Sorry no photos

Actually I did once have to yell at Nigerians for taking my picture (they saw a group of us during training eating lunch and they all took out their fancy smartphones to take pictures of the yovos eating lunch in Africa) but this is an apology to you, my dear readers.

I’ve been trying to upload photos, any photos, but so far my internet has been too slow. I’ll have to try again when I get back to the land of fast internet (Cotonou on good days).


Teaching Without Books

Ask any teacher – lesson planning can be hard. And it’s also crucial. On days when I have only a vague idea for a lesson, my students pounce like a pride of lions to a wounded wildebeest and become uncontrollable teenagers rather than interested students. But planning for lessons where your students don’t have books is a special challenge, one that I must deal with every day.

There is a national curriculum/textbook, called the “document d’accompagnement” or “accompanying document.” It is possible for students to purchase or photocopy the document, which is 60-100 pages long depending on the grade level. It’s arranged thematically. For example, in 5eme, or second year, the first unit is “holidays” (as in the British word for “vacation”) which includes music and games and sports, as well as grammatical structures such as “for” and “ago,” and comparatives of superiority and inferiority (bigger, less big than, etc.).

As curriculums go, it’s not terrible. And as any teacher on any continent could tell you, while I might want to teach things outside the curriculum, I mostly have to stick to what we’ve got. Otherwise my students will be confused in ensuing years of schooling/national testing.

The problem is many kids can’t afford to photocopy the entire document, and may not bring it with them even if they have it because they may not have a bag. So how do you plan a lesson when your kids probably don’t have the book?

First, the rigid French system of education helps here. All students have two copy books for each class, a “class notebook” and an “exercise notebook.” The first is kept well-organized (or as well organized as middle schoolers get) and is treated like a textbook – students write down texts, dialogues, grammar points. It’s used like a textbook at home, to go over lessons. The second exercise book is used more for scratch paper.

As a Beninese teacher, you have to be very careful about what you write down on the board, because whatever you write will be copied by our students in their class notebook. Board organization is not just a sign that you planned your lesson, but is crucial for your students to follow. Much of your class time will be taken for students to carefully copy what you wrote on the board – which is annoying, but means that you can make sure your students have texts to read and study at home, and allows you to adapt or totally change texts from the actual book.

Visual aids are even more important in a classroom without books. Particularly when teaching vocabulary, pictures or gestures are key to teaching without resorting to French, which the students may not understand well anyway. Luckily, I’m not terrible at drawing, and I also inherited a set of visual aids from the previous Volunteer in my village, but this can be a constant struggle for Volunteers who lack any sort of artistic talent. The other trick to using visual aids is that students will want to copy them down and will take forever to draw them, so you must either make them very easy to copy, or find a way for students to copy the vocab with the meaning without drawing it themselves.

Then there are the workarounds – ways to give your students the book without giving them the book. Sometimes for long texts that you don’t need them to copy, you can make photocopies of the text for each group or pair of students. Or you can ask that students bring their books and hope you get enough copies to have one per group. My school has a library with copies of the documents, so I can have them photocopy one section of book at a time. There are also Volunteers who have made their own documents, with just the texts and pictures of vocabulary, which are less than ten pages long, which is easier for students to photocopy.

After a while, it becomes second nature to teach without assuming your students have books. I recently had a conversation with an outgoing second-year PCV and an incoming first-year. The newbie was telling us how many schools in the US now have textbooks on iPad and lend their students iPads for the year. First of all, I am going to be poorly adjusted when I get back because I still think iPads are a fad (apparently they aren’t? who knew?). The outgoing second-year said she still couldn’t believe schools in the US had enough money to have textbooks at all, because she couldn’t imagine teaching with poorly photocopied documents, let alone technological wizardry.

I have to agree with the second year Volunteer. If I ever teach in the US, I’m sure I will be happy to teach with books, but I’m also sure it will be strange for me to do so.

Besides, if I teach in the US, when my students complain about having to read books at home, I can sound like an old person. “Back in my day in Benin, students didn’t even have books! The board was our book and they were happy to read what they copied by candlelight at home! You young people and your instagram and fancy phones with colors and cameras. Don’t know how good you have it.”

Permission Forms

One thing PCVs love doing is camps. There are boys camps, girls’ camps, environment camps, art camps. There are two major camps in the south – Camp GLOW and Camp BRO, Girls Leading Our World and Boys Respecting Others. I sent three girls to Camp GLOW and I went with four boys to Camp BRO.

For legal reasons, Peace Corps has to get parental consent forms, just like in the States. Here, though, that can get tricky. The form that Peace Corps Washington wants us to send includes a paragraph that says Peace Corps is not liable in case of the death of their child – a normal enough phrase for liability forms in the US. But we chose to take that phrase out of the letter, because in the past it freaked out (often illiterate) parents to the point they refused to sign. It was a problem not only because most parents aren’t used to signing parental consent forms, and because mentioning the death of someone is very bad luck, in the way it is considered bad luck to talk about a woman being pregnant even if she is clearly about to pop.

I decided to go to the houses of my students to get the consent forms, rather than giving the sheets to the kids to take home. The general pattern of my visits was as follows.

The student comes to my house or meets me after class. We walk together to their home, which in some cases was very close to mine, and in one case was 6 k away.

We go into the house. Family offers me water. Though it is well water and full of bad things, I have an attack of “I’m a PCV, I can survive anything!” and drink some anyway to be polite. Family offers me something to eat. I usually accept.

I sit for a while, while the family attempts to locate a male member of the family (father, grandfather, or uncle). I try to make small talk, but because all the parents but one were non-French speakers, I am limited by my local language to “how are you? and your family? I am a teacher. [your kid] speaks english well,” although I suppose I could have branched out into “I want to buy those tomatoes. No, that is too much!”

When a male relative is found, I explain to the child what the letter says – what the camp is, why their student has been chosen, when it is, and why I need their signature. The child translates for me. eventually comprehension dawns, and the parent smiles and nods, and says “yes.” Then they sign the form.

For one amazing grandmother (actually my homologue’s mother, I took his younger brother to boys’ camp), it was clearly the first time she had been asked to sign or write anything. She had an incredible look of concentration while she signed something approximating a signature. When she was done she looked up at me, as if to see if she had done it right. While I didn’t have the words to express how happy I was at that moment, I did have one phrase of local language that worked: “It’s good!” She looked pleased and proud, mirroring my feelings.

With one family, they offered me sodabi. Sodabi is the local palm liquor. When consuming sodabi it is important to know and trust the source, because there are many people who sell “fake” sodabi, to which they often add formaldehyde to give it that “real sodabi taste.” That afternoon, I sat with all of my student’s male relatives, one of whom thankfully had some rudimentary French, and sipped sodabi and orange soda, while the female relatives and what seemed like half the children of Benin peeked in the door at us. It was a moment of community, one that I find difficult to put into words.

That visit particularly, but all of my visits to students’ homes to get parental permission signatures, helped me better understand my students, and my community. They helped me better understand the rhythms of life here. And they helped me make new friends, even if we don’t speak the same languages.

Teaching at Yeten

During the vacation, I’ve been teaching a couple days a week at the Center Yeten, which is an orphanage/place for kids in “difficult situations,” in the next village over. Sometimes it’s one grade, sometimes it’s three grades at once.

In the morning, I finish making my lesson plans for all three grades. Then I bike to the center, which is difficult because I am not great at biking and there is the world’s biggest hill halfway through my ride. Actually, it’s not so much a hill as “the Plateau,” as in what my region is called.

Yeten is an amazing place. Originally funded by a French NGO, it is now about 90% self-sufficient. They make their money from agriculture, mostly from selling chickens, turkeys, rabbits and pigs. The kids take part in the farming on a rotating chore basis, so that they will have some training when they leave the center. They have also created a genuinely safe, loving environment for the kids, somewhat unusual for Benin. Most of the kids go to the local school, but those who aren’t literate or who missed schooling take classes at the center. That’s how I originally got started at the center, because another PCV taught numeracy a few days a week and he encouraged me to check it out.

Once I arrive at the center, I go to one of the classrooms and find out who I’ll be teaching that day. I’ve mostly been doing review exercises with them. Often teachers don’t finish the curriculum during the school year, and the next teacher starts the next grade’s curriculum as if they had learned anything in the previous year. So starting from second year, students are already behind and often have huge gaps in their knowledge, which makes learning in upper levels even more difficult, resulting in students giving up. So while the exercises aren’t typically exciting for me to teach, they’re necessary.

Boring exercises or not, I love teaching at Yeten. even when it’s three grades together, it’s a small group, which means I can have a lot of one on one time to solve issues with kids, which they rarely get in school. And they’re well behaved, which makes teaching delightful instead of a headache-inducing chore.

I won’t have time in September to teach there much, and school starts again in October, so this week may be one of my last sessions at Yeten. While I like to think that the students there have benefited from my work, I’ve gained something too – they reminded me why I like teaching. Let’s hope that feeling continues during the school year with my own students.

What to Watch For

From everything the second year PCVs have told me, your second year is when you actually accomplish things. Which is good, because I often feel like I haven’t done anything. And since I’m a teacher, I’m taking the vacation to start setting up my projects so that they’ll be ready to go once school starts and I’m so exhausted from teaching that I don’t want to do anything but sit in front of my fan or outside with my friends eating oranges and pineapple.

Here’s a list of the projects I already have going, or plan to get going pending approval/funding from my school administration/parents/Peace Corps:

1. sensibilisations. This is a word that we’ve adapted from the French into the Peace Corps Benin lexicon. It basically means information sessions. My homologue (work partner) and I will do sensibilisations later this month with poor rural families about nutrition and moringa. Moringa is a plant that is incredibly easy to grow and has an unbelievable amount of nutrients. It can easily be made into a powder and added as a nutritional supplement to most foods, particularly porridge for infants and children under five. This is something I feel strongly about, for a few reasons. First, Benin has one of the highest rates of malnutrition in the world, and in the south, it’s not due to lack of availability of food. It’s due to poverty, but also in large part to ignorance, so this is one problem I could actually impact. Second, my homologue is very excited about this, which means not only do I have great deal of help, but the information is coming from a Beninese as well as myself, so it will have a greater impact.
2. Hand-washing Stations: So many of my kids in school miss class or are lethargic because they’re often sick. And one of the reasons they’re often sick is due to poor hygiene, resulting in diarrheal diseases. I’m in the process of building simple hand washing stations for my school, and when they’re completed I’ll do a series of hand washing/hygiene sensibilisations, with the students, teachers and admin, and with the food mamas who sell food at the school.
3. Parent-Teacher Conferences: Some of you may wonder why I’m labeling this as a “project.” This is a foreign concept in Benin. While there are a few families that are very involved in their children’s’ education, most have only a cursory understanding of what goes on at school, particularly if they are themselves uneducated. A nearby Volunteer who is finishing her service soon did parent teacher conferences this past year and kept statistics and records on her results. This year Peace Corps is building on her work to pilot parent-teacher conferences with other Volunteers, and I hope to be one of them. This will require lots of work on my part, and also the cooperation of the parents’ association, the school administration, and my homologue who will come with me and help translate. But I think it could be one of the best ways to impact student achievement, especially if I can get other teachers involved.
4. Girls Scholarship Program: This will depend greatly on the willingness of my school admin and parents association to help. It provides a scholarship for a girl who has demonstrated ability, and who also needs help paying the school fees. While the majority of school fees are paid for girls by the government, there are some remaining fees plus the cost of books and uniforms that prevent many girls from going to school. I would act as a mentor to the girl this year, and she would initiate a project with me (such as sensibilisations on health or the importance of girls’ education). The school/village/parents’ association would commit to paying her fees for the following years of school assuming she passes.
5. Camp GLOW: Next year I will co-lead a camp for girls in the south of Benin. It’s called Camp GLOW: Girls Leading Our World, and PCVs from the southern regions send girls. This year I sent three girls and my neighbor was a tutrice, or camp counselor/role model for the girls. Unfortunately I couldn’t go myself, since I was in South Africa. The camp teaches empowerment through sports, songs, games, and information about topics such as hygiene, sexual health, money and budgeting, public speaking, study skills, the rights of women and children, and resisting sexual harassment. This is a really important project and you will definitely hear more about it since I’ll be fundraising for it!
6. English Club: I will continue my English Club, possibly doing different clubs for different levels. I may also take place in the National Spelling Bee (led by PCVs).
7. Girls Club: I will create a girls club, to talk about various topics such as hygiene, sexual health, study skills, how to save money and make a budget, and nutrition.
8. UNHCR English class: each Saturday in Cotonou, PCVs lead an English class of UNCHR refugees. The idea is they may one day be settled in an English-speaking country. I’m in charge of scheduling this year, so my fellow PCVs will get annoyed with my constant demand to sign up for a day to teach.
9. Co-teaching: This year I will select a second homologue, in addition to my current awesome work partner. I will co-teach with both teachers (I will co-teach in two different classes).
10. Teaching: I should have two or three classes of my own to teach as well.
11. Not going crazy: this one should be a challenge.

Voodoo Vaccines

I’ve got good news: I had a “vaccine” against all “bad magic” (aka gris-gris). So I’m safe from anyone who may try to harm me through Vodun magic.

How did this happen? A couple months ago, I went to visit my friend Voodoo Man with a couple other PCVs. After getting there late and in the pouring rain, we sat on his porch, sometimes with him, and sometimes on our own if he left to greet other people or deal with spiritual issues. Like many visits to Voodoo Man, we sat while drinking beers, and when he was with us we occasionally spoke about Vodun.

Before I continue with this story, there are a few things you need to know about me, and about Benin. First, I never wanted to get a tattoo, or even piercings beyond the one in each ear I got when I was thirteen. Second, it is common in Benin for people to have tattoos or scars (typically the tattoos are really scars with ash rubbed in them to give them a darker pigmentation). They are to denote tribe/ethnicity, or to denote that the person is a follower of a certain sect of Vodun. They can also be to protect against a particular event, such as a child with a ritual scar to prevent childhood illness if his or her mother has had several other children die. Third, I know several PCVs in Benin who have gotten scarification done, and I knew that Voodoo Man had done the scars for several former and one current Volunteer in my region.

Ok, back to the action. I had heard that Voodoo Man did scarification, but he didn’t do it himself, so you had to set up a time to come back and see whoever it was that did the scars. I had thought someday I might like to get it done, especially in a place that you can’t see if I’m not wearing a bathing suit (because both my mother and business school drummed into me that it’s harder to get a job if people can see your tattoos).

“Oh, you want to do scars? We could do that today,” he replied.

We all looked at each other. None of us had planned for this.

“Yeah, ok!”

Let me just say that the willingness to get cut open by a Voodoo priest without previous planning is a good illustration of the “go with the flow” attitude that helps us PCVs get by.

A bit later we watched Voodoo Man’s daughter, a law student at the university in Lome, unwrap new razors and soak them in a bottle of alcohol labeled “Braveheart.” Then she ushered us into the house, where we sat on zebra-print sofas and waited for her to mix plates of four types of ritual ash. Then they gestured for the male PCV to take his shirt off.

At first, they kind of giggled, I think because this particular PCV has a lot of chest hair. Then Voodoo Man explained that he was getting four cuts and us ladies were getting three, because “men are more powerful than women.” While I took offence to this, I realized both that there was no point arguing, and that it probably isn’t a good idea to argue with someone who is about to cut you with a razor.

Then the two ladies cut the male PCV, one holding a cell phone flashlight for the one with the razor. There wasn’t much ceremony to it – she simply scored his skin lightly. Three rows of four vertical cuts about a third of an inch high, on the chest, both sides, and back. For him it was 48 cuts total. As she cut, she counted out loud: “un, deux, trois, quatre.” Then she went back and rubbed ash in all of them. And just like that, he was done.

Next came one of the other female PCVs, who had no modesty about walking around in her bra. The process was the same as for the first PCV, but with three rows of three vertical cuts, for 36 total.

Then came me! Without so much as an “are you ready?” there was a woman coming at me with a razor. Surprisingly, it didn’t hurt at all to get the cuts. It stung a bit when she rubbed the ash in. Then I waited while the last female PCV got her scars.

Afterward, we took photos (which are NOT going on facebook, sorry fellas). Voodoo Man told us not to wash the ash off until 24 hours had passed, which was a bit uncomfortable since it was hot and we were sweating. He explained that they do three cuts, and/or three rows because three is the strongest number, like a tripod – three legs of a stool, three rocks to make a stove.

He told us that we were now protected against gris-gris, magic, sorcery, and illnesses. He equated it to getting a vaccination against bad magic.

I was not intending to get scars that day. Nor was I intending to get them done in a place you can see them if I’m wearing normal clothing. But because I was wearing a bra while getting cut, the ones on my chest are visible if I wear a low-cut top.

I’m ok with that though. First, because they will fade after a few years, and in fact two of the four PCVs who got scars that day say they’ve already faded. Second, because if anyone mentions it, it means they’ve been staring where it’s not appropriate to stare. But mostly, because when I look down it’s a reminder of this incredible place. A place that seems so strange, yet I feel I’m slowly coming to know and understand. A place that will always be with me.

May “La Force” Be With You

“Ca donne de la force, quoi.”

Literally, it means “This gives the force/strength, what.” It’s a common phrase here in Benin. Often if I ask about a particular food, or something I can’t identify at the market, it’s the response. It gives the force.

“The force” can mean that it is healthy for you, that it gives strength. It can mean that it has healing properties, possibly that it can heal malaria because apparently everything here can cure malaria. But “la force” can also mean that it gives some extra oomph in bed. Thus, when a male volunteer selected baobab juice from a tray of drinks at a training, a Beninese work partner looked at him and said “ca donne de la force, quoi,” while raising his eyebrows in an unintentional but spot-on imitation of the Monty Python “wink wink, nudge nudge” sketch.

I’ve been keeping a mental list of things that give the force. So far, I’ve heard: carrots, fish, red palm oil, pate with sauce, akassa with sauce, moringa, sodabi, beer (some say only Beninoises, some say only Guiness), chicken, bottled water, citronella tea, baobab juice, a red powder that a man offered for me to snort (don’t worry, I turned him down), crabs, various types of roots or leaves used to make herbal teas, palm wine, porridge, cran-cran (the sauce PCVs call “snot sauce” for its texture and level of appeal to Americans), a tiny and very sticky fruit that has no name in French or English, and rabbit.

So if you encounter any of these things, may the force be with you!