Sunday, June 24, 2012

Spelling Bee Buzzzzzzzzzzzz

The Benin Spelling Bee held in Natitingou was an event where volunteers brought two middle school students, one boy and one girl, to compete in an English Spelling Bee. After weekly spelling practices and a local Bee held at my school, Aisatou and Olivier were the winners invited to compete in Natitingou. The morning we left, both students’ parents drove them to Glazoue on their motorcycles with me. It was like seeing two proud papas letting their baby birds spread their wings in the world. I assured the parents that I would take care of their children and we soon met the taxi we had rented with Bevin and her two students. Our driver’s name was Expedite. He’s very cool and timely. Basically our favorite taxi driver of all times. Also, throughout the entire voyage north, he refused to pay the gendarme bribes at the check points, which was fairly entertaining as the gendarmes cried out in surprise and anger over losing another free 500 cfa for a beer.

Ok, focus. The ride north was spent practicing spelling words: skyscraper, cook, learn, forest, enjoy, even diarrhea! It was great to see the kids getting to know each other and giving each other spelling tips. “Ask for a sentence!” It was also exciting because they were travelling on a big ADVENTURE ADVENTURE to a land of low green rolling mountains.

There were around 22 boys and 22 girls who attended the competition. Friday night was spent doing ice breakers, playing football, showering, and setting up the mosquito nets. Boys in one room, girls in the other, each with a chaperone for the evening.  By the time I left for the work station it felt like a proper sleepover party was under way. Boys and girls were crowded on mats under mosquito nets practicing spelling bee words and laughing.

Saturday morning we discussed study skills and the nutritional value of moringa. Around 10 AM we transitioned to sports and art. I definitely feel like an old lady. I made the girls tie ropes together to play jump rope with me. I was exhausted after five minutes. BUT, Aisatou was quite impressed with my continuous jumping skills. With Olivier I spent time playing Frisbee, launching the disc further and further away. It felt like being at camp. I also really enjoyed getting to spend time with my students in an informal environment. Both are excellent, but more reserved students, so it felt good to shout, laugh, and be goofy with them. (Well let’s be real, I’m goofy in class too…)

In the afternoon was the competition. Both the boys and girls competition lasted an hour and a half. I was SO nervous, so I can’t even imagine how THEY felt. Both Olivier and Aisatou did wonderfully, but got knocked out in the middle of the competition. Aisatou’s word that she missed was “cathedral”, forgetting the “l” at the end and Olivier’s was “breakfast.” Now, they’ll NEVER forget how to spell those words.

Each and every student won an English-French dictionary! And the winners won soccer balls and a puzzle game. In the evening we watched “Akila and the Bee” about a young girl and a spelling bee! How perfeccctooo!!

We also included a discussion led by a male Beninese teacher about gender equality.  This is a HIGHLY important topic in Benin. There’s a traditional mentality where men feel they are superior due to traditions and justifications from various religious texts. It’s infuriating. But this conversation was great because although many boys were defending their male superiority beliefs, sounding like lines learned from fathers, the girls were sassily and sophisticatedly defending their rights. It was great. Go girls!

Sunday morning we took a gaggle of the students on a tour of Natitingou. First, we hiked up one of the green hills for a beautiful view of the city. Natitingou has such a “tucked away safely into the green hilly blanket” vibe. We visited a re-make of a traditional house structure called “tatasamba” that looks like a castle fortress. The ethnic group of this area created two story castles with the animals sleeping on the bottom floor and the family inhabiting the roof terrace. We also strolled downtown and showed the students various sites. In 5e, the students learn English words such as supermarket, post office, bank, and mayor’s office.  It was the first time many of the students had seen these places in real life.

On the journey home, Bevin and I were exhausted. Again, I’m such an old lady. However, the kids were better acquainted and as chatty and energetic as ever. It made me SO happy to see them making friends from different communities and being motivated by each other’s academic drive. It was one of the most exciting and happy moments in my Peace Corps Benin life.

Saturday, April 14, 2012


Living in Benin has proved exceptionally different from Niger in many ways. I live in the central part of the country, which, religiously speaking is very mixed with Christians, Muslims, and Voudun believers. This past Easter I had the unique opportunity to see Jesus. That’s right, you heard me. Jesus came to Magoumi. Here’s the back story:

About two weeks ago, I asked a student and friend, Yvette, what people do for Easter. All my attempts to explain eggs placed by rabbits, filled with chocolate and candy were met with large levels of confusion. She told me that people went out into the bush to Galilé where the people find a figure covered in white cloth. Hands gloved, face veiled, no inch of skin is visible. Easter Sunday, I found myself attending church (I’ve really mastered this booty shaking conga line dance that people do up to the alter to give money) and eating massive amounts of yam pilé, rice, and these salty white cake things called abllo. But alas, no sighting of the Lord. However, I was unaware that Easter Monday is a potentially bigger holiday than Easter Sunday. Around 5 o’clock in the evening a parade of children waving leaf fronds in the air, teenagers dressed in their finest clothes, motorcycles, and a white robed figure making their way to the Methodist Church wound their way through the village square. And there he was!!! Waving his hands like Obama, greeting the happy citizens of Magoumi. After about 10 minutes, Jesus drove away on the back of the zemijan. I guess it could be comparable to Santa Claus in the United States.

And then the party started! Giant speakers blaring music, the youth dancing, and a buvette serving alcoholic beverages opened up for the evening. Quite the party! All in all, an interesting twist on the Easter holiday celebration. It does make one reflect on how world wide religions are colored and influenced by the history and preferences of the populations practicing them. It’s another aspect of the incredible diversity of the world. That’s one thing I love about experiencing different cultures. Familiar holidays feel strange and exciting and one becomes aware of how there are many different ways to live a life.

Saturday, March 24, 2012


Being a liiiiittle peace soldier is quite the life. Sometimes I feel like I contribute so much to my students’ learning and sharing important information to fellow teachers and the community. Other times I feel like a lost flower petal pushed along by the wind, slightly bruised by failed attempts to create regular extracurricular activities.  Work is difficult everywhere, whether it by in college, in the SF Yelp office, or a village in Africa. But it’s the people around you, your friends and family, who keep you motivated and lift you up. Since most of you won’t be able to meet the people around me now, I thought I’d give little profiles on some of the people who always breathe joy into my spirit.

 Léodoric: Léo is my 14 year old brother from when I lived in Porto Novo with a host family for three months. He reminds me vaguely of my father due to his love for computers and video games. He has a somewhat shy nature when you first meet him, but then he opens up and throws out hilarious and endearing remarks. I have so many weird jokes with him. One is that I have a peculiar odor that he can smell. For example, when I’d get home from training and ring at the door, he’d open it grinning saying, “I KNEW it! I KNEW it was you. I smelled you!” Now whenever I see him I question him on the pungency of my scent. This might sound weird, but we have so much fun teasing each other. We also would always do laundry at the same time and discuss the trials and tribulations of the “Laundry War,” which is a definite struggle washing by hand. Also, for a 14 year old, his English is impeccable. This is the text I got from him this morning: “hello how are you? I know that now you are sleeping (he knows me so well! Early to bed Mariah) but I want to tell u that I am going to pass an exam tomorrow and I need u to wish me good luck. I’ll be waiting for it tomorrow morning at 7h or 8h am bye” haha. I looooooooove him!

Mama Akoridji/Mama Matinèss: This is the mama who speaks broken English. She collects water for the water pump at the school and also sells frozen drinks in plastic bags, gari, and peanuts. She learned English when she was living in Nigeria working for some Hungarian organization. She’s also a fantastic dancer at church, moving those hips and showing her joy. Everyday during the 10 AM break between classes I sit with her at the water pump. She’s basically my “in” with the village women pumping water. As she helps women lift heavy basins of water onto their heads, she proclaims in English, “The black woman is a POWERFUL woman.” And it’s so true. Their life is NOT easy from carrying water to their homes, collecting firewood, going to the fields, preparing dinner, caring for the kids, and for the girls, keeping up with their studying. This mama is so helpful in teaching me how to say things in Idaasha and explaining the drama and inter-workings of village life. She’s also very curious about my life and family and asks lots of questions. Her son, Matiness is getting married in December and we’ve been having fairly regular banana bread baking sessions so she can bake a BIG cake for his wedding. She’s one of the people who probably knows my personality, troubles, and joys the best.

Malik and Aisatou: Malik is a 3e student and my neighbor. Aisatou, his sister, is in 5e and my student. They are both hard workers and have kind, respectful personalities. A couple weeks ago I exclaimed how I had just tried “pois d’angol” or in Idaasha “kolo”, which are crops somewhere between lentils or beans. Later that night, Malik brought me over a big bowl of “kolo” that they had harvested from their fields and on Sunday we prepared a feast. Along with the help of Aisatou, the fairly simple meal was superb. A dash of garlic, a sprinkling of hot pepper, fried onions, and gari….mmm We ate all together and shared with the hoard of small children who amiably invaded my house to watch the preparations.  The whole process made me feel so connected with them, like a part of the family. The more I get to know them and joke with them, the more relaxed and comedic they become as well. Malik always hangs out with me on our porch and we chat and Aisatou and I often chat on the way to or from school. They’re excellent students and I’m thankful to have such friendly and helpful people in my life.

A Typical Day

I don’t know what’s happening. I’ve lost the creative juice or the energy or maybe it’s just that “la force” leaves my body due to the heat. Either way, I haven’t written. My parents have suggested I describe a typical day. Each day of the week has a different typical nature to it. Monday has its long work day, Tuesday has it tutoring sessions at night, Wednesday has the glorious market, Thursday’s another long work day and then Friday is left for house chores and an occasional visit to the mosque with Latifa. Saturday is free for baking with Latifa or my favorite mama and Sunday has the best snacks available after mass/ running.

Monday: The first thing I hear is women sweeping their concessions in the dark. Sweeping up remnants from dinner the previous night, the children’s wrappers or toys (read: cans, lids, sticks, bottles, etc.), and animal droppings. Then, the “swoosh” of the sweeping is broken by Mubarack, the stout three year old with the most cheery grin, babbling to his mother as she sweeps. This is soon followed by the scrape of my neighbor Malik’s door opening against the concrete porch that we share.  It’s time to get up. I scramble out of my mosquito net and open my back door.

Next, I assess the dish pile. Can I make oatmeal, or are my two pots already dirty? Is a frying pan clean…maybe I’ll make cornmeal pancakes instead? Is there even any food in my house to prepare, or should I buy rice and beans from the mama outside? Usually the answer is doing dishes early in the morning. Oy. When I finally enter my kitchen, Malik, the high school sophomore greets me with “Bonjour Madame” accented with sleep.

I usually make a cup of tea, oatmeal, or gari/sugar/peanuts and sit outside and take in the cool morning air as I stare at the swaying moringa trees. THEN, I gotta get all jazzed up for school with some snazzy earrings (if I don’t wear earrings, people remark “c’est pas bon” haha). I carry a woven plastic beach bag to school filled with lesson plans, drawings of vocabulary words, chalk, duster, and occasionally candy for the students. It’s a very practical bag, but I’ve been told only old market mamas use this style of bag. All the same, I figure that I’m already weird, so I’m embracing the “old market mama” part of my identity.

On Mondays and Thursdays I teach 8-12 and 3-5. During that 3 hour pause I usually eat peanuts and nap. When I finish class at 5 I sit for a bit with a lady who speaks broken English. She sells peanuts and gari (dried cassava) and occasionally frozen bissap (hibiscus) and baobab juice. Recently, an avocado and fish sandwich lady has joined the posse. We sit under the shade of a tree catching the breeze, watching women and children use the foot pump to fill their HUGE basins of water in the middle of the school yard. We generally practice a bit of Idaasha for me and some English for them. On Thursday, I ritualistically proclaim, “I’m a FREE woman.” No class for me on Friday! Free! Free!

After I’ve chilled for a bit, on Thursdays I stop by the Akoridji house to greet, sit, and chat. There’s this one woman, Hortense, who speaks broken French, which we combine with my broken Idaasha. Despite the not-so-eloquent blending of our languages, we always have a blast together and spend the majority of the time cracking up. Later, I head home and see a pack of kids playing empty plastic bottles as drums and dancing in the concession yard. Madame Mariam is usually sitting outside her boutique and starting to prepare dinner for her two children. Next is my own dinner preparation (I eat lots of rice…and btw, onions here are SUPER pungent so I end up teary eyed) and bucket bath time. Then I lie outside and read until bedtime. Unless there’s tutoring or I need to review or create vocabulary drawings for my classes the next day.

A full day is a happy day, ko?

Sunday, December 25, 2011

The Stars

The heavens by night in Benin are breathtaking. The lack of electricity in my village certainly helps, but it’s a small price to pay when you look up at night time. There’s one family in town (the family where the father passed away) who I like to swap stories with. So far I’ve recounted fairy tales such as Rumpelstiltskin, Little Red Riding Hood, the Tortoise in the Hare, even a Harry Potter tale! Haha.

The 24 year old daughter Vivianne told me the story about the stars during my first month at post. Here it is.:

Long ago, there was a great famine in the land. There was not nearly enough food to feed all the families. Sun and Moon, who had many, many children decided that something needed to be done.  The population had to be reduced and a huge sacrifice had to be made.  Someone must sacrifice their children.  But who? They would both throw their babies into the ocean, drowning them in order continue life on the land. This was not an easy action to fathom, but the famine was ravaging the land and causing much suffering.

On the designated day, Moon and Sun arrived on the shores each carrying a large sac filled with their children.  Sun pulled her arm back and threw her children into the water, extinguishing their bright light forever. The sac of Moon was a little different.  For she had tricked her friend Sun. Instead of placing her children in the sac, she had filled in with stones. Moon also quickly threw her sac into the waves. But come nightfall, Moon’s children were seen shining brightly in the sky.

This is why today we can still look up at Moon’s children, but Sun’s children are nowhere to be found.

Football Game aka Party Planning

On my arrival to Magoumi, I inherited a Girl’s Club with a dedicated president named Benedicte. The girls had done some discussions on Health, etc., but the core of the club was a football team. So now, every Sunday and Wednesday, I meet up with the girls for practice from 3-5:30 PM. Practicing and scrimmaging is fun, yes, but it’s nice to have a goal in mind as well. Thus, I promised the girls that we’d organize a match against a nearby team just before winter break in December. Ha! Easier said than done.

I had hoped to play a game against Ouedeme, a village within walking distance of Magoumi that already has a girls club called “Les Etoiles Brillantes.” Unfortunately, they never got organized, so when a volunteer, Mark, in a town about a 40-50 minute car ride away mentioned the girl’s team HE’d inherited, we quickly made plans for a game.  Mark had the great idea that the girls would also give a short speech on a topic relevant to the club. Game plan: Pay for a car to transport the team to Magoumi, girls give short speeches, and then play the game.  Done and done.

Oh wait. The girls require food and water as well. Ok, that makes sense. In the U.S. we give kids orange slices at half time and snacks after the game. But in Benin, food means preparing rice and sauce and cauldrons the size of the pots in Disney’s Fantasia. We’re preparing sauce with fish that is.  We MUST give them fish. It wouldn’t be good if we didn’t. What would they think of us? Ok, ok, sounds good. Done and done.

Oh wait. The girls in Magoumi also want to but ice and sugary packets to make juice. This mentioned in passing while interrupting my lesson with a 6e class.  Oy. Ok, ok, done and done. AND, there are some teachers who’re coming to the game. They can’t eat just rice and sauce like the students. We need to make them sandwiches. With the more expensive fish. Oyyyy.

On Marks end of transporting his team he found a driver to take the girls from Dassa to Magoumi. Great. Done and done. Wait, now the drive wants MORE money. Ok, ok. Done and done. Wait, now the driver is 2 hours late. Ok, Ok, here he is.  Wait, now the police guard en route wants a bribe to let the vehicle pass. Oyyyy.

I was slightly overwhelmed at the increasing demands of each day. But, the girls also showed significant motivation. They got together and petitioned the teachers to contribute money for the food, collecting a total of 6,000 cfa. We made our shopping list:
Tomatoes (fresh and canned paste), Hot pepper, 2 L of peanut oil, lauriat leaves, garlic, Chicken Maggie Cubes (1000 cfa worth!), 10k rice, onions, bread, ice, sugar, orange drink packets, carrots, 1k of salmon fish, and 2k of Sylvie fish.

I feel like that list looks remarkably simple on paper, but in reality it involves walking round and round in a market under the beating sun, hauling around a cement bag of heavy ingredients, greeting people and bargaining. It also involved the day of the match, a trip by me to buy the frozen fish, pick up 30 small loaves of fresh bread, and two slabs of ice the length of my arm. And then holding this while riding on a motorcycle. Not too complicated. Haha. I guess it’s not that remarkable because that’s just what everyday life is like, but it feels mildly stressful at times.

It was really fun to go to market with the girls, watch them make decisions about what to get, if the price was alright, etc. It’s a big responsibility to cook for around 50 people and they did a marvelous job. I was so proud of them!

The day of the game, I delivered all the foods to Benedicte’s house (her mother graciously offered her house for the preparation of the feast!) They worked all day preparing, carried the food to the school and around 2:30 pm, the other team rolled in. Picture twenty girls packed into the back of a semi-covered pick-up, singing songs, bursting out of the truck with their energy and happiness. It was SO exciting.

The girls ate well and then their club president spoke about girl’s leadership qualities followed by a talk by my girls on sexual harassment at school, how to avoid it, and what they can do to combat it. At 4 pm the match began and it was SO SO exciting! There were so many people watching, cheering, and coaching the girls. Girls supporting girls, papas and brothers cheering! It was exhilarating! The second half consisted of my Magoumi girls dominating with lots of shots on goal. But alas, no goals were scored. The match ended with 0-0. I would have LOVED to win, but it was still incredibly fun and rewarding.

There are many kinks that still need working out. Some of the younger girls never got to play despite my many attempts at encouragement and sometimes yelling that the girls who actually CAME to practice consistently should be playing more than those who came only once of twice. Throughout these 3 months, I have also struggled with my role as a facilitator. It’s ultimately their club, they need to make decisions themselves, and do drills at practice of their own volition. Americans won’t always be in Magoumi, so it’s the girls who are the leaders and decision-makers. But at the same time, I feel like they need to apply a little more discipline to their practices.

I hope the game was a fulfillment of the hard work they put in, but that it will also serve as a motivator for them to work even harder. All in all it was very rewarding and felt like an amazing Christmas gift to the girls of Magoumi and myself.

P.S. I’m 24 now!!!!!! Wooooo! Also, football in this post refers to soccer…but I’m sure you got that. Also, if there’re any topics you’d like me to cover, let me know!

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Struggle (Collected from my and my fellow volunteer experiences)

Struggle is not eating enough/well balanced diets.
Struggle is every time we get in a taxi and a big mama takes up tons of space and/or places her baby on you lap for the four hour ride ahead.
Struggle is every time we leave the house.
Struggle is wading through seasonal streams (washed from the bushes where people defecate.)
Struggle is getting on motorcycle taxis wearing traditional outfits and trying not to expose the knee.
Struggle is buying onions, fabric, or a watch and figuring out how much they should ACTUALLY cost.
Struggle is suffering with Mr. D (diarrhea) and knowing you have six hours of class ahead of you.
Struggle is waking up to sweep the goat poop off your porch.
Struggle is staring at the large spiders on the wall that build webs at remarkable speeds, but are potentially advantageous at eating other bugs.
Struggle is riding your bike and not seeing the primary school child wearing khaki and lying on the ground. (He was ok, don’t worry)
Struggle is constantly being asked for money. Or candy. By children. And grown men. And women.
Struggle is being clean.
Struggle is breaking the ear piece off your glasses and wearing them crookedly on your face (this has happened to me and a dear friend.)
Struggle is going to market the day after it rains and getting your foot stuck/covered in mud every time you take a step towards the vegetable lady and then being offered piggy back rides from random men.
Struggle is cooking dinner and sweating like you've just run a marathon.

Joy is speaking the little amount of local language we’ve mastered and seeing the shock and delight on a village woman’s face that you know her language.
Joy is being hugged by a 2 year old kid and having him say he loves you.
Joy is teaching neighbors to make chocolate cake (…so that they can make it for you!)
Joy is having a motivated and creative work partner and students who care about your class.
Joy is finding the tofu and peanut butter mamas in village.
Joy is seeing the kids in your concession start playing empty bottles as drums and start doing the classic shoulder shakin’ and cool chicken winged dance by the even smaller children.
Joy is the girl’s soccer team voting on the name La Lumiere Magique!
Joy is the pineapple or banana lady throwing in an extra piece of fruit fo’ FREE!
Joy is having a family that you’re close to in village and having them open up, share pictures, stories, and folktales.
Joy is feeling too lazy to cook lunch and then a neighbor magically bringing over food!
Joy is students walking out of their way to greet you with big grins on their face as they declare, “Good morning Madame!”
Joy is picking up random people's children and making them laugh. And joking about taking the cute kid home with you.
Joy is being in Benin for FIVE months with amazing Peace Corps volunteers.
Joy is carrying a 10 foot mat, rolled, and balanced on my head as I walk around my market town and feel well integrated.
Joy is the motorcycle taxi man (zemidjan) giving you the correct price the first time you ask.
Joy is cooking tortillas and chocolate chunk cookies with fellow PCVs dedicated to deliciousness.
Joy is stretching out on a big mat in the cool night air and gazing at the stars.
Joy is leaving village and realizing how much you miss it.
Joy is feeling like you’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.
Joy is being a Peace Corps Benin volunteer.