It can be easy to feel helpless in the fight to #BringBackOurGirls. I live 5 kilometers from Nigeria (the south though, where kidnappings are mostly oil related) and even I feel like there’s nothing I can do.

There is something you can do, though. Something big.

Let’s start with Boko Haram. The name means “books forbidden,” which is often translated as “Western Education is Forbidden.” They want the application of shariah law in Northern Nigeria, functionally making it a separate country. So why was their target not a military barracks, or a police station, or a government site?

Because they’re terrified of educated girls and women.

Educated girls and women are the single greatest force multiplier for development in a country. This means that if you work to improve malaria rates, or start small businesses, or help villagers save money, the best way to multiply your efforts is to have educated women and girls. (Nicholas Kristoff has a great article about this here: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/11/opinion/sunday/kristof-whats-so-scary-about-smart-girls.html

So how can you help? By supporting girls’ education and empowerment. By making sure that women and girls have the tools to fight for their own rights.

One of the ways you can do this is by supporting Peace Corps’ Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment Small Projects Fund. This is a fund within Peace Corps that allows PCVs to support small projects focused on gender. Though the dollar amounts may be small, these projects have a big impact. They are supporting boys and girls in a half-marathon in Parakou, illustrating to their villages that girls are just as strong as boys; they are supporting a mentoring program for girls; they are supporting tomato preservation trainings for womens’ groups to have more nutritious food available year-round and to support themselves economically.

To raise money for this fund, we Peace Corps Volunteers are running across the country of Benin! That’s over 620 km – of which I will be running 40k, or 2k short of a full marathon! You can help #SupportOurGirls (and our boys, who are an integral part of the solution) by donating here: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/le-tour-du-benin

As it gets closer to the run, I’ll try to keep you updated on our progress, and on my blisters and heat rash incurred while training!

Thank you to all who support girls, and #BringBackOurGirls


What Not to Bring to Africa

At this point, almost all of the new group of future Volunteers have received their invitations to Peace Corps Benin and are probably starting to wonder “what the heck do I bring to Africa?” (Except the majority of them are just out of college, so “heck” is probably a swear word). This is my attempt to help out those poor souls who have no idea what they’re in for.

Just kidding. It’s great here! Sometimes!

Things I brought but didn’t need:
– Anything white. Especially white shirts. They will get sweat stains and turn the color of terre rouge in approximately 0.38 hours here.
– First aid supplies. You get a med kit your first day here which has everything you’d need. Though if you’re like me and are crazy attractive to mosquitos, you might want to bring some extra anti-itch cream, it goes quick.
– The folder of stuff Peace Corps sends you with your invitation. Other than what you need for your passport/visa and anything else they say you need for staging, it’s just a waste of space.
– Most things, actually. Pretty much the only things you need are things for training: clothes, a book or two, enough toiletries for two months, maybe a pen.

Things I’m glad I brought (but could survive without):
– My own pillowcase
– A rain coat
– Dryer sheets. They smell like home and keep your clothes from smelling like the mustiness of rainy season.
– A couple hard copy books I love.
– A world map.
– Stickers.
– A yoga mat (for sleeping on when you visit other Volunteers. Only occasionally for doing actual yoga).
– Contacts. They say not to bring them, and I don’t usually wear them because of the dust, but I love having them for when I work out. Or go to the beach or a pool, so I can see while swimming.
– Workout clothes.
– Leggings. Very helpful when you’re biking with a skirt that’s just a piece of cloth wrapped around you. Do not confuse “leggings” with “things that are appropriate as pants” though.
– A calendar.
– Some makeup.
– My computer, kindle, camera, iPod, and external hard drive.
– Prescription sunglasses.
– Red gel pens (don’t exist here so kids can’t cheat by re-writing their grades).
– Good kitchen scissors.
– Markers and a bit of construction paper.
– Running shoes.
– A little extra money for travelling. In dollars or euros – make sure the dollars are all from the past 5 years and don’t have any small marks or tears on them, they get picky.
– Face wash.
– Tampons (you can get them but they’re expensive). Some female PCVs swear by Diva cups.

Things I could have gotten here:
– Nonstick pan (somewhat expensive in Cotonou, but worth it due to the space and weight you can replace with food in your suitcase)
– Everyday pens and pencils.
– Shampoo (even American brands), conditioner, most other toiletries.
– Pretty much everything. When they say “as long as you and your passport make it, you’ll be fine” it’s actually true. It’s just that during training you don’t have time to go get lots of things, so if there are things you want/need to get through the hell of training, it’s better to bring them.
Things I wish I’d brought/been sent sooner:
– Food. I cannot emphasize this enough. When someone gets a care package, it’s exciting. But if they open it and there is no food, they get a “oh. Well, I guess that’s still nice” look from other Volunteers.
– Jeans. Sometimes you just want to feel like an American again.
– Food.
– Strapless bras. Many Beninese clothes are wide-necked, and it is both rude and trampy to show your bra strap.
– American stamps. Best way for PCVs to send letters back home is through other PCVs/staff/friends who are going back to America, so you put American stamps on them.
– Ziploc bags. Especially one big enough for my laptop, to help keep moisture out of it (keep it in the Ziploc with a few grains of uncooked rice).
– A messenger bag or small backpack that can fit my laptop, but I can easily wear while biking to school. Messenger bags are better in my opinion because in crowded marketplaces, you can put them in front of you and keep your hands on the zippers/flaps for more security.
– Seriously, food.
– A small speaker to plug into an iPod.
– A two-piece bathing suit. Most Beninese don’t (can’t) swim, or if they do it’s in underwear, so you won’t be culturally inappropriate if you’re in a normal bathing suit.
– Types of food that are good to bring/get sent in care packages: granola bars, non-refrigerated Parmesan cheese, freeze-dried camping meals, maple flavoring (for pancakes!), spices, Gatorade/Crystal Light (for when you have diarrhea and have to take oral rehydration solution), beef jerky, taco seasoning, candy that can’t melt, Starbucks Via instant coffee, dried berries of any kind.

My basic advice is: whatever it is, you probably don’t actually need it. Pack food instead. And for teaching Volunteers: bring a couple “nice” outfits: nothing showing shoulders or knees (shoulders and knees are fine normally just not in the classroom), plus shoes that are nicer than flip flops (Rainbows don’t count). You’ll need them for Model School during training. Pack a few things that will make you happy, whether that’s makeup and a pair of heels, or a favorite book, a workout video, or a battery-powered device useful for ladies who are in long-distance relationships or no relationships. Living here can be tough, so you need to make time to do things that make you happy.

If you’re an incoming PCV, all you need to know at this point is that you should bring your passport and visa, and you should stop stressing. You’ll be fine.

How to Survive a Bush Taxi or African Bus

One of the more unpleasant aspects of living in West Africa is public transportation. For small distances in Benin, there are the zemidjans, or motorcycle taxis. Not a bad way to travel – fairly inexpensive if you can bargain properly, easy to find in cities. But for longer distances it can get expensive and take forever.

Then you’ve got bush taxis. These come in three varieties: 5-seat broken-down Peugeots, 9-seat broken down Peugeot station wagons, or mini-buses. In the 5-seaters, typically you fit two passengers in the front seat, and four in the back. Same for the 9-seat, but with an extra row of seats. And the mini-buses take around 24 passengers, who sit on metal benches with seats, bolted to the floor of the vehicle. Depending on where you get on, you can also spend a long time waiting for the taxi to fill up so you can leave. Sometimes several hours.

For even longer distances you’ve got buses. These can be expensive, but are almost always more comfortable than taxis because usually each person has their own seat. There’s also almost never any animals in the bus.

Taxis and buses have several unpleasant aspects, namely lack of personal space; funny smells; noises including crying babies and blaring music or Nollywood films; and frequent stops for “arête pipi”s, paying bribes to police, or breakdowns.

So how does one survive? With patience. Your mantra becomes “WAWA – West Africa Wins Again.” Other methods include texting, listening to music or podcasts, and drinking. Eventually, you learn to tune out everything around you and reach a level of zoning out most people haven’t felt since middle school math class.

I also like to bring a scarf to tie around my head. Air conditioning in all taxis and most buses consists of open windows, so long hair can get in the way. Another tip for the ladies is to wear a fake engagement ring, to ward off any potential suitors, and work on your thousand-yard stare. The thousand yard stare is also useful for when you know the whole taxi is talking about you, but your local language is not strong enough to respond.

Snacks are crucial, especially for long bus rides. The bus stops occasionally for designated snack breaks in addition to any requested “arête pipi”s. An avocado/street meat sandwich from the bus “station” in Bohicon can make the ensuing hours much more bearable. Another benefit of snacks is that they come in black plastic bags, which are useful if you are employing the alcohol method of coping, or if the snacks are unclean, and you need a receptacle for being sick. Just don’t ever run out of plastic bags. Trust me.

Now that I’ve thoroughly grossed you out, you’re ready for the painful experience of riding public transportation in Benin! Congrats! And may God have mercy on your soul!

Reasons Burkina Faso is Awesome!

I spent a week at Easter traveling with three other Peace Corps Volunteers from Benin. We went to Burkina Faso, which is to the northwest of Benin. Burkina is objectively a much poorer country than Benin and I’m sure if I was a PCV there, I would complain about it as much as I complain about Benin. But as a vacation, it was awesome. Why do I think that Burkina is more awesome than Benin?

–              Amazing street meat. They actually marinate it first so that it’s tender.

–              Sesame cakes.

–              Yogurt is cheap and everywhere.

–              They can grow strawberries.

–              Even traditional African food often includes vegetables.

–              Bobo has a beautiful mud mosque that was built in the 1880s.

–              Street vendors are very aggressive, and will follow you. But once they actually realize you don’t want to buy anything, they don’t make you feel like a terrible person. They just say “ok, have a great day!”

–              People don’t get in yelling matches on the regular.

–              The Sindou Peaks are otherworldly. I agreed with the guidebook, which compared it to where they filmed “Planet of the Apes”

–              Niansogni (not sure of that spelling) is a place which means “the end of the world.” It’s an actual village, but also refers to a cliff village. It was built in the 13th century and was lived in until the 1980s. It’s like Dogon Country in Mali, in miniature. And because they don’t have a ton of tourists, you can actually walk around and explore the parts that aren’t closed for ceremonial reasons.

–              Hippos. In the hippo lake.

–              Awesome art and music scene.

–              Our awesome canoe paddler/guide at the hippo lake taught himself French. And made me a necklace out of a water lily.

–              Brakina beer is way better than La Beninoise, even if it is a little more expensive.

–              Did I mention the amazing street meat? And yogurt? And vegetables? And sesame cakes and sugar nuts? Can you tell that traveling PCVs care mostly about food?

–              It’s very easy to stay on budget. Even a Peace Corps “I don’t make enough money to meet the minimum income for federal taxes” budget.

–              It’s way easier to get into the country than to get back into Benin. Also the people at their consulate in Cotonou were really nice even when I was a forgetful ditz.

–              Seriously. Strawberries.

Thank You, You Are Amazing

Yes you! By “you,” I mean people I know or my parents know, who contributed to our grant for Camp GLOW. Thanks to your generosity, we raised all the money necessary for Camp GLOW in under a week! Thanks to you, over 50 girls will gain the skills and tools to become leaders in their communities. So merci! Thank you! Mi wa nu ka ka!