Sunday, September 30, 2007

christmas in october

i've been told the mail situation gets a little crazy(er) in december, so anyone wishing to send christmas cards or gifts should do so now. not that i'm expecting anything, but i was relaying this message to my mom yesterday and thought i might is well just share the news with the world. so here are some mailing do's and dont's:

do send mail to my po box
Lauren Robbins, JPC-Benin
06 BP 2250
Cotonou, Benin

envelopes (and padded envelopes) should go straight to my po, but boxes will go to the airport, where i'll have to go through customs, which is fine, just take note of the following...

don't include receipts or any price tags
do write "donation" clearly
do low-ball the value of contents
do realize it may never reach me :)
don't let that discourage you!! :)
don't giftwrap items

it may also be good to include a letter saying the contents of the box are a donation and not for re-sale, but only if you're sending lots of stuff.

if what you send is intended for christmas, just write "xmas" somewhere on the box, and i'll do my best not to see what's in it while customs people sort through the contents, k?

again, envelopes avoid all this mess, so good gift ideas could include pictures or a mix cd of all the new music i'm missing!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


i did something cool today, and thought about posting it here, but then decided it was more appropriate for my other blog, phos.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

i love my life

sitting in the hot sun, working on my permanent farmer’s tan, sweating up a storm… i look out at the thousands of faces in the market and think, ‘this is the life.’ not forever, but for now, for sure.

the dantokpa market is the busiest in cotonou. it’s not a place the yovo frequent. but today i went with pelagie and juliette to shop for fabric. i bought 6 meters of two different wax colored cloths. i picked one and juliette chose the other. i wish i could take pictures of the market so you could see what i see, but carrying a camera is asking to be mugged. i could sit for hours and people watch, though. i did sit on a stool for about half an hour to do just that. i bought “fan milk” (frozen yogurt in a pouch) for $0.20 and sucked on the cold vanilla flavor while feasting my eyes on the sites and colors.

after the market, i went to juliette’s house. like most people here, juliette lives in a concession, which are little rooms off a central open space, sharing water and bathrooms. they’re like miniature villages. augustinne, living in the same concession, makes clothes. she took my measurements and my fabric. i’ll have two new african outfits in a week’s time. while visiting chez juliette and augustinne, i was offered lunch. i can never get used to taking food from people who have so little, but they see it as a blessing, so i accept… it’s a good thing i like food so much! the kids living in the concession thought it was so funny to see a yovo in their house. they were shocked when i sat on the floor, but pelagie explained, “she is a missionary, she will accept anything.” i laughed and said, “c’est vrai! it’s true!”

the kids wanted to touch my skin, my nails, my hair. i smiled as one of them counted to see if i too had 5 toes on each foot. i mean really, what could be better? these are the moments i have to hold in my heart when i feel discouraged.

Monday, September 24, 2007

“tia” concert

i went to a concert friday night with some friends. benin’s president sponsored the event and the proceeds from ticket sales went to the president’s anti-corruption efforts. the singer, tiken jah fakoly, is a reggae artist from cote d’ivoire. the concert was supposed to start at 8pm. in typically african fashion, peeps started wondering into the concert hall around 11pm as the opening acts got started a mere 3 hours late. never before has the term “acts” been taken so literally, as each artist lip-synched to his own music. it wasn’t even discreet! but finally, at midnight, the real show began, and tiken jah fakoly was not one to lip-synch. from what i could tell, he was a pretty talented lyricist and musician. the crowd loved him, though i was pretty pooped when he finished at 2am. anyway, it was a good experience, and i’m glad to do my part to fight corruption here in benin… hmm… i wonder how that money will be spent?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

jenga champs

perhaps you've played jenga. perhaps you've even ventured to play ultimate jenga. but have you mastered the game? to be a "jenga expert," one must achieve a whopping 30 levels of jenga blocks, which nicholas and i surpassed today, setting a new cotonou record of 34 levels. if you think your jenga skills are superior to ours, we invite you to cotonou to challenge us. game on.

Friday, September 21, 2007


so this week was a special treat for a number of reasons, ron & ruth chief among them. r&r work for yfc, and their job is to provide pastoral care to all the missionaries. they email me regularly, asking how they can pray and offering encouraging words, they send me cards, and once a year they visit me for some face-to-face time. i’m sure it’s no coincidence that their visit came the day after my semi-mental-breakdown sunday. it was a quick visit, but we accomplished quite a bit. the three of us spent 2 nights at the baptist guesthouse, where i enjoyed laundry machines and hot showers, we ate some delicious meals, and we even traveled a bit. there is a village in benin in the middle of a lake, not on an island, but on stilts. they call it “africa’s venice” though it’s completely different. once i get some pictures, i’ll tell you the full history of ganvie. it’s pretty amazing. r&r, who have visited 60 different countries, had never seen anything like it. anyway, ganvie was cool, but the most amazing part of the trip was just the blessing of r&r’s presence. i cried when they left, but i feel more refreshed than i do sad.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

dancin' machine

tonight i had "tea" with madelaine, ruth and micah (kids of rob and lois). good times, good times. these are their dance moves.

clean clothes!

if you're ever in cotonou and desperate to get clean clothes, you'll be happy to know that the baptist guest house has a FULL size washer and dryer, which you can use for $3 a load. i feel like a new woman.

Monday, September 17, 2007

the good, the bad, the ugly

writing in reverse order…

the ugly: i hesitate in writing about when i’m down for several reasons… i don’t want to whine, i’d rather focus on the positive (after all, this is “lauren LAUGHS”), and i don’t want folks back home to worry. but for the sake of keeping things real, and in hopes that peeps will better know how to pray for me, i’m going to be honest and say that i broke down yesterday. 10:30 AM i was sobbing and, for the first time since i arrived, considered the possibility of coming home. i don’t know what brought this on. i’m certainly surrounded by amazing people here and becoming more and more acclimated with each passing day. but yesterday morning i just felt extremely alone, which was then exacerbated by the fact that it was 5:30 AM back home, so no one was awake to talk to. it’s not that i’m lonely. i have lots of friends, and i’m making more all the time. really, my social calendar is quite full. it’s just that most people come here with their families, or come to an existing network of people to hold their hand and show them the ropes. i, however, have to ask for help. if i need support, i have to call someone up or (more likely, for fear of being an imposition) hope they’ll call me. this makes the smallest thing seem huge. when trying to figure out what exactly was getting me down yesterday, i came up with 3 things. 1) i have no clean clothes (except underwear, so you’re not overly concerned) and i’ve worn each of my shirts probably 4 times already. i’d explain why, but really it’s a boring explanation. bottom line is, it makes me feel bleh and helpless. 2) my room is full of cockroaches. i thought this was normal at first, so i ignored it, but now i’m thinking i’ve got an over-abundance of bugs b/c i’m staying in the spare room that is also used for storage… including food storage. one night i opened my bag of toiletries and a ginormous roach scurried out. how did it get in there? they get in all my bags. i’m afraid to stick my hand into my backpack just to grab a book. 3) i noticed bacteria growing on my toothbrush last week. perhaps this is because of the constant moisture here, perhaps it’s because i use bucket water that’s been sitting for hours, perhaps it’s because roaches can get into my bags. whatever the reason, it really does just make me feel like i can’t do the simplest things correctly. helpless indeed. so i cried a lot. but it’s the first time i’ve cried in a month, so i figure that’s not too bad.

the bad: i went whale watching with friends on saturday, which wasn’t so bad for me, but my friends were pretty much sick the whole time. rob blogged about it… poor guy was throwing up for like 3 hours straight, and he was in the majority. we didn’t see any whales, and it wasn’t till the end of the trip that anyone noticed that the guy who was supposed to be on the lookout for whales was actually sleeping on the deck next to my friend joanna. oh well. i enjoyed being out on this side of the ocean and checking out benin’s coast.

the good: oh, there’s lots of good to report! friday i got a random phone call from my friend sean, who i haven’t seen in over a year since we were in class together at st. john’s. that made me feel pretty special. i didn’t throw up saturday like everyone else, which was good. sunday i caught up with theresa, a former peace corps volunteer, over lunch. we were walking around the market when i got a call from assaba, one of “my freshmen” from wlu (i was her dorm counselor) who was visiting her uncle in cotonou. we only got to see each other for half an hour before she had to go back to togo, but it sure did help to bring me out of the depths of despair. then i went to english fellowship with all the other missionaries and expats, where many friends came to my rescue. rob invited me to drop in for dinner any night, kim said i could use her washing machine this week, joanna and i made tentative plans for a slumber party and pedicures… not to mention familiar songs, supportive prayer, and affirmation that everything i’m feeling is normal. whew. breathe in, breathe out.

the next few days will be busy, as i have visitors from the US. ron and ruth work for YFC, providing pastoral care to all the missionaries. they’re supposed to visit me 6 months and 18 months into my stay, but they’re in africa visiting other missionaries anyway, so my 6 month visit comes 4.5 months early. though it will be kinda difficult to play hostess when i’ve yet to make a home, it will be really nice to pray with familiar faces that know me a bit more deeply than my new friends here.

so that’s the scoop.

Friday, September 14, 2007

(not your aunt) flo

a whole new part of cotonou’s multi-faceted, multi-dimensional, multi-purpose, multi-national world was opened to me today… flo’s fitness.

kim and brian, canadian missionaries in benin for 18 years (they were here to see the first democtratic election) invited me to join them for dinner last night, along with their two sons and their friend jasmine, a recent georgetown grad teaching art and english at the english international school here. kim was not only thoughtful enough to pair jasmine and me up, but she even made TACOS for dinner! she saw my eyes light up when someone mentioned mexican food at the softball game last saturday, so she had her cook, jean, make homemade tortillas ground beef. oh, delicious. it was also very cool to meet jasmine, who felt like a kindred spirit from the east coast. i crashed at chez kim & brian, avoiding night travel as usual, and then joined kim this morning for yet another adventure… her exercise class. flo’s fitness is a gym for women (not like curves in the US) in the international part of town. the first class is free, so i gave it a trial run this morning. she (flo) speaks french french (not beninoise french), so it was a bit hard to follow, but fun nonetheless. farhan would have died laughing, since the shirt kim let me borrow for class was pale yellow, as if i wasn’t pale enough already, ha. anyway, it was the first time i’d seen myself in a full length mirror, at which point i discovered i’m definitely not starving in africa. it was also my second hot shower since the US… glorious.

last night as we were walking jasmine home (you can actually walk at night in the international part of town!) i started to think that maybe i should at least look at apartments in that part of town. i came here determined to steer clear of the international scene, but maybe that was a bit snobby of me, considering all the good that could come from partnering with others in the work we’re doing here. when i tell josue about the people i’m meeting, he’s always saying, “this is an answer to prayer!” because they are often working with organizations he’s been wanting to contact for years. maybe i should accept the fact that i’m “yovo” and let God use that, rather than trying to shake my yovo-ness off.

or maybe not. maybe i should be fully integrated. the local scene is more and more comfortable. i’m finding that i’m learning something new about myself every day, so i guess i should just be patient, enjoy the lessons, and know that time will tell where i’m supposed to end up.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

book club

I’m in a book club! It may not be the same reading material as St. John’s (I looked longingly at a French copy of Descartes Method in a book store yesterday), but every month I’ll get to read a different book with a group of women from all over the world. This month’s pick is “The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency” by Alexander McCall Smith. An American heading up Catholic Relief Services made the selection.

Because the club meets on the international side of town, far from where I live, I crashed at Chez Baker, home of English missionaries Rob and Lois. I don’t know what it is about their family, but it’s extremely inviting. And I’m not just saying that because I know Rob will check my blog, ha. I guess it’s that they make you feel like more than a guest. Anyway, it’s very nice.

I think I may have found an apartment. I’ll spare you the details until it’s firmed up, but please pray that I make wise decisions!

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

September 11, 2007

Success! One picture added...

Totally check out the book I mention 09/07, though. Peace!

September 9, 2007

Wow. What a weekend. Saturday I met up with the expat softball crowd. They play every Saturday from 12-2pm at one of the nicer hotels near the airport. This was my first time playing softball, and like most things athletic, I started out okay and then progressively worse. I remember the same thing happening in lacrosse. Every season the coach would be so encouraged by how much I had improved from the year before, but then I guess I psych myself out enough that I stop playing well. Anyway, I got on base a couple times and I did have a lot of fun and it is a good group of people. Sadly, I forgot to put sunscreen on my neck, which is now burnt, but burns are different here… brown instead of red or pink. Interesting.

I met up with another group of internationals Saturday night. My brother Stephen met a girl at a wedding in Texas whose cousin is working and living in Fidrosse, the beach community near Cotonou. Her name is Sarah. So Saturday night I went out with Sarah, her Italian boyfriend Daniel, and a bunch of Frenchies. We watched the Italy/France futbol game at a bar by the beach and then I crashed with my new friends for the night. This might become a regular occurrence, as everyone in Fidrosse has extra bedrooms and I try not to ride zemi’s after dark. It was fun to meet up with a bunch of people my age, mostly working with NGO’s. It was also fun to meet people from all over the world. It helps me to practice my French, Spanish and Italian. It’s still hard to find a balance between the local life and the expat life, but I think it could work for me to be integrated during the week and ”yovo” on the weekends. I don’t think the balance will ever come easily, though; I think it will be something I have to strive for every day.

Today I had my first hot shower in a month, another perk of life in Fidrosse, and then went to a missionary home for lunch. Nancy and Bruce are missionaries with the Mennonite church. A woman from Paraguay was visiting Nancy, so I came over to speak Spanish, which is more difficult now that I’m practicing French, but I’m hoping I’ll learn to switch back and forth more easily with time. I then tagged along with Nancy’s family to meet up with the English Fellowship group, where I met more new people AND had chocolate chip cookies (this is a big deal because you can’t get chocolate chips here). It’s funny to realize how I’m jumping from one social group to the next, similar to life back in Baltimore. I have my local friends, my missionary friends, and now my international friends. I feel a little at home with all of them, though they couldn’t be more different from each other.

September 7, 2007

Today I went to Porto Novo with Yves and David for more leadership training. The name town name is reminiscent of when the Portuguese came to Benin for slave trade. The training was held at a boarding school for girls where YFC has a club. Pelagie was there, and it was good to catch up with my best Beninoise girlfriend. The town is greener than Cotonou, so I enjoyed it. I had my first “bus” experience traveling to and from Porto Novo. A caravan drives past, slows down for you to jump on as you negotiate the fare, and then piles in as many passengers as possible along the way. It’s kinda like watching lots and lots of clowns disembarking from a teeny tiny car. How do they cram all those people in such a small space?

I’m reading a fabulous book that I borrowed from Rob and Lois earlier this week. Annie Caulfield’s “Show me the Magic: Travels Round Benin by Taxi.” It’s an English book, so I’m not sure you can get it in the US, but it’s comical to read. It would be like if I took my blog and published it, only the writer has visited a lot more places in a very short span of time. Still, reading about her impressions of the country remind me of all the things I’ve yet to mention here. Zemi etiquette, smuggled petrol, comical wax fabric patterns. I’ll have to handle things things in greater depth once my experiences settle down a bit. Anyway, I mention the book so you can purchase it if you wish to get a very accurate tourist view of Benin. I doubt there’s any other book like it.

Friday, September 07, 2007


September 6, 2007

Yesterday we wrapped up the leadership training for our volunteers in Cotonou. The kids are fired up about getting clubs started in the coming school year. It really is amazing how mature they are at a young age, but then they are older than high school students back home, so maybe that’s part of it. Now the training starts for the volunteers in Porto Novo. I’m going to go there with Yves tomorrow, so that will be my first trip to that city. It’s the political capital of Benin, though Cotonou is where everything happens.

I had dinner last night at Rob and Lois’ place, along with their 3 kids and Joanna. Rob and Lois are from England, Joanna is from Scotland. They’re all missionaries with SIL. I can’t tell you how cool it was to have dinner with them last night. We had shepherds pie and corn for dinner, which was a welcome change from African food. I mean, African food is yummy, but it’s nice to have a break from the all too common starch, meat, and tomato-onion-palm oil sauce that accompanies everything. We had tapioca for dessert, which I didn’t realize is made from manioc, or cassava, as it’s called here. Cassava goes with everything… as flour that you add to your beans, or just with water and sugar, or cooked into a paste. It’s the Beninoise favorite ingredient, which is odd because it really has no nutritional value and no taste. Anyway, I’ve had Beninoise tapioca, which is just cassava and water with some water and milk added. You don’t even cook it, and it’s cool and refreshing. Last night’s tapioca was the real thing, though. Warm and sweet. Both delicious in their own right.

It was so lovely to spend time with a family that felt a bit more familiar and comfortable. The anti-culture shock. At the same time, it was very surreal to return home. Almost like I had left the country for 4 hours or I had dreamed the whole thing up. As I continue to meet more international folks, though, I’m sure the switch in and out of cultures will get easier. It was interesting to see where most of the internationals live. The air is cleaner as you leave the city’s center and the sky seems bigger. But I think I prefer living in Akpaka and I think it will make my work easier to be a bit more integrated.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

been a while

so i haven't been to the cyber cafe in a week... these log entries should keep you busy for a while, though!

i'm trying to upload new pics, but it's just not working. i'll try again later. peace out!

September 4, 2007

Today is Pierce’s 21st birthday, so I called him this morning and sang on his voice mail, but then called him again this afternoon to catch up a bit. He sounds good, and it was so nice to hear his voice. Mom called me tonight and then handed the phone over to Dad. It was the first time we’d talked since I left the US, exactly 4 weeks ago today! I think I’m pretty well acclimated at 4 weeks.

The carpenter came by this morning (the one with a “shop” (hut) down the road that I pass every day) to take my furniture order. Josue haggled on the price of a bed for me. 45,000 CFA, or just less than $100. The design I chose is pretty simple. Full size. It’s funny because this is actually the first bed I’ve ever bought. My dad wanted to get me one for graduation, but I was content with just mattresses at the time. Here, though, you have to have a bed because you have to have something to hang the mosquito netting from, and something to tuck the net into. My bed should be ready a week from Friday. I hope I have a place to put it by then!

I skipped the trainings today to do laundry and work from home. This was my first load of laundry (I was getting desperate) and it took me about 2 hours. I think I did pretty well, actually. It does use muscles that I’m not used to using (my hands especially), but it’s extremely cathartic. I listened to my iPod the whole time (the acoustics in the bathroom/laundry room are great) and laughed when certain songs came on. One of Josh Harvey’s piano pieces, a song from my cousin Beverly’s boyfriend Zac’s band, Katie Baldwin and me singing “Dreams” with JubiLee. Each song seemed just a bit more meaningful in the context of my textile cleansing.

September 3, 2007

Not a lot to report today. I’m learning what skirts I can and can’t wear on zemi’s. Really, I feel like I shouldn’t be wearing skirts on them at all, but I do anyway. It’s too hot for pants, and women don’t wear pants here anyway (though I can since I’m yovo). We’re doing leadership trainings this week, so today we started the volunteers in Cotonou. Augustin sat by me to translate, but I told him not to, that I wanted to give my French a go today. Since we were talking about the history, mission and vision of YFC, it was easier for me to follow along with a topic I already know. Anyway, I started taking notes in French just to practice writing and spelling.

For lunch I thought I was eating fried yams and hush puppies, but it turns out the hush puppy things were actually fried bean cakes. They take beans, beat them into a powder, and deep fry them. Does this mean something that tastes like a cross between funnel cake, donut hole, hush puppy and sopapilla could actually have protein in it? Could I justify that as healthy? The peeps at MEA would be thrilled to know I found a donut with some nutritional merit.

September 2, 2007

This morning I went to church with Yves, which was an adventure since he speaks less English than I do French. He goes to a more traditional church, though not a denomination we have in the US, and not as traditional as my home church. Still, I was glad to go, and we even had communion since it was the first Sunday of the month. I’d like to find a church where I can have communion every week. Even if I don’t understand all that’s being said, at least I understand the sacraments.

This evening I went to a potluck supper at the home of an American missionary family who are here with the Mennonite church. There were 13 adults present and lots of kids haling from the US, Canada, England, Scotland and France. Apparently the whole group together is 50 people strong, but people tend to travel a lot, so it’s usually closer to 30. They get together every Sunday for a bit of English fellowship. I got to have a real cup of coffee, chocolate cake, apple strudel, and ginger snaps. I ate dinner too, but dessert was my favorite part. I learned from them that the expat softball gatherings would have begun yesterday, but will start next Saturday instead on account of the rain. Apparently there’s an American named Seth living right here in Akpakpa! I hope to make it to the game next week, despite my meager softball skills (less than meager, really) to explore this expat community a little more. I’m also hoping to find a woman in the fellowship group to be a kind of mentor/sounding board while I’m here.

One of the guys I met tonight, Rob, is here with his family from England. He’s doing “music ethnocology” here (among other things) which sounds totally cool. As I understand it, he goes to different villages in and around Benin and uses Bible passages in the local language to help the locals write music in their own indigenous style, records it, and then gives them the tapes. That way, they’re not stuck singing someone else’s music, it’s meaningful to them, and man, he must learn so much about the music styles! I’d like to follow him around sometime. He has a blog too, which I’ll link to so you can learn see another perspective of Cotonou and beyond.

Still no house. I’m really starting to feel like an imposition, and I know this is difficult for Josue and Prisca, which Prisca even acknowledged today, but she did so in such a way that actually put me at ease. She said that whatever decisions we make on faith, we have to follow through with, trusting for God to provide at the right time. She meant that I came here on faith and needed to wait for God to provide me a home, and that she and Josue invited me into their home on faith, and they too needed to be patient for God to provide me a home. I was relieved to know she feels that way. I mean, living here does have it’s bonuses. Lots for me, fewer for them. But we’re all learning, so that at least is a mutual benefit.

September 1, 2007

September really is the rainy season. And it’s only the first day of the month! It didn’t stop the funeral this morning, though. The service was held at a Catholic church, which, though I’m not Catholic, was welcomingly familiar. The rhythm, the prayers, even some of the songs, though all in French, felt a bit more like home than any church service I’ve shared in since coming here. One thing less familiar to me, though, was a girl that stood up during most of the service and just peered around half paranoid and half aloof. Josue told me she was possessed. Africa really is different. We then went to the burial and stood in the rain for half an hour, unable to hear anyone or even be near the family (which I think frustrated Prisca since it was her cousin that died). Josue and I went back to the car early and waited for Prisca there. I was relieved when he said he wanted to get out of the rain. I didn’t feel like I was serving much purpose with my cold wet feet perched on somebody’s grave.

I had paella for lunch, and it was excellent. I’ve found I’m almost ravenous here at meal times. I think it’s the lack of protein, a deficiency that will teach you very quickly the benefits of sucking every last morsel of meat (or cartilage or fat or whatever) off bones.

August 31, 2007

Farhan really would have been proud of me last night. I was eating what Josue said was beef, but everything I cut seemed to be clear and not meat-like at all. I was all in between bones, so I gave up on my knife and fork and started using my hands instead. Sucking the meat and stuff off the bones. I later figured out that all the clear stuff I’d been eating was cartilage. I don’t know if it’s good for you, but it did taste good, and I remember Farhan saying it’s his favorite part of eating back home.

We eat a lot of oranges here, but we don’t so much eat them as we suck them. You typically buy a small bag of oranges from the market, which are partially peeled. I mean, the zest (the colored part of the skin) is peeled off, but the pulp (white part) of the skin is left on. Then you bite off the top, spit it out, and suck out all the juice. It’s kinda ironic to me that in a place where you eat everything but bones when it comes to meat, you only suck oranges, leaving the rest behind. But man, are they delicious.

Today I’m reading a lot about HIV/AIDS. I’m actually going through the “train the trainer” manual. It’s amazing how I knew enough to be educated about HIV/AIDS in the US, but you have to know so much more here. I’m learning a lot. The AIDS rate in Benin is relatively low, around 4% (which is still high when you think about it), but it’s estimated that only 1 in 10 people with HIV/AIDS knows they have it, so that 4% could actually be a whole lot higher. Testing is so important.

August 30, 2007

Last night I took a zemi all by myself. My first zemi-ride, Theresa did all the talking. My second ride, I talked while Augustin watched on to make sure I could get home. This time, though, I was all by myself. It was exhilarating, but it was also just a little scary because I had just left the cyber café (which is really one of the sketchiest places ever, full of men that want your money and your phone number) and it was dark. Josue was really relieved when I walked in the door. He was nervous about me traveling by myself for the first time. But I did, and I’m capable. I just think I’ll be sure to leave the cyber café before dark from now on. Especially when I’m carrying my own laptop. That’s a mugging waiting to happen. Lesson learned!