Category Archives: Life-as-I-knew-it

That crazy American is at it again!

I’ve been teaching a web development class for second year IT students. Basically, they get a business base, then it’s lots and lots of programming, including access, visual basic, etc. Lots of theory, very little practice. They took a year-long course in Access, and they couldn’t explain a relational database (although they were familiar with most of the ideas behind it, thank God).

My class is all practice and very little theory. Not only am I not interested in digging deep into the HTTP protocol, they actually have very little need of these details at this level in their careers. That, and hands-on web development is really much more interesting. Yes, they can explain the basic differences between GET and POST, but far more importantly, they can actually create websites.

Anyway, I held office hours today. My sole appointment showed up with three friends from class, and after spending 10 minutes figuring out his problem (a missing equal sign), we sat around chatting for about an hour.

The boys asked me how they can get as good as I am. I told them that they should actually be able to become much better than me. They, after all, are getting degrees in this crap.

“Right, ma’am, but how?” (That’s right, I’m ma’am, and don’t you forget it!)
“Practice. Lots and lots of practice. And read everything you can on the subject.”
“That’s it?”
“Yep. Don’t be afraid to try new things. But really, practice. The only way to get better at making websites is to make websites.”
“Oh.”

It’s a really fun class, especially when we’ve got a project due, because all of a sudden, they’re all creating interesting things, and they want to know how to do this thing, that thing, and the other thing. It’s a shame we only have six sessions left. I’d really like to get into the nitty-gritty details of some of this stuff.

Anyway, the point of this post, was that the boys asked me how much I charge for websites. I told them nothing, I do it for free. They were shocked and horrified. Free? “Yep, I’m a volunteer.” They were appalled, of course. Work for free? JAMAIS! (NEVER!)

The boys couldn’t understand why I, a white American woman, would leave the comforts of the US to come work in Benin for free. And then plan on staying on after her service! Why would anyone actually come to Africa? Liberal guilt, my genuine desire to see and experience new things, and a need to escape the fetters of Western consumerism all fell on deaf ears as I struggled to explain what, exactly, I’m doing in their country.

I ended by saying that I see my time here as a time to learn and to teach, with the scales tipped heavily towards the former. They just shook their heads and smiled at their crazy American professor.

I missed Internaional Women’s Day.

Gooddammit.

I mean, I’m not super pressed about it, but it would have been cool to go to some of the celebrations in Cotonou. And there were a lot. Did you know that 74% of Beninese women are illiterate? And the enfant mortality rate is almost 1 in 10 (93 out of 1000, actually)? And that the AIDS rate is at 3.6% and rising?

Sometimes it’s easy to forget these basic facts in my comfortable city apartment. And I face overwhelming poverty every day. I bet it’s even easier to forget in comfortable American homes. I’d forget too. But sometimes it bears remembering.

Happy belated International Women’s Day.

On trying to find my way as western feminist in a non-western world.

This weekend Bertrand and I hosted our first dinner party for some friends of his. Essentially, his friends feed us all of the time. I get the impression that they’ve been feeding Bertrand for years. Since he’s a (somewhat less confirmed than before) bachelor, while he can then men out for drinks, he’s certainly never returned the favor by cooking. Lo and behold, he’s now got a girlfriend who happens to be an excellent cook.

We invited two of his closest friends and their wives (or future wives, whatever) over for dinner. A small dinner for six should be a simple affair, right?

Hah.

This was our first dinner as a “couple,” and if you think that I could get away with anything less than perfection, oh boy, you’ve never to impress your boyfriends (pretty damn traditional) friends. Luckily, I AM a fantastic cook, and I’m perfectly capable of cleaning (even if I don’t like to do it).

Eventually everyone showed up (dressed to the nines, which was somewhat unexpected). We had hibiscus juice, ginger, and rum cocktails, followed by a salad with a home-made honey mustard vinaigrette. I thought it was delicious. My guests were split 50/50 on whether honey should ever be used in a salad dressing.

Them: Theresa, did you come up with this yourself?
Me: What, the salad? Uh, everyone eats salad, right?
Them: No, the dressing. Did you think of putting honey and mustard together yourself?
Me: Uh, no. It’s relatively normal where I come from.
Them: So it’s your Mom’s recipe.
Me: No, it’s just . . . a recipe. Like everyone here knows how to make tomato sauce, you know?
Them: Oh. It’s, um, well, it’s interesting.

The dahl went over well with just about everyone. Of course it did. Effectively, it’s beans and rice with some extra spices thrown in. How could anyone not like it?

Them: Is this Indian?
Me: Yes.
Them: Ah-hah! That’s why it’s so good.
Bertrand: Actually, it’s good because Theresa’s a really fantastic cook.
Them: Uh, right. That’s, um, that’s what we meant to say.

Pineapple and papaya for dessert is always a winner, especially when deliciously cold and fresh from the refrigerator.

I kid about the food, but things actually went pretty well. It was relatively satisfying to prove that I am, in fact, a superwoman. In everyday life, I function far more like a man than a woman. I wear pants. I look people in the eye. I don’t have time to wash clothes, do housework, or even cook on a regular basis. When I visit friends, I hang out and drink with the men, instead of joining the women in the kitchen (just as much because I’d be useless as my annoyance with the division of labor).

I see it as showing that expecting men to treat me like an equal doesn’t mean refusing traditional women’s work. It just means that I won’t be forced into it because of my sex.

I imagine our guests were just relieved that I’m actually capable of cooking, cleaning, and hosting an acceptable party. Their beloved Bertrand’s girlfriend isn’t a complete disaster after all. And they’ll never know how many hours Bertrand himself put into cooking and cleaning.

I spent the last week in Parakou, ringing in the New Year with Bertrand and his family. With the exception of a few unnerving comments by Bertrand’s mother (referred to henceforth as “Maman”) about my impending (hah!) conversion to Catholicism so that I can marry her son, the week was comfortable and relaxing. And his father (referred to henceforth as “Papa”) even let me turn the satellite to CNN to get some English language news.

Bertrand and I spent the days before New Year’s Eve visiting all of his old high school friends. You’d think this would be quickly accomplished, but each visit is an hours long occasion to reminisce; drink copious amounts of beer, sodabi, and whiskey; and watch television. Oh yes, and I taught Maman how to make cookies.

The 31st was spent slaughtering a pig (some photographic evidence to be uploaded at a later date), cooking, and getting ready for the night’s party. We got all dressed up and left for church at 21h30 (yes, church!). The service started at 22h00, and wasn’t even closed to finishing when left for home to pray with Bertrand’s family at 23h00. An awful lot of Hail Marys later, we returned to our rooms to get prettied up one last time for the evening’s fetes. At 4h30, we were still going strong, but the realization that the 1st would be a full day sent us scurrying back to our beds within the hour.

The New Year was greeted in style, particularly by a family lunch that included anyone who stopped by (including urchins just looking for money). A table full of pork, beef, chicken, rice, pate, beans, and other deliciousness greeted guests as they wandered in and out of the house all afternoon. And what had happened to the dozens of cookies we’d baked a few days before? Delicious peanut buttery dessert! Too soon, it was time to leave, but only to find more food, visiting other friends as ours had visited us.

Eventually we wound up at the home of Kingsley-the-Nigerian (as I think of him), an old friend of the family. Talk of Beninese politics lead to talk of world politics which lead to talk of Iraq which lead to talk of American politics, which lead to talk of homosexuality and American morality (or lack thereof). Beer is a good thing, folks.

After all of the parting was finished, Maman and Papa drove us back down to Cotonou, where I found my computer freshly arrived from Alabama via DC via Westminster. Thanks to everyone who helped out with that!

On being on the other side.

You finish your meeting with the Deputy Director of the university. Not all of your questions have been answered, but you managed to pin him down on most of your concerns. You head up to the teacher’s lounge to gather your thoughts and review your notes before your first lecture. If only you’d known how much effort your university professors put into preparing each lecture; you might have been a little more appreciative.

The room is quiet. Other professors greet you as they flow in and out, but you’re clearly absorbed in your preparations, and they generally leave you alone. A few make a genuine effort to intrude and get to know you, and, surprisingly, you appreciate their efforts. You’d forgotten the legitimacy that expectations confer, that is, you’d forgotten that because they expect you to be qualified and professional, they’ll treat you like you are.

Feeling more like a professor and less like a truant, you head down to pick up the keys to your lab, then head over to your lecture. The room is less than half full. You wait 5 minutes until 1:00, and you start anyway. Within minutes, word has spread (oh, the joy of text messages), and the classroom is full to brimming. Yes, today is the first day of class. Congratulations, you figured it out.

You briefly introduce yourself and begin your lecture. You would have handed out the syllabus, but there’s no electricity, and thus, no photocopier. Slowly, your lecture gets rolling. After a few months of working with smaller, informal groups of students, there are definitely no problems with public speaking; however, after 15 minutes, you are clearly talking above your students’ heads. You backtrack and take the whole thing a lot slower.

In a way, it’s fortunate that the power is cut. It gives you time to clarify and expound on subjects you expected would be understood far more easily than they are. It’s clear that some of your students are enthusiastic about learning and understanding. It’s equally clear that some of your students couldn’t care less about learning from their young, foreign teacher whose accent is occasionally hard to understand. Instead of presenting a syllabus for 20 minutes, lecturing for an hour, then heading for the (powerless) computer lab, you lecture for two hours, then let the class out early.

Your throat is sore. Every muscle in your body aches. Drained, exhausted, and wanting nothing more than a cigarette, you stumble to a friend’s house, where you collapse into an exhausted puddle.

Too bad your day isn’t over yet.

On why I’m thankful I grew up in America.

Late last week, Bertrand, my boyfriend was in an accident. He was riding behind a friend on a moto (small motorcycle), approaching a traffic circle. A large truck was slowing down, and appeared to be ceding the right of way. Cyril (who was driving), decided to go ahead and enter the round-point. All of a sudden, the truck accelerated and swerved into the path of my friends’ bike. They t-boned the truck and went flying.

The authorities eventually discovered that the truck had faulty breaks, and had made the 90-degree slide in order to avoid hitting cars in the round-point. However, the drivers fled the scene of the accident moments after it occurred, so there’s no way of verifying their intentions.

An ambulance was called, and both men were rushed to the national teaching hospital’s emergency room. I eventually figured out what Bertrand was trying to tell me over the phone (oh, the joys of miscommunication in a language that’s not my own), and arrived about two hours later.

Both men were in a hot, unventilated hallway, Bertrand in a wheelchair, Cyril stretched out on a metal gurney. Both had stitches and open wounds covered in a solution designed to speed cauterization and prevent infection (it’s not anything I’ve ever seen in the States, but has proven remarkably effective). Both were in incredible amounts of pain, but were able to have short conversations as they sat in the heat.

The hospital system in Benin is tragic. It’s filled with incredible and dedicated people doing amazing things with absolutely nothing. There’s very little money in Benin, and it’s easy to imagine why advanced health care doesn’t get much of what there is. When a patient arrives at the hospital, he is responsible for buying everything he needs to be nursed back to health, including gauze, syringes, salt water IVs, and any necessary medication. Unlike the American system, patients don’t even receive basic care until they’ve coughed up the money to buy these products.

Bertrand is lucky. He has money and family, both of which were available to him during the emergency. Cyril is equally fortunate. When he was unable to communicate, thank God Bertrand was in good enough shape to do it for him. After more than a dozen stitches in his head, Cyril didn’t even get a cloth put over the metal on his stretcher until a family member showed up with a pillow and a pagne (2-meter length of cloth).

I was in the hallway with Bertrand for five hours. When he was hungry, his brothers went to buy food. When he was thirsty, I went to buy plastic sacks of water from a lady who’d set up just off the hospital grounds. If no family had arrived, the men would have had to pay staff to go get food.

Imagine arriving in the emergency room with no money. A Peace Corps staff member recently told a story where another staff member showed up at her house asking for help, blood still pouring down his face. After a horrific accident, he’d been refused at the hospital because he didn’t have his wallet with him. No money. No treatment.

Heartbreaking.

Despite the lack of space, equipment (IVs hanging on bent nails driven into door frames, surgery rooms without fans or ventilation, etc) the staff did an incredible job, both with Bertrand and Cyril and those who came in after. Like so much else in this country, there are very competent people doing very cool things with . . . well, with nothing, really.

Did you know that there are more Beninese doctors practicing in France than in Benin? Small wonder, of course. Would you turn down several tens of thousands of Euros, state-of-the-art facilities, and a chance to raise your children in comfort and health, to work in a steaming tropical hospital, where you have to charge patients for their bandages and, on a good day, have enough hall space to accommodate all those too well to go into ICUs, but too sick to go home?

Yeah, I wouldn’t either.

Bertrand’s okay, as is Cyril. Stitches all around, of course. Bertrand’s knee’s going to bother him for a while, but all things considered, the two are in great shape considering the magnitude of their accident.

Update for real.

Burkina was fantastic, as were Tanagou, Nati, Péhunko, and Sinendé. Parakou was somewhat less so, but that may be more a function of the fact that I was working than any inherent not-fantastic-ness on the part of the town.

I went to Ouaga (that’s Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, for those of you not used to the “I’m so old-hat I refer to African capitals by their nicknames” jargon) for SIAO, a bi-annual artisanal festival that brings in about 100,000 exhibitors and attendees from all over the continent. I didn’t have any real purpose outside of seeing what kinds of art are happening outside of Benin, but of course, I managed to spend hours talking to various artisans, as well as meet several interesting volunteers.

No, I didn’t get ripped off on any prices, mostly because I’m awesome, but also because I’m completely unwilling to tolerate any “you’re white, you have money” crap. I know how much each booth cost! More than I’d spend on my entire trip, including transportation and food for two weeks. I ended up with some neat miscellany, including fruit wine, shay butter soap to support various women’s collectives, a ton of Tuareg jewellery, other jewellery, clothes, and hella interesting batiks. And all at great prices.

After Burkina, I came back down south with some interesting Americans I’d met in the Ouaga Peace Corps Hostel (those lucky bastards). The waterfalls in Tanagou were as gorgeous as they were the last time (although with significantly more water due to intervening rainy season). The workstation was the workstation, simultaneously sucking the life out of me and showing me a good time, as always.

The next few towns were fantastic, both for their warm hospitality and the chance to hang out with volunteers I rarely see. And then of course, Parakou to give an HTML formation with Lyle and work PSL-19’s SED/ ICT Early Service Training. I arrived in Parakou the most relaxed I’d been in months, and it was insane how obvious that was to everyone there.

EST was cool. I didn’t party very hard (Sara, my co-trainer, and I, had a lot of early nights). I also wasn’t helped by the fact that Bertrand was in town, and hey, given the choice between hanging out with him and a bunch of drunk volunteers . . . well, he won about 50% of the time. Haha.

So now I’m back in Cotonou and struggling to get back in the swing of things. Life is . . . not anything like I expected a year-plus into my service, but it’s interesting, that’s for damn sure.

I really could do this forever.

I complain an awful lot here, I mean, a LOT. And occasionally I’m arrogant (okay, more often than not). And I don’t always give an accurate picture of what life is really like here because I’m so damn negative.

The reality is that I fucking love this shit. Yeah, my primary project sucks big fat monkey balls sometimes. But other times it’s absolutely amazing, especially when I’m making progress on any one of the dozen things they’re having me work on.

Yeah, I could do this kind of stuff in the States, get paid good money for it, and have managers that don’t suck. I’d have an iPod, a nice apartment, and I’d be delightfully upwardly mobile. However, I’d be stuck in a cubicle somewhere. I wouldn’t have made the amazing friends I’ve made in the past year (both American and Beninese). And I wouldn’t go to sleep everyday, knowing I’d helped someone.

I’m rarely homesick, but the mornings when I just want to get the fuck out of here are more and more frequent. Fortunately, the mornings when I want to stay here forever are equally frequent. It’s certainly not getting any easier. The lows get lower every time. And the highs get higher.

And days like today, when I feel like I’m actually accomplishing something? They’re incredible.

In which PC Washington makes theresa :(

Remind me to export my Google calendar so that the next time we lose our connection for three days, I’m not screwed as far as appointments go. ARGH.

In other news, please stop donating to Etoile Apprentissage. (background). It’s been funded for a long time, and they just haven’t gotten around to taking it off the site yet. In fact, if you did donate, you should write to the Peace Corps and get your money back.

The short is that we raised the money, but we can’t have it, because we didn’t raise it in time. So all that hard work is down the drain. I’d hoped to just do the project in 2007, but it turns out that because it has to take place at a certain time (summer vacation), and we’d been planning on using it for summer 2006, it’s against the rules to use it for 2007. Any money raised will go into a global reserve that funds projects too small to for a fundraising drive (under $250, I believe?).

Well damn.

I do appreciate your efforts, as do the girls. I appreciate somewhat less the Peace Corps. I understand their point of view, but it was by and large friends and family that donated, and it’s not right that your monies go elsewhere if you don’t want them to.

If you donated, you can get in touch with Peace Corps and request your donation back, since the project is no longer happening. I have absolutely no plans to use a PCPP for this or any other project again, so requesting the funds back will do nothing to help or hurt me in the future. What I do suggest, however, is that instead of just leaving the money for the Global Fund, request it back, and donate it to another worthy project, one of your choice.

You can get in touch with the Peace Corps at pcpp@peacecorps.gov.

In which theresa briefly talks about GAD

It’s been kind of a busy week. Two weeks. Month. Year. But mostly a busy couple of days. I went North for the quarterly GAD meeting. Got there early, stayed with Lyle, did some great brainstorming with a couple of different people, got some work done, gossiped (a lot), and had a pretty good time.

So what’s GAD? GAD stands for Gender and Development, and is the Peace Corps program for encouraging equal education of children (read: girls’ education), basic human rights for all (read: the right of girls to go to school and not be sexually abused by their professors), and a dozen other things to promote gender equity throughout the world (and specifically, in Benin).

We, in Benin, have a volunteer committee to encourage volunteers to initiate projects that deal with gender and development. These projects can be as simple as organizing soccer teams for girls at local schools or as complicated as week-long education and empowerment camps for middle school aged girls. This weekend, we had about 20 volunteers show-up, none of which were from the new class (who are all still in their initial travel restricted 3-month period at post).

It boils down to the fact that educated women educate their children. No, universal education isn’t THE solution to poverty, but literacy and critical thinking help a hell of a lot. It also boils down to the fact that women deserve the same rights as men, both under the law and in practice. It’s about human beings showing that everyone has the same basic rights and responsibilities, and that everyone is capable of realizing their dreams.