February 2006

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In which t talks about her English Club

Friday night I got a grand total of 3 hours of sleep. Saturday, however, I got back to my apartment and slept from noon to 6. Then I went to bed at 10 and got up at 7h30. I came home and slept from 12 to 1h30. Then out again, but home and back in bed by 10 and up at 7. I didn’t even have any dreams, which is more or less unusual for me (faithful taker of my malaria prophylaxis that I am).

Yikes!

But that’s not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about my English Club. “My” English Club. Haha. They’ve been going strong for almost three years now, and I’ve only been with them for a few months. I actually don’t do much. Each week, a different member plans a lesson and leads. I’m there for moral support, help with pronunciation, and occasional clarification of obscure grammar rules. The lessons are usually pretty good. More speaking and vocab. Less obscure grammar.

The club was formed when some friends got together and realized that, while their written English was pretty good, they’d had little occasion to practice speaking. They had no *comfort* with the language. So they formed this club for speaking practice. It’s mostly well-educated adults. There are a few high school students there, but they’re adults too (oh, the education system in Benin!). It’s also mostly men (oh, the sexism in Benin!), but there are a few woman who show up pretty regularly.

The sexism in the club drives me nuts, but it’s friendlier sexism than I see elsewhere, and there are enough mouthy women in there who take care of things when they get out of control that I don’t sweat it too much.

It’s a lot of fun. I really like the people involved, mostly because they don’t want anything from me but my presence. That, and I feel comfortable with them. We meet Sunday mornings, which mean’s they’re a little more casual, a little more relaxed, and so on. I’m “one of them” instead of “their Peace Corps Volunteer,” which goes a long way in these parts.

Anyway, the point is that they’re my favorite activity so far, and I’m stating to work with another English Club (this one at the economics school here in Cotonou) later this week. I dunno. I mean, my primary project is interesting (more often than not, anyway), but it’s these smaller things that really make up for the long hours spent in front of my computer. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a chance to work with people like this again. That’s one of the best things about being a Peace Corps Volunteer. There are so many occasions to just help, and it’s my job to do it. And that fucking rocks.

In which t is amblivalent (as usual)

It’s been kind of a crazy week. I haven’t slept much. I’ve done nothing but hang out with PCVs. And, while I got a ton of work done, I’m not yet convinced that I actually accomplished anything in regards to my biggest projects.

Motherfucker.

I dunno. I’m stressed. I’m not sure how I feel about a dozen different things on a personal level (some things were really cool about this week and some really fucking pissed me off). I’m really not looking forward to the conference that comes at the end of those six weeks. I’m disappointed I won’t be able to travel for the next few months. I don’t want to have to deal with idiot men who constantly mistake genuine responses to overtures of friendship for interest in an exclusive relationship. I’m being a fucking moron about boys in general.

But I’m really looking forward to the next six weeks of enforced cultural integration. My projects finally seem to have the potential to institute real change here. I’m also not going to end up spending any money in the next few weeks (or at least, not very much). I’ll finally have time to get some work done on my apartment (When’s the last time I dusted my windows? Mopped? Scoured the bathroom floor?). I fucking *adore* cooking for myself, and I’ll finally have the time to do it on weekends.

I guess it’s always bittersweet from me when volunteers invade my city in large numbers, then head back to post. I never know how to react to the free time I have afterwards, except that I know I love that first empty day where I can actually sit down, relax, and maybe read a chapter or two of whatever book I’m reading. Or just sleep (also rare in my line of work).

PS. Happy Birthday, Michael!!

In which t talks about development and Brook

There are a couple of volunteers that I love having around. They’re not only good company (turns out, most volunteers are), but we end up having absolutely amazing conversations about development, politics, and just life in general. And it’s absolutely fascinating to see how service over here has affected each of us in different ways.

I’m pretty cynical about development. I know that developed countries are better markets for American products. We spend money helping these people so that we can better exploit them later on. Fantastic. I’ve (more or less) convinced myself to be okay with that because the idea is to raise people’s standard of living at the same time. I close my eyes and ignore the fact that the vast majority of goods people buy once they’ve got money are foreign. I pretend not to see the cash flowing out of Benin, and I certainly don’t think about any trade deficits that may or may not exist.

In my less cynical moments, and last night was one of them, I can see the hope here in Cotonou. This city is a teeming thriving metropolis practically brimming over with expectations for the future. People are excited about the possibilities they see for themselves and their country.

My main project here is incredible. We’re working on something to put market power back in the hands of farmers, instead of the large-scale transformation operations that buy their product and essentially set the prices. Awesome!

Brook’s working with a group of Beninese businesspeople to get a cashew factory up and running so that cashew transformation can be done in Benin instead of exporting the raw product then bringing it BACK into the country once it’s been processed. Awesome!

We both have enormously frustrating moments, but we both also are fortunate to be working with motivated people who understand that the way to succeed is just as much hard work as it is luck and who you know (note that I said “just as much” and not “more”).

Anyway, the point is that it’s great when Brook comes to town. We talk a lot. We bullshit a lot. And it’s a lot easier to see hope for the future when I’m with someone else who sees it, even though he experiences a lot of the same daily frustrations as I do.

Happy Valentine’s Day

You’d think that, being as dedicated to staying single as I am, my Valentine’s Day would have been relatively uneventful. Of course, if you’ve been with us for a while (especially if you’re a holdover from the Bitter Club days), then you’re well aware that in my life, no such thing is even close to remotely possible.

The day started out well. Katie’d been in town for a few days, and we’d already started looking for trouble. My first opportunity presented itself when my mid-day formation was canceled, giving my the opportunity to take the rest of the day off. I stopped by the Bureau to find my erstwhile companion. She was nowhere to be seen, but you know who was? The Peace Corps videographer! Sweet love. Hey, did she want to come shoe shopping with Katie and I this afternoon? Of course! And she was going to record the whole thing too! She also wanted pictures of volunteers on Zems, so we conned some Zems (actually, paid them an arm and a leg) into driving around the block with us. Fantastic.

So what’s a girl to do but catch a ride in a Peace Corps vehicle back to my place to meet Katie? Then what’s a girl to do when the vehicle passes Katie on a Zem?

“Hey, that looks like a Volunteer!” (Because of the helmets we’re required to wear).
“Nah, it can’t be.”
“Well, let’s pretend it is, and take some pictures.”

Jason, who is sitting I the *middle* seat, leans over me and hangs out the window, snapping away.

“Holy shit! It *is* Katie!!! KKKKAAAATTTTTIIIIIIEEEEEE!!!!!!!!”

Needless to say, she was moderately surprised to find a car full of white people screaming at her during what had, 5 minutes ago, been a peaceful ride back to her hostess’s house.

Flash forward past an uneventful trip to the market, where the videographer didn’t stay long, and I bought some awesome stripper shoes. Several volunteers are dressed very nicely (oh man, we clean up so well!) and we’re waiting for a shuttle to the ambassador’s house. What? That’s right! The Peace Corps Director was in town, and the American ambassador was throwin’ a party for him. And all the PCVs in Cotonou were invited (or were crashing, whatever, the distinction is unimportant).

I met a lot of interesting people. I had a lot of great food. And of course there was an open bar. And of course the PCVs closed out the party. And of course nobody was surprised. It was a pretty good time, as was the bar afterwards. I only I wish I’d had my camera to grab a picture of Jason sashaying around in my hooker shoes.

Needless to say, it was a memorable Valentine’s Day, spent in fantastic company. And the rest of the week hasn’t been too bad either.

On a college education

If you haven’t been following along, the primary form of in-city transportation here is moto-taxis, also known as zemijians (or just zems). Zemijian is a local phrase that means “get there faster,” and indeed, the zems zip along the streets of Cotonou, ferrying hundreds of thousands of people to work, school, and the market each day.

Current statistics show that in Cotonou, there is a zem for every 10 people. In a city of roughly 700 000, that means there are 70 000 zems. And that’s a low estimate. The thing about zems is that, in principle, it’s relatively easy money. All you need is a moto and a yellow shirt. Then you just cruise around town waiting to get flagged down. Motos are expensive, but if you’re someone well to do who’s lost their job, you might have one. Or maybe you bought it second, third, or forth hand. Or maybe a family member gave it to you. Or maybe you’re a Togolese refugee who brought it with you when you fled after the coup.

The point is, there aren’t very many barriers to a long and illustrious career as a zemi-driver. And because work for young men is so bloody scarce in this country, everyone does it. Even 500F a day can make a difference when everyone in your family’s working.

Yesterday, I caught a zem home from dinner out with Ben, Lyle, and Lyle’s family. He has a college degree in accounting and speaks English as well as I do. He also can’t find a job. His last employer folded a few years ago, and he’s been unemployed ever since. Driving zems is okay money for him . . . he already had a decent moto, and he’s able to come home to his family when he needs too. Nevertheless, it doesn’t pay well enough that he’ll be able to put his children through college, and certainly not well enough that he’ll ever be able to retire.

He wanted me to take him to the United States, where he felt he had a better chance of using hiss education. I smiled and told him that I wouldn’t be going home any time soon. He smiled back. “Madame, I know you can’t help me. But maybe you can tell your friends back in the States that it’s not lack of education that keeps Africa in poverty. I don’t know what it is, but that’s not it.”

I don’t know what it is either, but the fact that university educated men are reduced to moto-taxing to feed their families is heart wrenching. Days like yesterday make me cynical about everything the Peace Corps is about. We push education like it’s a universal solution, but the reality is that it’s not. It’s a good first step, but it doesn’t guarantee food on your table. The problems are both deeper and more superficial than that.

I don’t have a solution. The scary thing is, neither does the Peace Corps.

Future plans like whoa.

I’m looking at some grad school options. And also new career paths. Anyone know anything about Information Architecture? What about Information Science? How would I get into working as a usibility expert? What about if I’m interested in the classification of information? And specifically, how different cultures react to different ways of organizing information? What about cross-cultural usability?

Yep.

Anyway, it’s just a thought, although one that’s been floating around in my head for a couple of months now. If you know anything about this, or if you know anyone who knows anything about this, shoot me a line at theresac at gmail dot com.

Misc Updates

Wow. There’s something absolutely marvelous about having a fast computer at work. Know what’s even more marvelous? The fact that I can now get work done at home. I bitch about how many hours a week I put into this office, but the reality is that I’m a workaholic and I’m really pumped that I can do lesson plans in the comfort of my own home. It’s pretty exciting, and it frees up huge portions of my day to actually *gasp* meet people and *gasp* do the type of work I joined the Peace Corps to do.

Pretty funny, considering I was borderline whining about my workload in my last post.

The reality is that I love working when I’m treated like an adult, and I hate working when I’m treated like a child. It’s that simple. I ru into real problems sometimes because looklike I’m 12. So frustrating, but it’s the deal I’ve been handed, and I might as well make the best of it.

This weekend was pretty fantastic. I got back from traveling (wonderful WONDERFUL trip, and productive like fucking MAD) to find my laptop and a care package from my parents waiting for me at the Bureau. I went out to dinner. I got to go dancing (and have great conversations about development with some Lebanese business men). I had an apartment full of great house guests. Ben fixed the electricity so I have lights in the evening (Ben Hubbard is my HERO and an ELECTRICAL GENUIS). I had my first dinner party (started out small, then somehow ended up being large in a typical Theresa fashion). And my apartment is more or less picked up, despite all of the madness.

It’s craziness.