View of my living room from the front door,
View of my living room from the front door,
Neighbor petites learn how to sew as they help me fix a hole in my screen door.
Neighbor petites learning to sew as they help me patch my screen door.
Whenever you are eating and you see someone you want to greet (i. e. everyone), that’s what you say. “Come eat” (in Goun/Fon, “wa du nu”). Occasionally people will actually take you up on the offer and take a bite of whatever you are eating, but usually the response is “thank you,” or if you’re speaking French, “Bon appetite.”
I realize it’s been over a year since I last wrote about what and how I eat. For the most part, it hasn’t changed too much. I still cook myself breakfast and dinner almost every day. I still go to the market, though less often because most of what I buy is available closer to home from random people’s homes. I no longer make the peanut curry sauce because I ate so much of it I literally can’t look at it anymore. I do make more bean dishes, and have recently gotten into fried rice with pineapple. And as for coffee, I’m very lucky to have a good store of Starbucks Via instant coffee, sent in care packages and from PCVs who left. Since I now also have flour and my mom sent me some maple flavoring, I also make pancakes and occasionally muffins. The biggest change in what I cook is that I can now find ramen noodles from Nigeria in my market. They are nice to have as a backup for when I forget to buy something to prepare, or if I get sick and can’t leave the house to buy something.
As far as Beninese food, here’s the rundown of some of the major dishes/snacks, in ascending order of preference:
– Bouille: porridge. It would be fine, except the type they usually serve here is made with fermented flour, which does not agree with my stomach. And though it’s normally served with lots of sugar cubes, it still has a sour taste.
– Cran-Cran, a.k.a. “snot sauce”: Other than things that make me actually sick, possibly the worst food here (for most Americans). Made from okra and a leaf that is somehow oily, it is the consistency of frog snot. The taste is slightly bitter. Usually, it’s served in conjunction with the normal spicy red sauce. It actually doesn’t taste all that bad, but even after over a year, the consistency is still too much for me.
– Akassa: white blobs of fermented flour, typically wrapped in banana leaves. Always served with sauce. It’s the most common starch in my area. And while I can now eat it without offending my host by making involuntary “gross” movements with my face, it is not something I choose to eat. It has a sour taste and the consistency of Jell-o made out of starch. If I don’t sound flattering, it’s because I have resigned myself to the fact that Beninese food will never catch on as a cool ethnic food in America, and I blame akassa with snot sauce.
– Smoked fish: I thought this would grow on me, but for whatever reason I still can’t get into the smoked fish they have here, even though I loved smoked salmon. Maybe it’s the fact that you’re supposed to eat the bones, or that it always has a very, very strong fishy taste. Most meat-eating PCVs have come around to it though, if they didn’t like it from the beginning.
– Pate: Pronounced like “pot,” it is French for “paste.” It is your stereotypical Beninese food. Made like akassa, but with corn flour. It has very little taste in and of itself, but is always served with sauce. This is the neutral part of the list because I have no negative or positive feelings towards pate. It just is.
– Red beans and gari: A decent lunch. Not a ton of taste except with the red palm oil they add.
– Atassi: cooked white rice with a few red beans mixed in. Often served with a spicy sauce that I love even though it burns. Also a decent lunch, though it should be followed by an orange since there aren’t that many beans and Vitamin C helps the body absorb protein.
– Yam Pilee: Pounded yams. Yams here are white and very starchy – not the sweet things that Americans eat at Thanksgiving. This is a northern(ish) dish. It’s typically made by boiling peeled yams, then putting them in a giant mortar and pestle. Then three women or children take large pounding sticks and pound it in a rhythm: thunk – thunk – thunk! thunk – thunk – thunk! It’s a bit stickier than pate, and is usually served with a spicy, oily peanut sauce that is delicious. Yam pile is a bit of a delicacy here since most southerners don’t really know how to make it.
– Vanzou: this is a bean, somewhat like a chickpea. It has a creamy taste, and if I could ever prevent myself from eating it immediately and take it home, could probably make a decent hummus. Often served with a bit of gari and red palm oil or sometimes spicy sauce, but it’s perfectly fine on its own.
– Piron: Like pate, but made with cassava flour and pork fat. Usually found at pork restaurants, where they use the drippings to make it.
– Spaghetti Omelet: spaghetti with an omelet on top, found a most “cafeterias,” of which I unfortunately have none in my village. I swear it’s delicious, and if I could make it myself I would. I think the secret is lots of oil and hot pepper. And mayo on top.
– Wagashi: I love this stuff. It’s a cheese, traditionally made by the Fulani peoples of the north. It comes in wheels, and does not melt, though it does crumble. Because it’s unpasteurized, first you boil it, then you fry it, typically in chunks which are then served in red sauce. I can’t find it in my village since it’s a northern thing, so every time I go to a big city I try to find it.
– Fruit: depending on the season, you can get papaya, orange, mango (wild and grafted), pineapple, banana, plantain, and a tiny bitter fruit with sticky insides that nobody has a name for in French or English.
– Fried food: This is everywhere. Fried yams with spicy sauce. Fried bean fritters. Fried peanut fritters that are like unsweet cookies. The functional equivalent of doughnuts, both sweet and a type with onions in the batter. Fried breadfruit. Fried plantains. Fried soy chunks. And my favorite, fried banana paste.
– Grilled corn on the cob: when it’s in season. The corn is starchier, smaller and much less sweet than the best corn in the world (Indiana corn), but it still tastes like home.
– Pate rouge: I will really miss this. It’s pate, but made with some ground hot pepper, onion, and tomato, as well as oil, which all go into the paste when it’s being cooked. It’s almost always served with chicken and “jus,” or tomatoes and onions which have been marinating together, and hot green pepper. I will learn how to make this at home, but I might need to find a way to cook it on a stove instead of on a fire.
“Back to School” in Benin is “ la rentrée,” or “the re-entry.” It begins in October and while there is an official day for the rentree, it refers to the period of adjustment from the vacation time to actual school time.
This year the official date was Thursday, October 3. I dutifully showed up at 7:30am, knowing it was supposed to start at 8, and also knowing it was unlikely anyone of importance would show up until 9. I was half right – the censeur (like academic dean) showed up twenty minutes after me, when there were maybe ten parents and twenty students, mostly new 6th graders who were hoping to sign up for classes.
This is about the time that I found out that the surveillant generale (vice principal in charge of discipline/everything except academics) had been promoted to director of a new secondary school. Later that day I found out they promoted one of our school’s English teachers to be our new surveillant. This was – unlike most of the rentree process – a pleasant surprise since he was a friend and his promotion meant the English schedules would need to change (more on that in another blog post).
The first day, we got our schedules. Mine was, in a word, awful. But I knew there would be changes. So instead I focused on greeting old colleagues who had come to get their schedules.
We also helped supervise the kids. The rentree is all about preparing the school for the academic year. Don’t ask me why they can’t do this a week before school, because I’ve never gotten a straight answer. In any case, the students come with hoes, machetes, and basins, and they tear off palm branches to use as brooms. They clear all the weeds and make the school grounds even, then sweep the entire area.
All students are expected to do this, but usually only 6th graders show up the first day, or students who have some sort of problem with their enrollment. The older students think they’re too cool to come, and end up wasting their first official days when they are supposed to be in class, doing their time with machetes and hoes.
The rentree is also a hectic time for the school administration, as it is the world over. Students must pay their fees, new students must enroll, old students must check what class they are in, students who passed into senior high school must sometimes get their grades sent from our school to their new one.
About a week later, teachers start actual classes. For me, this means an entire class going over who I am, what it is acceptable to call me (Mrs. Katherine, Mrs. Lootens, Mme. Katherine, Mme. Lootens, Mme., or Teacher, NOT yovo or any version of my first name without “Mrs.” or “Mme”), and all my rules. Only then can I finally get started actual teaching. And even then I can’t be sure how many students I will have or see a class list. Class lists aren’t finalized until about two weeks in, and then you have to sort through the students who abandoned school – a depressingly high number for one of my classes.
Once you get through the first two and a half weeks you can consider “real” school to have started – just in time to start preparing for the first set of exams, in November!
The censeur (academic dean) at my school and I have not been the best of friends. In fact, he is the most intimidating man I’ve ever met. His voice is what you would get if you combined James Earl Jones and a serial killer. He’s over six feet and big – unusual in Benin.
And he is absolutely, always, always right. If he told you WWII started in 1960, and you politely disagreed and brought a WWII vet to give evidence otherwise, he would still be right. You don’t so much argue with him as listen to him yell about whatever he wants to say, and then get so frustrated that there isn’t an opening to contradict him you give up and just nod your head and hope he stops talking soon and lets you go.
We had had some disagreements in the past – mostly stemming from the fact that he wasn’t at the school when they first applied and got a Peace Corps Volunteer, so he had no idea that a) I had training in teaching; b) I wasn’t stupid; and c) there are requirements I have to fulfill for Peace Corps and the school, in taking me on, agreed to help me fulfill them. And when he disagreed with me, he had the option of taking it out on my homologue (work partner) Appolinaire, since he controls the payment to part-time teachers such as Appolinaire.
But at the end of the school year, one of my supervisors in Peace Corps came and spoke to the administration, including the censeur. This woman has stage presence. She is the only person I know, including my director, who won’t allow herself to be steamrolled by him. And she politely explained Peace Corps, our mission, and the TEFL program to him. So I had high hopes that things would go better this year.
I had also spoken to my director about my schedule. Peace Corps made changes to our program – this year, I have a second homologue, and I team-teach once a week with both of them. I had explained this to my director, and some other scheduling requirements (no classes Friday so I can go to the office/bank, and hopefully I’d follow at least one of my classes from the previous year to the next grade level). I was full of hope that this year, my schedule and the rentree would go smoothly.
I should have known – nothing ever goes smoothly or as planned here. My schedule turns out to be, well, awful. It was clear that I had not fully communicated my requirements and polite requests to the director, or he had not clearly communicated them to the censeur. The librarian looked at my schedule, looked me in the eyes, and said “you must refuse this.”
I won’t go into the details of what was wrong, but I tried to bring this up to the censeur several times. each time rather than letting me get past “excuse me, Mr. Censeur, I think there is a problem and – “ he would cut me off and yell at me for being a bad teacher and a pain in his bum.
This went on for several days, me becoming successively more panicked and angry and sad. eventually, The Monday after the official start of school, I arrived at school early, and soon after the censeur arrived too – the only other teacher or administrator, though there were about ten fathers of students. I approached him once more, and once more he yelled at me, telling the parents in local language how annoying I was and how I wasn’t a good teacher.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I walked away, and started to unlock my bike – I would just take this to the director, I thought! By then I was crying, afraid I’d spend my entire year frustrated like this. The censeur saw me, and I think it startled him. People in Benin don’t generally cry unless there is a death, so the sight of me with tears in my eyes must have been jarring.
“What’s wrong?” he said to me.
“You!” I burst out, ignoring all cultural rules that direct confrontation is to be avoided (apparently here it’s better to talk behind someone’s back). “You won’t let me finish my explanation for why there are problems with my schedule or how we can fix them!”
He seemed a little confused, but agreed that if I let him give his whole side of the story (in front of me, but to another teacher), he would let me say everything I had to say.
As it turns out, we did not need to be enemies. I never thought it was his fault, and he didn’t want to change my schedule only because he thought I held him at fault – he agreed with most of my wishes to change my schedule. I think we were both a bit surprised that we had so much common ground. He promised that when someone came with the key to the room with the master schedule, we would work it out.
A few hours later, we changed my schedule together, both very civil and professional. He looked at me and said “you know, Kate, this is thirsty work.”
Taking a hint, I said “oh yes. What do you prefer – sodas, tea, beer?”
“Kate. I am Beninese.”
“Ok. Grande Beninoise beer it is!”
A few days later I brought beers for myself, the censeur, and the director. The director and I shared our beer – getting caught in a rainstorm and forced to retreat into the secretary’s office. We talked about this and that – cultural differences, politics, news. And as we talked and drank our beers (ok, I drank, he chugged), I could tell that the ice was thawing.
We may never be friends – I doubt he would feel comfortable being friends with an “employee” – but we are no longer adversaries. My tears, and the beer, healed a rift that could have prevented lots of good work in our school community. So the next time I have a problem, I know that the answer is beer.
Every day is a “normal” day here, because very little surprises me here. In order to live, you have to let go of your need to control what goes on around you and just surrender to the chaos and the strangely beautiful weirdness that is life in West Africa. The ability to deal with whatever is thrown at you is the single most important trait in a Peace Corps Volunteer (assuming that includes a lack of squeamishness about toilet facilities and flexibility on personal space requirements).
My first official day at school, however, did throw me for a loop, at least temporarily. This year the beginning of the year was a bit of a mess at my school – our surveillant (vice principal in charge of discipline and all non-academic things) was promoted to director of a new local school, and it took the ministry of education a few days to announce the new surveillant. Since the surveillant is also in charge of getting the school grounds ready for school (by using student labor – students must bring hoes and machetes the first few days), it was a bit chaotic at first. Add to that the fact that our director was in France for the first few days, and the fact that our secretary was on maternity leave. Add also the fact that I had major scheduling problems (see “Beers for Peace” post), and it’s pretty clear that the re-entry to school was a typically Beninese barely-controlled chaos.
After a few days of wandering around while nobody knew what was going on, Monday rolled around. I dealt with a major breakthrough with my censeur in terms of my schedule. He and I went into the secretary’s office where there is a giant blackboard with the master schedule. We were in the process of rearranging schedules to fit my requirements, when we heard a commotion outside. Since the director hadn’t arrived yet, the censeur was the ranking administrator. We emerged to see what the deal was.
What I saw surprised me – this in itself a surprise because I thought I had inoculated myself by now against being surprised by weird things here. There was a man in sneakers, no socks, cargo shorts, and a trench coat (no shirt), holding a shotgun. Everyone – parents, students, teachers, other random people passing by who heard what was going on – was yelling at someone.
After about ten seconds of thinking “oh my God, there’s a gun,” I remembered this is Benin, and nothing is too weird to be out of the ordinary. So I sat back to watch what was going on, and ask another teacher what they were yelling about.
It turns out there was an owl in a big tree in the school yard.
“Aww, cute,” you might be thinking if you’re an American. Or “ok, cool, what’s the big deal?” If you are Beninese, however, you’re almost certainly thinking “Sorcerer! It will kill someone! Evil wizard!” Owls are bad omens – it is believed that sorcerers can turn themselves into owls, and that owls/sorcerers (in Benin they are essentially the same thing) can kill people.
So some people were yelling because they were afraid of the owl. The school’s groundskeeper/guardian, a lovely though entirely illiterate man, had seen the owl and called a hunter to come kill it. But he hadn’t gotten permission from the school administration, so some people were yelling about this breach of etiquette/chain of command.
The censeur calmed everyone down, and eventually it was decided that the hunter should go ahead and kill the owl, for everyone’s protection. So they cleared the area under the tree, the hunter took aim, and BAM! A second owl flew away, and the first owl fell out of the tree, dead.
Another man came forward to pick up the dead sorcerer (owl), and held it over his head in the manner of Rafiki presenting baby Simba in “The Lion King.” Cheers, chants and songs of celebration erupted from the crowd, including from some university-educated teachers.
“Well, that seems about right, I guess,” I thought. “And it’s only nine fifteen. Bring on the weirdness, Benin!”