Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Amazingly, the end

My Peace Corps journey has concluded.  I don't know how to feel about it, honestly.  I thought I'd only be ecstatic, but instead, I feel....everything.  Here's an excerpt of what I wrote during a  layover in Brussels last Friday:

Wow.  The last week.  The last two years.  What a wild ride, and you made it.  Currently sitting all by myself in Brussels, anticipating the hellishly long & boring day here, wondering if I dreamt all of it.  Leaving the bureau turned out to be a LOT more emotional than I ever anticipated.  I really thought I could get out of Benin without crying, but c'etait faux!  Following my descent into tears inside the airport in Cotonou, I got to talking to a Beninese dude with ties to Kerou (where three PCVs live), a perfectly random & distracting conversation. Somehow I never pictured it all ending this way - or ending at all, really.  Already I'm seeing Benin and my service nostalgically, sans bush taxi rides, unmotivated work partners, etc.  No regrets about any of it.  Let's hope this next adventure proves as exciting, terrifying, and worthwhile.  Allons-y, or as my dear friend Nina would say, "get it, get it."

Friday, April 19, 2013

Looking towards the end of service

Greetings Earthlings!  It's been quite some time, I know.  I've been occupied lately with a beautiful thing - pondering the future.  This August I'll start a master's in public health at the University of Arizona as a Peace Corps Fellow, exactly the situation I've imagined myself in since 2009, when I began my Peace Corps application.  West Africa and I are ready for a break from each other.  Not a divorce per se, just a separation.  It needs to enjoy gazing at fresh-faced volunteers who are full of optimism and an appropriate amount of innocence while I need to enjoy some fruits and vegetables and Starbucks.  We'll be back together in a few years, I'm sure.

By my  (not unreasonable) calculations, I have about eleven weeks left of Peace Corps service.  If someone in Washington loves me, I'll be on a plane on July 1st.  Like I said, it's really, really time for me to go.  Certainly there are things that I'll miss about Kandi and about Benin - like entire pinneaples for $.20, the maman by the post office who makes amazing rice and beans and wagasi, and speaking Hausa to my Nigerien leather goods guy - but I'm ready for the next step.

Last night, because my brain was full and head pounding, I took a walk on my favorite running path, which cuts through several fields and over to what used to be a gravel collection area.  It's the most peaceful part of town and close to my house, and I wanted to be out and about without having to be especially "on."  This, as I'm sure PCVs throughout the world would tell you, is always a huge challenge.  There are several enormous (several stories tall) mango trees along the path, and I watched as two women with long sticks tried poking out the mangoes while another one precariously climbed around in the tree, simultaneously balancing on and shaking the branches.  A Fulani man herded a group of about twenty cows nearby and greeted me when he passed.  As I got further into the field,  I spotted a teenaged boy doing homework under a giant neem tree, undoubtedly enjoying the peace and quiet and shade.  Two dusty men with dogs on their laps passed on a motorcycle, heading out to the bush to hunt rabbits or bushrats.   These scenes, along with a sunset view of "my" colline/hill and for the first time this spring, smelling the newly emerging mint leaves, is what I want to remember about my time here.  A returned volunteer assures me I won't remember the bad - being called "batoure" every time I leave the house, bush taxi travel, or obnoxious and sexist treatment by men.  I am grateful for selective memory.  I will forever say that Peace Corps service is a privilege and that my entire worldview has changed because of it.  I was thinking last night about how it also marked the end of my young adulthood and naivete.  As much as I've tried to hold onto those things, I understand now more than ever what it means - however complicated - to be actively engaged in the world, to be in service to others, and perhaps the most profoundly for me, doing so as an American.  I'm so, so very excited to continue on this journey as a volunteer.  For now, though, eleven more weeks of  baby weighings, vaccination paperwork, and my radio show.  Allons-y toward the end.

The phrase "il faut patienter" needs to die

Recently my dad noted how the tone of this blog has changed pretty drastically since I started it in July 2010 when I headed off to Niger with zero expectations and a lot of naivete.  As much as it hurts me to admit it, it's true.  Don't get me wrong: as emotionally and physically difficult as it's been to spend the last 2 1/2 years in West Africa, it's been an absolute privilege.  But there are still things I probably should have accepted a long time ago that still leave me either scratching my head or wanting to tear my hair out.  One of these things is how the concept of customer services does. not. exist.  Why?  There's no real competition, so really, there's no need.  In my town of 30,000 people, we have one bank.  The next nearest one is 3 hours away by bush taxi or bus.  So here's what inevitably happens: you walk into the bank and see about 20 people in line ahead of you, waiting for one cashier.  Of course it's your responsibility to magically determine who the last person in line is, because that person may be sitting in one of the chairs to the side. soaking up the air conditioning (the only comforting aspect of this errand).  There's no taking a number.  Then, you'll wait in line up to an hour for the one cashier, who tells you that no, even though you have expressly written it on the withdrawal slip, you may NOT have petite monnaie/small change because he doesn't have it right there in front of him and/or doesn't feel like counting it when there is such a long line of people.  You try to explain, calmly at first, that you are in fact the client but really, no one cares.  You then say, "would you prefer that I talk to the bank president instead?"  He ignores you, calling the next person in line and leaving you hanging.  You ask for his name, and he refuses.  Heading over the to bank president himself, you explain the situation.  He's sort of sympathetic, even though he acknowledges that counting out all that petite monnaie would have taken the cashier a lot of time.  "Why," you ask, "don't you put another cashier up there (there are multiple windows) if you see the line has 20 people in it?"  "Il faut patienter."  (Be patient, he says).  "Being patient doesn't solve the problem, does it?" you retort.  And again, no one cares.  Incidentally, he asks why you didn't use the ATM outside.  You tried, but a giant Microsoft error message blocked a majority of the screen.  He insists it's still usable.  You ask if the technician was called and he responds, "multiple times."  You wonder if God is good at fixing ATMs, because, well, that's who solves everything.  You'll undoubtedly find out next month.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Sometimes Benin tears my heart out and stomps all over it with soccer cleats, like a meat tenderizer.  Sometimes I wish I didn't feel so much.   This afternoon, I was approximately 30 seconds away from packing up and leaving after watching - and stopping - a mentally challenged child being beaten.  Thank God for a few of my fellow volunteers on the receiving end of my text messages and for my dad, who assured me that yes, my being here is worth it.  I know I'm making a difference here.  I hope that doesn't sound pompous, but when your job is to identify malnourished kids, it's easier to see.  Since October 1st, I've weighed 953 babies.  I'm proud of that, especially since exactly none of them would have been weighed otherwise and the underweight dozens among them would have gone undetected.  Dozens of moms wouldn't now be adding peanut butter to their soy-based porridge.  Hooray for that.

I'm super thankful for all the tangible things I can do and track here, like those 953 babies, or the 44 radio shows I've written in French, or the 7 meetings of my new English club (with an average attendance of 5 students - a small but motivated group).  What's difficult is not seeing apparent change in attitudes regarding things like (what we Americans see as) mistreatment of women, children, and animals.  Even more difficult is when you start to question whether or not "cultural differences" excuse such behavior.  Just as the "Volunteer Emotional Continuum" (a real sheet of paper) tells me, this is a normal reaction.  So even though almost every second year volunteer last year looked like they were coasting, I don't think the real work of Peace Corps, which includes a doozy of an emotional rollercoaster, or the so-called "conditions of hardship" will stop until the plane takes off.  Maybe it won't ever stop; knowing what I know now about the ACTUAL hardships (as opposed to First World Problems) my Beninese colleagues and neighbors face on a daily basis, could I ever go back to a normal desk job?  Probably not, and deep down, beneath my current sunburn, sweat, and griminess, I'm almost certain that's for the best.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The best of posts, the worst of posts

As I'm sure is the case with all PC volunteers, sometimes I love my post, and sometimes I....don't.  My sentiments are constantly in flux.  Since I walk all everywhere in Kandi, I've seen, I would venture to say, 99% of it, the pretty and the not so pretty parts.  So today, I've included some photos of my favorite and least favorite parts of town.

Let's start with my least favorites.  We can only go up from here, people.

Along the highway and between the market and the hospital, is this loveliness.  It's a little difficult to see, but this canal doubles as rain and waste management collection.  Mostly waste, though, and waste of all kinds (use your imagination).  There is an empty lot, of sorts, to the right, where women pull well water and livestock and barefoot kids roam around.  FYI, the pillars in the background are the Grand Mosque.

This is trash problem that I also pass every day.  Ducks are fond of wading around in it.

And now for my favorite place, a big expanse of vacant land (nature!), where I like to run.  I rarely run into anyone out here.  I'm not sure what this abandoned building is or what used to exist here, but it's a little eerie, and I love it.  Also, behold my favorite baobab tree in Kandi.

Alrighty, everyone.  Toodles for now.  I'm off to pack up for a bike tour in the Donga region, where we'll be giving talks on malaria prevention and household budgeting.  Disparate topics, yes, but it should be an adventure.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Salvaged vacation

I arrived back in Kandi yesterday after a restful ten days in Grand Popo and Cotonou.  The original Epic Christmas Vacation Plan changed a bit mid-stream, naturally.  TIA, or "This is Africa," after all.  (It's a phrase we use extremely frequently.) Two nights of power outtages (with no generator, apparently, which I found suspicious) and an infestation of ninja-like mosquitoes - they managed to get under our bed nets - nudged us to cut our trip to the beach a day short.  But it turned out for the best.  I recently wrote to my aunt that all I'd really want for a vacation these days is to sit in air-conditioning for a few days, drinking a Diet Dr. Pepper.  That's exactly what Santa brought me, if you switch the Diet DP for a Coke Zero.  After the disappointment of Grand Popo, Mary and I ended up at our friend Will's, basking alternately in sometimes freezing (but what a feeling!) a/c and steaming hot showers (the water for which I did not have to heat up on my stove, a la Laura Ingalls Wilder).  In other words, we enjoyed the luxuries of the First World in the middle of the Third World.  Except for the occasional takeoff of an airplane, it was quiet all day long.  No screaming babies, no roosters, no calls to prayer at 4am, no dogs barking in unison at the moon or whatever they all see at 2am.  It was magical, and naturally, it was difficult to leave.

The bus ride home was all kinds of entertaining, though.  As a rule, I am not a chatty traveler.  I'm not one of those people who makes friends with the person sitting next to me on the plane.  In fact, it's quite possible that we won't say two words to one another, and I'm totally okay with that.  Although I recognize it as a demerit on my Peace Corps service, I'm still a pretty private person here, both while traveling and at my post.  I like to think that I get the "cultural exchange" work done, but I'm never, ever going to end up as a cover story in Peace Corps' official magazine.   So when the guy next to me on the bus started up with "small small" English, I have to admit, I was less than thrilled.  But two hours later, we were still talking to each other.  He works as an accountant for the hospital in Nikki, in the Borgou region.  It turns out we have a couple of mutual acquaintances.  We talked extensively about Obama and his reelection, and Patrick was the second Beninese guy I know who was kind of sad that Romney lost.  He asked me about Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream," and whether Obama being in the White House was its realization  Seriously, it was possibly one of the best conversations I've had with anyone here.  Sometimes I get the impression no one cares about the United States other than how to physically get there, or, rather how I can help them get there.  Randomly, but perhaps because we had a traditional medicine seller hawking his wares on the stretch between Bohicon and Parakou (totally normal), he asked me why scientists weren't working harder to find a cure for HIV.  Anyway, a lively conversation.    He also attempted to read Pride and Prejudice with me as he apparently got bored with his French spy novel.  (Side note: the fact that he brought a book for the trip should have been an immediate indicator of his awesomeness.  Very few people read for pleasure here.)  He now knows that Mr. Wickham was not a man to be trusted.  Anyway, I was a little sad to see him go in Parakou, where I switched buses and sat next to a young French or German girl who similarly gasped each time the bus came perilously close to mowing down a flock of chickens, goats, or women.  No idea why she, too, was going to Kandi.  I didn't ask.

And now, some random pictures of Kandi:

Who needs swingsets when you have an empty box?
I love this ad campaign, courtesy of the Swiss.  It translates to "I am a  herder.  I nourish Benin, and I'm proud of it."  On the other side is another billboard with an older woman who says, "I'm literate; I read and write in my local language, and I'm proud."  Hooray for encouraging patriotism!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

L'annee deux mille douze (was a doozy)

And for what I hope is your reading pleasure, I bring to you today a roundup of deux mille douze (2012), bullet-pointed out of sheer laziness.

  • I applied to graduate school.  Allons-y toward the future.   The three schools should get back to me in early March.
  • Thanks to my grad school applications, I devised a five-year plan.  It's the first time maybe ever that I actually have one and want to put it into action. 
  • Accomplished: I weighed at least 500 children - both in town and in the surrounding villages, and have revitalized the growth monitoring system here in Kandi, which is to say, someone's finally doing it.  As a result, I overcame my fear of babies, finally (but I still don't want one).  I conquered the beast that is the local high school and started a weekly English club.  Shockingly, I really enjoy it.  I also organized and led a week-long girls' camp.
  • Was challenged EVERY single day, mentally and physically.  I'm stronger but also more aware of my limits. 
  • I became a radio star this year.  I realized the other day that the station donates what is the equivalent of $40 of radio time to me each week.  That's a pretty significant community contribution..  Although I have never received any feedback on my show, which covers health and American culture, I hope a few people learn something each week.
  • FINALLY, I started dreaming in French.  I've hoped for this since my first French class in 1995.  Although I am by no means what I would consider fluent, I can hold my own in a conversation. I love the challenge.
  • I read several great books, though definitely not as many as I should have; among them were Dr. Farmer's Haiti after the Earthquake (which made me want to travel there even more than before) and Paulo Coehlo's The Fifth Mountain, a novel much more spiritual than I'm used to, but then again, spiritual uplift is a good thing.
  • Became (sort of) owner to a rambunctious puppy named Sasha, who along with me would like to wish you a Merry Christmas and a most lovely 2013!