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!!