Sunday, August 26, 2007

2 weeks of news

finally, i'm figuring out how to blog from benin...

August 9, 2007

I’ve been in Cotonou about 24 hours now. Sitting in my room, alone at the “guest house” (which is really a hotel), I can hear voices and music outside. If I just listen to the sounds and rhythm of the music, it could easily be mistaken for what I would hear on one of the Hispanic stations back home.
Today I asked Josue some questions. I learned that he is 34 and his wife Prisca is 31. They have been married for 4 years and dated for 6 years, though they hid their love from one another for one year before that. They met in a YFC club in high school. Josue came from a poor family. Prisca’s family had money, which is one reason why she kept her love for Josue a secret. She did not think she could marry a poor man. Prisca received a scholarship to study insurance in Cameroon. Josue studied to be a vet in Cotonou. They married when Prisca returned to Cotonou, and now they have a 15 month old son, Isaac. Josue became a Christian while he was in secondary school in Togo (where he lived with his family only briefly). When Josue returned to Cotonou in high school, he found there was a YFC club, and he became a member. He then became a leader. After studying to be a vet, Josue answered God’s calling to be in full time ministry, which was a considerable sacrifice for him. He has been the National Director of YFC Benin for maybe a year, and is “surely” on his way to being the Regional Director for West Africa. I think he will be a good leader. He is quiet and strong, but sometimes his face lights up and you can see the love in his heart.
Josue took me to the immigration office today, where we spoke with one of his friends. I am told that I will apply for a work permit so that it will not be a problem for me to renew my visa for a second year. It also seems that I will need to leave the country every 3 months, but that won’t be a problem, as Josue has already made plans for us to go to Burkina Faso this fall.
Today we also tried to purchase a phone. I bought a simple small Samsung cell phone for 38,000 CFA (or $80). AH! It’s expensive, but I hope it is a one time expense. I do not have a phone number yet because I still must purchase a SIM card. This is what is used to charge minutes. I can make international calls as well, which uses additional minutes. I wonder about text messages. I am not charged minutes when I receive a call, though.
I went to the internet café and purchased 1 hour of use for 500 CFA. I think that is probably pretty cheap. It was very slow. I did get to send out a quick email to a few friends and family, though, to let them know I am here and I am safe. I will go back tomorrow.
I saw the school where I think I will be teaching English. I like it very much. I hope I am a good teacher and that I am able to serve these people well. They are so good and so beautiful.
My skin is still itching quite a bit. I don’t know if it’s hives from nerves or something else. After taking a shower tonight (my first real shower since arriving… this morning was my first experience in using a bucket and bowl of water when there is too little water for showering), I put on various lotions and took a benedryl. I expect the drowsiness will kick in soon.
Tomorrow I hope to look for housing. Maybe I can go to an internet café while Josue is on his “coaching call” at 10. I’m hoping to get some expat’s phone numbers so I can see about moving in with one of them for the short term. I don’t know if it would be better for me to live with Americans and then commute to Akpakpa, or to live in Akpakpa. If I commute, I think I will buy a moto, as they are much less expensive than a car would be. Motos range from $800-$1500, and I budgeted $1000. No one wears helmets, and the traffic is crazy, but the pace is relatively slow (probably because the roads are so bad), so I think it would be safe enough for me to drive. It’s interesting. I felt sure I’d want to distance myself from other Americans and to live with the locals I’m working with… but now that I’m here, the thought of living with other Americans is very appealing. Living near the people I serve is safe because they would know me, but living with Americans could be safer than living alone. I hope I know what to do. I will tell Josue what I am thinking.
I asked Josue tonight if he liked American food. He smiled and said yes, that his favorite is Chipotle. I can’t wait to tell Crissy.
Well, the music downstairs has stopped. It’s nearly 11:00pm. I think I will try to sleep.
August 11, 2007
Last night I had my first expat experience, and I learned a lot. There seem to be two types of Americans here. The Peace Corps type, that are totally integrated, or as much as they can be, and the other type (working for NGO’s and businesses) that still live pretty western lives. I was with the second type last night. They wore designer jeans, carried purses, drove SUV’s, and live in apartments with hot water and air conditioning. One of the girls lives about 15 minutes outside of Cotonou on the beach and said I could live with her if I wanted. She is scheduled to be here 11 more months. The idea is appealing and I think I have enough in common with the girl… at least I would at home… but do I have enough in common with her here? Are our priorities the same? One of the other girls that is leaving warned me that expats charge way too much for rooms. She also said that her one piece of advice was not to live with the girl near the beach. She said it’s too isolated and that I would get sucked into the expat world and miss out on the local scene. I wonder if that is true? The difference in my situation is that I’ll actually be working with locals, not with other expats… so living with expats could help to strike some kind of a balance. Or it could just complicate things, leaving me feeling caught in a great divide.
Transportation is something else I really need to figure out carefully. Everyone says to where helmets, even if you feel like a dork for being the only person wearing one. I was also told never to ride zemi’s (moto taxi’s) at night. Lots of peace corps volunteers have been mugged from the backs of zemi’s. Great. PCV’s aren’t even allowed to purchase zemi’s because there have been too many PCV deaths associated with them. Again… grrreat. Apparently a car is the way to go. It is the only way to travel safely at night. I didn’t budget for a car, so I don’t know what to do yet.
I met many of the YFC volunteers today. They held a welcoming ceremony for me. I was very touched and overwhelmed by their graciousness and prayers. They asked if I was married and had kids or a family. One boy asked what I planned to do to continue to help them after I leave in two years. Josue said he was thinking too far ahead… I said he was thinking like an American. That the Americans are always living in the future and the Beniniose live in the present. Most of the volunteers are still in school, meaning I’m older than all of them. That isn’t really a surprise… it is YOUTH for Christ, but I wonder if I’ll have friends my age?
Tonight is my first night to stay with Josue’s family. They have a 2 bedroom apartment, so there is room, but the second room is their storage room. They had to work hard to make a place for me today. I want to try to find a place to live as soon as possible so I don’t get in their way.
Another thing I learned from the expats is that you have to iron everything here, even towels and underwear. The reason being, that when clothes are hanging out to dry, a certain parasite can lay eggs on them (I read about this before coming) and so you have to iron everything to make sure none of the parasites burrow into your skin. (Sigh).
I haven’t talked to anyone from home since I got here. I’m fine with that because I trust they’re all okay, but I imagine it’s a little more stressful for them not to hear from me. Even at internet café’s, the connection is spotty. The last two times I’ve tried to email my friends and family, the internet has quit working. So frustrating. As I’m writing this, I’m thinking I really could be better off living with other Americans. At the same time, when I was with the YFC volunteers today, I found myself wanting to imitate them as much as possible so we would have more in common. I’m so confused. I need to email the other missionaries in the area tomorrow and ask them if they have any housing ideas. I know I can’t expect all the answers at once. I’m praying God will make His intentions very clear, as I feel each decision I make has major implications.
One other thing I forgot to mention, I asked Josue if the Beninoise dislike Americans. He said, no, they dislike the French. The French, he said, hide what they are thinking… but Americans cannot hide their thoughts. So true. I’m glad he sees that as a good thing.
August 12, 2007
I can’t sleep, so I thought I’d write some more. I’m really impressed to see how aware Josue is of both his situation and mine. Today when he spoke to the volunteers about me, he made a point to explain that I am here only because I raised money from supporters, and that YFC is not funding my work. His point was that I am not here as a rich American, and that if the volunteers have various financial problems, they should not ask me for help. I added that they could ask for prayer, because I want them to feel like they can approach me, but his point was very well made. I know that the financial needs of those here are greater than my own, and I can’t imagine how I would discern who to help and who not to if I were asked for help regularly. If I did have money to give, I imagine I would give it to YFC Benin and then it could be distributed appropriately and anonymously. We’ll have to see how my budget looks after a few months.
Josue’s pastor Benjamin and his wife Julienne came over tonight. When Josue mentioned to them that we are looking for a place for me to live, Jeanine said she knew of a 2 bedroom place. I think we may go look at it tomorrow or Monday. The more I think about it, the more I think a 2 bedroom apartment would be best. Partly because I know I will have visitors, friends, family and YFC people. It would be great to let my apartment serve as an open door for Americans to come and learn about Benin and the ministry here. Also, though, I’m thinking of the interns YFC may be sending this year and next. I can tell that Josue does not know about them, so I have not said anything. I do not want to build up his hopes until the interns are more certain. I’m wondering if it would be appropriate for them to stay with me, even though both candidates are boys. I wonder how that would appear from the outside? I would imagine, in the missionary world, to have two young single adults of the opposite sex living together would be frowned upon… but I think in this particular situation, it would actually be the safest option for both parties (but especially for me, since I am a woman, and women here never live alone).
Today for lunch I had goat for the first time. Meat here is served with the skin on. Last night I had pork and the skin was pink/orange with hairs. I haven’t eaten the skin, but people here do.
Josue and I went through my expenses today. I’m going to have just enough to get by on each month, but I don’t have enough for my upfront expenses. This will be okay… I need to re-arrange some… but I know it will be okay. It is stressful, though. This really is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
August 13, 2007
Again, I have learned a lot today. Actually, starting last night… I asked Josue what he wanted to see in Africa 10 years from now. He said he would like to see a place where no one is hungry, everyone goes to school, and women are respected. We talked about how it would be difficult for Africa to strike a balance between becoming developed without becoming like the US. For instance, I told him, it is so easy to have internet in the US, even if you are poor, but here you have to drive 10 minutes to a cyber café just to get a slow connection. It seems like it would be easy enough to make internet more accessible to people in Africa, but it would also expose them to more Western culture, and they could risk losing some of their own identity. On top of that, because Africa is a continent of many nations and cultures, it’s not like it has one singular identity to preserve that everyone can rally behind. It’s not like China, smaller and insulated. So how do you become more developed while protecting so many cultures?
I also went to church yesterday. Here, people pray aloud and pray often. One person will say, “Let us thank God for giving us food,” and everyone will then start praying to God aloud, “In the name of Jesus, we thank you for food. In the name of Jesus, we thank you that we can eat. In the name of Jesus, we thank you for providing for our needs…” and so on. Then they’ll go to the next topic… health, spiritual warfare, the church. It can take anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour or more. Today I met with some of the volunteers to pray for the camp, and I think we prayed for at least an hour. Last night, Josue, Prisca and I prayed before bed for the coming week. We prayed especially for baby Isaac. Josue and Prisca both had a dream (along with Julienne, Pastor Benjamin’s wife) that someone was making plans to attack Isaac. Spiritual warfare is very real in Benin (and Africa). I’ve only heard about it so far, but I know it’s real. I guess I’m gearing up mentally for what that may look like. Anyway, we prayed for Isaac’s protection.
This morning Josue and I started “orientation.” I really am very impressed by his wisdom and business savvy. He started by asking me questions about my coming here and what he could have done better to help me prepare. Did he call often enough? Email often enough? Prepare well enough? It’s clear that he’s thinking ahead and we’re learning together. Then we went over my job description (I know I should have seen this sooner, but I hadn’t… my title is “Social Development Department Coordinator” and I like it, ha). It looks like teaching English will only take maybe 30% of my time. The rest of the time, Josue wants me to oversee all the social projects they have going on, record the measurables for the programs, write project proposals for funding, and find ways the programs can improve. I’m psyched about this, as I love to manage programs, but I’m also like, “Who am I to tell people how to run their programs?” Already, they are measuring everything. How many people come to every meeting, what is discussed, what is decided, what are the action items. I don’t know where Josue got his training, but it will be very easy to get grant money and be accountable for it. I am so pleased.
We also went over the different topics that volunteers and interns have to discuss before taking leadership roles. It’s a pretty extensive list. It’s interesting, because Josue is my supervisor, but he will not argue with my beliefs if they differ from his. One of the points of discussion for volunteers and interns is “Theological view of abortion, homosexuality and ecology.” That spurred on an interesting conversation.
Josue asked what my interests and needs are. I told him about how I love to sing, I love to work with people, but women especially, I love languages, etc. I told him one thing I need is a mentor, and while he will certainly serve in that role at times, I would really like to have a female mentor, and maybe even an American. He said he believed this is important and that he would call a Mennonite missionary he knows here. He also said that he heard that the American Christians get together on Sunday afternoons for fellowship. Cool! I later confirmed this when I called Judy, a missionary from Kentucky. She said a group does get together, though she’s not a part of it (I get the feeling she’s the type to steer clear of expats), as well as an expat group that plays softball on Saturday’s near the airport (that’s kinda far away, but I’ll go after I get back from camp… YAY!) Anyway, I’m glad that Josue is being so mindful of my needs.
I met Theresa today, a Peace Corps Volunteer that just finished her service. She’s from Maryland (Carol County), and we’ve been emailing for several months. She rocks. She’s definitely the typical PCV fully integrated type… to the point where she’s actually living with and engaged to a Beninoise named Betrand. We met at Etoile Rouge (Red Star), which is a monument from the Benin’s communist days. From there, we took zemi’s (moto taxis) to a pretty western restaurant. This was my first zemi experience, and it was fun! And it cost 200 CFA (less than $0.50). I didn’t eat because I’d had a big late lunch (a word about food later…), but she had a burger and fries. Yum. I will definitely go back there later for a burger fix.
So, food. Okay. It’s not bad. I definitely like everything that I’ve eaten out. I love the fish. Today for lunch I had (whole) fish with tomatoes and onions, some kind of something that seemed like spinach and tofu (it’s not, but that’s what it tasted like) plantains and some other mushy stuff. I ate a lot. I was relieved because I wasn’t sure I could eat whatever Prisca might be cooking for dinner. That’s a bit of an over generalization. I’ve only had one thing I didn’t like… dinner last night. Bleh. It was fish and leaves, and it was slimy and gross. There were several kinds of fish, including crab, which Josue and Prisca just bit into and then spit out the pieces of shell (I know they ate some of the shell too). I wanted to try, but I’ve already nearly cracked 2 teeth in the past week, so I decided not to. Really, I’m flossing every morning and night because my teeth have been hurting. I want to be experimental, but I also want to be careful. I find that I’m erring more on the side of safety than I’m used to. I think this is partly because I’m older (more set in my ways, I guess) and partly because I know I’m staying more than 2 weeks. It’s easier to take risks when you know it’s a one-time deal.
Back to my discussion with Theresa. After talking with her, I’m going to hold off on buying a car. She said that yes, people get mugged on motos, but that’s because any American on any zemi or any street or even getting into a car at 3 AM is going to get mugged. Other than that, it’s safe. She’s been here 2 years and riding zemis the whole time. Anyway, I think I’ll try it for a month, see how it goes, and then reconsider. Talking with her made me feel like maybe I wasn’t overly naive in coming here thinking a positive attitude, open mind and big heart could get me through. She’s got a lot of energy. I’m definitely not her, but it’s refreshing and encouraging to talk to her. She said it’s not easy. That the first three months would be the hardest, and the next would be harder than that. That at 6 months I’d think, ‘maybe I can make it through,’ and one year would be the make it or break it point. She said it’s hard at first. That even after living here for two years, it was hard when she moved into her new apartment because she had to put herself out there all over again to meet people and build relationships. To find her local tomatoes lady, her local laundry girl, etc. To know the neighbors. But once you do that, it’s better. It’s takes longer to build relationships because I’m a “yovo” (local word for white person), but it’ll come.
There is so much to take in.
August 14, 2007
Some things I forgot to mention yesterday… When Josue and I talked about the social programs, we discussed their method of HIV/AIDS training. I asked if they teach abstinence only, or condoms too. He said they only teach abstinence. He said they had a grant from Geneva Global to do the trainings, and that they held 6 workshops a year, one for each of the following groups: parents, students, peer educators, pastors, people that have contracted HIV/AIDS, and another I forget. He says the grant from GG has finished, and they have asked for a new proposal. I asked him, if the funding required that condoms be taught as well (since sometimes that is the case) what would he do? He said he would teach condoms if that were the case. I asked him if men here only kept one wife or several. He said that the Muslims here sometimes take 2 wives, that in tribes a man may have 3 wives, but that most people in the city (and all Christians) only take one wife. I asked him if the men had any relations outside of marriage. He said that men often have a “second office,” which refers to their mistress. He said this is the case less so with Christians, and that he believes the best way to put a stop to the practice is to influence the young people.
Another thing I learned (from Theresa) is that Cotonou shuts down during the rainy season. Right now, we’re in the short dry season, which lasts through August. I’m hoping that I’ll have an apartment by the time the next rainy season hits in September. Theresa says it’s the equivalent of having snow days. That if you have an appointment at 10:30, the people will call at 10:20 (if at all) to say they are not coming. I hope I can find some good books before the rainy season. Maybe I should ask mom to go ahead and send mine. Otherwise, I hear the American Cultural Center has a library. I’ll have to check that out.
August 16, 2007
TIAC—This Is Africa Camp. (I’m referencing Blood Diamond and Mike’s Rwanda blog in part…) We were to leave the house this morning at 8:30 to meet the youth at the school and leave for the camp. Instead, we got to the school around 10am only to find that many more people had come than we had anticipated. After a few hours of driving all over Akpakpa and making a few final arrangements, we piled 40 kids into 2 vans. Amazing. Driving through the countryside to Lokossa was beautiful—like what you would imagine Africa should look like. We had to pull over a few times, once so 4 boys and a girl could pee. I had to laugh. First of all, the kids were all so dressed up. When I think of ‘camp,’ I think grunge clothes. But no. Girls were in dresses and one boy was in a suit and tie with bright white leather shoes—I kid you not. All just to crowd into a van and sweat for 3 hours! So when we pulled over with no trees near by, this poor girl just pulled up her skirt and took care of business! Each time we pulled over, small children on the side of the road would wave at me and yell, “Yovo! Yovo!!” This is the local word for white person.
The camp is being held at a state university campus and we are staying in the dorms. The campus is pretty, but the facilities are awful. Makes Graham Lees look like the Ritz. Josue says that in Africa, they can build buildings, but they can’t seem to maintain them. The bathrooms aren’t working, lizards are everywhere (I thought they were cute the first day I arrived to Cotonou) and I have a mouse as a roommate. Josue asked if I wanted to state by myself or with the girls. I told him I’d stay with the girls, as it will help me to build relationships and to learn French. My roommate (other than the mouse) is Pelagie. She doesn’t speak much English, so we’re a perfect pair. Hopefully we’ll both learn a lot in the 10 days we’re here. Anyway, after Josue saw the condition of the dorms, he took me to a little apartment on the campus with a full bed (even with sheets!), a proper bathroom and air conditioning. He told me I could stay there if I wanted. Ah! I knew I couldn’t, though. It’s too important that I stay with the other girls. I’m already so set apart. But wow, 10 days of this will be trying. I can hear my mouse friend now… It’s funny… this morning as I was showering with my bucket and bowl, I thought I was finally acclimating some. Now I feel like I have to start all over again. Maybe after this I’ll be a pro. Lord, grant me endurance and patience, please.
August 17, 2007
Today I helped lead worship for part of the morning. Amazingly enough, I may be one of the better guitar players here. I don’t have any of my music with me, so it’s only what I know by heart. I think I am being well received by the kids. More people are starting to speak to me. Pelagie, my roommate, says I’m learning French faster than she is learning English, but I told her that’s only because I had more room for improvement. I told Josue today that I need time alone at night. I’m participating in everything else, but at night my mind is tired. I want to write and sing in English and pray and get cleaned up with a bit of privacy. He understood instantly and I’m relieved.
The kids here are so mature. I suppose it is because they bear more responsibility sooner than kids back home. When they talk about faith and scripture, they ask very deep questions, and when they answer, their words are their own and not what someone else has said to them. This is always such a frustration for me in the US, and so it’s humbling to find such enlightenment in a developing country. And who am I to be surprised? What is it that is holding these great minds back? How can I be of service? What is Good??
August 19, 2007
The rain started today. August is supposed to be the short dry season, followed by rains in September, but man, it is raining. One of the guys remarked today that I’m always laughing at meal times. “It’s easy to know where Lauren sits at meals because she is always laughing.” Ah, that makes me feel good. I might not have noticed I’m back to my laughing self if someone hadn’t pointed it out to me. And meals are funny. Everyone walks past me and says “enjoy your meal!!” with so much enthusiasm, I can hardly take a bite before another person comes up to say the same thing… “Sister Lauren! Enjoy your meal!!” They say this instead of “bon apetite,” but they don’t realize that rarely in the US do we comment on meals at all… so while they are making an effort to make me feel at home, it actually just calls attention to our differences, which has an endearing effect.
I’ve been reading the Poisonwood Bible. I don’t know if that’s the best idea, as it hits a little too close to home from time to time and I feel like the characters’ moods can influence my own. But it’s the only thing I have to read other than an Economist from two weeks back. I should have mom send my books soon, but I wanted to wait till I found a place to live, and there is no room for them at Josue’s house. Anyway, it’s weird how true to life parts of the Poisonwood Bible are. People really do wear brightly colored “pagnes” and say “kakakaka” when they knock. To Josue’s son Isaac, I am “Tata Lauren” just like I would be in the book.
I’ve started learning Fon. It’s a fun language. Very soft… like what you’d hear in Hawaii. Welcome is “miguabo,” but you don’t really pronounce the ‘b.’ Come is “wa” and go is “yee.” These are just phonetic spellings, since it’s not a literary language. It’s only spoken. Well, it can be written, it just isn’t because it’s taught in the home and not in school. Literate people read French since that’s what’s taught in school. The kids (adults too) think it’s so funny when I say the words, but I think the pronunciation is easier than French. Probably because French words have so many silent letters that I want to pronounce, which I don’t think about with Fon since I can’t picture the spelling of the words in my head.
August 20, 2007
Today I received my first “pagne” which is a piece of fabric 2 meters long and 1 meter wide. It is the wardrobe staple here. It’s usually worn around the waist as a skirt, but can also be tied under the arms as a dress or folded in half and tied around the chest and belly to carry a baby on your back. It’s really very practical. Pelagie, my roommate, tied mine for me before dinner. Everyone got a kick out of it. I think I’ll wear it tomorrow for the whole day. At home you can wear a pagne with a t-shirt or tank top, but to work or school you have to wear it with matching top, sewn very simply, to be presentable at all. Otherwise, I’d wear one every day to work. But I think it’s actually a good thing for me to dress in my “yovo” clothes most of the time. Dressing like a local won’t make me a local, so I might as well be myself.
Some of things people wear here crack me up. My favorite is the little girl that wears the girl scout shirt. She has no clue what those little green faces mean, or that they are faces at all. One boy has a shirt that says, “Does my belly look big in this?” Which I think is supposed to be like a girl asking, “Does this make me look fat?” Lots of guys wear polo shirts with things like “U-Haul” embroidered on them, again, with no clue what they’re wearing. And yet they take all our hand-me-downs and make them look so much more regal. Really, I look like a slob in my trendy out-doorsy clothes next to them.
I just about had a mental break-down today. I think it’s because I skipped my alone time last night. Josue must have picked up on it because he said he wanted to talk with me and pray with me. We had a good discussion. I was very honest and pretty emotional. I’d been hesitant to let him know how discouraged I’m feeling because I worry that he’ll worry or that he’ll feel responsible, when really it’s normal for me to be homesick, overwhelmed and sad. The hardest thing is my lack of independence. I feel so dependant on the very people I came to serve, I can’t imagine how I’ll ever be a blessing to them. I mean, really, who am I to think I can be helpful? But I know God has to have some purpose for my life here. I mean, just over a year ago I didn’t even know Benin was a country. Anyway, my discussion with Josue highlighted the fact that we need to make it a priority to find housing for me when we return. I want to make a home, and soon. And he wasn’t at all freaked out by my emotional state, but very understanding.
August 21, 2007
It’s amazing how many emotions I can go through in a day. Today was mostly good, but I got pretty homesick around lunch time, for Lorraine specifically for some reason, and then my whole Bible study group back home. Part of me is glad to miss Lorraine because it reminds me to pray for her and reminds me that she is praying for me. It connects us. But I miss the companionship we share.
Today was the first day I felt a strong sense of purpose. Josue started talking to the kids about sexuality yesterday, and today he asked me to talk about rape. He knows I’ve worked with sexually assaulted women in college, and I think he wanted a woman to lead the discussion. I was so nervous. I got up on stage, looking out at about 100 faces, not really knowing what to say or how to start. But my goodness, they were hanging on my every word. I’ve seen them tune me out on other topics, but not this time. They asked some really difficult questions. It was a challenge, but so worth it. I think the discussion will continue when I get back to Cotonou, including a support group for sexually assaulted women.
Then at dinner tonight, several of the guys were crowded around me wanting to speak English. I’ve learned a lot in short amount I’ve time I’ve had with the kids. They can read English well and they several can translate from French to English very well. Hearing English is much more difficult. The two major things we need to work on are listening comprehension and pronunciation. I have several ideas for this, and I’m as eager to get started teaching as they are to learn.
August 22, 2007
I’ve been here two weeks now, almost to the minute. It feels like much longer—mostly in a good way. I feel more at home than just two weeks. It will be sad to go back to Cotonou Friday partly… to no longer have the luxury of constant entertainment, friends and a roommate. I have made some very dear friends. Chief among them are Pelagie, Augustin, Alexis, David, Jucascar and Yves. Basically, all the leaders. They’re all closer to my age too. Alexis is finished with school (he’s an accountant) and is 29. He works for YFC Benin part-time as the bookkeeper. Jucascar is 24 and is starting college this fall and I think Yves is in college too. Augustin is 25 and Pelagie is 22; they are both finished with high school but have yet to pass the baccalaureate exam, so they are not yet in college. That seems to be pretty common, to the point where most people start college at the age we graduate in the US.
It’s funny… as much as I love these friends and feel a true sense of comraderie, I’m reminded of our differences by the kinds of questions they ask. Pelagie asked me today what other local languages we speak in the US. I explained their were no local languages. “You mean, you speak English in the home?!” She was surprised. One of the youth, Rocky, asked me if we have any traditional dances in the US. I tried to explain that many of Africa’s traditions date back long before the US was ever established. That our “traditions” are babies compared to theirs. Baseball. Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. Apple (or preferably rhubarb) pie.
I wish I had a field guide for Benin. There are SO many lizards. Mostly chameleons, I think. The spiders I’ve seen in Lokossa are mostly black with bright yellow stripes, but the ones back in Cotonou are brown and extremely large and flat. They almost look like crabs or star fish the way their arms/legs stick out. I’ve yet to kill one spider because I figure they’re much more useful alive, eating insects. There are also these things that I suppose are cockroaches, but their so big, it’s hard to tell. They look like they’ve been around since the dinosaurs. Chickens and roosters roam around everywhere, as do goats, even in the city. Roosters crow all day long.
August 23, 2007
Three things I’ve been meaning to note:
1. There are no mirrors here. I never realized how much we use mirrors at home till I arrived here to find none.
2. My mosquito netting mocks me each night. It’s white tulle, and the way it’s gathered at the head of the bed, it’s extremely reminiscent of a wedding veil. Au contraire.
3. All things smell sour. Even my quick try towel smelled sour after just 2 days. I think I will smell like mildew forever.
That all being said, at night I walk back to the dorms alone and breathe in deep. I look up at the stars, the same ones my everyone can see back home. Orion’s belt, Sirius and Beetlejuice are all pretty prominent right now. I can’t find Cassiopeia, though. Anyway, it’s at that time that I’m very romanced by Africa. I want to become more a part of it.
I am a walking paradox.
August 24, 2007
Well I’m back in Cotonou, and home does seem sweet. I’m sure I’ll miss the luxury of a functioning shower head in the morning… back to using buckets and bowls… but it’s nice to sleep with a fan and to breathe in without feeling the mildew penetrate my lungs. (Can mildew do that I wonder?) Yes, I was sad to leave the camp, but I am so glad to be back.
This morning we had breakfast (bread and butter, like every day) and packed before meeting for songs, prayer, and a great commissioning of course. Seriously, it’s always an exciting culmination to talk and train all week and then send people out into the world to share what they’ve learned. Maybe staff meetings should end in commissioning ceremonies.
I got some great pictures I’ll have to post. Looking at my camera is the first time I’ve seen myself all week. Oh, my. Plane Jane. I traded phone numbers with a few of my closer friends. It wasn’t too bad saying goodbye because I know I’ll see them all at Anthelme’s wedding tomorrow morning. Prisca gave me one of her outfits to wear. It’s blue and orange and African. I love it.
The drive back with Josue was good. We discussed my impressions of the camp and the youth. I told him I felt the camp was very Spirit led and flexible, which was good (though it probably wouldn’t have worked so well back home). For instance, while Josue intended to address many topics at the camp, it became clear during his talk on sexuality that the kids were really eager to discuss the topic more… so we did. The rest of the camp practically centered around issues of sex. Parents don’t talk to their kids about sex, so all they know is what they learn in Biology class or from personal experience and others’ stories. Boy, are there a lot of stories. Sex is used like currency here. Because primary school is free here, but secondary school cost money (and is not compulsory), girls that can’t afford school will sleep with a man in exchange for tuition. It’s only half considered prostitution. I mean, I think one would say that’s what it is if asked, but that’s not how it’s portrayed. Sexual harassment is extremely prevalent in the schools as well. We also talked about abortion, which is illegal here, and thus extremely unsafe. Rape is common, but rarely reported. I’m glad the kids felt they had a safe place to talk about all this. I’m sure the discussion will continue throughout the year.
I asked Josue random questions during our drive. What drugs are commonly used in Benin? Cocaine, marijuana and hash. How are disabilities handled here? Half the children born with disabilities are killed at birth. There are 4 schools in the entire country for the deaf and blind. Houses in Cotonou generally cost $60,000. I told Josue I’d like to start an orientation program next week for myself… to get some of the youth to take me around the city so I can go to market, learn what (and where) is safe to eat, learn how to handle zemi-drivers and haggle over prices… survival skills, really. He agreed. I’m glad the kids aren’t back in school yet. We also talked about searching in earnest for a home for me in Akpakpa. We finally got home around 8pm after dropping some kids off and unloading all our equipment. I think we’re all pretty exhausted, but I am really looking forward to tomorrow’s festivities.
August 25, 2007
Weddings here are long. It’s like a cross between the US and Karachi. First of all, everything has to be said in French and Fon (as with all church services here), so it takes twice as long to do anything. There’s a section for “adoration” where the bride and groom take turns reading to one another, a mix of scripture and love letters. The part that was most different, though, was the “action de grace.” The bride and groom walk to the back of the congregation together, along with their families, and then walk back in to music and dancing. Seriously, it was like a mamba-line (cha-cha-cha!) in the middle of the wedding. The bride happens to sing in the choir, so she actually had a microphone and sang as they all walked down the isle together. The rest of the congregation then follows suit, dancing down the isle, and then they give money to the bride and groom. This is after an offering has been taken, so it’s basically two offerings in one ceremony. Then the congregation can come to the front again to give gifts to the bride and groom. So everything is in front of everyone. Also, many of the Christians here don’t kiss when they are dating or engaged, so Altheme kissed his bride for the first time in front of the whole church today at his wedding. It’s not that the Christians here believe kissing is a sin, but that one thing can lead to another, so it’s better to be safe than sorry. Wow.
After the wedding, which lasted 3 hours (and started late, of course… some people strolled in 2 hours late!) we went out for lunch and came home for a much needed nap.
Tonight we went out for ice cream and then to see the beach, but the restaurant on the beach we were to visit closed at midnight, 5 minutes before we arrived. Another night.
I’m getting better about eating meat off bones and using my hands. Farhan would be proud. I don’t know if I was eating pork or goat tonight… it was tough enough to be goat. It was good though. Meals basically consist of some form of meat (whole fish, pork, chicken, goat, or “bush meat”) and a cheap simple starch. The starch could be couscous or rice, or more likely pounded yam or maize, which looks gross and gelatinous when first served, but then settles and changes to a consistency similar to powdered mashed potatoes. It’s actually pretty tasty. I had fish for lunch, and I tried tasting one of the egg sacs in the fish. It actually tasted kinda like pate, but I couldn’t eat the whole thing just because of what it was. The only thing not eaten here is bones. When you eat fish, that means the brains, eye balls, and everything. I always give Josue the head to eat. Bleh. They serve a whole lot of starch at every meal so you fill up fast and then get hungry later. I don’t always clean my plate, at which point I think of the expression, “There are starving children in Africa.” I know! But a girl can only eat so much rice! Sometimes we have beans, which are called “azingoqui” in Fon. At the camp, the beans came with a side of bugs. I didn’t mind when I found one bug in my food. It had been boiled. No biggie. I showed it to Augustin and he asked, “what is his name?” and I laughed it off. But after finding 4 more (in the same plate of beans, mind you) I decided I’d had enough azingoqui and friends for the day. Every meal, I pray in my head, “God, may this food make me strong and not sick, please. Amen.” So far, so good.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

whoa... she doesn't write much, but when she does... it was so interesting to read about your first experiences in africa. i'm trying to think of one small thing to comment on, but i have many things to comment on, and i want to keep this short, so i won't. do you want/need me to send you anything? chocolate, razors, chips? be careful, lau. my friend in the peace corps in mozambique had to come home early b/c she's been exposed to HIV. be careful...

Anonymous said...

sorry, that was from susanne. xo

e1st said...

How do you "almost crack two teeth"? That's like half a hole I think.

bessjankowski said...

Keep it coming, chica!

lauren said...

i probably did crack my tooth and just won't know for sure till my next dentist appointment... in two years.

as for things to send... i miss chocolate! i think m&m's would travel well. with or without peanuts.

and the kids would really like small french/english dictionaries (they think mine is so cool) and they'd really really like english bibles.

and i'll be careful susanne :)

bessjankowski said...

How many kids are we talking about here?

lauren said...

oh, it could go into the hundreds. we have 40 student volunteers that work with kids in each of their schools, but i could do a lot with just 5 or 10 of anything!