Life under a mango tree

April 30, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — A Peace of Africa @ 12:54 pm

Head to Head with Father Godfrey’s Vision


My friend Alison has had an enviro club and she is wonderfully creative in her approach with their topics and community projects.  We have been collaborating for a year now on our club meetings/activities and she was even a guest speaker in Tchatchou this last week to do a gardening activity.  So it was only natural that we wanted our clubs to meet and collaborate as well.  We planned this to take place this last month on March 31. 


Alison and I are not the only ones impressed with Project Songhai, all of Peace Corps Benin, International Development Agencies and most tourists are as well.  Our first exposure was during stage, where every Tuesday all the volunteers met at their facility in Porto Novo to attend group sessions.  Project Songhai to put it simply is an agricultural center but would more accurately be described as a self sustaining micro-community.  This was started by a man named Father Godfrey back in the 80’s and has expanded to include centers all over the African continent.  He obtained his PHD in the US and came back to train Africans how to better cultivate the land and live more sustainably.  His philosophy and approach has been termed Integrated Systems Management.  All the plants, animals and fish work in a symbiotic relationship and it is up to us humans to follow the same approach with our mass production of these resources for human consumption. 


There are at least 5 centers operating in Benin and we happen to be located near the Parakou/Atagara center which is second largest to Porto Novo.  Each center operates its own training sessions which are open to the public for a nominal fee or free of charge to anyone who enrolls as a student and lives/works in the center for the full 18 months.  The students then return to their respective village to implement their own agricultural project, which is sort of like their thesis.  As students they spend their entire stay there in rotation learning every activity that the center has established from beekeeping and fisheries to food preserving. 


When I say that Songhai is like a micro-community, I mean that literally.  There are roads with actual street names, their own waste management system, an underground bio-gas chamber to supply fuel for the mess hall, a water filtration pond that uses plants instead of chemicals to recycle water, and obviously uses their own plants and animal resources as a food supply.  These students, men and women alike, live in some of the best made structures in Benin that include indoor plumbing while learning how to make their country more sustainable.  It’s the African version of an eco-village!  So naturally Alison and I wanted to expose our students to this, because after all this is what they should be striving towards. 


It took us over a year to get the plan organized and receive funding from our newly formed Food Security Program, but last Saturday it all came together and due to the rarity in Benin I must flaunt, rather flawlessly.


I start this story on Friday night where I came face to face with our impending doom.  I had been anxious and worried all week that some uncontrollable Beninese force would destroy our efforts and Friday when I was sitting in our Food Security Task Force meeting I received the phone call which I thought was only the first domino to come crashing down in our series of misfortunes.  The t-shirt man Abib said our club shirts would not be finished that night as promised though he had all week to make said shirts and logically waited until the last day to get started.  A light broke and he couldn’t find another.  I was seeing red so I sent super positive Alison and trusted friend Bailey to interpret our situation.  It was as follows: he would search for the part, try to get them done by 7 am and if unable we would not be charged.  We relaxed and waited for more dominos to fall. 


We bought our snacks, got the photocopies of the students worksheet made and then settled in to spend the night at the workstation since I couldn’t head back to Tchatch without the shirts.  11:30pm Abib calls, he had finished and was sending his employee over to pick me up to retrieve them.  I was back by midnight, showered and settled into bed when volunteer drama returned from the bar (in the form of Sara) to the workstation.  I didn’t get to bed until 3am.


6:00am:  In the morning darkness I situate myself onto a moto with all my supplies and make the chilly journey back to Tchatch in time to get home, brush my teeth and change clothes.  7:00am: I am at my neighbor’s house Zachary who is one of the taxi drivers taking us to Songhai.  I wait for him to dust off the entire interior and exterior of the cab, trunk and engine, wait for him to change clothes and fill the radiator with water.  We were supposed to be leaving at 7:30 and we are just leaving his house to go pick up the water sachets, there are only 2 taxis and he still needs to locate the third.  Why he didn’t ask anyone within the last 3 weeks, or fill up his gas tank last night, I have no idea but I see the next domino teetering in my brain.  We finally reach the school at 8am where all the teachers and students are waiting for us.  There is a mild dissatisfaction amongst the drivers as to the length of the trip and price being paid.  I had arranged this with Zachary weeks prior, there should be no problem but of course when Zachary said he knew where Songhai was, that meant he only had a vague idea, nothing accurate.  I was able to smile seductively, shake some hands and urge some forward progress.  We divided ourselves up and set off, the domino never fell but I still sat in the car laconic and stoic as we passed through each of the 5 checkpoints hoping to get off without paying too much in bribes. 


We arrive late but luckily Marcus’s club from Ouari Maro is even later.  Alison is there after arriving by moto and is conversing with her club.  Lauren wingman’s me while I pay the drivers and discuss the return trip, 4/4:30 at the latest.  Ouari Maro arrives shortly after so we distribute the shirts and settle in the open air conference hall and start off the day’s event.  This has been paid for by our Food Security Funds to give technical training on sustainable gardening practices, so each participant was given a worksheet I created to ensure comprehension. 


We had each club introduce themselves and discuss their community projects.  My club is comprised mostly of older high school students the equivalent of sophomores, juniors and seniors where Alison’s club is mostly middle school and freshman students.  Marcus’s club is actually from the primary school so we had an even mix of students that created a wonderful dynamic for learning and exchanging. 


After Roger, the center’s operator gave the background of Songhai and their philosophy, we took breakfast before embarking on the tour.  There was so much to see and the sun was so intense as we walked around that Lauren ended up with heat rash.  The students were extremely engaged in the verbal exchanges with Roger and also with their physical interactions with the animals, machinery and plants.  Unlike in village, animals here are enclosed and taken care of.  The center uses their own crops to create a feed for all their animals and the students were able to visit each facility and watch the process in order to grasp the concept of integrated systems. 


Since we were late our schedule was pushed forward and we were forced to head straight to the garden after the tour which was about 2kms from the ‘village’ center.  The original plan was for the students to get some hands on experience with composting, planting and creating natural pesticides however we were running out of time, so we settled for a semi-brief session and tour of the vegetable plots and composting area.  For all of them, teachers included, it was the first time they had ever heard of strawberries let alone seeing and tasting them.  I found myself having to explain what a sunflower is and why humans planted them, if a red pepper was spicy like the peppers they eat and what the taste of an eggplant closely resembled and how people cook them. 


Such seemingly trivial discoveries were the most important, for the students have to return to their communities and understand the importance of incorporating these vegetables into their own gardens to improve nutrition.  This was not just an action packed field trip for pleasure, they are expected to learn something, and not only that but implement these techniques as well.  As a club we will be planting our own garden within the community garden plots and also are responsible for donating 3 family gardens and training the household to maintain them.  Hopefully over time the exposure to new vegetables will spur a demand for a vegetable market, creating a new income generating activity and ultimately improving the accessibility, quality and availability of foods to the masses.  And there we have it folks, 3 of the 4 pillars to Food Security! 


After a grueling walk back to the conference hall, the discussion was opened to questions at which point the students used the opportunity to fill in the blanks on their worksheets.  Lunch was served and we all sat back wondering where the day went.    As I ate the lunch Alison had prepared for us vegetarians I looked the group over and was proud of what we had accomplished.  It was at this point that I realized America had won, the dominos never fell.  We handed out the Songhai cookies for a snack during the ride home and said our goodbyes.  We took one final group photo and the taxis peeled away.  Well, everyone besides us, it was reaching 5 before Zachary and the boys showed up.  Still I can’t be mad, since there was no cell phone service I couldn’t call to remind them and they came on their own.  Luckily Tchatch is only 40mins away!


I literally resigned myself over to fate during that morning taxi ride and was astonished that I literally was able to sit back, let other people control our whole day and everything went as planned.  So maybe it wasn’t America that won, we’ll call it a tie. 




Safari February 22, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — A Peace of Africa @ 4:12 pm


You have to sing this as you read to really get the effect.

From the day we arrive on the planet… and blinking we step into the sun.

There is more to be seen than can ever be seen, more to do than can ever be done.

There’s far too much to take in here… more to find than can ever be found.

But the sun rolling high through the sapphire sky, its presence small on the endless ground.

It’s the circle of life … and it moves us all.

Through despair and hope… through faith and love.

Till we find our place… on the path unwinding … in the circle… the circle of life.


From the moment Erin and her family arrived in Parakou my ambivalence towards our upcoming adventure had changed to eager anticipation. I began to silently sing this song and continued to do so for the remainder of our trip. It was three days into the new year and I was still recovering from the arduous month of December. We had planned this over 6 months prior when she had learned of her family’s trip here so I had obviously put it to the back of my mind as she had taken care of all preparations. We were meeting in Parakou that morning and renting out a taxi to take us directly to Natitingou. Patrick and his family were making their own travel plans and ironically beat us there though we had left an hour prior to them. The difficulty arose before we even left our workstation in Parakou, though we had expected nothing less.


Nigeria had ended gas subsidies on new year’s day and illegally imported gas which is all the taxis drivers will use, was on the rise. They wanted more money to offset this increase and the battle thus began. Erin and I are both very aggressive girls who are determined to barter over 25 cents, so when you start throwing racism in our face, our tempers are most likely to flare. We are well aware that one white person is expected to pay more for every item purchased, so when you throw 5 white people into one car who are clearly anxious to depart they naturally assume they have some leverage. That was not the case and we spent an hour searching around for gas and arguing with the manager of the taxi garage before we departed. The driver had himself become anxious as he realized that his prospects of making a return voyage that night were slipping away with the sun as he argued over a few dollars.


We arrived in Nati early enough that Erin and I went to the market immediately to get some fresh veggies and packaged goods to supplement our meals in the park. Erin’s family was traveling on a budget and as PCV’s we are always traveling on a budget so one of our main concerns was to avoid eating the extremely over priced meals that are available at our hotel’s only restaurant. I should also note, that they are also the only hotel to date located in the park on Beninese no other options!

Our van arrived at 6am the following morning and we slapped a mattress to the roof, bought a bag of fresh baguettes and were off! Parc Pendjari is the largest of two national parks and the most frequently visited tourist attraction in Benin. Both of our National parks are located in the northern part of our country and are only tracts of a much larger area that is shared with neighboring Burkina Faso and Niger.


As we passed Tanguieta, the last city before the entrance, the hills passed away and the flora changed from sub tropical forest to semi arid savannah. We reached the first watering hole within an hour and emerged still sleepy and a bit chilled. Our first sighting was rather dull. There were a few crocodiles sunning themselves on the opposite shore and birds a plenty, but we all had our eyes alert for something else. Lions! After all, they have to drink too, don’t they?




We all stumbled back to the van, more anxious than when we arrived. The cool air was refreshing and our safari had officially begun. Almost all of us decided to situate ourselves on the roof in order to be better prepared. The hotel was near the border on the other side of the park entrance, so we were able to spend the whole morning out on the prowl.


Our guides were experienced and recommended by previous volunteers. Anyone who enters the park has to have a registered guide and automobile to ensure that all rules are followed. This is not only for the protection of the wildlife but for the tourist’s sake as well. There are ten established rules, but these two are the most important. Rule number 1, NEVER EVER go off the walking path, not even 2 feet to get a better shot with your camera! Rule number 2, when on the road NEVER exit your vehicle. Our guides were very strict with these rules and even felt it necessary to scold other guides who let their tourists break them.


The first animals we came across were antelopes! Imagine our excitement! We all pull out our cameras as the van rolls to a halt. We all take as many pictures as we can while Biggie Smalls searches through his picture book for the French name of what is before us. Little did we realize at that point in our journey that there are several types of antelopes and we would eventually see them all and lots of them! But our excitement was high and we kept our eyes peeled for any sort of movement. The second thing we saw were some monkeys playing around a small watering hole. They were fairly far off so we didn’t linger long, but from that moment on I began to look in the trees.


We all wanted to see lions, but I was also itching for a tree full of monkeys! My determination paid off shortly thereafter. I was facing backwards on the tail end of the van and as we rounded a corner I found us some baboons! Again, over the course of our two days we would end up seeing a number of them which we heard is highly unusual, but this spotting had earned me the nickname Eagle eyes!



We reluctantly moved on to check in at the hotel and ended up eating lunch and taking some desperately needed naps. Erin, her mom and I shared one room while her dad and brother were in the other. Patrick, his dad and brother were separate.




We met our guides sharply around 16h and had much better luck than the morning. Shortly after leaving we saw our first groups of elephants! Stayed as long as possible but eventually we were just pissing them off so they charged and we relented. We made a stop at our second watering hole, but had as little success as the first. There were about 5 hippos wading in a lagoon across from us, but all we could see were their pink ears sticking above the water line.




It was growing dark as the sun approached the horizon. We ran into the same group of elephants who clearly remembered our van and were not at all amused at our second encounter. As we left our friends in the dust, we approached another SUV with tourists standing outside their vehicle with binoculars. Our guides issued a tongue lashing in local language, but our attention was soon diverted by the lion to whom we can blame this disturbance. She was sauntering along our southern horizon too far away to get any worthwhile photos but I’ll post the one I did take, just to verify. The sunset was everything one could imagine but then the wind and dust picked up and temperatures dropped. We were all happy enough to just wash our face, eat dinner and shelter ourselves under the covers of our cozy beds.


We left the next morning around 6am before the sun was up. I wore two tank tops, a long sleeve shirt, a sweatshirt, pants, socks, shoes and was still freezing. But we braved the roof and waited hours before the heat was strong enough for us to shed some layers. We saw more of all the animals from the previous day save for the lion and being so content with our luck from the previous day took an extra hour for naptime in the afternoon.


                 nice Starr family photo   and biggie smalls is peeing.

Afterwards our guides ended up taking us across the Niger River by foot into Burkina. We only went far enough to take these photos and then returned to the van. The valley surrounding the river is far more tropical than the rest of the park and we ended up seeing more wildlife within those 30 minutes than we had that whole morning. We also saw our first water buffalo and warthogs!


Last stop of the day was to the water hole. We waited around there long enough to catch the hippos lifting their heads above the water and entering and exiting as well. What a wonderful day! This time however we were farther away from our hotel and the dark dusty ride back seemed like an eternity. We followed the same routine as the previous night; wash, eat and sleep.


We still need to wake around 5:30am just to pack up and leave by 6. However, us three girls woke up that morning not by our alarm. We all lay silent in bed when Erin demands in a hushed voice, “did you hear that”. Yeah, I heard it and thought it was her dad snoring in the next room. Nope, that was no man. Lions! It roared twice more and then fell silent. Her mom got out of bed and wandered next door to pack up. Could hardly believe our Safari was almost at its end, I wanted desperately to see more lions. We had to settle that morning with watching the crocodiles almost make a kill at the last watering hole before exiting the park. Stupid antelope wandered off slowly unknowingly escaping death by only a few moments. Can you believe that for the first time in my life I was actually cheering on a predatory animal to slaughter another! Hah!


We all crawled back into the van and into the warmth. This morning was even colder than the previous one. We made the customary stop at the waterfalls just before Tanguieta but no one was brave enough to take the plunge. I didn’t bring a swimsuit and definitely wouldn’t do it alone, so hopefully Erin and I can make it back before we leave when it’s warmer. We made it back to Nati before noon and I was able to heat up some water and throw it over myself to clean off. We spent the rest of the day making food and watching Indiana Jones.


It felt good, almost like a vacation. However the next morning all the fun ended when I had to take one of the worst taxi rides of my life. Life can go from happy to crappy within seconds. That’s why you can never really feel like you’re on vacation in Benin, but it will certainly be an adventure.

  huge termite mound. :)


The winds of change January 30, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — A Peace of Africa @ 5:33 pm

natures first green is gold. her hardest hue to hold. her early leaf’s a flower. but only so an hour. so leaf subsides to leaf. so eden sank to grief. and dawn goes down to day. nothing gold can stay.

I set my alarm that morning for 6:40am. So I turned it off and went back to bed for about 30 minutes. I was gone from post for nearly two weeks and therefore have fallen so far out of my exercise routine that it’s become hard to rouse myself from my cozy bed. It was 7:30 by the time I was hitting the pavement and it didn’t even matter. I ran 3 miles and probably could’ve gone longer, but hey it’s my first day back. In about one month’s time at that same hour, the sun would be so intense that I wouldn’t even consider leaving my house at that point, so at least there is one good thing about Harmattan!

What the @#$% is Harmattan? Well, the title of this blog was not a metaphor to mark the passing of the new year although I am sure I could write an entire blog on my disappointment with the former and high expectations of the new. No, no. Harmattan is a dry northern season immediately following the end of the rains. The wind patterns change and bring south the cool Mediterranean winds that pick up the Saharan sand along the way. The farther north you go, the worse it gets.

I often think of Ponyboy reciting Robert Frost’s poem to Johnny in the outsiders. “Nature’s first green is gold, her hardest hue to hold”…clearly R. Frost never made it to West Africa. The entire landscape changes and everything that was green turns to gold for near 6 months! If by chance the vegetation has not withered away from lack of moisture it still carries the appearance of such due to the residue of terre rouge that accumulates on each leaf.

The biggest difference Harmattan brings and subsequently the reason for my contempt is the drop in temperature. I. AM. FREEZING! . Seriously, I did not come to Africa to walk around in pants, hoodies and shoes. I can’t even go to bed without socks unless I wish to wake up at 2am shivering. Showers, pfff… forget about it. They have become a thing to dread and I only force myself to if I have been working out. Otherwise it’s not uncommon for me to go upwards of four or five days.

But it’s not just me, Beninese people are cold as well, in fact you will see people sporting hats, gloves and winter coats until about mid morning. Some kids looking more like Eskimos than Africans. The only difference is that they are relishing this short period of time while I detest it. They know all too well that the miserable hot season is on their doorsteps and this fresh air is most welcome.

During the day the sun will still heat up the earth enough to remind us of our equatorial position reaching high into the 80’s, but once you step into a building or an area of shade you’ll be reaching for your jacket. The winds cut through you to the core and leave you immobile. While the sun shines high the village is bustling full of activity and commerce yet naturally as it goes down so does the heat and all motivation so that Tchatchou literally becomes a ghost town, a skeleton of its former self. Just like our winters in Wisconsin, people are cozy in their houses with family and have no intention of leaving. Lauren and I are the only ones crazy enough to be wandering the streets after 9pm and that is only because we are coming back from the bar!

Aside from the drop in temperature, Harmattan is also characterized by the intense dryness of the winds. Your entire body is longing for moisture; skin is ashy, lips are cracking and hair is frazzled. I try to never leave the house without a stick of Burt’s Bees chapstick in my pocket because there is nothing worse than an afternoon spent licking your lips to keep them from bleeding. Callused heels… you can forget about getting the remnants of dirt out of those cracks, they are permanently black! And no matter how often you apply lotion throughout, by the day’s end you will still be reaching for more.

So Harmattan sucks, but it is almost over and thankfully it will be my last one. Then I can go back to showering in relative comfort, wearing less clothes and enjoying all of the night life that Tchatchou has to offer. I do appreciate that I live in a climate which experiences seasonal variations since it reminds me of home. As with everything in life, it could always be worse, I could be shoveling my car out from the snow drifts that the plow has deposited over my vehicle. Instead I’ll throw on some sun block and my hoodie to go get some water from the pump.

Two days after writing this entry I awoke around three from a short slumber and sat up in bed hoping to discover what had roused me. I instinctively held my breath listening for a noise that would signal me to reach for the machete propped against my bed. I heard nothing. The concession was silent for once and not even a mouse was tramping about. I laid back down and breathed a deep sigh of relief. But something was wrong, something had awoken me. I sprang up in bed again but this time with a smile of pure joy like a child on Christmas morning. The winds had changed again! Harmattan was over and the moist humid air from the south was filling my lungs once more. The hot season has officially begun and as I laid back down throwing off my sheet, I laughed aloud recalling this article. I think I’ll take a shower this morning. 


water crisis January 7, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — A Peace of Africa @ 10:31 am

The entire world is experiencing this together yet most Americans never feel its grip firsthand.  When we hear the words ‘water crisis’ a drought most often comes to mind, yet those are only extreme cases which happen to momentarily catch international media attention.  The victims eventually fade away into our memory after other stories of disaster and atrocities take its place in the spotlight.  Yet the crisis is real and it’s only a matter of time that we and those around us will be caught in the middle of it.  I am writing about this because it is a serious issue and I know how easy it is for us to dismiss such things because we simply cannot relate.  I am taking advantage of your audience to remind you that in our lifetimes it will be a serious concern for Americans and as of right now we can take steps to lessen our burden on this fragile system.  Please consider your impact and try, just try to use less.    


For the last few months I have been experiencing this crisis in my village.  It was not as traumatic as it could have been or most likely sounds so let me explain my situation in greater detail.  I live in a small village with around 7000 +/- 1000 residents. (no one really knows exact numbers)  It sounds like a small suburban town but you also have to remember that geographically speaking it is relatively small and about 30-40 can live in one concession roughly the size of a city lot. 

There are three ways one can obtain water here: surface water (stream or spring), pump (electric or manpowered) or well.  Not every family here has a well or can afford to build one and there are only two public ones that I am aware of.  My family does have a well which most families in my quartier utilize for all their household needs.  I use the water myself, but only for two things: flushing my toilet and watering my garden.  The water is not clean, and by that I mean you can barely even see through to the bottom of your bucket.  I would describe it as greywater with debris and I don’t even trust it enough to wash my dishes, clothes or self with it. 

Surface water is obviously out of the question since they have no form of solid waste management and everything on the ground eventually enters in to the surface water as runoff from the rain.  On top of that there are so many parasites that thrive in the water at this climate that if we have even waded through and exposed our skin to it we are obligated to get tested.  If you want to read up on a few of the interesting ones I would suggest guinea worm or schistosomiasis.

So that leaves the pumps which is how I have been getting my water for the past year.   My post mate on the other hand lives with a family that is financially secure and they have a spigot located in their concession which is hooked up to a nearby pump.  She can walk 20 feet out her front door and fill as many buckets as her heart desires, though after one year she still feels a watchful eye upon her, imaginary or real, taking note how much and how often she fills. 

                                                                                          Lauren’s house

There are over 15 pumps in my village which is a lot for a village my size and I obviously use the one closest to me.  I make the trips by myself now though I used to have my 10 year old sister Rafia help me out.  Most villagers use basins but I found them to be more difficult to carry on my head because there was more surface area for the water to splash around, so I use my purple plastic bucket which PC gave me. 


I have two cisterns plus my water filter that I use to store water and it takes about 6 plastic buckets to fill everything.  As I stated, everyone else uses basins so my lady and I measured it out one day and 2 plastic buckets is equivalent to one 25cfa basin (about 5¢), so that is what I pay.  The process can take anywhere from one hour to three depending on the time of day and how many people are at the pump.  Even after a year of this, the villagers still get a kick out of seeing me carrying anything on my head, but the pump mama and I have a solid relationship now and I miss it when she’s not there.


                                                       Let’s get started…                                   not too many people in line, Yay!


                                                                               Greet the ladies… ‘ i kpunun do’



                                                                                    up, up and away…



                                                                                          crazy white girl…


           check out line…  

                                                                                                                                                                 merci mama!

I would fill up my cisterns about once every two weeks and sometimes I could stretch it even longer.  (I have become the most conservative water user in pc history)  Most people when they take their “bucket shower” do just that, they use a bucket…not I.  I use a bowl and fill it about 2/3 full to wash & condition my hair, scrub body and shave legs.  You are probably in disbelief, but I swear to you it is possible and if you had to carry your water on your head the length of a football field you probably would as well.  This potable water is used for showering, washing dishes, preparing food, drinking and washing my intimates.  So it can go fast if you’re not careful. 

                            bowl shower              

This was my system until a few weeks back when during the heart of rainy season all the pumps in village were cut.  There was a problem with one of the water towers and eventually the pumps on Lauren’s side came back on.  Days and then weeks went by.  I grew impatient.  No water.  How can I live like this?  Every pump within a half mile was cut, what could I do?  I ate fewer meals, let the dishes pile up and began to purchase all my drinking water in sachets.  Every time the skies opened up which was frequent and torrential, I put out as many buckets as I could to collect the water without which I would have never survived.  This went on for over a month, when I decided I couldn’t go on living this way, so I gathered up my kids and we marched over to Lauren’s to fill up as many buckets as possible, but I did not have the heart to ask for any more than one trip.

                                                                                rainy season

My salvation came with summer.  Summer Morgan that is.  She came to visit me and while we were out watering the garden some kids told me of a pump I should use that was closer in proximity to the garden than my house.  They led us on some bush paths and we end up at mama’s pump!  The water was flowing that day and has ever since.  I wish I could describe to you the overwhelming thirst one gets from watching the sparkling water spew forth in the unforgiving heat of the African sun.  The refreshment I felt that day can never be duplicated and the mere mention of it has me reaching for my nalgene.  I fear that someday soon with the hot season in full swing I will be faced with this same dilemma, but this time I vow to be prepared.  Like Scarlett O’Hara, I say to myself ‘never again’.  To wake up everyday wondering when your next bucket will come, only this time there won’t be any use praying for the rains which are still 6 months off.  It was stressful and I hated living like that, but all along I knew that it could always be worse.

In northern Benin this year the rainy season was virtually non-existent.  Whole towns are panicking about the small corn harvests this year, which is the only staple food of their diets.  If crops are bad there will be no surplus, which translates to an economic loss for farmers and no resources to purchase other food grains for the family.   On top of an already unstable political climate, now two of East Africa’s most undeveloped countries are facing the worst drought in 60 years.  This has of course led to massive human migrations into refugee camps which are dangerous breeding grounds for widespread diseases and crime.  So far, close to a million people have died and the many debates we hear are about the lack of aid, the local insurgent groups, and lack of transparency by governments, but these are only masking the real problem that people don’t want to talk about because it is one that we don’t have a solution to. 

The problem is the world water crisis.  Our population has now reached over 7 billion people and is growing exponentially, with estimates at 9 billion by 2050.  It is such a complex problem that I do not have the time to develop any in depth or worthwhile debate.  I just want to state some facts; namely that in most areas of the world the crisis is not about abundance but about distribution & access,… by 2025 about 2/3 of the world population will be living with water stress,… water and sanitation problems claim more lives through disease than any war through guns,… production of 1 kilo of rice uses 1000 liters of water when 1 kilo of beef takes 13,000 liters,… your bathtub holds more water than some people use in 5 days. 

We all shouldn’t be expected to live in the manner to which I’ve grown accustomed but we all can and should make some changes to our level of usage.  My purpose is not to castigate you nor boast about my own prudence, because realistically when I return home you certainly won’t find me standing with a bowl in my shower being oh so diligent.  Instead I offer up a challenge to you:  For One day turn off your faucets.  The night before fill up one five gallon bucket per person and see if you can make it through the day with all your cooking and cleaning needs.  That means every time you wash your hands, take out a cupful from your bucket.  When you brush your teeth, dip out a glass.    I’m not even asking you to not flush your toilet or use the wash machine.    Just don’t turn on any faucets, shower or sink.  (In fact, you should probably turn off the valves as well just to stop you from accidentally cheating)  I can make my water supply last at least two weeks, let me know if you can make it through the day and tell me your story.



The powers that be November 10, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — A Peace of Africa @ 9:53 am

There was such a racket going on outside that I had to go check. I thought that maybe it was the football match that was supposed to take place the day before. When I went around the walls of my concession I saw no such event taking place. I asked Amena what was going on, she said a ‘baggare’, a fight. I asked if it was ‘les enfants’, nope it was adults.
I went back into my house to continue reading until a few hours later when my boy Fawaz came to my door talking about football. I asked if the game was taking place and he seemed confused, turned out he just wanted me to play with him or at the very least let him use my ball. I stepped out my door and started talking to Amena again because the noise had just increased. Fawaz said there were a lot of zemijahns, so I foolishly thought they were in the field filming another video of their wild and crazy stunts.
Then Amena said it… ‘gris gris’.
She made the notion of a throat being cut and said that a man was killed. Well what did that have to do with gris gris I wondered. So I continued to press her for answers. The man’s throat had not been cut, but he had apparently failed to wake from his sleep.
We were walking towards the commotion, the home of the accused, which turns out to be the concession of Adjara one of the girls on the football team. Literally, it’s the next house closest to us in that direction. As we approach some members of my family are heading in our direction. The women tell me in Bariba that a man has died and then used one French word to translate the meaning if I didn’t already understand, mort.
I keep pressing everyone to the cause of death to no avail. One of the most educated persons at my house right now is Sofia who is only here visiting her mother until school starts in a few weeks. She spends the school year in Parakou with her father. I hope that through her I will get some logical answers.
Instead she explains to me how this man who has apparently confessed or admitted guilt went about this. The victim was a man in his 40s who lived just behind his house. The accused had borrowed a chicken from the man and then sacrificed it. He dug a hole in the ground near the other mans house and put some ‘traditional medicine’ along with the chicken in this hole. Apparently the man walked over this hole, then fell ill and later died.
“Well, doesn’t anybody think that the man died of old age, or that he was already sick?” I asked knowing that it was falling on deaf ears. So I tried another approach. “If you are Muslim and believe in Allah, isn’t he the all powerful and doesn’t he alone reserve the right to decide who lives and dies…”, there was a shrug and smirk indicating that she could not contest. I pushed her no further, because honestly what rights have I to change her belief, I simply wanted her to question it.
I asked what was going to happen next. Since the whole neighborhood turned out to the event, I wouldn’t imagine that everyone would simply go back to their normal activities so therefore I somewhat feared there would be a revenge killing. The Chef d’Arrondisement (he’s similar to a mayor) came to their concession and said a prayer after which he carried off the accused. I thanked her for the information and let her go.
There is still a great deal of commotion outside. I sense that some type of ceremony will take place, possibly to cleanse the neighborhood from his black magic. As for the moment the mosque calls men to prayer. They do the ritual washing of hands and feet and then head down the road to worship another god whom they seem to fear far less than the power to which their own brothers can wield.
They are justified in their fear, the threat is real. Imagine if you were that guy who was accused. What chance does one stand against a mob when anything you say can be thought of as magic to trick others into believing your innocence. This is my first real voodoo experience in village and I have to say a pretty weak one at that. The only real connection I have to it is my proximity to the location and the kids who I saw that morning collecting herbs that were to be used in traditional medicine. Hopefully the latter was just coincidence and wasn’t purposely sought out due to its proximity to the white girls’ garden and their powerful gris gris.

Other volunteers don’t have it so good. Some girls in the south are forced to leave village for an entire month while the ‘oro’ is out causing mayhem. It’s during that time that women aren’t allowed outdoors and if they are seen by oro they will end up dead. I’ve heard some crazy stories but nothing beats the ones who have apparently woken up in the middle of the woods or village after being summoned during their sleep by the spirits!

Like anything else, the gris gris and voodoo is only as powerful as you believe it to be. I don’t think or worry about it and therefore everything that happens to me is purely coincidental. But don’t hesitate to think that it’s too far above me to use my gris gris as a threat to men who piss me off, after all what is power if you’re not willing to wield it….


A village is just a village October 2, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — A Peace of Africa @ 10:46 am

Everyone wants to know what life is like for me over here. My intentions were for this blog to be a platform to those interested in learning about Benin and not just to express my emotions. Frankly I haven’t done either really. Since I only have one year left to really make something of this blog I hope to keep up the motivation for the duration of my time. For those of you that truly know me, I hate it when people don’t follow through with their ideas and I totally realize that I was being one of those people. Yuck! I guarantee that those entries to follow will be nothing close to literary masterpieces but they will be here for your viewing pleasure on a monthly basis. (I know this is being posted in October, but this will count for September)

After coming back from amerika I was in dire need of restocking my personal stash of reading materials. I have a ‘Classical Books’ list that I have been plucking away at over the last 2 years so naturally I search out for any of those books first and foremost. I had decided to search through the other sections just to make sure my sought after books hadn’t been misplaced when I stumbled upon something interesting in the African section.

The Village of Waiting was written by an RPCV (returned Peace Corps Volunteer) George Packer who had served in Togo back in 1982-83. For those of you completely ignorant of African geography I will save you the search of consulting an atlas and inform you that it is directly west of Benin and about half its size. If you don’t know by now where Benin is, please consult the attached map.

In order for you to get to know Africa, and what I deal with, you must understand that Africa is not as homogenous as our schooling would have suggested. Africa has largely been left out of the school curriculum which has led us westerners to form cliché ideas of Africa based solely on images and news headlines. The Africa that I have come to know and relate to you is just one tiny piece of an extremely large and diverse continent.

Just like the United States there are many cultural differences that are associated with a specific region. In the US when we all hear that old southern drawl ordering a bowls of grits for breakfast an immediate lifestyle and cultural history appears in your mind.

In Africa we find a similar pattern, first there is the Maghreb or Northern region that was influenced by the spread of Islam largely due to the Ottoman Empire which includes countries like Egypt, Libya and Morocco. Also, just like the US we have a Great Lakes region where several countries are surrounded by large fresh water lakes some being Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi. Then there’s Eastern Africa which includes Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. The largest region and also the most renowned would usually be classified as Sub-Saharan Africa or Southern Africa and includes all the countries from the Congo down to South Africa.

The region that I live is probably the second largest and known as West Africa, which extends all the way from south of Morocco to east of me as far as Cameroon. Though each country is unique we tend to find a lot of similarities across Western Africa which is largely due to arbitrary borders that colonial powers drew up without regard to tribal territory. However, the difference in development between the countries is due in part to the legacy left by the former colonial powers in the region, specifically the French and English. George addresses this in a chapter titled ‘Three Africas’ where he witnesses the clash between French and English and also East vs. West Africa when he goes on safari in Kenya. I don’t care to discuss the differences in length but bring this up only to note that Togo and Benin not only share a lengthy border but were also both former French colonies which will explain the similarities between mine and George’s experience.

What George achieved in his book was to capture the daily nuances of life in West Africa which would greatly differ had he lived in Eastern Africa in places like Somalia and Kenya. I rarely ever make book recommendations however I am asking you to strongly consider this one. The book is not particularly good nor does it leave you with a great deal of hope but while reading it I realized that I could never articulate life here as well as he had and if you are truly interested in what I am going through you’ll find yourself a copy.

We tend to read books that either aid us in our daily lives or let us escape from it; this one did neither for me. After all, this book took place almost 30 years ago and the daily frustrations that George experienced are still the exact same that I go through on a daily basis! What sort of behavioral impact do Westerners and PC volunteers specifically think we are making? Thirty years and I still can’t walk down the streets in Cotonou without adult men and women yelling ‘yovo’ after me. In the north where my village is, we get ‘batturae’ which is a Bariba word, yet it means the same thing: foreigner, stranger, white. Lauren and I always correct the young and old when they say it, but after we leave will they not revert back to their upbringing?

The village in which George lived reminds me a lot of mine own; we both have a main paved road that divides the town, a volunteer who lives with the richest family, and the slow monotonous work of village life. The sound of women pounding yams, manioc, shea nuts, or corn night and day. The old men sitting around drinking sodabi in the wee morning hours and continually replenishing throughout the day while the women labor away at home and in the fields. The ‘waging of covert wars for leg position’ against the heavy set mamas in cramped and rusted out taxis while she was most likely oblivious to the entire affair. Men still defending their polygamous ways no matter how unfounded their reasons are and the women who defend this institution of marriage though they emotionally suffered when it happened to them personally.

A few things have changed though. Everyone who met George asked him for his address so they could save him as a contact for future services and exchanges. Nowadays that has been replaced by the cell phone, everyone wants your contact, even if you sat next to a man on a bus for 7 hours with out saying more than three words, before you part ways he will usually try to latch on to the all the possibilities that knowing a yovo could bring. The other biggest change would have to be politically. All of West Africa has abandoned their Marxist/socialist ways for the appearance of a democratic political system. The whole chapter on Authenticity was unrelatable to me, but I can still see some of the remnants of that political thinking in the older population.

Literally everything else that he either describes or briefly mentions has been part of my experience as well, whether I have encountered them personally or just know of them through friends relating them to me. Some of the names might be different, but literally it is just a page from my book if I were to write one. For example the fufu that I am familiar with here is Ghanaian and is a blend of plantains and yams. Here the fufu he describes is made with yams and called yam pile. While manioc is a whole other tuber that is usually dried, then pounded into a powder and added to boiled water to create a mush that is then cooled into a solid form.

The last thing I care to mention is the way he relates his impression of social order and the difference between western and African forms of love in his chapter called a ‘The kiss is European’. Most volunteers struggle with the taboo of physical interactions with the opposite sex and engage in conversations similar to that which follows in order to wrap their brains around the situation they find themselves in. George is having a conversation with the new director of his school when the subject turns to his wife. He asks Dossavi if he thinks that “African men and women have the same feelings for each other as westerners”. Dossavi responds by saying that an African man “can never love his wife as much as his own brothers and cousins. We marry for children, that’s all… or if the women is a peasant, for help in the fields too”. George makes an excellent observation that the strongest ties that we see here are the necessary ones; between parents and children, siblings and cousins.

He goes on to say that here love has nothing to do with pleasure, freedom and fulfillment and I agree. This insight explains why it’s rare to see any form of affection between the sexes. Men will send love poems and sing songs to woo girls at a young age, but once adults the romanticized version of themselves no longer exists. Instead you will see men forcefully grabbing women to show an interest. Men will walk lovingly hand in hand down the street of every village in the entire country but only in the two largest cities will you see a young couple do the same. As human beings we crave physical interactions, only westerners live in societies where it is not only allowed but expected. Personally, I don’t take the taboo too seriously, as with most interactions I like to expose them to my true western self and make touching a part of my conversation. Because I approach men as their equals, some days I find myself in the middle of town holding my carpenters hand for upwards of five minutes while we converse…not normal in amerika yet totally acceptable here. (Try it out, it’s guaranteed to make you feel awkward.)

The ending of the book was actually an afterword which relates his experiences after leaving Togo and his life as an RPCV. I do not have many good things to say about his choices yet it does give us some closure to the events that he experienced. I won’t give away any details but the bonds he created with a few villagers were carried on many years after and unfortunately the role he continues to play in their lives I do not find to be sustainable. I personally don’t see myself following in his footsteps, yet I commend him for continuing the relationships at all. I know once volunteers leave, rarely do they ever come back and the void that leaves on the few closest friends in village is unfair. I admit how selfish it is of us to expect to be accepted, respected and cared for when in the end they will be left with nothing but memories. Especially here in Tchatchou where we have no post office, no internet and no one that I know who could afford to call me much less visit me in amerika.

I struggle with the vacillating desire to leave now or stay on a daily basis. As you read through ‘A Village of Waiting’ you will feel the frustration welling inside you and then you can close the book and turn on the tele. I can’t escape this life and to be honest I am glad for it. If it were such an easy choice with few repercussions to leave than I probably would’ve by now. But never again in my life will I have the opportunity to be a part of these cultures, this village. I belong here, even if it is only for a short period of time, they will never forget Baké Ouré or Angela La Belle, one of the first two white girls who came to live with them, and struggle as they did.


A few planes, no trains and two automobiles August 21, 2011

Filed under: Uncategorized — A Peace of Africa @ 8:22 pm

Flight number one leaves O’hare Intl Airport at 10:30pm. Flight time 9hrs 30mins.  As the day approached I became apprehensive  about how I was going to handle all the train transfers with two overstuffed pieces of luggage and a backpack. Luckily for me, Get Rad was playing a show in Chicago that day and Brad was able to drop me off at the airport, completely hassle free….at least so far.

I was over 4 hours early but I decided to drop off my luggage and check in right away so I could find a comfortable place to reflect on what laid ahead of me. The man at the counter asked me if I would like to check the baggage all the way through, but before i could make a reply he says “oh I guess not considering your layover is for two days.”  Ugh…what? 

Turns out my flight, the one I booked and paid for had been canceled. Did I have my itinerary to prove that?  Of course I didnt, I had kept it all through Morocco but ditched it once I got to america…silly me.  They send me over to the ‘special services’ counter where this lovely lady managed to arrange a new itinerary that allowed to arrive in Morocco before my departing flight. 

I was shuffled back to the original counter where I was allowed to check in after which I was then sent back to special services to pay the fee for my second baggage.  Finally, I say goodbye to my bags and take the next few hours to enjoy my last cup of starbucks coffee for yet another year.   May have been off to a bad start but with each sip I feel less stressed and the sadness starts to engulf me.  I’m not ready to leave america and those I love.  I feel so disconnected from my village life that I question whether I’ve made the right choice to go back.

Flight number two leaves Frankfurt at 4:10pm their local time.  Flight time 2hrs.  I had to go through customs which seemed silly since it was a connecting flight and the baggage was checked through, but I still ended up with a little time before the flight. Less than 2 hours to Barcelona, yeah half way there!

I only had 55 minutes to catch flight number three and it was through a different carrier which meant I had to find their counter and make it through security & customs. I went up to the first info center and she pointed me in the right direction. I speedwalked through that airport and made it right before boarding time was called. Golden.  The flight was full and we ended up waiting on four missing passengers but soon enough we were off in the air. About 15 mins into the flight I was jolted from my usual flying stupor with an alarmingly eerie feeling that my luggage was not onboard.  I panicked for a few minutes but knew there was nothing to do but wait.  Flight time 1hr 45mins. 

We arrive in Casablanca, my first taste of Africa in over two weeks.  Flight number four, my final flight, was departing at 10:30pm.  Flight time 4hrs 30mins.  I grabbed myself a cart with the hopes that I would be needing it, but as you have assumed by now I didn’t.  Apparantly my bags had boycotted Africa, so I had to file a claim and continue on. 

I just wanted to check in and sit down. Upon arriving at the check in counters I realized that there were no employees at any of the airlines. I was shocked really, especially considering there was a sign posted for Cotonou/Lome check in. About 20 feet from the counter that I just walked up to there was a cafe and wouldnt you know it, there was over 10 employees from my airline sitting there watching an agitated me look around in despair. 10 of them. Not one got up to help me. I left and went to the special services desk. He told me to go back and that he would call them, although he was doing absolutely nothing to deter him from just checking me in myself. It’s not like I had any baggage to check, thanks to them.

So I scuttle my way back to the freekin counter. The men are still there sipping their cappucinos and smoking cigarettes staring at me. It was a standoff of great intensity, unfortunately I was outnumbered and in a hurry. Who’s gonna make the first move? Finally two men walk up who are clearly heading to West Africa like myself. One of them bravely steps up to a man, who does not get up to help but turns his head slowly to yell at another guy to get up and help us.  After he finishes his cigarette, he comes up to the counter and asks me “what do you want”.  Ugghhh, isnt that pretty obvious, you work at an airline and I am facing you at a check in counter with my passport……”Where are you going?”  Ugghhh again, there are about 25 lines here and I happen to be standing in front of the one that says Cotonou….really are we playing this game, disgruntled worker meets disappointed customer. I snatch the ticket as soon as it is printed and huffed off.

Next hurdle, customs. The man waves me ahead so I proceed to the counter and hand him my passport. Where is my customs card… and then points to a counter where the man waved me onwards. I huff off again clearly wanting to yell FUCK AFRICA you all deserve to suffer under the opression of poverty!

So I fill out my card and return directly to him since I was the only person in the room. He takes my passport and taps the glass window, what I demand? Oh you mean that sign that says Business Class Only. I turn to the left where about 10 other booths were unmanned, then to the right where his partner was handling the Diplomats Only line. Just where was it that you expected me to go? There was only one place I wanted to go and that was behind him… through security and plop my tired ass down. I shut my mouth and let him make his comments to his partner who was clearly amused but also empathetic. I should’ve chosen to be a diplomat.

There was no one in line ahead of me and so I have to wait for about 15 securtiy checkpoint guards to get off their chairs to man the equipment.  I have all my stuff on the conveyer belt and just stand there waiting for one to let me walk through.  A man walks up to the machine and grabs something from the on top of it, looks at me and WALKS AWAY! Second man approaches and finally lets me pass. 

I make my way to the gate and discover there are no available seats left, so I make the culturally inappropriate choice to sit on the floor and show no concern of dirtying my bottom.  Kids are running around playing with no regard to my feet or bag.  I definately feel like I’m back in Africa now.  I notice that my tolerance level has dropped dramatically after only a month in the developing world so I do my best to internalize the anger and re-build my best African defense system: patience.  

Final Destination: Cotonou Airport.  We hop onto a bus that drives us about 50 feet to the gate…yup this is the West African Way.  They create this illusion of a structured and legitimate system which is sincerely respected but not adhered to that is truely disfunctional, illogical and at times laughable. 

Everyone exits the shuttle and makes a mad rush for the customs sheet but of course I have no pen.  An airport employee asks if I need a pen to which I happily recieve.  Upon handing it back, he of course asks for a ‘cadeau’ (gift).  I give him nothing but a shrug of disgust.  All I need to do is cross the customs gate, but wait!  I couldn’t find my WHO card!  No problem… really??? 

A man ushers me into a tiny closet of an office where a man fills out a new one and assumes that I am not lying about my immunizations.  Once finished he asks me how much money I have on me….ugh excuse me?  I have to pay for the new card, but instead of telling me the price he asks how much I have to guage how much he should charge.  I reply not much, he counters with 3000 CFA or $6.  I reach in my wallet and hand it over.  I just want to be done already.  I realize that it is about 4:30am so I decide to pay 3000 CFA for a taxi that would normally cost 150 CFA for a moto ride. 

As we make our way out of the airport I roll down the window and take in the refreshing morning air.  It feels heavy and soothing as if it was coating my lungs and warming me from the inside out.  I look up at the palm trees and smile, oh how I’ve missed them.  I know the streets and my way back to the office, I feel safe and comfortable…I feel like… I’m home. 

The driver was sweet and we chatted the whole way back, he even waited for the guard to open the door before he left.  Though he still didnt have the exact change as he had previously stated.  It turns out that despite it being 5am I still needed to have a reservation at the workstation so the guard had to phone the PCVL to allow me in (so sorry for waking you).  The workstation was completely empty.  I threw down my bag and grabbed a sheet and tried to forget about the last 24 hours.   Everything was over.

Oh wait… I forgot about my bags!   UGGHHHH!

Both bags were recovered and in my possession within 3 days.  Proof that miracles happen in Africa every day!   



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