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.