Letter from Katie

[We just received a long letter from Katie that was written at the end of September when she had just gotten to her post in Daagbe.  Once she writes a letter she puts a U.S. stamp on it and takes it to the Peace Corps office.  Whenever anyone is going back to the states they take the letters and mail them from wherever they are.]

Hello from Daagbe!  I moved in a few days ago and all is well – no desire to quite Peace Corps so that’s a good sign.  I’m writing to you from my front porch.

Currently I can see:  the roof of the primary school, the tops of the mango trees at the school, a man carrying a wooden post (more of a giant branch/small log) that he will use in the construction they’re doing at the other end of my concession, 2 parked motos, assorted wires, satellite dishes and pipes, 3 lizards, 1 chicken, 4 children staring at me, seedling trees someone left on my front porch, and lots of sunshine.

Currently I can hear:  lots of chickens at the place down the street that apparently sells eggs, hammering, contemporary Christian music blasting from a radio the construction guys have, someone whistling, occasional motos going past on the road, men talking in front of the mosque next to my house, someone blasting traditional music from their cell phone, and a baby crying.

Currently I can smell:  my own sweat (eww…), charcoal fire, the fish sauce a neighbor is making on the fire, dust, exhaust from a guy who just drove his moto into the concession, soap (from my newly-laundered clothes).

Things are good with the house.  I’ve realized I need a bunch of things but thankfully tomorrow is marche day in Ketoukpe, the neighboring village, and Sunday I’m going back to Porto Novo to get things that are cheaper there, including lots of lentils and a decent hammer.  My biggest complaints so far are that without the bean mamans who sell school lunch I’m having trouble locating enough protein without eating the smoked fish I hate.  Also, I don’t have a tool to fix things or hang things up.

Most things I need I can find at the marche:  big basins for doing dishes; even bigger basins for doing laundry; various pots, mugs, bowls and cups.  Now the problem is finding out prices for everything since in the marche most things don’t have a fixed price.

Enter the art of “discoutez”-ing.  For each and every purchase you have to be ready to bargain for it – hard (apparently vendors in the North are much more forgiving but I’ll let you know when I visit there).  Discouter-ing is much easier if you have an idea of what the price actually is.  You can find this out a couple of ways.  One is to ask a trusted Beninese friend – and unless you’re bargaining with a carpenter (who are notoriously difficult to bargain with), ask a woman.  Men typically don’t go to the marche.  Another way to find the right price is to have the maman give you an offer, then counter-offer significantly less and guage her reaction.  You can also try shopping prices with other mamans selling the same thing.  I haven’t tried this yet but apparently “I’m seeing how much money I need to bring tomorrow/next marche day is an acceptable excuse for shopping prices without buying anything.  The best thing is to establish a rapport with specific mamans for things you buy often and find a price you’re comfortable paying.  With this you do run the risk of being slightly overcharged every time, but friendly mamans can be helpful for other things too.

In general marches are exciting but overwhelming even for experienced PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers).  There is so much going on and everyone wants your attention (except pickpockets).  Marches are also a great place to practice local language.  As an added bonus people tend to give you better prices when you discouter in local language.

Marches work on a rotating system that has in some places been in place for over a century.  Because many vendors travel to get their products and because one area may not have enough business every day to justify the vendors time, a given marche will be held every 3, 4, 5, or 6 days or sometimes weekly.  The same vendors will go to marche day in another town on the other days.  Ketoukpe has marche every 5 days, but because of the way they count this means if it’s on Sunday the next marche day is Thursday.  Avrankou, the largest town between here and Porto-Novo, also has a large marche which happens on days Ketoukpe doesn’t have marche.  Say Ketoukpe is Sunday.  Then Tuesday is Avrankou, Thrusday is Ketoukpe again and Saturday is Avrankou.  It works out well so if you really need a marche there is one somewhat nearby every other day.

Discouter-ing down to “correct” prices may seem odd when you think about in a context of U.S. dollars – typically we’re talking about arguing over less than a dollar.  But it actually gets to the heart of what Peace Corps development model is all about.  We’re not here to give out money – that just creates a cycle of dependency on foreign aid and reinforces the belief among Africans that they aren’t capable of solving their own problems.  By getting correct prices from zems and in marches, PCVs are helping reinforce the idea that yovos (white people) are not all rich and are not here to give money or other things away.  It also helps reinforce the idea that we PCVs are living IN our communities, unlike the USAID and Embassy workers who all live in gated communities in Cotonou.


The Beninese Education System

The Beninese education system is based closely on the French system, with heavy national control rather than local or state-wide control as is true in the US. Primary school is from the equivalent of kindergarten or 1st grade to 5th grade, and is free for students (though students have to pay for notebooks and uniforms). Secondary school consists of two cycles, “Premiere cycle” and “seconde cycle,” roughly equivalent to junior high and senior high. Premiere cycle, the only cycle taught at my school, is 6th through 9th grades, or sixieme to troisieme. At the end of troisieme, students take a national exam called the BEPC. Last year about 30% of students nationally passed the exam. If a student passes, he or she can continue on to second cycle, or the equivalent of 10th-12th grades. Students choose a track – they can focus on math/science, on languages, or economics. At the end of 12th grade, they take another national exam, the Baccalaureat, or Bac.

Passing this is like getting your high school diploma. Last year about 38% nationally passed the Bac. For both the Bac and BEPC, students can re-take the exam the next year if they did not pass.

In my CEG, or College d’Enseignment General, we have only premiere cycle – for a school to have second cycle requires many qualified teachers, as well as laboratory space and enough students who have passed the BEPC to make it worth teaching. I don’t actually know how many students are at my school because they haven’t all matriculated yet (yes, school started a few weeks ago. Yes, I know this makes no sense. Welcome to my life). This year the school stated that new students (sixth grade) must pay their entire contribution, or tuition, before starting, and that returning students must pay at least half.

This is a change from years past when returning students could pay later in the year, when families have more money. What this means for me is that each time I teach, there are a few more students who hadn’t paid before – a problem for their learning and for my sanity since we’re three weeks in and I don’t have a class list.

Students have many classes: English, French, History-Geography, Physics/Chemistry, Biology/Earth Science, math, computers (I have yet to see the computers uncovered though, and apparently the teacher for this subject still hasn’t shown up, so it’s unclear what they would actually learn here). Most classes meet two times a week, for two hours each. Students in 8th and 9th grades choose a math/science track or a languages track. For the math/science, they continue with the same classes, but take more math each week and their math and science classes count for more when calculating grades. For languages, students begin German in addition to English, though at some schools it’s Spanish instead.

As for grades, it’s all about the moyenne, or average. Everything, and I mean everything, is graded out of 20. There are 3-4 quizzes per term, and one devoir, or exam. Students get an average for the quizzes, which is averaged with the devoir (weighted twice as much as the quiz average), to get the grade for the term for that class (i.e.for English). This is averaged with their grades from other subjects to give an overall term averge. At the end of the year, you average the term averages, and combine that with a behavior “grade” based on the number of times a student was punished by the administration, and that is the student’s average for the year, which determines if he or she can go on to the next grade. Confused? We’re just getting started!

In 8th and 9th grades, the class averages are weighted based on how important the class is to the track the student is taking – for example, math counts for more if you are in the math/science track.

All of this is to say that the grading system here is different, and very confusing to someone coming from the American education system.

The Uses and Habits of Petites

Every village in Benin is full of a curious species: the petit.

Petites are, as you might have guessed from the name, small children, typically 3-10 years old. Much like the street urchin Gavroche from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, the Beninese Petit is an unusual creature with specific habits. I have tried to make a study of the petites, their habits, and of their uses to Volunteers.

Appearance: Petites are, as the name suggests, small. They are almost always barefoot. Clothing can range from nothing, to underwear only, to a shirt only, to a full outfit. Anytime clothing is worn, however, it is dirty, particularly on the rear end where the petit will often sit in the dirt (or in the case of the petites-in-training, or 18-month-olds to 3 year olds, from not being potty trained and not wearing a diaper). Girls typically have pierced ears, though they may not wear earrings. Boys and most girls have short hair, almost shaved.

This facilitates grooming done by the petites’ caretaker such as a mother, maternal aunt, or grandmother. The petites who live in and around my concession (walled area with six homes including mine) are also typically covered in sand due to the sand pile outside the concession, which makes an excellent play area.

Habits: The petit is always looking for something new and exciting to do. Whether it’s putting sand through the screen door of that weird Yovo lady who lives nearby, or killing a grasshopper and seeing if that weird Yovo lady thinks it’s gross, the petit is always in motion.

This constant search for amusement is partially a result of a lack of toys, and results in a creativity of play. Petites can make a pinwheel from a leaf, a stick, and a pin or tiny sharp stick. They can make a game from an abandoned tire and a stick. Or they can make a soccer ball from an orange that has had the juice sucked from it.

The petit is a little imp, constantly causing trouble. But the petit is also sweet and adorable, grabbing your hand and smiling so wonderfully that you forget he locked your door on the outside when you were in your house only the day before. The petit may be solitary, but will more often travel in packs, with sibilngs or other petites of the same age. As the petite is a social creature, this allows him or her to show off while performing deeds of strength or daring, such as jumping from one rock to another. It also increases the chance that if a parent or caretaker calls petites to come into the house or to perform some chore or task, that one particular petit can escape, even if his companions get hauled in to do chores or wash up.

Uses: During our training, a Peace Corps Volunteer Trainer explained to the trainees that since we don’t have iPhones, we can’t say “there’s an app for that.” What we can say, however, is “there’s a petit for that.” This was his way of showing that petites have an infinite variety of uses for the Peace Corps Volunteer in Benin.

Petites are often used to fetch things, or even to buy things. This is particularly true for parents/caretakers who work, and may send a petit to buy phone credit or rice while the parent is minding the “store.” This is also true of Volunteers who are new to town and may not know who’s door to knock on to buy eggs – such information is generally known in the community so people assume anyone living in the community already knows it. Using petites to fetch things also extends to schools, even when the students are no longer petites. It is considered beneath a teacher’s dignity to go to the canteen him or herself to buy food for lunch, so teachers call a student to buy things for them and bring them to the teacher.

Petites can also be used to perform tasks that are less than palatable for the Volunteer: locating the dead mouse smell in your house, for example, or helping catch the lizard in your bedroom. Petites, particularly girls, can also be hired to fetch water, as they are capable of carrying large basins of water on their heads. For many Volunteers, petites are also the favored way to wash clothing, as doing laundry takes so much time and most Yovos have trouble getting clothes actually clean.

Any task the Volunteer thinks up can typically be done by a petit. But there are a few caveats. If petites are very young, or if they do not pay attention in school, they may not speak French. Even if you speak some local language, they may not speak the same one (thus why I have trouble telling the petites in my concession to stop putting sand through the screen door: they speak only Yoruba, so saying “Ay-oh,” or “no” in Goun, just sounded like a game to them). Addtionally, if you have a petit come into your house for some task, they may steal things. This could be because they want to steal, but could also be a misunderstanding: the petit generally owns no property of his or her own, so the concept of personal rather than shared property is unusual for them.

Despite these difficulties, the petite has almost limitless use for a Volunteer, if the Volunteer can accurately explain what it is he or she wants. The unending supply of petites means this is not a scarce resource, but it is one that is unique to Africa, so when I return home I will have to learn to do my own laundry again.