C’est Fini! Saturday, May 23 2009 

Not for us – not yet – but close. Meanwhile:

Don’t try to order anything here without expecting them not to have it. Is that too many negatives? Expect to be told: there’s no more, it’s “finished.” Management of stock – or anything else – is not an artform that has taken hold here. A common conversation at a maquis (a place for food & drink) might run as follows:

Client: What is there to eat?
Service: Oh, there is everything! There’s pâte…
Client: Okay, there’s pâte. What else?
Service: Well, what would you like?
Client: Is there rice?
Service: Oui! There’s rice… (five minutes pass). Ah, there’s no rice. It’s finished.
Client: Okay, what else is there?
Service: Well, there’s pâte…
Client: And…?
Service: No, there isn’t any[thing else]. It’s all finished
Client: Okay, I’ll have pâte. What sauce is there? Is there meat?
Service: Red sauce [the simplest, boringest kind]. The meat’s finished.

Rinse and repeat with your favorite sizes and brands of beers and sodas. Of course, it all comes from a good place: no-one ever wants to flat out refuse someone something, as it might be taken as bad hospitality.

That extreme aversion to bad hospitality manifests itself in boldface lies:

Zemidjan: Of course I know where that is!

Kids at the Tata Sombas: No, it won’t rain tonight!

Taximan: Sure, I’ll drive you all the way to Accra; no, you won’t even have to get out of the car.

Most of the time, at least, they’re mostly harmless (though annoying) or even funny (such as the kids). There, at least, there’s at least one aspect of the culture we use to our advantage as PCVs:

PCV: Of course I’ll find you $8 million to finance your small business and fly you overseas to visit me and some investors!

Smile, kids, we’re going home!

30 days… Saturday, May 23 2009 

… but who’s counting?

As you’re probably aware Phoebe has written a great post about our recent visit to the Tata Sombas.

Petit à petit, we’re coming to the end of our service.  I’m trying to finish up all my projects in the next couple weeks, and Phoebe’s, for all intents and purposes, done.  Expected date of departure is June 22, and we’re flying into Phoenix, the first stop in a multistate roadtrip to end up in South Royalton, VT, where I’ll be going to law school.

It’s certainly been an experience, for what that’s worth.  Now that we’re near the end of it, I’m noticing again all those things that have become commonplace.  I’ve blogged about a few, but I’m sure that many more have just seemed unimportant or, with the jaded eye of experience, mundane.  Some examples:

Fill ‘er up

Gas stations, as such, are still a rarity, though becoming more common.  Most people buy gas (straight essence or gazoil, or a mélange of gas & oil for the two-stroke motos) out of liter and 10 liter rum bottles from little stands on the side of the road.  That gas comes to us mostly smuggled from Nigeria in 25L bidons tied to the back of motorcycles.

Born free

All livestock here is “free range.”  That doesn’t make it good.  It does mean that animals scrounge whatever they can for food, get stolen on occasion, and get run over with regularity.  Busses don’t stop for goats.  There is, at least, a system of identification, wherein one ties pieces of fabric to one’s animals, or sometimes a fetish indicating that thieves will pay the gods for any transgressions.

C’est gaté!

One of the most annoying aspects of life here is money.  First, there’s never any change.  Imagine paying for a 25¢ pack of gum with a dollar bill and having the salesperson tell you in a huff, “There is no change.  Don’t you have change?”  Ridiculous!  Further, unless you’re au village up north, you’ll frequently be told that your money is gaté – i.e., “spoiled.”  By that, Beninese folks mean that the coin is a little worn or the bill a little torn.  This, of course, is often a cover for not wanting to give you change or for expecting you to fork over a larger denomination – without asking for change.

Zemidjan song

I  love zemming!  Except for the occasional “Oh, my, I’m gonna die!” moment, riding on the back of a motorcycle is one of the most fun and fast methods of transportation I’ve ever experienced.

Next blog… “C’est Fini!”

A Lighter Note: Obamamania Thursday, Mar 26 2009 

It’s all true: Obamamania in Africa.

To Our Loved Ones Friday, Mar 13 2009 

By now, you may have heard, thanks to an overeager press, that a volunteer here in Benin has died. (If you knew her, you’ll know her name. If you happened upon a news story, you’ll know the circumstances of her death. I’ll let the press do the reporting.)

That volunteer was our friend.

It seems odd that words came easily for an elegiac to our dog Hugo yet not for our friend. It’d be easy to say the same trite things everyone says – trite even to note how trite familiar expressions of grief, of mourning are. It’d be easy, too, to beatify her: we tend to do that when friends die.

The truth is, though, that all those trite things one says about a loved one are true and must be said. Our friend was the best. The person everyone could count on. Dedicated. Well-integrated. Smart. Caring. A fantastic hostess. “Momma bear.” Loving. Loved. A saint.

Peace Corps Volunteers can be a cynical, pessimistic bunch. We see and experience a lot of things that make us angry – righteously or not – or sad. But, anyone who got a hug from her was reminded why we’re here. She was the positive light at times when you were feeling down about Benin or Peace Corps or life generally. And, she was a blast to hang out with, even if it was just reading poetry from the Norton anthology at two in the morning.

One could write a thousand words and still they wouldn’t be enough or even apt. We can only hope that our small dedications – on blogs, on Facebook, in letters and cards sent to her family – will somehow help ease the loss we and everyone who loved her felt. And, we can only pray that her soul rests in that Love which was so evident in her.

New Photos! Sunday, Mar 8 2009 

See Jeff’s PicasaWeb for photos of Revenants/Egun in Houègbo. See Phoebe’s PicasaWeb for Houègbo Spelling Bee photos.

A post on the Revenants/Egun to come next week.

The List Thursday, Feb 26 2009 

Curious what we saw in the park?  Here’s the list of mammals, as best as I can tell from the field guide I found at the workstation:

  • Chacma baboons (aka, trash thieves)
  • Tantalus monkeys
  • Elephants
  • Hippopotamuses
  • Common warthogs
  • African Buffalo
  • Duikers (cephalophus)
  • Waterbucks
  • Hartbeest
  • Roan antelope

Photos Wednesday, Feb 25 2009 

Well, expect to be underwhelmed. My digital photos from the park leave a lot to be desired. Not unexpected, given I was operating with two cameras (one film), neither of which had an appropriate zoom lens.

Sojourns Wednesday, Feb 25 2009 

I (Jeff, seul, thanks to Phoebe having to work in Porto Novo this week) just got back to the Natitingou workstation from a trip with a few friends to the Pendjari National Park in northeastern Benin. Apart from a guide who was essentially an overpaid taxi driver, and no lions or hyenas, we had a great time.

We saw many, many antelope, buffalo, hippopotamus, baboons, crocodiles, birds, warthogs, and even elephants. Of course, unlike a zoo or even San Diego’s Wild Animal Park, it was pretty hard to see much of anything. Leaving the trails is, of course, not allowed. And — who knows. Luck, I guess.

At any rate, we stayed a night at the Hotel Tata Samba, in the park, which was pleasant. We packed our food in and our trash out; though, we could’ve eaten at the hotel had we liked.

Two game management practices that should not be allowed:

  1. Feeding the baboons. Baboons, it seems, are quite like bears in their affinity for human food waste. They easily got into the wastebarrel, which had no lid, and started munching on crumbs from our lunch. Embarrassing enough. Our embarrassment turned to depression, however, when the guides started feeding the baboons.
  2. Burning the fields. Apparently, it’s illegal for the average Beninese to set a brush fire (in the hopes, perhaps, of chasing out the agouti to catch them or to fertilize the land or to avoid snakes) in and around the park. This, according to our guide, doesn’t seem to stop the parks service from doing it, though. Apparently, they burn the grass so that we all can see the animals better. I’m skeptical. At any rate, it’s hardly a game park management best practice.

Pictures to come. I’ll post the link.

Broken English Friday, Feb 13 2009 

I was ambushed the other day by my next door neighbor, Daniel, and his friend, Angelo. As I walked into our concession, the two of them asked me over to help them with their English. I acquiesced.

An hour or two later, I had to cut them off. After all, I hadn’t eaten yet, and neither had Phoebe.

That night, they came by and thanked me profusely – apparently my help had made them feel they did well on the exam they’d had that day. Since I was such a brilliant teacher, they asked me to tutor them twice per week.

We’ve had a couple sessions so far. The first was very English-oriented. The latest was mostly in French. After all, the Israeli-Palestinian situation is difficult enough to understand in one’s own tongue, let alone a third! What I’ve realized is that these sessions aren’t going to be so much about English, however, as they are about everything.

No matter how poor an education you think you received in the USA; no matter how little you think you pay attention to the news or know of the world; no matter how little you’ve read the Bible or anything else for that matter: you know more than a Beninese high schooler. Probably more than most Beninese – period.

We are blessed in the US to have access to education, to materials, to information. You can’t help but have some awareness of where things are in the world, no matter how bad your geography. You probably understand the US used to produce a lot of things, which made us rich, and doesn’t so much any more, which may be out economic downfall.

Through my English lessons, I’m learning that America’s greatness has largely come through the access to information we all have. From libraries to cable or satellite TV, from the Internet to schoolbooks, we take for granted the wealth of knowledge, information, wisdom, and news that is at our fingertips. Whether you want to or not, you probably know what’s going on in Gaza and which countries are considered “state sponsors of terrorism.” You probably know whether the job market is booming or if unemployment has skyrocketed. You know which country built your car, about how long it would take you to get there, and what language they speak.

In short, ours is indeed a society built on knowledge.

So, I’m trying to share what I know with my two new tutees. Peace Corps likes to call this the “Second Goal.” That is, Americans sharing info about America with “host country nationals.” I’m hoping to go beyond America, though, and show these kids a bit of the world.

In a globalized economy, I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t.

La Bonne Fête Friday, Jan 9 2009 

‘Tis the season of “la Fête.” As we’ve mentioned before, Beninese folks like to celebrate from about Christmas Eve through to sometime around February. The New Year, at least, is probably the closest thing they have to national, secular, non-patriotic holiday such as we have so many of in the States (Thanksgiving, Valentine’s, Halloween, etc.).

This year, as last year, we stayed in Houègbo. Though we didn’t really expect much, based on last year’s experience, we also didn’t have any place better to be. Our neighbors, however, surprised us.

For Christmas, it was pretty much an average day. We did have a lovely time opening presents from là-bas, and we ate some tourtière, some sweet potato mallow, and some enchiladas (not all at once).

Unlike last year, we didn’t bake the neighbors any tourtière, being uncertain as to whether they really liked it and unsure of the protocol, anyway. The kids got some candy from us, some pens, and some pencils, as well as a small, kind-of tacky nativity set. The happiness with which these small gifts were received reminded us that bigger, better, or more expensive is not really necessary.

Fast-forward a few days to New Year’s Eve. We decided we’d stay up. Barely managing to last till midnight, we wandered outside. Nothing going on. Doors to the neighbors’ closed (though they were clearly home and up). Oh, well, we lit our sparklers anyway, marveled at Orion’s being straight overhead, and went to bed expecting at any moment to be awakened by firecrackers and Petit Miquelito blasting from some overburdened woofers.

New Year’s Day gave us something to remember, though. Not long into the morning, we got a knock at our door (or rather a quiet “ko ko, ici,” which has the same effect). Answering it, I was greeted by François, the 12(?) year old next door, bearing a pot of beans and a loaf of bread wrapped in a towel. Nice! We were pleasantly surprised, to say the least (especially as plans for French toast had died with the discovery of broken eggs).

About lunchtime, again there was a ko ko ko-ing at the door. More food! This time, it was the other maman next door, bearing a plate of beans, pasta, pimente, sauce and chicken, also with a loaf of bread wrapped in a towel. Needless to say, lunch was easy for us, and delicious.

As we sat out later in the day and into the evening, we realized that Beninese people actually celebrate New Year’s. While many Americans are nursing a hangover, our neighbors and friends here are preparing food and going a-visiting dressed up in their finest new complet outfits. (Though, unlike for us, it seems the visitors are usually the recipients, not the bringers, of deliciousness).

Feeling a little sheepish that we hadn’t known what might be expected, Phoebe and I figured out that we had some pork in the fridge and some rice we could share; so, I whipped up a couple dishes in the evening and brought them over.

In the evening, the kids showed up and hung out on our porch, playing with sparklers, enjoying the sugared peanuts, not much liking Gummi Bears, and seemingly happy to have a hang-out that didn’t involve their parents or visitors. Even Daniel, of the t-shirt story, came over and wished us a happy New Year. Vive le rapprochement.

Two days later, we’d just finished up the beans delivered in the morning, which we later found to have chicken hidden in them) and enjoyed again the kindness and generosity of our neighbors this fête.

Happy New Year, everyone.

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