Monday, December 17, 2012

It’s about 8am, and I’m sitting outside watching the sun rise with a cool breeze in the air. I’ve got a bowl of oatmeal and a cup of tea by my side and life is good.  It’s times like these that I have to slap myself and remind myself that I am not on a two year vacation but a two year volunteer experience.   For the past two weeks, I was in Parakou, the second largest city in Benin, for various Peace Corps trainings and activities. We were all spoiled with two weeks of air conditioning, running water, electricity, internet, delicious food, and best of all a reunion with all the other PC volunteers most of us haven’t seen in months since being at post, so it was great to catch up and share stories about our sites and have a little bit of luxury for a short time. 

As is typical with the carbohydrate packed diet here and the intense heat all of the time which makes it hard to adhere to any kind of exercise regimen, the majority of the guys have lost a TON of weight since being in Benin and especially at post, while most of the girls complain about having gained 5-10 pounds.  I definitely know that I am a part of the latter group, and while I try not to let it bother me, it’s hard when you hear people point it out to you.  In Beninese culture, being fat is a sign of health, wealth, and beauty so they are not afraid to “compliment” you on your weight gain and will in fact try to fatten you up by offering you food at any opportunity they get.  Just a couple weeks ago, I had a friend come up to me in village and ask me, “So Teresa, how are you enjoying your stay in Cotiakou?”  I responded with a “It’s great here, why?”.  She comes back with, “Oh, I can tell you think so because you’re getting fat.  I can see it in your face and belly.”  She also said with a big smile on her face, “This must mean you like our village, our food, and our people.” At first I couldn’t help but feel super offended and embarrassed even and quickly stormed back to my house where I called a friend to vent about it all.  She made me feel a lot better and talking to a lot of the other female PC volunteers I think we’re all really supportive of each other in loving these “new bodies” we have here in Benin.  Afterall, this is maybe one of the few times we’ll be living in a culture where women are admired for having some meat on their bones so why not embrace it?

This month I have not felt very productive as a volunteer as I have spent most of the first half of the month away from post in Parakou, will arrive back to post tonight, only to leave again Wednesday to head down to the south to spend about a week with other volunteers, including Christmas Eve and Christmas on a beach resort in Grand Popo which I’m super excited about.  I think it’s going to be hard for most of us, it being our first Christmas away from home, so it will be nice to at least spend it with each other.  One of the other volunteers already bought a small fake Christmas tree that we plan to decorate there so that will make it seem more festive as well.  New Years is one of the biggest holidays for the Beninese, perhaps even bigger than Christmas, so I plan to spend that in village.  I’ve been told that people here party for three days for New Years so it should be a good time. 

Something that has also been on my mind a lot lately and has been very shocking and sad to hear is about all of the shootings that have happened, just within the last ten days even with the NFL football player who shot his girlfriend/himself, the Oregon mall shooting, and now the shooting of 26 children and adults in Connecticut.  I actually had a Beninese man come up to me, appalled and extremely perplexed by these events.  He kept asking me if these were American citizens doing this and when I said yes, he continued to question me, sure that they must at least be foreigners or terrorists who recently gained citizenship.  He couldn’t conceive how another American could so casually commit such heinous acts towards other Americans.  He also pointed out how something like this would never happen in Benin, it is just something that is unheard of here.  This man kept asking me how these men could do something like this, but I had no explanation for this.  My first thought was that this is proof of a large fail of our mental health system in America, though looking at Benin where mental health services don’t exist at all, it’s hard to justify that argument.  One might also blame a lack of adequate gun control laws, though, again, living in Africa where it would be very easy for someone to cheaply get their hands on any sort of arms they wanted, that doesn’t seem like a very good excuse either.  There are other societal differences between the U.S. and Benin that exist though, one of them being that Benin is a collectivist society whereas in the U.S. we tend to be more of a individualistic society.  I think the Beninese value their bonds with family and friends a little higher than people from western societies which may play a role in the lack of mass destructive violence.  Whatever the reason, what really matters is that this violence in America, BY Americans, is saddening, ludacris and has got to stop.  

Saturday, November 3, 2012

A November Note

Na yesu n yete na n dosu (Hello family and friends)!  My Waama (the local language spoken in Cotiakou) is coming along slowly, but as of now I’ve mastered the salutations and can say the basics.  Everyone in the village gets super excited anytime I use any Waama though and are always eager to teach me every opportunity they get which is making it easier for me to pick up.  I’m still not fluent enough to give any health counseling in Waama though which is frustrating sometimes.  We’re very short of well trained staff at our health center (or even staff in general for that matter, I make up the seventh member of our health team at the entire center), and as a result everything tends to be chaotic, done erroneously, or not done at all.  Recently I’ve been trying to help the clinic organize their baby weighings they are supposed to be doing weekly.   When they do do the baby weighings they usually are not keeping records of them, recording it on a growth chart, or giving any health counseling to the mothers with malnourished children, so I have been trying to initiate all of that which has not been easy.  This past week I had a mother with 3 month old twins come in whom were severerly malnourished.  They were a mere 5.5 pounds and looked like living skeletons.  Because she didn’t speak French, I was trying to get the other health center staff to talk to her and urge her to take her children to the hospital, that it was life or death at this point, though no one really took me seriously or gave this woman any advice and I don’t think she ended up taking any action as a result.  It was really frustrating at the time and I actually found myself losing my patience and saying some things that were probably rude and inappropriate to the health staff but I still can’t wrap my head around why they didn’t seem more concerned about these babies.  I’m sure it’s not that they don’t care but maybe just that they are so accustomed to seeing this kind of suffering that they become numb to it.  I think it will take a lot of patience and understanding on my part and I haven’t exactly figured out how I will overcome many of the unmentioned problems of the health center as well, but it’s a work in progress.  Overall, everyone at my health center is very happy to have me there and are more than willing to work with me in any way, so that’s nice to know that I have their support at least.

In general, I am continuing to love Cotiakou more and more every day that I am there.  Of course I have those days where I’m feel like I’m dying of boredom, monotony, the intense heat, homesickeness, or just plain sickness, but I’ve been trying to remind myself more often of how lucky I am right now to be living my dream in one of the most beautiful places in the world with some of the most wonderful people.  Just the other day I was taking a walk through the village and discovered this huge Baobab tree which I was just in awe of (and I would post a pic but of course my internet connection just hasn’t been fast enough.  Next time though guys). 

I’m keepin’ it short and sweet for now folks, but know that I’m continuing to do well and lovin’ life.  À la prochaine! J

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Has it really been almost 3 months since my last post??

Hey friends and fam!

I can't believe so much time has passed since my last post, but with how busy I've been it certainly doesn't feel like so long!  I also almost never have internet access so that's a bit of a hindrance.  Ok, where do I start...

1) I am officially a Peace Corps Volunteer now!!!- My training ended Sept 14th with a swearing-in ceremony at the US Ambassador's house in Cotonou.  It was televised on national tv here and many important Beninese officials attended so it made us all feel really important haha  It was definitely nice to be treated to an afternoon of recognition, good food, and drinks after three grueling months of training.

2) Moved to my official post!- Now that I am an official volunteer, I'll be spending my two years of service in a small village called Cotiakou in northern Benin.  I've been here for about a month and a half now and am so happy with my post!  Everyone in my community is super warm and welcoming to me and they've even given me a village name, "Nekima" which they all chose together during a local ceremony.  Supposedly this means "loved one" as is traditionally given to the first born daughter in the family.  Since the man I stayed with during my two week post visit in August has no daughters, the village found it fitting to give me that name.  My village is pretty small, no stores, restaurants, or even street vendors.  The biggest landmarks we have are the one Catholic church started by an Italian priest here, one bar, and the health center I work for.  There is one primary/secondary public school and a very small private school run by the Catholic sisters in village, but for high school students have to go to other neighboring towns for that.  It's kind of funny how much of a Catholic presence there is in my village considering the majority of northern Benin is very muslim, though in Cotiakou there are none.  Most of the people in Cotiakou are farmers who farm primarily to feed their own families, though some do sell their produce also.  Most of what they grow includes tobacco, tomatoes (my personal fav!), maiz, and some other local produce that I don't know the French/English word for.  Anything else that I want to eat I have to go into neighboring Tanguieta for (~10K away), though even there, there is a significant lack of fruits and vegetables.  Many things here only grow during certain seasons and thus when it is not the season, it's difficult to get a good variety of fruit and veggies.  I'm making do though.  This is what I signed up for after all I guess!  Another staple of theirs here in the north are yams (a bit different from what we have in the states) and they literally prepare them almost every night!  They boil them and them mash them with a large mortar and pestle until it forms this doughy substance they call "igname pile".  They serve it with a peanut/tomato/okra/legume sauce.  I hated it at first but now I actually like it.

3) Living environment:  So I'm living in a compound with a family of an old couple and all of their random children/grand children/nephews/step cousins...basically African families are huge and it's impossible to find out for certain how everyone's related.  But in any case, I've been given two small rooms of my own in the compound, my own outside bathing area, and they even built me a latrine just for me.  They are very sweet to me.  The papa of the compound is very overprotective of me sometimes, while the mama is very witty and  always trying to help me learn the local language.  She's also always forcing the local food down my throat and disappointed and slightly offended when I can't eat as much as them.  The Beninese tend to only eat one or two big meals throughout the day as opposed to us Americans who kind of snack throughout the day, so she just doesn't understand my eating habits.  I have no electricity, internet, or running water but I've gotten used to it all and it's not a big deal.  To get water I have to either fetch it from a well or a pump or lately we've been just using stream water that's close by.  I hear that in the dry season though, the streams and wells all dry up and they start charging people to get water from the pump because it's so scarce.  I am very much spoiled right now though because I've never actually had to fetch the water myself, sporting the huge bucket on my head in true African fashion, because the mama always insists on having a girl in my concession get it for me.  I pay her back with treats I get when I go into town and that seems to be enough.

4) Work: The first three months at post are what the PC calls an "integration period" which means that we're supposed to be focusing more on learning about our community, making connections with people, meeting authority figures, learning the local language, etc. rather than going full force into our volunteer work (although afterall, two of the three goals of the PC is to promote a better understanding of Americans on behalf of the host country and vice versa so I've got 2/3 down already at least!).  I do spend a good deal of time at our health center and as my internet time is limited right now, I'll save details about the center for another post.  I've basically just done a lot of observing, helping out with baby weighing, and my biggest projects I'm working on right now are forming to different types of groups.  One will be a group of 10 women in village whom I will work with 1-2X/month teaching about different health topics and then in turn these women will each go out in the community and give the same health talk to ten families.  I'm also gathering a group of young adults who will be trained to give similar health talks in the community, though with a focus on sexual health/family planning.  The pace of life and work is much slower here than we're used to in the states so it's taking a bit more time to get the ball rolling with things, but I'm making some good connections with others in my village and starting to learn the local language (called "Waama"), and still working on my French of course, so I still manage to keep myself busy.

I don't want to overwhelm you all with my life updates all at once, but now that I've moved to post I have much more going on and so will try to post more often when possible. Also, now that I've moved to the north, I have a new address that is better to send stuff to and I'll get stuff faster this way.  It's:

Teresa Tufte
Corps de la Paix
B.P. 168
Natitingou, Benin
Afrique de l'Ouest

If you've sent stuff to the other address I've posted though, no worries, I'll get it eventually.  It'll just take a bit longer for the PC shuttle to get it up here to me.

Also, THANKS SO MUCH TO EVERYONE WHO HAS SENT ME ANYTHING ALREADY!!  It really does feel like Christmas every time I am surprised with even a simple letter or a card and I appreciate every single one of them, so thank you!!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Agggghh, So I know it’s been a while since I’ve updated this but I’ve still had no access to internet here in Dangbo (and even in nearby Porto Novo the internet’s pretty shoddy), and it feels like so much has happened since my last blog post. 

To start off with my living situation, everything’s been going great with my host family and living conditions.  I live on the outskirts of my village (about 15km from the capital) in a somewhat large compound surrounded by palm trees and some of the most breathtaking scenery I’ve seen in Africa yet.  It seems like every day I’m discovering new parts of what I thought was this tiny village and it never ceases to amaze me.  Today I went on a bike ride with another volunteer to explore the area and ran into a lagoon village of sorts where people get around by canoe.  It was another “Aha! THIS is why I love Africa!” moment for me.

So my host family consists of my mom, papa, a sister who is 19, two who are 11 and 8, and a brother who is 13.  My host parents actually have 8 kids, most of whom are grown and live outside the house, and all of the younger kids who live in the house are actually their grandchildren or nephews.   They’ve all made me feel very comfortable living here and I truly feel like I’m a part of the family.   It has been a little difficult to communicate at times though as my French isn’t that great while they speak it with such a heavy accent that I can’t understand them either, though we’ve all been very patient with one another.  I do have my own room with electricity at my house, although there is not running water directly in the house but within the compound and so I have to take bucket baths outside and use an outdoor latrine.  If I have to use the bathroom at night, I’ve been given a small “chamber pot” to use which I then empty the next morning , which I’ve definitely come to appreciate as overall it’s better than having to stumble in the dark to the latrine at night.  We have 23 chickens that roam the yard as well which get in the way sometimes! 

Most of training this last month has consisted of French class which at times has felt like overkill, but I know my mastering of French is going to be essential for the work I’ll be doing at post and in order to better integrate into my community so I’m trying to suck it up and get through it. 

This last Friday was a really exciting day for all of us PC Trainees because they announced to each of us where we will be posted for the 2 years after training ends in September.  I must say I’m super stoked about my assignment!!  I’m going to be posted in a small village called Cotiakou which is in the Atacora region of the country (as in where the Atacora MOUNTAINS are), just south of one of the biggest wildlife parks in West Africa, Pendjare.  I’m also just a short drive to the border of Burkina Faso and Togo.  I have yet to see it for myself obviously, but jeez, talk about beautiful!  In about a week, I’ll be leaving the south to spend a 2 week visit in Cotiakou before officially moving in in September, so I’ll give more updates and details about my post after that.  I do know that I’ve been assigned to work at the Center of Public Health in Cotiakou and will potentially be doing things like organizing women’s groups to discuss various maternal/sexual health topics, assisting with vaccinations (I know, I don’t feel qualified to do this either but this is what was handed down to me in the job description so we’ll see I guess!), giving nutrition lectures, etc., all which I’m also super excited about! 

So, I must say that I’m super jealous of all of you back home who are keeping up with the Olympic games as although my host family does have a TV, they are not even remotely interested in watching the games (Benin’s never been incredibly skilled when it comes to sports) and I don’t have the internet to keep up with it myself.  I’ve been trying to resist buying an internet key that would give me wifi anywhere because I’m on a tight budget with the money PC gives me and am also trying to go through this experience without it, but I must admit that I feel so out of touch with what’s going on in the rest of the world and particularly at home.  I’ve been able to find BBC on my radio but it’s not the best quality and they tend to cover primarily African news heavily from what I’ve heard so far. 

Also, I hope you are all enjoying your sweet corn, burgers, brats, and all of the other wonderful food summer brings in the U.S. as I would kill for any of the above right now.  Beans and rice is getting old real fast.  Tomorrow I’m having some friends over and we’re going to attempt to make cheeseburgers and French fries for my host family.  The quality of the meat is a little different here but I’m thinking at this point my tongue is going to die and go to heaven with anything even remotely up to par.  

Friday, June 29, 2012

My first week in Benin

Bonjour tout le monde! 

I’ve experienced so many changes and new things since my departure this past Saturday that I don’t even know where to begin.

Last weekend was spent in Philly and packed full with Peace Corps orientation stuff, though I did get to do some sight-seeing (saw the liberty bell and where the constitution was signed!).  I arrived late Saturday evening and upon arriving to my hotel was immediately greeted by a group of other excited PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) who I spent the evening eating Philly cheese steaks and having a couple beers with.  There are a total of 67 of us PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees; I know all the acronyms are confusing so I’ll try to just stick with PCV.  Technically I am not a volunteer though until I successfully complete 3 months of training and swear in on Sept. 14th). 

After about 30 hours of traveling, I finally arrived in Cotonou, Benin around 8p Tuesday evening, one iPod short of what I came in with as I somehow lost mine in transit.  Sorry dad, I can already hear you yelling through the computer screen at me for this one.  I was initially on an adrenaline rush of excitement the first night which quickly turned into hardcore jetlag which I’m still trying to get over.  The PC allowed little time for us to rest as we’ve been expected to be up and moving at 6a every day this week.  Though I’ll try to keep my complaining/gross health details to a minimum throughout my blog, I will say that I can tell I’m in for a real treat throughout the next 27 months as my digestive system is already showing signs of sensitivity and feeling completely out of whack.  I’m hoping this is just an adjustment period :/ 

On a positive note, being back in Africa has been everything and more than I expected it to be.  As cliché as it may sound, all of my doubts about PC completely vanished immediately stepping foot on African soil and I know that this is exactly where I am supposed to be at this point in my life, everything just feels right.  Though there is such a large group of us in training, everyone’s been super friendly and we all have a lot of the same interests and motivations in life and have bonded a lot over that.  All of the staff have been very friendly, supportive, and understanding as well which has been great.   I feel very taken care of and guided here so far which in some ways has been annoying, though also makes me feel very safe now and in the instance of an kind of emergency.  Benin is a relatively stable and secure country compared with the majority of African countries and they have good relations with the U.S. government, much of which was explained to us after meeting several higher ups at the U.S. embassy in Benin including the U.S. ambassador.  Very cool stuff!!  The main safety issue we have to fear here is transportation as in many developing countries it is CHAOTIC with little structure.  The main mode of transportation is on motorcyles, or “zemis”, and we happen to be the only country which PC allows its volunteers to use as they are considered so dangerous, though are really necessary to use in order to get around Benin.  We were also outfitted with our own (required) helmets and mountain bikes which I am so excited about!  The mountain bikes aren’t very practical in the city but will be great when I’m at post and have to travel to various sites and villages.

We’ve arrived during the middle of the rainy season in Benin and we’ve definitely been experiencing the brunt of that.  Yesterday morning it rained heavily and constantly for several hours which delayed all scheduled events for the entire day as the roads are virtually impassable and everything just kind of shuts down for the duration of the rain. 

Today I will be meeting my host family and will stay with them until I swear in on Sept 14th and am then assigned to what is called a “post” where I will then live for the remaining 24 months of service.  Though most of the PVCs are going to be living in the capital city of Porto Novo during training, there are roughly 15 of us Rural Community Health Volunteers which will be living in a town about 15km outside of Porto Novo called Dangbo.  The PC says that this is to get us used to living conditions which will be more similar to those that we are likely to experience at our assigned posts.  I’m dying to know where exactly I’ll be posted and what work I’ll be doing, but I won’t find that out for another month.  Until the end of training my days will be filled with language, cross-cultural, safety, and technical training. 

I’ll leave it at that for now and will try to post more updates after meeting my host family this weekend!  My access to internet right now is very limited right now, but I’m hoping that there are some internet cafes near my host family’s house. 

 I’m missing everyone back home, but rest assured that I’m having the experience of a lifetime.  I feel so blessed to have this opportunity at this point in my life.  PLEASE feel free to write me if you’d like!!  Here’s my address:
                                           Teresa Tufte
                                           s/c Corps de la Paix
                                           01 B.P. 971 Recette Principale
                                           Cotonou, Benin (Afrique de l’Ouest)

Also, if sending packages, we’ve been told NOT to have people send items through DHL or Fed EX as we are charged a VERY hefty fee on our end (between $200-300!!).  The best route is to just use USPS.  I’ve also been told that if you write various messages praising Jesus/Christianity on the package like Bible verses or “I love Jesus”, that can prevent the package from being broken into and stolen (which I find pretty hilarious but definitely ingenious). 

Au revoir du Benin J