Best Responses on Student Homework or Tests

Despite my best efforts, my students’ grip on the English language is light at best. Usually this is a source of frustration, but it can sometimes result in hilarity.
• In a mad lib: “I hope you are (beautiful) and are (coming) often.”
• I smelle healthy.
• I dreading this book.
• She bed a student.
• Question: what do you do on weekends? Answer: I chop my money.
• (from a friend’s class) Question: What do we never do? Answer: We never eat kaka (poo).
• Question: where is Madame Katherine from? Answer: Nigeria.
• Teaching always vs. never: “Good students never listen to their teacher.”
• The following are kind of my own fault for using my boyfriend’s name in a test. In a fill-in the blank, with a word/phrase bank, the correct sentence is “I am fine, Daniel. How are you?” Instead, I got:
o I enjoyed Daniel.
o I enjoyed myself. Daniel eat.
o I was in Daniel. I enjoyed.
o Yes! I was in. I had a good time.
• Sometimes I try to amuse myself by coming up with example sentences that keep me from hating my job. For example:
o While teaching possessive case (‘s), we had “I am the father of Luke. => I am Luke’s father.”
o While teaching comparatives of superiority: “Duke is better than Carolina”
o Changing simple present tense to present continuous: “Joey walks it out. => Joey is walking it out”
• While teaching can/can’t, I thought I mis-taught it. With a Venn Diagram of “things men/boys can do” and “things women/girls can do” a student kept insisting that “be a teacher” go in the boys only section. The following conversation ensued between myself and the student.
o Me: Sylvain, am I your teacher?
o Him: yes.
o Me: Am I a man?
o Him: No.
o Me: Am I a woman?
o Him: yes.
o Me: can a woman be a teacher?
o Him: No.
o Me (repeat everything in French, thinking he doesn’t understand the English. Instead, we have the same conversation again.)

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The Beautiful Game Comes to Daagbe

If you ask a typical American what they think of when they think of Africa, after war, death, starvation, poverty, and the Lion King, they may mention soccer. For once, American stereotypes are correct: most of this continent is obsessed with “the Beautiful Game.”

The Beninese national team is known as the “squirrels.” No, I’m not joking – that’s their actual name/mascot. I’ve been told that it is because squirrels are quick and crafty. Since I’ve only seen one squirrel since coming here, I can only assume that’s true (or that they aren’t quick and crafty but are delicious). The Squirrels don’t tend to do very well. Much like the country they represent, they often get overshadowed by their bigger, more well-known and well-financed neighbors, such as Nigeria and Côte d’Ivoire. But now they are my team so I’ll be cheering for the Squirrels.

Closer to home, I recently went to a soccer match between my school, Daagbe, and another, called Atchoukpa. Atchoukpa is basically a suburb of Porto-Novo, and has the second cycle (senior high school) and more than twice the number of students as Daagbe. It also happens to be where a Volunteer friend of mine teaches. When Atchoukapa came to play Daagbe, she came along to watch with me. She hopped off the mini-bus with the Atchoukpa team.

We headed to the field where they had set up chairs under the hot sun for us. Pre-match festivities included smaller students playing drums, and the surveillant (Vice Principal in charge of discipline and all non-academic things) talking some friendly trash to my friend from Atchoukpa. After a while, the teams came out to great applause, had a team huddle/prayer, and the match got underway.

Atchoukpa was clearly the better team, scoring a few minutes into the match. Their goalie was incredible. Now, I don’t want to make excuses for my team, but Atchoukpa is a huge school, and had older students, and all their players had shoes. Daagbe had heart and not much of anything else – we were the Hickory to Atchoukpa’s South Bend Central (if you know me I’ve probably made you watch Hoosiers, and if not, stop reading this immediately and go watch it). One of our players had no shoes, but did have holey socks. Another had flip-flops on under his socks for want of other shoes. And like Gene Hackman’s character, our coach had fire in his belly, rarely sitting down, urging his team on.

It seemed like the entire school had gathered to watch, as well as half the village. There were small children everywhere. There were ladies selling snacks off trays on their heads. There were the male teachers and villagers exchanging opinions about the level of play, the refereeing, and the conditions on the field. They gathered for friendly banter, comparing the match to others they had seen in the past. I felt like I was back in a high school gym in Indiana, or any sports bar in the Raleigh-Durham area during a Duke game. Local sports have a way of knitting communities together whether you’re in the Midwest or West Africa.

At halftime, the Volunteer from Atchoukpa and I went back to the canteen (the covered area that serves as cafeteria) and had our nails done. As a side note, getting my nails painted is one of my favorite past times partly because it means my feet get sort of almost clean. While we were pampered – only 100cfa for a pedicure, or about 20 cents – we gossiped with some girls who came to hang out during half time. Like high school football games in the States, most of the boys came to watch the game, and most of the girls came to be with the boys.

Looking fashionable after our pedicures, we returned to the field where the second half was already underway. We attempted to learn the score, but the small boy we asked replied “ten.” Misunderstanding both our question and basic math, he had attempted to count the number of players on the field.

Towards the end of the second half, with the score 1-0 to Atchoukpa, Daagbe was awarded a penalty. An unbiased neighbor later claimed the penalty was given under dubious circumstances. This reporter will never pretend to be unbiased when it comes to sports, however, so I say of course the penalty was warranted. (Unless ESPN comes calling to offer me a job, in which case I can totally be unbiased!) Regardless of its fairness, as Daagbe’s penalty came up, I saw over half the players collapse and begin to pray. I saw boys and girls holding hands, normally a big no-no. The world held its collective breath as the Daagbe player stepped toward the ball, pulled back and let ‘er fly.

Daagbe scored. Pandemonium ensued. At first I thought someone got shot, people started screaming so much. The entire crowd rushed the field in an explosion of happiness. I can’t imagine more excitement – it was as if Oprah told everyone in my village they were all getting cars.

Eventually, everyone calmed down and the rest of the game continued scoreless, leaving a final score of 1-1. A peaceful ending for the other Volunteer and myself. I used to be of the same opinion as most American sports fans – that any sport where a tie is a common final score is lame. But in a place where sports become intimately tied to the deepest emotions and identities, including nationality and tribe or ethnicity, I appreciate the possibility that there may not be winners and losers at the end of the game.

Should Daagbe play at home again, I hope to be there. Besides winning me respect among my students, being a part of such an event made me feel closer to my school and my village. From now on my sports allegiances will include not only Indiana-based teams, the Cubs and Duke, but also the Daagbe Doves.

I now root for the Doves and the Squirrels. More than anything, that tells me how strange but wonderful my life has become here.

Beninese French

Fluent French-speakers beware! The French in Benin is full of strange phrases borrowed from local languages, and can trip up even native Parisians. Beninese French is its own language.

The most important difference is in greetings. In France “bonsoir” (good evening) is typically reserved for after the sun goes down. In Benin, “soir” starts at roughly 11am. In fact, many villagers who don’t know French beyond greetings may know “bonsoir” but not “bonjour.” This comes from local language, which almost all have different greetings based on the time of day or position of the sun. This also explains why Beninese English speakers typically say “good morning/afternoon” rather than “hello” or “hi.”

Then there are the other greetings in Benin which are not recognizable by native Frenchmen:
– “Tu as bien reveille?” (Did you wake up well?): This is the proper greeting for someone in the morning. It literally means did you wake up well/are you properly awake, but it also has the implied meaning of “how’s your health?”
– “Bon travaille” (good work): this phrase exists in Parisian French but is close in meaning to how Americans would use “good work” or “good job.” In Benin it is the proper greeting to use for someone who is in the middle of working.
– “Tu es en train?” (Are you in the middle of doing something?): Like “bon travaille,” it is a greeting to someone who is in the middle of doing some sort of work.
– “Bon assize” (good sitting): this phrase can be used as a greeting to someone who is sitting down. It can also be used at any point in a conversation with someone who is sitting, particularly if you are the host. It’s a way to let the other person know you are still thinking about them.
– “Bon fête” (good partying/party): This is the proper greeting to anyone on the day of a celebration/holiday, or anyone who is in the act of celebrating something.

Beyond greetings, there are other words that may trip up fluent French speakers. One unusual verb in Benin is “bouffer.” It means something along the lines of “to steal.” In Benin, however, stealing is a serious charge. If you yell in a crowded place that someone has stolen something from you, bystanders may beat or stone the thief. To bouff is a gentler meaning of steal. You can say that you don’t have a refrigerator because it “bouffs” too much electricity. Or, except in grave cases of corruption, an employee dipping his hand in the till is “bouff-ing.” If you bouff, it is something mischievous, something that can generally be overlooked because you’ve pulled one over the system.

Another aspect of Beninese dialect and conversation that takes getting used to is the penchant for stating the obvious. John Madden would fit in perfectly here. The sports announcer, famous for saying things that are glaringly obvious, would appreciate a culture where I get told constantly that “your skin is white!” or “your feet are dirty.” A culture where an elementary school gym teacher’s advice to a girl climbing the rope is “don’t fall.” In fairness to the teacher, “don’t fall” is really the most important thing to do while climbing a rope.

Perhaps one of the best examples of confusion resulting from differences in Beninese French and Parisian French comes from a friend during his first few days with his host family. He wanted to emphasize that it was important to get to know each other so that everyone could feel comfortable around each other, and at ease. He constantly repeated the phrase “se mettre à l’aise,” to put yourself at ease. It turns out that in Benin, “se mettre à l’aise” is a euphemism for “to poop.” Upon learning this, he suddenly understood why his host family kept repeatedly pointing to the toilet that first weekend.

We tend to think of Parisians as the masters of romance, but Beninese French and local language can also sometimes be surprisingly poetic. In a country I often feel is devoid of romance, the Fon/Goun phrase meaning “I love you” is touching. “Un nyi wa nu” means I accept your smell. On the face of it, this is disgusting. But it really means that “I accept you and love you, even the bad parts like your stink.” Turns out the Beninese may have something to teach the French about love.

Integrated But Incommunicado

As their service continues, many PCVs find it hard to keep writing blogs or letters about their experiences. It’s the same reason that a college freshman’s call home the week after orientation is full of information about his or her life, but when they are asked the question “how’s college?” by relatives and their parents’ friends at Christmas break, they have nothing to say – the things that were exciting and new and noteworthy have become mundane. Also, like college freshman, there are things we sometimes don’t want to share, such as the number of different buvettes (bars) we’ve been to, or exactly how many times we had diarrhea last week (Mom, I swear I’m fine. You aren’t a bad mother for letting me join the Peace Corps).

My life may be interesting to those who are reading this from a smartphone while sitting in Starbucks and eating cheese and pizza and ice cream and hamburgers and Chinese food and drinking real coffee and non-light beer and amoeba-free, unboiled water with ice (note to self: don’t write while hungry). But to me, my life is, well, fairly normal. I lesson plan, I go to school, I go to meetings, I worry I’m not doing enough for my secondary projects, I sleep and read a lot, I find food to eat or to cook myself, I talk to neighbors and greet friends. I sometimes meet up with other Volunteers and cook or go to buvettes. My life here in a nutshell.

During training, I could give soliloquies about riding a zem, or how to find a bread lady, or the market or the 101 ways you can use a pagne (wrap skirt). But now, none of those things are all that interesting to me, it’s just a part of life, so it’s hard to imagine that it might be interesting to anyone else.

On one hand, this is great – I’m becoming that highest of Peace Corps ideals: “Bien Integrée.” On the other, my family and friends and whoever else may have stumbled onto this blog will likely be disappointed with the lack of communication from my end. But despite the ordinariness that is creeping into my daily life, I will try to make the effort to continue writing about my life here. This is for you, dear reader. Well, for you and for the hope that someday a future employer will read this and be impressed with me and will hire me to do a real job that doesn’t involve quite so many lizards in my house. (Wait… is it too late to take out the part about me going to buvettes? It is? Dang it…)