Postcards from Benin

Not everything I do and see here fits neatly into a blog post. So once again, here are some anecdotes and observations I’ve wanted to share but haven’t figured out how to write about in a cohesive manner.
– Recently giant signs (hand-painted white sheets) have begun appearing all over Porto-Novo at major intersections: “Porto-Novo needs us! Let’s all pay our taxes!” Taxation and governmental services are in a vicious cycle here. Nobody pays taxes because the government provides almost no services so people don’t see the incentive to pay taxes. And the government can’t provide services without tax revenue. Of course, extreme poverty and corruption don’t help matters either.
– The family with three boys (Daniel, David and Dossou) moved out recently, without warning, leaving me without three members of my fan club. But I will always remember teaching them to sew as we patched holes in my screen door, doing yoga with them, teaching them how to do cartwheels and pushups. Mostly I’ll remember the joyful noise in our concession with three very, very active boys running around. The concession is quiet without them.
– Students here cannot read silently in 6th, 7th and 8th grades. Which makes proctoring exams difficult, since it can be hard to tell if the students are reading the exam or telling their classmates the answers. Other things that make it difficult to proctor exams: chickens or goats entering the room; rain so loud you can’t hear yourself think; students not realizing that you’re a real teacher; typos in every exam.
– Palm Sunday is less cool when you use palm leaves as a broom every day. On the other hand, I typically get to watch sunsets with palm trees framing my view, and the occasional coconut tree.
– For future reference: don’t wait to do all your laundry for the day rainy season starts.
– Once I stopped to talk to a friend, who was selling peanuts. She gave some to me as a gift (have I mentioned that sometimes I love this country? She is dirt poor, literally, her home has dirt floors because she can’t afford cement, but she gave me the peanuts she was selling). An old woman, possibly a fou (crazy person), came by asking me for money/food. I gave her a few of the peanuts. She immediately starter harassing me. My friend chased her off, using her stool like a lion tamer would.
– The 4th of July party at the Ambassador’s house is open to all Americans. The Beninese military band had a lot of trouble with the tempo changes in the Star Spangled Banner but they fought through it. The party was insane, for a poor PCV: hamburgers, hot dogs, sweet corn, Heinz ketchup, several types of dessert, Jack Daniels, people who didn’t have dirt on their legs and feet because they take cars, and a poster illustrating American things that literally included a picture of apple pie. At swanky events run by the Embassy, Peace Corps Volunteers are considered the poor, badly-behaved hicks – like that uncle nobody wants to invite to Thanksgiving because he dresses like a slob and puts leftovers into his pockets. We don’t have fancy American clothes, so we wear fancy-ish Beninese clothes, and as soon as we see a buffet we attack like sharks with the scent of blood. And we aren’t ashamed of it, because we live in the “real” Benin unlike 95% of embassy/aid workers in this country. Also we’re hungry.
– Another funny student answer: “The plural of ‘policeman’ is ‘policemany.” Wish I could have given him credit for critical thinking!
– Confirmed: the “newborn smell” is the same in Africa as it is in America. In the past month I’ve held two different newborns (including a day-old boy! He hadn’t even been named yet!) and they have that amazing smell that causes women to try to sniff other peoples’ babies.
– Last night, for the fourth time in a year, a lizard fell on me while I was in the bathroom. I was barely even startled this time.

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