Camp GLOW: now with 100% more photos!

I’ve finally finished my month and a half of crazy traveling, AND now own a computer that has the letter “e.” Yes, this entire time I’ve been writing my posts on a laptop while having to copy-paste every time I wanted to use an “e.”

In any case, I now have enough internet to finally share some of the fabulous photos from Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World). Once again, a huge thank you to all who donated to make camp possible. The 51 girls are poised to become leaders of their communities, and they are the future leaders of Benin and of the world!DSCF0415

(above) The girls show off their new mosquito nets, which they got to take home!DSCF0434

(above) Showing off our arts and crafts project – tie dye!

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(above) playing games during down time

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(above) Taking notes at the field trip to the Royal Palace of Porto-NovoDSCF3504

(above) game time in the evenings

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(above) PCV John helps girls with tie dye.

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(above) one of our amazing tutrices (role model/counselor) works with her teamIMG_0348

(above) PCV Taylor, our “energy specialist” since she always has fun songs and games ready to go at a moment’s notice!

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(above) Strutting their stuff during our fashion show!IMG_0402

(above) Dance Party!

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(above) showing off the fabulous outfits we found at the local market.IMG_0442

(above) learning about their history at the Royal Palace

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(above) one of our tutrices, who is training to be a health professional, adds comments and information during a session on family planning.

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(above) PCV Mike leads a session on family planning, where each of the girls had the opportunity to practice how to put on a condom – in this case a glue bottle standing in for the phallus.

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(above) a PCV “men’s panel” where girls had the opportunity to have real men debunk myths (such as “it’s impossible for a man to be faithful” or “if a man doesn’t have sex regularly, he will die”)

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(above) PCV games master John supervises a relay race/tag.

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(above) PCVs getting in on the action for a wheelbarrow race

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(above): Career Panel! Girls got the opportunity to speak to women in professional roles about their jobs, their education, and if it’s really possible for a Beninese woman to have a career and a family (hint: it is!)

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(above) the Blue Team speaks with one of our career panelists

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAlots of smiles at Camp GLOW!

Stay Tuned!

Just because I’m leaving doesn’t mean I’m done posting! I have several more posts in the works about my life here, and many photos, which I’ll be able to post when I return to America. It will actually probably help me readjust to America if I can spend time writing about and posting photos of my life in Benin.

This is also the first of many, many thank yous I owe. To everyone who read this blog, thank you for your support. It’s been especially amazing to meet new Volunteers who recognize my name! Thank you to the 7th graders in Ohio who corresponded with my students here! Thank you to all my friends and family. Your love and support have sustained me.
And a special thank you to my boyfriend: it hasn’t been easy, but your love has been one of the main reasons I’m as strong as I am.

Also a special thank you to anyone who ever sent me food. You have NO idea what good food tastes like until you taste maple flavoring for the first time in a year.

So thank you and stay tuned for more!

Leaving

As you’ve probably heard, Peace Corps Washington is in the process of evacuating Volunteers and Trainees from Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea due to the Ebola virus. My thoughts have been with these Volunteers and their communities. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to be forced to leave your community, and to leave behind all your friends, knowing that if something happens, you were protected because you’re American, but your friends aren’t so lucky.

I’m not nearly in the same situation. But I am in the process of leaving my village, and leaving Benin. It’s been difficult.

First of all, there are the physical difficulties of leaving. I am unfortunately not being replaced (partly because the mayor stole my rent money, partly because Peace Corps Washington is nervous about my being so close to Nigeria, which is mostly ridiculous, but I digress).
This means nobody is moving into my house, so I have to get rid of everything. This presents a few issues, chief among them that I don’t have a latrine, so anything in my house I need to throw away but don’t want children to find and play with, I will have to burn.

I also have to distribute all my belongings without causing undue amounts of jealousy and bad feelings. This is a Herculean task, since views on ownership, gifts, friendship, and jealousy are often radically different from my American viewpoint. I know it’s impossible to give away all my stuff without causing some jealousy and bad feelings, but I would like to try to mitigate it as much as possible, since it’s unlikely there will be an American in my village again (at least for the foreseeable future).

I also have to arrange to get a large chunk of my stuff to the Peace Corps office in Cotonou. This includes my gas tanks, mattress, any Peace Corps issued books, my (broken) solar lamp, the remaining contents of my medical kit, my water filter, and anything else I want to take home with me. I’m also selling my couch and a table and chairs to a friend who is doing his third year in Cotonou, so we’ll have to fit all of this in one taxi. Which is not a problem, Beningenuity will allow the taxi driver to find a way to tie all of that down on the roof for anything that doesn’t fit inside. No, the problem is more hiring a taxi that will actually arrive relatively on time, and take me where I need to go without price-gouging me. Plus since it’s Oro season, there are fewer taxis in the area, so I’ll have less choice.

Beyond the actual packing and cleaning, there’s the emotional toll of leaving. I have to say goodbye to the people who have helped me in some of my darkest moments, and who have witnessed the accomplishments I’m most proud of. The people who taught me how to carry water on my head, and how to keep a class of 45 middle school-ers interested in English grammar. The people who have become my friends. The people who have become my family. The people who I know I won’t see in the next couple years, and may never see again.

I’m not really ready for this. I’m still in the denial phase, and probably will be up until the taxi pulls away with me in it. But I know I’ll be bawling as they take me out of here. Because as much as I complain about how hard it can be to live and work here, it’s become my home.

Keeping Kitties Safe from Gris-gris

Once again, it’s Oro season. That time of year when I have to leave my village or stay inside while a cult of machete-wielding men run around with impunity. It’s both cooler and way, way less cool than it sounds.
Unfortunately, this year it comes right in the middle of my very last week in village, which means one less day for me to say my goodbyes.
But such is life in West Africa: nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, goes according to plan.

In honor of the time when Vodun (Voodoo) is most visible in my community, I thought I’d share how we in Daagbé protect our furry friends from voodoo. First of all, most people don’t have dogs. Pets aren’t friends – they are food, or they eat pests. There’s no sense in sentimentalizing animals that you’re going to eat, or for whom there is a high percentage that they’ll die or disappear. That being said, cats are a relatively common household animal, since they eat mice and rats.

But cats (among many other animals) are used sometimes in gris-gris.
This is the form of voodoo that Americans might call “black magic” – it’s sorcery, used to hurt someone. Most voodoo priests will tell you that this goes against their religion, which is mostly true. But people use it against those suspected of theft or other bad behaviors.
I’m not sure how common it is to gris-gris someone, since most Beninese do not like to talk about it with anyone, let alone a nosy foreigner who wouldn’t understand anyway. I have been able to confirm that some people use cats in some sort of sacrifice. I also know that people eat cats sometimes, though I’ve never been able to confirm if the two are related. My guess is not.

In any case, there is a way for a conscientious cat owner to protect their feline from being stolen for use in ceremonies: cut off part of its ear, or the tip of its tail. Apparently, a cat with a large visible scar like that cannot be used in voodoo ceremonies.

So if you own a cat and you live in my little corner of West Africa, be kind. Cut off part of your cat’s ear.

Camp BRO

First, I apologize for the lack of updates. I have a medical issue that is currently making it difficult to type. But I wanted to bring you the amazing video from Camp BRO! This camp, which stands for Boys Respecting Others, is held every year in Ouidah, in the south of Benin. While I could only be there one of the days, I’m so proud to have been part of it.

The boys learned the life skills to become leaders in their communities and to become part of the solution to gender inequality in this country. And they had a ton of fun! Enjoy! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p3WI2ySTYuw

It’s Finally Here!

I’m talking, of course, about Camp GLOW! Girls Leading Our World starts today! After much prep work and stress we’ll finally get to meet the amazing girls we’ll work with this week.

Sessions planned include goal setting, family planning, women’s and children’s rights, study skills, nutrition, malaria prevention, HIV/AIDS prevention, and public speaking. The girls will also get to visit the National Assembly and Royal Palace, and there’s a professional women’s panel. And of course we’ll be singing songs, doing silly dances, tie-dying, playing games and sports, and having  fun!

We can’t wait to meet these future leaders of Benin!

#SupportOurGirls

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