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What is Africa to Me?

Africa? A book one thumbs
Listlessly, til slumber comes.

- Countee Cullen, Heritage

[ 9/28/97 | 10/4/97 | 10/13/97| 10/20/97 | 10/30/97| 11/10/97 | 11/21/97 | 12/1/97 | 12/22/97 | 1/15/98 | 2/19/98 | 3/5/98 | 9/9/98 | 9/15/98 | 9/28/98 | 12/4/98 | 12/26/98 | 7/30/99 | 9/24/99 ]

#1 in the Series


Hey everybody,

It is only my 3rd day here, so I'll keep this nice and brief. Mostly we have been doing various administrative-type things so far: we have been tested in French and have been issued our medical kits and books to take care of ourselves and a few things about our projects and training. Today was really the first time we got out of the compound where we are staying during the day to really get to check this place out - a sort of little field trip.

Anyway, though, I guess I'll start from the top and take you through what I've been doing. In DC we basically met everyone, got our shots and left. There are about 30 of us Benin people, but the hotel was a madhouse with Togo, Ghana and Chad folks also there at the same time. We got to meet some of them, so if we ever travel, we can still find some familiar faces. I got out of a few shots because of my last trip to Africa. The flight sucked - just long and cramped, with every seat on both legs taken. We stopped in Lagos at the famous Murtala Muhammed Airport, but didn't get out, and from there it was only 20 or so minutes to Cotonou. Flying in over the town, we could see the general layout of the land and a big monument to the Socialist past here. An extra-large traffic circle with a big red medal star and a statue-on-a-spike of some workers (probably peasants actually) in the middle, which was interesting.

The airport was small, but as it was only open a few days a week, it was really busy. An Air Cameroon flight was leaving and an Air Afrique arriving at the same time as us. Looked a lot like the Dakar airport - very '70's - but much less hassle. Part of this was that we were Peace Corps, but part seems to be this place's culture. Folks were not pushy or insistent or trying to take our stuff. Customs let us straight through, and some current volunteers who had come to the city were there to help with our bags. It is of course hot - Africa hot - and as it is the rainy season still (the tail end of the second rainy season - I don't yet get how the weather works here ) it was muggy. We went out to the place we are staying - a convent called Paul VI - and settled in. I am in a big dorm-style room with 5 other guys. It was going to 4, but there is a dude named Tracy on the trip, and I guess they hadn't counted on his being a guy. Anyway, this place is nice - we have cold-water showers and flushing toilets and real beds and a ceiling fan and lights and mosquito nets - it has a summer-camp feel to it in that it's basic but has what we need. Peace Corps got us a bunch of American-style products, too, like TP and bottled water and roach spray, to break us in slowly. They also cooked American-ish food for us (and have been doing so continuously so far). That night, we went out and got some drinks with some of the current volunteers (not all of us - only for the brave) and heard impressions. A happy bunch of folks with their lot, and much smoother than us, but it was only our first night. Some had only been here 2 or 3 months too, so hopefully we'll get caught up quickly enough on everything.

The next day we mostly hung out at Paul VI doing meetings about this or that - we got books and reading assignments. We then headed across town to the Peace Corps office, for language testing. A few of us - 5 or 6 - had already done immersion in the past, but we were still rusty, and the rest are split between real beginners and kind of medium folks. My test was a 25-minute tape recorded conversation with this guy - we went from greetings and talking about the weather to my views on development, which was an indication that my French, while very rusty and pause-filled, is still in decent shape. The results come in tomorrow.

After that, I called Dad from the office and then had a few hours to kill, so I sat on the balcony and watched it all with some of the others. It rained for an hour or so, and the mud streets of Cotonou became rivers in sections - only the main drags are paved. But the streets were still alive - vendors of everything from irons and music keyboards to socks and yams, were out, and loads of folks just carrying anything that you can imagine came by on their scooters and mopeds, the official transportation form of this country. (No car rapides like in Senegal - you take a moto-taxi to get around, but we aren't allowed until we get issued helmets and safety training). Among other things, we saw a guy carrying a sign that would go in front of a restaurant that looked like it weighed 100 pounds riding on the back of a moped driven by another person. All the bikes and scooters make the air in this town a bit foul - rather like I imagine LA on a bad day, or maybe Mexico City. That night was also a soiree with the old PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) to which everyone went. We got Flag beer from Senegal and La Beninoise - the official local brew, which rather reminds me of those bitter-beer fare commercials for Keystone, in that one wouldn't want to be drinking the stuff. Got back around 3-ish, which was too bad, as the church bells go off at 6 and are right out our window.

We had a field trip to a place called Gannie today - it was crazy. It was a complete African village, population 25,000 or so, built in the middle of a lake - but not on an island. The story is that these folks were in an ethnic conflict with the Fon, the dominant group in these parts, and in 1717 they got the idea that the Fon couldn't swim, so they moved out to the lake and set up on stilts. They all have little canoes to get around, and they fish and do aquaculture (sigh) and prey on tourists and get by, and their toilets empty right into the lake, which is kind of nasty. But somehow they had electricity and a public phone and a school and a couple of churches - even a few road signs on the channels among the stilted huts. I found all this to be a bit bizarre, and took pictures to document it.

Then we got the rest of the afternoon off, so I got a good siesta outside under an overhang at the convent, and for the first time here am not bone tired.

So the general prognosis is that I love it here. The other PCTs (trainees) and the teacher and old PCVs - all seem cool thus far. A few hassles, but nothing like what we got in Dakar. (I guess we aren't living so ostentatiously here for one thing) so it seems good. From here, we leave the big city on Thursday (it's Sunday now) for Kome, our training site, on the coast near the Togo border. I'll meet my host family and be really into classes by then, and will have my bike and motorcycle helmet and will be much more immersed and mobile. I'll try to write around then, with some first impressions of that.

Write me.


My return address:

JP Chandonia, PCT
Corps de la Paix Americain
BP 971
Cotonou, Benin
Afrique de l'Ouest

#2 in the Series


Hey everybody

I will go ahead and apologize in advance if these letters are a little more than you guys wanted to hear - I am kind of having this double as my journal for now, because I kind of need a place to pour out some of my thoughts, and my world-famous penchant for laziness doesn't permit me to tell the same stories twice in quite the same details.

So anyway, now I am in Come doing the homestay part of my training experience. The idea is that being surrounded by the language will help us pick up the French more quickly, and the family life will help us get with the whole culture as well as to learn how to do the various things needed to live here, like how to cook and do the laundry and stuff like that. My family is really small - for now the mother is the only one who lives there with whom I have any serious interaction - but despite that, very nice and relatively well-off, much more so than I would have expected. So I am happy, well-fed, not (yet) sick, and still on my way to joining the Peace Corps. That said, I'll try to get you through how I got to this point from my last letter (hopefully these things are arriving in order).

We had a few days left in the flue air of Cotonou when I last wrote. We got classified into our French groups, and as I had suspected, my French was doing fairly well - I got put into the top class, which is good in dome ways but too bad in other ways. I guess by that I mean that while it is nice that I have better French than folks and do the translations and things like that, my class mainly focuses on conversation and not enough on grammar, which is really what I have trouble with. However, I have books of verb conjugations and things like that that we have been given, so I will use those to try to get that side of my French up to speed.

In addition to those, we have been getting piles and piles of other books from the Peace Corps - a culture-crossing how-to book, a medical book with the ominous title 'Where there is no doctor' which covers subjects ranging from how to manufacture a toothbrush and toothpaste to how to deliver a baby - as well as how to deal with all the various diseases which I will no doubt be experiencing along the way. I also got some books which describe my project in a little bit better detail than what I have already heard, but because of my degree from FSU, I was told that I won't exactly be doing the same things as the other folks in my project, although I haven't yet gotten any details on what I will be doing.

During the days at Cotonou before I got here to Come, we have been really busy. Every day, thanks to the friendly church bells, I have gotten up at around 6, and breakfast begins at 7. After that, we have been having classes and scheduled programs and things until 5 or 6 at nigh, with only a short lunch break (not enough time for a nap). After class generally we have passed the time throwing a Frisbee or kicking a soccer ball around, with the Beninoise who are around joining in (to get together a good group for ultimate, I had to try to explain the rules simultaneously in French and English, which was a real challenge, but one of the guards at the convent turned out to be quite good at playing).

We had a health session at the medical unit of the U.S. embassy, which was the first A/C that I felt in weeks, so I didn't mind getting shots and stuff like that. We also had to learn how to prepare slides of our blood should we suspect malaria, which involved jabbing a sharp thing into our finger, and how to prepare a sample of our stool should we suspect something nasty in there (but we didn't use the real thing for that one). After that, we started taking health classes for a few days, where we learned warning signs of this or that disease and how to avoid or deal with them, and how to make sure we are eating right (did you know that there are really only 3 food groups any more? - I always learned 4). In those, we got a fully stocked medical kit, so it seems like I will be OK when I am here. One interesting thing I learned there is that while world-wide about 65 to 70% of Peace Corps volunteers get severe diarrhea during their stay (defined as going to the can 15 or more times per day for more than 3 days with a fever or some other problem - much like my wiehgt-loss program in Senegal), when you look at the stats for Africa, it is 100%. So you guys can look forward to a gory description of that in your mailboxes some time soon.

The other things we did in Cotonou were mainly to prepare us for coming out and staying in the families. We were served local food instead of western food a few times, and ate with the hands. Except for this soup made out of boiled up okra and fish and other random gross stuff, the food was good. The staple is something called pate (pronounced pot) which comes in different colors. Pate blanche is basically grits, and pate rouge is grits mixed up with tomatoes and hot peppers (easily my favorite local thing to eat). Pate noire is yams grated up and boiled to look like black grits, but not quite so tasty. With these grits, one eats something like collard greens with fish or chicken and hot peppers or else a hot tomato sauce with fish or chicken.

We also got issued little gas stoves and kerosene lamps and taught how to work and maintain them, so we can cook, boil our water, and get light if we don't have electricity. We got bikes and helmets (no one except us wears helmets and we get booted out if we don't, so you tell who we are easily), we still have to learn how to fix the bikes when they break down, and we got a whole tool kit for that.

Finally, we were issued motorcycle helmets, because like I said earlier that is how one does public transportation here. We then had a big training session on how to deal with these semijans, as they are called, which culminated in the Peace Corps hiring a bunch of them to drive us one time around the block, which must have been about the funniest thing in the world for these guys.

Immediately after that, we loaded up all of our stuff onto a truck and divided into 2 groups to head out to our training sites, based on the 2 projects that we are doing. The other project is called 'rural outreach' and so they got sent to a much more god-awful place than us, who are doing 'small business development' as the official title. Oh yeah, before we left we went to a really poor household in the ghetto of Cotonou, where it was presented as the norm. Kind of an effort to shock us, or maybe an effort to make us thing ' this ain't so bad' when we get to our host family, but it was also to teach us to recognize things like how to take a bucket shower, where the well would be at, and how to use a pit latrine. This place was about as bad as the worst things I saw in Bamako, the bit city in Mali (which is even more poor than here) but not as bad as what we saw in the rural parts of Mali. That really freaked some people out, but it gave our group at least something to be pleasantly surprised by when we arrived at Come and went to our places.

Anyway, I got placed in the Accoussar household, which was a major score. When we all showed up in Come, a little town near the coast and near Togo, we went to the local hotel (not a bad place - the rooms could be in a Motel 6 that was a little run down) and sat down in an outside bar. All the families showed up (gradually, as they are running on polychromatic time, and we were on monochromatic, or western time) and we matched up based on some pictures we had. We sat around and chatted for an hour our so, and then the head of Peace Corps Benin, the sous-prefecture chief (kind of the county commissioner) and the police chief all talked a little bit, and then we went home.

The mom in my house is Pauline. She is a retired grade-school teacher and her husband is dead. She lives with her mom, who only specks local languages, and a couple of girls who arent' hers (ages about 12 and 7) who have no education and act as maids. I think they are nieces or something, but it isn't too clear.

The house is nice - there is electricity, a shower, a TV (only 1 channel), a phone, and no refrigerator. She is a very devout catholic, so along with pictures of family and random posters, there are lots of religious things around the house. There are mango and guava trees in the yard, and a really nice latrine (no cockroaches in the latrine yet, but I am still keeping my fingers crossed). The first night, we had a very European meal - salad and spaghetti and fruit for dessert - I think to ease us in (as it turns out, everyone ate like that the first day).

All of Pauline's kids are out of the house now, mostly in Cotonou at the university or working (or looking for work). So it was strangely empty and a little lonely for Africa.

I got my own room - quite large and nice. Peace Corps made sure everyone got that, and also gave the families some training and assistance on health and cultural matters to make sure we would be OK.

Despite the seeming normalcy and niceness of all that, I was really scared that night for the first time when I went and laid inside my mosquito netting and tried to sleep. I figured that the other kids had never been before, and that at least I had that, but I had never really completely thrown myself into something this different. I was very glad not to be sick at the same time s I had all this going on in my head, as that would have really made me miserable.

I finally sweated and worried myself to sleep, only to discover that the next morning the sound of roosters replaced the church bells at the convent as what would wake me up way too early. I was still way too tired, but I felt much better about being here again.

At French class that morning (Pauline took me on her moped) I discovered that almost everyone felt that way, and I worried a bit about the kids in the rural program, who must have been even further pushed into strange circumstances, and I was grateful that we are being eased in.

That day, our bikes showed up, and we took a ride around to some of the other kids' homes, and to the post office and market and like that. Come is small - about 45,000, I think, but quite pleasant. There are 2 paved roads, and the rest is a pain in the rainy season (now) but probably not most of the year.

That night, I went to choir practice with Pauline - it was at another PCT house, so I sat and talked with her and listened to the music before heading home - very relaxing.

Anyway, I leave you once again in good spirits, but still hoping to hear word from home . . .


#3 in the Series


(When sending me care packs, note that they take 1-2 weeks, should be well-wrapped (airtight) and marked "religious articles' so they won't be stolen)

Hey everybody,

Well, this is the beginning of week 3 here for me, and so I guess I am having fewer and fewer new things to talks about - I suppose I am kind of starting to settle in here and get used to a lot of the strange stuff. As Ayi Kweh Armah said in The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, "it is amazing how quickly one gets accustomed to the horrible" (or something like that).

Not to imply that anything here has been horrible per se. There are horrible smells, nasty practices, and strange and random things that just wouldn't fly back home. There are inconveniences that just don't exist back home (while doing the wash by hand today with my host mom, she asked me whether the Peace Corps explained all this stuff, like lots of domestic work and inconveniences, and when I said they did, she seemed amazed that we came anyway). But I guess any place has things about it that are no good, and once you are used to those, you can really look right past them for most of the time and enjoy the good things that your place has going.

Which gets me to this Sunday - we rode our bikes to the nicest beach I have ever seen. Forget the rave reviews of the beaches in Senegal and the Gambia - although these had the same qualities of being practically devoid of people and having no long ugly condos and hi-rises built right on them - but that is where the comparison stops. Those beaches had rocks and smallish waves - these here had huge waves and white sand and shells and that was it. Perfection.

Of course, the beach is 18K from here, which is about 1 hour through Africa heat. At that point, you are very ready to hit the water, but a little tired - which makes it hard to avoid being carried off by the 7 or 8 foot tall waves and the undertow. (forgot to mention the name of the beach - it is "Grand Popo", no lie.) Apparently, 6 or 7 years ago a PCV was carried off never to be seen again, but I don't think I'll let that fate befall me.

The country between here and there was beautiful - it is very lush (especially as now is still the rainy season) and for the most part untamed - even the road is a bit untamed. The road is the main east-west road in west Africa - it runs from Abidjan in the Ivory Coast to Lagos and beyond in Nigeria - passing thru big cities like Accra and Lome and Cotonou - but it is small - two trucks can't pass each other without one going at least partly onto the side - and is potholed in many parts, like Washington DC could be in 10 or 15 years if the trend continues.

Other that that excursion - we also took a trip on Saturday. We went to the historical town of Ouidah, also on the coast. It is one of the places where the Europeans showed up and built processing facilities for the slave trade, and there are still some remnants of that there which serve as museums and memorials to that.

We started off in the old Portuguese fort - it was originally from the 1500s or 1600s or so, and had been added onto as it became more profitable to deal in Africa (and in Africans). When Benin became independent, the Beninese told the Portuguese they could keep the fort and the land within as a sort of fort, but that they couldn't raise their flag. They didn't agree, so Benin gave then 24 hours to get moving, at which point they burned the place down. The Portuguese came back in 1991 and rebuilt the fort and gave it to Benin along with a bunch of artifacts and stuff to be a museum, which gives some hope at least that things can change.

Mostly the stuff in the museum was slave-trade related - grim, but mostly things I had seen before (the diagram of the slave boat and how to pack it, shackles, stuff like that), but there was also some stuff I had never seen before. They had, for example, side-by-side comparisons of the culture and religion and lifestyles of folks from around Benin and folks in Brazil who had been brought from here, showing the influence that place had, even up until today. They also had some interesting stuff about voo-doo, which is what the local people call their traditional belief/religious system here. (I don't know if it is their word or a European label for their beliefs).

After that, we rode along the route that slaves were marched down for being put into ships, and it had lots of stuff like monuments and memorial trees that had been planted, and we saw the house of Mr. Di Souza (sorry Paul) who was the local big shot in the slave trade for a while, and finally we ended up at the beach at the 'Port de non-retour" - from which one was shipped out.

The beach there was also beautiful, but it had crude oil washed up on it from off-shore rigs. It's kind of ironic that Benin is fairly rich in oil, but the locals see none of it - not even a paved road up to the beautiful beach that has been all but ruined by the big companies - and remember the people who work in them aren't even local either, as I was sitting next to some oil men on the plane here who were American, and from the sounds of it, not only disliked it very much, but never had any contact with the real people here except like at the airport. Pretty sad.

Other than that, the Sunday before I went to Catholic mass. It was in Mina, the local language, except the reading of the bible, which was in French followed by Mina. Still, the order of things was the same, and it was recognizable. (I don't know if I wrote about this the last time, so I won't go too far into it).

I also got my post, or at least the preliminary word on it. It seemed pretty certain, as the director of my project explained, because of my program at FSU - this was the only one with urban planning and organizational development aspects. I will be in Djeffa, which is a small rural community halfway between Cotonou, the big city, and Porto-Novo, the governmental capital - about 15K from each. My office will be in Cotonou, where I will work with Catholic Relief Services, an international development NGO that does all types of stuff. They have partnerships with some Beninese NGOs (non-government organizations), so I will work with some of those, doing small-business development seminars, and working on getting funding/ teaching bookkeeping. I will also work with various cities, doing planning with them - flood responsiveness was the example I was given, although walking around anywhere here one can see a million planning things to get cracking on. Oddly, all my work will be in the state (see map of the 6 states of Benin, called prefectures) where Come is in, which will certainly create some transportation problems for me.

Anyway, I will be going there to set up my house on week 7 - this is the start of week 3 - which will be a pain because there is no volunteer house already set up there for me to take over, so I will have to deal with extermination and getting the latrine area set up for a western person. Then I will officially move there in mid-December some time.

Other than the weekends, we have just been doing classes - French, how to fix your bike, how to do small business development - and that is very busy. At night, I do my homework and hang out with the family watching TV. Feeling much more at home here, although I admit I am missing food from back home (started daydreaming about running down the street for barbecue during French class), but I guess I have a while for that.

Anyway, as I said earlier, write and send stuff (candy with chocolate would do, or kool-aid or lemonade or freeze-dried barbecue) and I'll write you again soon.


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