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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 ]

#7 in the Series


Hey everybody,

Well, I am back from post, and I really enjoyed it there. I am starting to get mail and stuff from folks, so I'll stop assuming a critical tone in asking for letters, and rather switch over to a grateful and yet still needy tone in asking you guys to keep them coming.

Well, when I last left off, i had been (finally) dumped into my village, after having witnessed Florida State's awesome victory over UNC, in the American Rec Center, and having had a pancake breakfast among lots of American folks.

It pretty much went right to the other extreme right there - I would say that week, right on the coast a few miles from Cotonou, might have been as far as I ever went into Africa, by virtue of my having been alone. Thankfully, I like it, so it didn't bother me, but it will take a great deal of adjustment before I will be able to consider that as the normal way things are.

Anyway, my village is called Podji-Ague (Po - gee - oh - gay). It is a kilometer from Djeffa, where the offices of the local Catholic charity nonprofit, Caritas, are located. It is actually kind of an extension of the older village of Podji, located about 3 km north of the main east-west road from Cotonou to Nigeria - Podji-Ague is right on that road.

It is a small place - there are a couple of churches, a missionary center (I'm not sure who they work for), an agriculture extension service office, and a few businesses mostly clustered along the road. There are a few cement houses, but mostly mud is the order of the day. All around are coconut plantations and people's fields for sugar cane and manioc. They also do a little aquaculture, raising catfish in their irrigation canals for their fields.

Being on the road to Nigeria, the local Mexico to Benin's Guatemala (I read an article once that Guatemalans sneak into Mexico seeking employment and a better life), my village is doing fairly well. People sneak in and out, and everyone speaks enough pidgin English to get by (often better than their French, since here they just use local language), and they buy stuff over there to sell here--mainly gasoline but other stuff as well.

So there are a few phones in town, and electricity in various houses around the village, and wells and pumps so people have clean water to drink--all in all, not any real misery of poverty.

I lived with one family and hung out with another (where I had originally been programmed to stay but the room was full of building materials as the guy was a housebuilder). The guy where I did stay was a carpenter, working making furniture in his own shop in Cotonou, and his wife was a seamstress, with a little shop operating in front of the house. They were fairly young (30s) but only had one kid, a baby of four months. (She was so cute. I spent the whole week playing with her instead of reading or watching TV in my spare time.) Anyway, the only one kid part was kind of unusual for here, but it isn't polite to ask too many questions.

The guy at this house had malaria for the first couple of days I was there, and then he worked long hours (he was gone from 8 til 10 or 11 at night), so we didn't hang out too much. He had been to Germany for a time and was fairly worldly and had big ideas, and he seemed to be kind of a workaholic.

Mostly I hung out with the housebuilder guy and his kids during the week. He had an amazingly functional car (when I first saw it I thought it was a wreck he used for spare parts, but it turned out to be quite a tough vehicle, a Renault of some type), and he spent the days driving around with me to meet the local authorities and mostly his friends. He was friends with the guy who will be my landlord (who was out of town), so he showed me around my future place also.

One cultural thing that I really came to understand was the different concept of time here and back home, or maybe better put, the greater importance of relations among people. Kind of a typical day would go as follows: I am supposed to go and see some people at a certain time, so I tell Maglore (my buddy with the car). I say, "I'll just walk; it's three blocks away," and he would not hear of it: "I'm your friend, I'll give you a ride." So he would show up about five minutes before I should be there--not really a problem under normal circumstances. It would, however, take him a few minutes to get from the car to the house to get me, as he would have to greet everyone. Then, on arriving at my house, he would have to sit for 10 minutes or so while the mom fixed him something to eat. It would be rude to not offer, or to not accept. Then we could get going--only the three blocks between the house and my meeting would be studded with important folks and friends of Maglore. For a few, it would suffice to pull over and shake hands from the car, but for most, it seemed more correct to park and get out and have a cold drink or a quick bite. Maglore would inevitably see something he wanted to buy as well, and so we would pull over and discuss it with the seller for a bit, to save him a trip later. I generally ran about one hour behind, at a minimum, the whole week. Thankfully, so did whoever I was meeting, so this didn't cause any problems.

I went out to the office of Caritas, the local Catholic relief group, where I will be working, but no one was there the whole week. It turns out that they had their national meeting scheduled in Cotonou for the Saturday after my week, so the whole office was in Cotonou preparing. However, I did go up to Cotonou on Wednesday to talk to Catholic Relief Services, the parent organization for Caritas, and they told me about my job. As it turns out, I will be doing drinking water and road projects in small villages (1000-3000 people) in remote areas that are subject to cyclic flooding (every 4 years or so). Really, the people should move, but they don't want to because they have their ancestors and traditional religious things there, so they won't leave. Every time they have a flood, it lasts about 4 or 6 months, and they become dependent on emergency aid. My project is to get them ready for the floods in advance so they won't need the aid.

Anyway, that was about the only productive thing I did at post. I also met the sous-prefet (local official over an area the size of a county), the mayor, the delegates (kind of like city councilmen) and the chief of police. I surveyed the local economy a little bit, found out prices of things, saw the beach (five minutes on a bike from my house and also very nice) and those sorts of things. I got over two of my large hang-ups. Large cockroaches was one, when I had to deal with a latrine with maybe 30 or 40 of them on the floor. And #2 was okra sauce, the famous second part of pot & snot, the local dish of choice. Finally I saw my house: it is large and it is nice. I have my own walled courtyard, an outdoor (separate) kitchen, two showers and a toilet, two living rooms, and two bedrooms. The water isn't hooked up yet, but it will have to be as I have no latrine and so need the toilet. I have electricity also, which is a stroke of luck. In the yard, I have a couple of coconut trees and a chicken-raising area, and also a well for non-drinking water. So I lucked out. I just won't be able to furnish the place on my salary.

Anyway, I got back, and most people also liked their posts as well as I did. A few of the women got harassed excessively by the local men, and a few of us in general found their local counterparts unhelpful or even rude (I told them that at least they *have* local counterparts), but a lot of people liked their people. Anyway, it seemed like people will mostly be happy at post, and I guess I will go and see them once I get myself established. As of this writing, there are only three weeks left in training, and I can hardly wait.

Happy Thanksgiving to everyone. We are going to have an American Thanksgiving in Cotonou, which will be fun.


#8 in the Series


Hey everybody,

I'm almost done with training and ready to actually be a Peace Corps Volunteer--less than two weeks remain for that now.

I have heard that some people have written/e-mailed me, but I haven't gotten those yet, so don't give up on me and I'll try not to give up on you.

This installation has two stories in it. First I'll tell about cooking, and then second about Thanksgiving in Africa.

For our health classes, we had to prove that we could formulate an idea for, shop, cook, and clean up after a well-balanced meal made of locally available stuff.

We got started planning in earnest maybe two days before this meal, and went shopping one day before--but we had to make a list of what we needed to get money for it without any time to spare, so we obviously ran into some problems there.

I decided to make pate rouge, the kind of grits stuff with tomatoes and oil and hot pepper already mixed in, giving it a red color.

The first problem I encountered was: how many kilograms of unmilled corn would I need to make a pate for about ten? I settled on 2.5 kg, but the right answer was probably closer to 1.

Pretty much everyone had these types of problems, so we had too many of everything and not enough oil (they use a good quantity of oil here, if you have stock in an oil company especially . . . ).

We made (deep breath) fried plantains, fried dough cakes, fried chicken, fried fish, french fries, fried ignames (big tubor things that are like potatoes), beans and rice, fish sauce, chicken sauce, various fruit salads, and pate rouge. The kids who did chickens had to start with live chickens, but I think that after them I got the hardest job. First, I had to run to the mill and mill my corn into corn flour. Then I had to ecrosse (small between two stones) about 100 tomatoes, onions, hot peppers, black peppercorns, and garlic--this being how one obtains puree in the absence of a blender. This was easily the hardest part of my job.

After that, I just cooked up the stuff, under the watchful eye of the one female facilitator we have in Come. She was absolutely run ragged throughout this process, as most of the men were useless in cooking.

Fortunately, we were at the mayor's house to do the meal (it's got the largest yard of any place one of us trainees is staying), and he has daughters, who also supervised/laughed at the process.

Most of the stuff turned out great--the pate rouge included, which I thought was a good accomplishment.

This was the day before Thanksgiving, so right after the meal, we loaded up into bush taxis and mae our way down to Cotonou.

Thanksgiving itself was great, even way over here. We ate at one of the head administrators of the Peace Corps' house, and she put on a top-rate meal. We had turkey and stuffing and yams and mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie. The turkey was imported by the embassy, but the other stuff was local.

We all held hands and said what we were thankful for, and then ate to the point of sickness. If there had been football on TV and it was 30 degrees colder, we could have been back there.

We had to get back to Come the next day for classes again, and then Saturday was the party by the volunteers, which got scheduled at Kelly's house. She is the local volunteer here who teaches physics at the high school.

Having already invited about 25 volunteers, Kelly didn't think she could accommodate trainees at her party for eating, and we had already gotten one turkey dinner. However, due to our prowess at butchering animals, she agreed to trade my friend Brian's and my labor in killing their (local) turkey for feeding us, and that seemed like a fair deal. They also put on a first-rate meal, with all the trimmings, down to the sweet-potato pie, and it was impressive.

So, to make a long story short, I have had three outlandishly large meals in the past week, as is befitting of the holiday season, and have put on at least 2.5 kg, however much that is.

This week we have a commercial fair planned on Saturday the 6th, also my birthday, to which we are inviting all the local NGOs and cooperatives and businesses that we have been working with. I elected myself to make the speech at the opening ceremonies, with the sous-prefet and the head of Peace Corps/Benin, so I'm sure I'll have some horrible stories about it to recount in the next letter.

Until then . . .


#9 in the Series


Write me at BP 971 Cotenou - it's easier

Hey everybody,

It's been a long time since I have produced one of these letters. Sorry, but things have been happening a lot faster than I could sit and document them. Three big things have happened, so I'll tell my story based on them - we had a commercial fair on my birthday, the 6th, we were officially sworn in after that on about the 12th, and a few days after that I moved to post and started work. The first two are a lot farther away from me, both in time and in my head, but I will try to give a rendering of them before I jump into the big one, which is where I am now.

I guess when I left off last time, we were in Come right after Thanksgiving, getting ready for our commercial fair. The idea was to have an exhibition of stuff that our various groupements that had been working with (practicing on, perhaps, is a more accurate look at it), and then to have some demonstrations of how the stuff was made, and then to have some time set aside to sell stuff in a kind of market setting. We all divided up into committees and figured out what needed to be done by reading accounts of other Peace Corps fairs - I was charged with running the opening ceremonies, which was a big deal but not too much work, as it turned out. We all chipped in and helped on the other parts too, especially with setting up and with trying to do security/crowd control/refreshments, which was about the only real trouble spot for the whole fair. For most of us, the fair was just a practice thing, so we didn't really sweat it out too much. However, since Tucker was staying in Come for his post, he had a lot riding on the event. It was kind of a mixed blessing for him - he was jump-started on his work, and was already going to know a lot of the folks, and would already have done something big and tangible for the community, but also he would have to deal with it if the fair bombed or something bad like that. So he worked us all like crazy during the week leading up to the fair, and fretted over all the details.

For the opening ceremonies, we had three bigwigs giving speeches: the sous-prefect of Come, the head of Peace Corps Benin, and me. My speech was mainly to introduce the other two, and to thank all the different people in the town who had helped us, like the families, the groupements, and the government types. I started off with greetings in Mina, which everyone seemed to enjoy, but the biggest laugh I got was me trying to say the sous-prefect's last name (Mr. Houelawanou) - I can't even write it, much less say it. He took it in good humor, thought. So aside from the fact that the opening ceremonies were at 10 rather than at 9, as planned (about 9:30 we sent a car looking for the sous-prefect, who obviously had to be there for us to do the opening ceremony, and we found him at home in the shower), that all went really well. During the rest of the morning, the bigshots did a walk-around, stopping at the table of each groupement and listening to their story/checking out their products. My groupement was Super-Pain - they make bread, and so their table wasn't too interesting as all it had on it was a loaf of bread. The group that used my table from my room (we saved money on renting tables by just using the volunteer tables) made dried, smoked fish, so my table needed serious washing afterwards. A few other featured products: the Prudence condom people, people making gari (ground up toasted marioc that the oil has been extracted from already - served with any food item, but mainly with beans - looks like parmesan cheese, tastes like nothing at all), people making kluy-kluy (unsweetened peanut butter baked in the shape of a stick - serve with gari), a woman's credit cooperative (who we thought didn't show up, but in fact they just didn't register or sit at their table with their name written on it in huge letters - they just mingled with the crowd and at the end came up to us and asked whey they didn't get a certificate of participation - the two Americans who worked with them were both sick and at the med unit in Cotonou, so no one ever found them until the end), a couple of NGOs which work on getting small parts of development projects as they come out - including APETECTRA, the center for the use of traditional technologies, who are really together and with whom I will be doing stuff on my job, and finally Tucker's groupement, ELENGNON, who have about 800 different things that they do (import-export, pharmacy, typing school, carpentry center, traditional arts & crafts, development projects, teaching other groupements about management & accounting, building chicken-wire fences, and working on getting Come onto the internet - this is not an exaggeration, and they have about 4 or 5 people trying to do all of this). Anyway, then in the afternoon each groupement did a speech, and then we had the real hit of the event, which was the raffle of products donated by the groupements - each group, each family, and most of the adults who showed up got tickets, and bars of soap, bags of kluy-kluy and gari and super-pain, and palm oil (I forgot that soap and palm oil people were there also) were given away. Then the closing ceremonies featured a speech by Tucker, where he thanked everyone and officially introduced himself to the town, and the mayor and a lower-down Peace Corps official (the two real big-shots left after touring all the tables) Then came snacks and drinks, the real nightmare of the fair. All day, something like 100 million kids had been hanging out, because not much exciting ever happens in Come, so they all waited to see the spectacle. They bum-rushed the food as it came out, and knocked over Corey as he was trying to transport a bunch of pineapple juice in cups on a tray over his head. There was no way to do anything about it, because there were just too many kids, and we aren't used to disciplining other people's kids the way the locals are apt to do. Thankfully, we were able to regroup enough to come up with a plan, and we got all the invited people food and drinks and then abandoned the rest of it to the hordes. Anyway, we did clean up that night and the next morning, and we had a big party to celebrate the end of the fair and my birthday over at Kelly's house (she is the volunteer physics teacher posted in Come). I almost forgot to say it, but my family made me a really nice dinner for my birthday (the day after, what with all the craziness) and my host sister, who is a baker and cook by profession, sent me a small cake from Cotonou, which was excellent.

That pretty much was the end of training. We had about a week left, but nothing really got done that week. We had a party on Monday for our facilitators (they had one for us before we went to post, so we had one for them) - it featured a dance by the women followed by a top ten list by Pete, who bailed out the guys by coming up with something. It was the top 10 good things about happy hour, a weekly gathering to have a drink and hang out (the #1 reason was "le corps de la paix, paye") Then people got rowdy and worked on ruining Tucker's reputation in town.

The Wednesday of that week was our last official day, so we had a family gathering. All the families (except one, which was feuding with the principle organizers) got the same cloth and secretly had outfits made (we had all been to the various tailors already to get stuff made, so it was easy to do things secretly). We got the most hideous cloth ever printed, with the main colors being lime green, orange, blue, red, and yellow, done in a kind of forest/bush motif. We had speeches, and the girls did their dance again, and this time Pete saved the guys by singing Benin's national anthem and then America the Beautiful with his host brother, unsuccessfully trying to get everyone to join in.

The next day, we just loaded up stuff and headed for Cotonou in the afternoon - my goodbyes with the family weren't too bad, as I will be in Come around Christmas time, so the family knows that I am coming back.

Cotonou was a madhouse the whole time we were there leading up to swear-in on Friday afternoon. We had post-tests in everything, our exit language interview, and an exit health check (I lost 8 pounds, about average for the guys). For the ceremony itself, the 2 groups (my group, the small business development people, and then the RCD people, for rural community development) each had a distinctive type of cloth, that we all bought together. The guys in my group went one step further, getting matching outfits with our matching cloth. We had a kind of burgundy bossin cloth, made into a complet (pants, long shirt below the knees with a simple collar, and a Jim Brown hat) with gold embroidery. Very classy. The girls all did variations of the theme, ranging from simple to very extravagant, and the other group went with a less formal aqua-bluish color material. The ceremony was at the ambassador's residence in the posh part of Cotonou. All the current volunteers (or at least a lot of them), a good number of ex-pat types, all the trainers and their families, and folks like that showed up, along with the media. I gave an interview to the morning paper, but then I couldn't find one for sale the next day. The TV was out also, and the news featured us, especially the speeches in local language. It was done like a graduation - we walked down an aisle to our seats with a drummer going, and then we heard speeches from the Minister of Health, the ambassador, and a few others, and then the stagiaires gave speeches (one in french, one in dendi, one in mina - Tucker did that one - and one in fon). The people doing local language speeches had so much work to do, but the audience and everyone really liked them. Then we all swore or affirmed allegiance to the US Constitution, and that was it. The party at the ambassador's place had the best food I'd had in Benin - tasty little pizzas, swedish meatballs, etc. My boss from CRS - the Beninese guy, not Chris that I described before - was there, and we chatted a bit. We had a big party - thrown by the RPCV, (returned PCVs) who were in the Peace Corps all over but ended up in Benin - that night, and it was a lot of fun. The entire English-speaking ex-pat community was out, along with a bunch of French types, and all our facilitators and folks like that.

The best story of the night involves the use of a couple of cultural notes, so I will try to explain those and then relate the story. The term 'doucement' means sweetly, or softly, if literally translated from French. Here, however, it has many more meanings. It can either mean 'you are being clumsy' or 'I am being clumsy' or 'be careful of something so you don't end up looking clumsy' or 'pardon me' or 'slow down'. Sometimes it is good to get doucement-ed, but in general you want to finish our day having dished out more doucements than you received. Anyway, after the party in question, a few of the wilder old volunteers and a few of the new folks (I didn't go along on this trip) went down to the Janke, the somewhat dicey nightclubby district near the Peace Corps office, to have a drink and dance. One person on the trip was X, one of the new RCD volunteers. She is something of a partygoer,... and these folks stayed out fairly late (all the traffic was off the streets when they left). They hopped on taxi-motos to get home, and about halfway back to the hotel, right in the middle of a bustling intersection (during the day), the moto X was on slowed down and sped up suddenly, and she went toppling off the back of it. The driver turned around, and saw that she was OK, and then he gave her a big 'doucement'.

Anyway, I don't know if that would be funny to you guys - based on how often we get doucemented for little things, like dropping a coin or bumping into something, the story of getting it for toppling off a motorcycle is pretty funny for us.

Anyway, we then had the weekend in Cotonou, and people (especially those headed far away) took advantage of having city things available. People did a lot of shopping at the big market, getting household stuff like pots and pans, and bulk food items that are unavailable in the villages. Since I was just going down the road, I didn't worry too much about this step. However, I did work on eating good food and going to watch American TV at the recreation center, since I don't know when I'll have time to kill in Cotonou again for a while.

Then on Monday, starting really early for some people, we started heading to posts. The Peace Corps drove some people who lived in out-of-the-way spots where taxis don't go, and they hired taxis for people going way north so they wouldn't have to take the uncomfortable local taxi ride (in a small car, like about the size of civic sedan, you get the driver, two adults in the shotgun seat, and four adults in the back, along with children and livestock anywhere it will fit). It is about a two-day ride to the farthest-off points in Benin, and so they thought it would be nicer to have decent transport on the way up. The rest of us were on our own. We got bush taxis to where we were going and went our separate ways. It was kind of sad, especially for the people who were going up north, because you know you won't see them too often. For the southern folks, it is likely that I will see them fairly often.

I made it directly to post without a problem, as I am so close, and went over to my friend Maglore's house. He is acting as the representative of the proprietor, (supposedly) getting things done around the house, and Peace Corps dumped my furniture at his place. He helped me move my stuff over, using the small boy method (find a small boy, tell him to do something, and he will, and you don't always have to pay) which made my life a lot easier. However, mosquito screens on the windows and doors, and the connection of running water for the house, did not quite get done (they will be done 'soon'). The place itself I described before - 2 small bedrooms, 2 small living rooms, tow shower-type rooms (really 2 small houses - you go outside to get between them), my own yard, and a detached kitchen. The place inside is kind of depressing right now. Without screens, I keep my windows shut (kind of wooden slabs, not glass windows) so it is dark, and the walls are concrete, so I can't hung up many things, and I don't have much in the way of furniture yet, so it looks empty. Talking to some volunteers, they said that the empty-house syndrome lasts 3 to 6 months, and your place comes together decently (sorry about the grammar in that sentence).

At the time of the writing of this letter, I've been in the village about one week, so I am just starting to get a feel for who the people are. Everyone falls into one of three categories - small group of people who work in offices/schools/etc. either nearby or in Cotonou; medium group of artisans, such as tailors, carpenters, masons, etc; large group that farms, mostly sugar cane, with some rice, marioc, and etc. as well. The people who leave for Cotonou are hard to get in touch with, as they leave early and come back late - they only get seen on the weekends. The artisan types are always at work - usually work is attached to the home, or at least in the same concession so these folks are easy to find. (the mom in the family I lived in for my week here has a tailor shop on the front porch, so if I'm looking for her, she is always there). Finally, the farmers work in the early morning and late afternoon. During the hot part of the day, they sit in the shade in big groups and drink sodabi and talk - but as it cools off again, they all disperse.

My friend Maglore works in Cotonou and beyond, doing construction stuff, ao I don't see him during the week. His sons (some are nephews I think - they use the terms interchangeably) are in school, and destined to not be farmers. The folks next door to him are sugar cane farmers - mostly the kids are not in school, although they stayed long enough to learn passable French. The oldest son is a star on a local soccer team, and is hoping to use that to get out of farming.

My immediate next-door neighbor is fairly well-to-do - he married a Swiss lady, who lives with him (they do 6 months in Benin, 6 months in Switzerland) and they just opened up a bar a few blocks away. The other-side neighbor, however, is a mason (not a good business really), and he has about 7 people in about 2 not-so-sturdy rooms (masons here can't afford brick or cinderblock houses). He's a real nice guy, though, and somehow keeps his kids in school (public schools are cheap, but still not free). Anyway, those are a few of the local characters - I'll just say a word about work and close this up.

I work for Caritas - local Catholic NGO. They have Caritas in other countries, including the U.S. (give generously at mass - I get some of that for my projects). The office has 7 people other than me - 2 drivers, a secretary, an accountant, 2 project people (I'm the third project person - the other 2 are on the AIDS project and kind of ongoing programs for emergency aid and refugees) and then there is a catholic nun, who we address as ma soeur, who runs the place. She is the secretary general of Caritas Benin, and seems to know her stuff pretty well.

This office used to be in Cotonou - it is the seat of Caritas-Benin. They wanted to expand, and snapped up some cheap office space out in the suburbs, but everyone (except me) lives in Cotonou, and takes a Caritas vehicle that comes every day (so if I'm ever lonely for Cotonou, I can get there and back pretty easily).

The people who work here are all devout Catholics, and seem upstanding and competent - hearing stories about the volunteers posted with the government agricultural extension program and how corrupt/inept/etc. their people are, I was glad to find that about here.

The office itself is somewhat small - it consists of one large office (I share this with 3 others, but we all have space and desks), an area with a couple of offices for the sister, and a big eating/meeting room. There is a computer - a 386 trying to run Windows - but CRS might buy another one for this project.

Right now, I come in and sit and read (and write letters) all day - I have a bunch of documents I need to get through before I can really get started on my project.

Anyway, I'll wrap up - Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and I'll try to be less late with the next letter, JP

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