Oil of Life

Palm oil is central to life in southern Benin. It is used in Vodoun (traditional religion) ceremonies. It is used to cook with. It is used as the main export. It is practically impossible to go two days in a row without eating it in some manner. It is the main agricultural product from my village, and one of the only ones that is made in enough quantities to sell (most other products are sold, but are sold to local markets and are still consumed within the area).

So what is palm oil? And how do you make it?

It comes from palm trees. Americans (at least those of us from the Midwest) typically use the word “palm tree” to cover a variety of trees with fronds. In this case, palm oil comes from the fruits/nuts of these trees (photo courtesy of Wikipedia):


The oil comes from the fruit, which grows in a sort of spiky, pine-cone-like pod, like this (photo courtesy of palmplantations.com.au)


Or, once you climb up a tree (if it’s old enough to be tall), and cut them down with a machete, they look like this (all photos mine from this point forward):


From there, you hack at the pine cone with a machete, to loosen the fruits. When you’ve done this, you are left with the fruits:

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And the core of the pine cone, which you can use as fire wood:


From there, you boil and pound the fruits, to get the red pulp of the fruit. You eventually get the woody fibers from the fruit to separate from the pulp.

DSCF3943(woody fibers, which can be dried and used as kindling for fires).

After that, there is a process of mixing, sometimes by hand or foot, and heating, and mixing again. Then you filter the oil.

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mixing the oil


it’s a messy business!

DSCF3928 DSCF3929 heating the oil over the fire



Eventually, you get a thick, deep red oil, which drives economic activity in Daagbé and is central to every day life.

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For more information about palm oil’s nutrition content check out this NPR story, which also has great links to data on how much palm oil the US imports (2.7 billion pounds!) and the environmental concerns surrounding its production.


Kitty Voodoo Protection – photos

I previously wrote about how pet owners in Benin protect their animals from being taken and used in Vodoun (aka Voodoo aka the local animist religion) ceremonies: they cut off a tip of the ear or tail, so that the animal is no longer “perfect” and therefore of no ceremonial value. Below are some photos of my host family’s newest cat, Minou.

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Photo Update to Voting Post

I posted a while back about how a country deals with voter registration when the majority of the population is illiterate. Now that I have fast internet and no grant proposals to take up my internet time, I have a photo update to that post. Below is an example of a voter registration location. It’s occasionally used as a Koranic school, and on school days you can often find students there, relaxing during breaks from school if they live too far to walk home for lunch.

Unfortunately a petite accidentally deleted the close-up photo of the registration rolls, which is mostly just a black and white photocopied head shot, I believe taken from the national ID card photo rolls, a name, and a village/neighborhood.

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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.

Being a Sports Fan in an African Village

Within five minutes of meeting me, people usually know that I love Duke and Duke basketball. I can’t help it – my love for sports, and for my alma mater, are deep and I have an irresistable urge to share it with every person I meet.

I’m also an almost rabid fan of the Indiana Pacers, Indianapolis Colts, and Indiana University basketball. Sports is a major part of my life – both in terms of taking up a large part of my time when I’m in the US, and in terms of my identity.

So when I realized that my dream of being in the Peace Corps was going to conflict with my ability to follow not only my favorite teams, but sports in general, I had to take several calming breaths while re-watching SportsCenter for the third time that day.

While being in Benin, I have not followed my teams nearly as much as I would like. But I’ve had the fortune to follow them a bit. Last year, I got to see the home Duke-UNC game at the workstation, back when ESPN still had service in Africa. I got to see twenty minutes of a Pacers game. I saw a grand total of 2 hours of March Madness games (though sadly none of them were Duke, though since we didn’t do well that may be for the best).

This year, I WENT TO A GAME IN CAMERON BECAUSE MY BOYFRIEND IS AMAZING. I will not apologize for the all-caps in that statement, because watching a game in Cameron is like nothing else, but when you’ve been basically starved for all sports, it’s a bit like having been stuck on a desert island and suddenly the cast and crew of Top Chef turn up to make you a gourmet meal which you then get to eat with Padma and Anthony Bourdain. On New Years Eve, I was able to watch a RANKED Duke football team (you read that correctly. Football) play in a bowl game. I saw the first ten minutes and (some of) last ten minutes of the Colts playoff thriller while in the Indianapolis and Detroit airports.

And last night, I was sort of able to watch the Duke-Syracuse game that is an instant classic. The streaming site I had was slow and the video was so patchy I missed a lot of the first half, but I could hear the ESPN announcers and I saw, if somewhat haltingly, most of the second half and overtime.

That I can tell you about every basketball game I’ve seen while here is not unusual for me, because basketball is my second religion. But the fact that I can do so in only a few paragraphs is testament to how difficult it can be to be a sports fan in a country that doesn’t understand the sports you like and doesn’t have quick internet access.

Being in Benin has forced me to become much more zen about my sports passions. Because I can no longer read souting reports, and watch every game, and watch replays of certain possessions or opponents or players, I can take a much more long-term view of my teams. So the fact that the Colts lost in the second round of the playoffs doesn’t bother me because I’m able to look at our season as a whole, and the direction we’re headed for next season and the next five years.

But it also makes me focus on details, because I get so few of them. I will remember commentary from a game recap I read back in November, though the game and the commentary may not have said anything important or even still relevant, it’s a major force in shaping my opinion about the team. I miss things, especially trades and pop culture moments, like the Seahawks player who gave a crazy post-game interview or something. And I miss entire teams turning around. I found out today that apparently UVA’s basketball team is good? Total surprise.

Being a basketball and American football team in Benin is tough. Heck, being a soccer fan in Benin is tough when there is no longer a bar in your village so you have to leave village to watch international matches. (We’ll see how this goes during the World Cup).

But my love of sports runs deep and provides a link to home, a link to my American self. So if it means staying up till four in the morning to watch a grainy, halting online stream of a game, I’ll be there.