men, the choices are fairly simple: pants and a shirt, which is loose, and which can come with different sleeve lengths, and might include embroidery. The shirts generally have lots of pockets, of which I’m extremely jealous since wearing skirts a lot of the time means I miss my pockets beaucoup.

 

For women the choices are much more varied. You can get a loose-ish shirt and a wrap skirt, which is called a bomba all together. You can get a modele, which is a long, almost floor-length skirt and more tailored shirt. All coutouriers/tailleurs have pictures and posters with a wide variety of choices of modeles, and you can always ask for something unique or make changes to the pictures. Modele skirts are generally mermaid/fishtail style, the better to show off your butt.

The downside of this is it makes getting on a zemidjan (motorbike taxi) difficult and biking (as I will most days to school) impossible.

The plus side is they are fairly formal (so good for teaching) and students can’t pull your skirt off, as they theoretically could if you were wearing a wrap skirt. Besides modeles and bombas, you can pretty much ask for anything you want, but be prepared to explain it well – pictures help.

 

Once your order your outfit, you will get sized, and over the course of an agreed upon time your outfit will be completed. When you go back there will be a second fitting, to see if any adjustments are needed.

Then, if you wish, you can take your clothes to abrodeur if your cotourier or tailleur doesn’t do embroidery and you want to add some fanciness to your outfit.

 

Sewing will generally cost anywhere from 1500 FCFA to 3000 FCFA depending on if you are a yovo, how fast it has to be done, how complicated it is, and how big it is (i.e. someone who is 6’5” might cost a little more than someone ordering the same thing who is only 5’8”). Embroidery will cost extra and depends on how elaborate it is.

 

I currently own two outfits I’ve ordered (a pantsuit/tunic in an amazing Duke blue and white and navy tissue, with embroidery on the tunic, and a modele in hot pink and navy) as well as a bomba my family had made for me for a birthday present. I will also be going soon to get a dress in my “TEFL tissue” for the swear-in ceremony: all the sectors get different tissue so we’ll be matching our sectors on swear in day. This year Teaching English as a Foreign Language happened to independently choose the same tissue as Rural Community Health, so we’ll look like one giant group – not a bad thing since it really just means our two sectors have the best taste! I’m  planning on getting many other tissue outfits – not only is it fun to find new tissue and try to explain what you want to the cotourier, but students respect yovo teachers more when they wear tissue because it’s always more formal in Benin than any Western clothing. Also apparently the Beninese are known throughout West Africa for having the best taste in tissue clothing, so I have to support a national industry!

 

If anyone reading this blog comes to visit, I’ll make sure to get your measurements beforehand so you, too can have a Beninese outfit!

 

Do’s and Don’ts

(Again from the letter Katie sent)

In case you are able to visit Katie in Benin, here are a few of the things to think about:

Don’t tip people.  And when I negotiate prices, don’t interrupt and say it’s ok, because you’ve converted to American dollars in your head and don’t think it’s worth haggling over $1-2, or because you feel sorry for their poverty and want to help.  I will spend a significant portion of my time explaining that just because I’m white doesn’t mean I have money.

All coffee is instant coffee.  It’s good if you mix it with chocolate mix.  Similarly, all milk is powdered milk.

People dress well here (except when working in the fields, or if truly destitute).  When you come I will get your measurements ahead of time and have outfits made!  The other thing this means is that you can’t bring ratty clothes and say, “it’s just Africa, it’ll get dirty anyway.”  On the other hand, for shoes anything slightly nicer than flip flops is considered nice for footwear for everything except weddings, funerals, etc.  And people care about looks more than smells so even if something smells gross, if it looks clean it’s good.  The frat boys who stayed in Indianapolis during the Final Four would fit right in here!

Don’t go swimming in the ocean near Cotonou or Porto-Novo.  The current is REALLY strong.

Don’t pet monkeys, or cats or dogs unless you know for sure the cat or dog is vaccinated.  But never pet monkeys.

It’s always good to travel with a mosquito net, especially in palu season (malaria).

For women there is an art to peeing while wearing a wrap skirt (called a pagne, pronounced “pon-ya”) and squatting.  When I know what this art is I will tell you but so far it has eluded me.

Culture shock is real.  You will feel it.  You will also then feel slightly guilty for thinking that the African culture is crappy but you will still feel angry or exasperated or disappointed and you will definitely feel confused.

You will also be confused with Beninese French, and will be shocked at how “bad” my accent has become.

People may ask you why you haven’t married me off yet (though they don’t do dowries here so they won’t ask how much).  They also will ask to marry Anne or Amy.  This may be a joke but they just want to see how you will react.

Theft is very very serious here – if a pickpocket is caught in the act the public may hurt him before the police even have a chance to act.

Wipe with your left hand so it is considered “dirty”.  Market vendors may not accept your money if you offer it with your left hand.

Most of the time when people do things that are annoying or frustrating, they are trying to help you and get to know you.  So it’s important to think before reacting to most situations.

 

Getting Around

(This is Sara again)

We received a wonderful letter from Katie yesterday and I thought I would share her explaination of how she gets around during her training.

 

Life here truly is so different that even basic things become difficult to explain.  At the same time I’m adapting so rapidly that some things aren’t odd or different for me anymore.  For instance, I’ll take something very simple:  how I get around when I’m in Porto-Novo.

For class, if I know how to get there and it takes less than 30 minutes, I typically take my bike.  Other than in Pentwater I typically don’t like bike riding in the US and at first I liked it even less here.  First, the roads are terrible – very hard packed red earth, but with ruts and massive holes or puddles.  There are also patches of sand, which besides getting all over my legs can be dangerous and make the bikeswerve.  That’s dangerous because the streets are also very busy – with kids goats, dogs, chickens, pedestrains, many motor bikes and zemidgars (or zemis, motorbike taxis) and cars and trucks.  Then there is also the fact that if I’m biking I have to plan my outfit accordingly (so I can wear something under my skirt and not show too much Yovo (white person) thigh).  This means planning laundry which can take a few days to dry and is also very hard physically to do (the laundry is physically taxing, I mean).  But I like that the bike is free and I can leave whenever I want, and it’s good exercise (which I need with all these heavy starches with oily sauces).

 

I where I’m going is far, or I need to wear a formal outfit and not arrive sweaty and out of breath, or if I don’t know how to get there, I’ll either have my family take me or, more often, take a zem.  To get a zem you go to a busier road and wait for one to come by.  They’re unionized (unlike Uganda) and in bigger cities they wear the same colored shirt with numbers on the back (in Porto-Novo it’s a blue shirt with white numbers – the numbers are the ID numbers of the driver).  You call one by opening and closing your hand, or hissing.  Then you explain where you are going and make sure they know where it is.  Then, negotiations begin.  He will name a price that is too high – maybe only 100-200 CFA too high, maybe, because you’re white and look gullible, 1000 CFA too high.  You name what the price should be – you should already have this information from a Beninese friend.  You try to get him to agree to your price.  If he doesn’t, you tell him to leave and try to find another zem.  Once you agree on a price, you make sure he has change if you don’t.  This doesn’t mean he’ll reneg on price – that’s a major breach of ettiquite.  But if you only have a 2000 f note (or, God help you, a 5000 or – gulp – 10,000 note, which is what the banks give) he may not have enough, in which case you’re kind of out of luck.  But if the stars align, you put your moto helmet on and get on – from the right side so you don’t accudentally get burned on the exhause pipe on the left.  When you’re on, don’t touch the driver more than absolutely necessary – hold on to the moto but never the driver.  Then, you reach your destination and pay him and voila!

And now you see why its hard for me to explain enything when even simple things take this long to explain :)!

He Who Should Not Be Named

(This is Sara writing for Katie)

We spoke to Katie and she is being sworn in as a Peace Corps Volunteer today.  She is very excited but the Peace Corps has decided to delay her start at Daagbe because “Oro” is coming to the village.

We were aware that about a third of the country is Muslim, a third is Christian and a third practices Voodoo, although all of the religions adopt some of the Voodoo traditions.  Oro is a very powerful spirit any you are not supposed to speak his name, kind of like Voldemort in Harry Potter.  What I have found out is that each night of the festival Oro people, who are said to be Voodoo spirits, walk through the town and are characterized by the whooping sound created from their Oro stick.  The stick is a long piece of wood with something tied to the end which creates the sound when they whip it around.  There are also lots of chants.

Anyone who does not “know” Oro or who has not been initiated into Oro (all women and small boys) may not be seen outside, especially after dark.  Every window of a house has to be completely covered and no one is allowed to even look out.  No lights can be on in a house either.  If someone is seen, either by peeking out or someone looking in,  it is throretically punishable by death.  Oro usually comes in August but is aparently late this year because of Ramadan.  In the end he is supposed to chase away evil spirits.

We’re obviously glad that the Peace Corps is delaying Katie’s start.

On another note Katie said that if you send a package to her (padded envelope is best) you should write “Dieu Vous Regarde” (God is watching you) on the front.  Aparently the postal workers are less likely to open a package if they think they could be punished.  Also, if you send any food please put it inside plastic bags – less likely to be nibbled on by mice.  When she gets to Daagbe she will give us an address where she can receive letters.  Any packages must still go to Cotonou.

 

“Typical” Day in Daagbe

“Typical” Day in Daagbe

 

While we have a fairly set schedule during training, there is really no such thing as a typical day in Benin. To illustrate this, here are the events of one of my days during my two week visit to my post in August. The day began normally, with a bucket shower and breakfast of bread and instant coffee (to which I’m quickly becoming addicted).

Business school and its Starbucks didn’t get me addicted but Nescafe in Africa will…). I think I spent that morning helping shuck dried corn, which made me feel right at home. We then pounded the corn to make corn meal, which would later be turned into pâte.

Later that day, after lunch of fish and rice followed by a nap, I went with my family to “saluer” people. This means to greet people, which is extremely important here. It’s even important to call people just to saluer them. So on this particular day I went with a couple members of the family to go greet various acquaintances. We went to several peoples’ homes to say basically “hello, how are you doing, and your husband/wife, and your kids ,and your house, and your cousin, and your work?” I met an old lady who spoke no French (which is fairly common – you only learn French if you go to school), and she liked me so much for smiling at her and trying (and failing) to greet her in a local language that she gave me some of the Nigerian candy she sells.

Then we went to saluer the family of the chef d’arrondissment (C.A.), who is basically like the mayor of the village. There were several woman there and we stayed about half an hour, chatting. Or rather, I sat and watched them chat since they were speaking a mix of Goun and Nagot. While we were there, the C.A. came home to take a shower, and invited my family and me to get drinks with him, which we had to say yes to. After he had showered, we got in his car and drove to his office to pick up something he left there, and then on to a buvette in another village because apparently the one in Daagbe was out of drinks.

At his office there was a minor crisis going on.  I’m extremely sketchy on the details of what was actually going on, but apparently there was a girl from Nigeria who’s father lives in Daagbe, and she ran away from him at age 13 and got married, but now she no longer wants to be married… I think. They weren’t really good at explaining what was actually going on. Anyway, her father and brothers came and about 15 other men, including the directeur of my college. There were many tense discussions, and we ended up waiting about two hours.

Somehow the situation was resolved though I have no idea what was actually decided. I hope the girl was ok.

Once the hubbub died down and we chased the turkeys out of the office’s yard, we got back in the C.A.’s car and drove to a buvette in Tchaada, a village just to the north, situated on the main (paved) road. There, the C.A. and the two women from my family had beers while I had a drink similar to Fresca. The C.A. spoke English “small small” with me. “Small small” is what people here use to mean “a little,” as in “I speak English small small.” I think it comes from Nigeria, but I definitely want to bring it back to the US. I think the C.A. will be a good resource for me, especially for any secondary projects I want to do. After our drinks were finished and paid for (by the CA since whoever invites people out always pays), we drove home, stopping the car in the night market, rolling down the window, and ordering bread for the next morning. The whole thing from leaving to saluer to getting home took about 6 hours.

And thus passed a “typical” day. What started as a short trip to say hello to people and let me see a little more of the village turned into a 6 hour long odyssey, but a very pleasant one. As long as you’re ready for the fact that your plans will inevitably change and that things will also take much longer than planned, you can enjoy the adventures along the way.

In terms of other updates, we’re finishing up training. This week is more Model School, where we teach summer school English classes all morning then talk about it and lesson plan in the afternoon. Next week is the remaining administrative issues, then swear in on Friday the 14th. Then I leave for my post on Saturday the 15th! I have no idea how often I’ll have internet access once I get there, so for a while at least there might not be many updates. But since I do have electricity, as long as my computer isn’t in the shop (to fix the letter e), I’ll be able to type updates then upload them all at once.

Hope all is going well back in the States!