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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 ]

#10 in the Series

15 January 1998

Hey everybody,

Thought I would try to knock out a letter before I run into the situation I had last week where I had way too much stuff to write about... so anyway, here goes. (I am putting some pictures in with this - check the Internet to see them).

Anyway, the big things here are my house coming along, and all the work on that, and the job getting a lot more direction/pressure associated with it as my project starts to take shape. Since that's not very much, I'll add some cultural notes also - I guess I'll decide what commentary I will offer after I get through the rest of the letter.

So apart from work, my #1 preoccupation of the past couple of weeks has been getting my house into shape - furniture, carpenters, plumber, masons, etc.. all have to be dealt with. The home improvement project that I took on really doesn't sound like very much - and back home, it wouldn't be. One would run to Home Depot and stop at Pier 1 on the way back, and have all the supplies and furniture. I was getting screen doors and window-screens put on the house, which requires a team of about 3-5 carpenters ding work, followed by about 2-3 masons, working on and off over several weeks. The furniture had to come from Cotonou, because after seeing the screen doors my carpenters made, I didn't want any furniture they made. Some of it I bought new, but most of it came from other volunteers especially those leaving who want to unload as much stuff as possible. Peace Corps provided a minimum of stuff, but they dropped the ball on transporting the stuff, so I had all this heavy stuff in Cotonou. I could only take as much as I can personally carry while riding on the back of a motorcycle, so each time I get to Cotonou, I had been bringing back small things - chairs, end tables, etc. - along with groceries & stuff which has to come from there. Peace Corps kept promising that 'tomorrow' or 'soon' they would send a truck with the big stuff - a bedframe and a table - but those words were used in the Beninese sense, and I figured I might never get my stuff. I finally asked my employers, CARITAS, if I could just throw my stuff in the back of their pick-up, and they were ok with that, so I have more to look at than the 4 walls and the lizards. (Benin is well stocked with a variety of lizards - many of which live in my ceiling and run on my walls, which is good, as lizards eat bugs).

The plumber was actually also easy to work with, once I got my water hooked up to 'city' water and my landlord to understand that one outside spigot wasn't going to cut it. The plumber showed up on a Sunday at around 11 at night - highly unusual for anyone to do anything work-related on Sunday here, it being the one day off, and bizarre for anyone in a mostly electricity-free village to be awake at 11, but there he was. He looked over the problems that day, and made an appointment to come back the next day, to put in a shower nozzle, fix the toilet, and put in a spigot next to the toilet to wash your hands - he said he would be by around 2. So, the next day, sure enough, about 4 o'clock the doorbell rings and its the plumber, right on local schedule. He only worked about an hour, and got all the things done. What struck me was that he didn't use washers - he had some wig hair, and he cut sections of it about an inch long and put them around the threads of whatever he was screwing in, and it became a washer - people here have an amazing array of things they can do with products designed for something else.

My carpenters are all ages 12 to 16 or so - they are apprentices, and their patron apparently does nothing - I've never seen him, despite all my times going to their shop. He must be a cheap man, because he keeps trying to get out of stuff, like a screen door on the kitchen, and the kids never have enough nails and about 4 tools between them. They also require watching, because while they wouldn't steal, they instead of working try to knock down coconuts and eat them in my yard if they aren't being looked at. Thankfully, now I have a nice chair I can sit in to watch the kids from, so it's not a big deal, just a boring way to spend your day, and a bit neo-colonial as well (picture me in the shade, cold drink in hand - a lady around the corner sells ice - watching a team of kids work).

Then the mason comes, since my house is cinder block, and cements the doors that the kids do that day to the side of my house. He is a nice guy, but he is always having disputes with the people who supply my landlord with cement, and so he quite often gets nothing done when he is scheduled to come by.

So anyway, I spend my afternoons these days watching all these folks and occasionally entertaining neighbors who don't have real jobs and so are home (they mostly do sugar cane farming, and don't work in the hot part of the day). After the screen doors and windows, the plumber has to put on a sink in the kitchen, and the place will be done to the standards it is supposed to be in my contract 'before I move in' - well, time is different here, I guess. After that, I might get some other stuff done - right now, I have 2 little houses next to each other, and you have to track outside through the sand to get between them. I am thinking of having a little patio put on to join the 2, with a cement pad to keep sand out, and a little thatched overhang (paillote) to sit under. Maybe by late March or so I will get going on that. The driveway has a nice overhang to sit under but it has all the owners construction stuff under it and is nasty, so I don't use it too much. The poultry area was cleaned out, as I am not yet ambitious enough to keep chickens and kill and eat them. The dog house is also empty, but I am considering changing that. Notice that the palm trees are in a square - they are actually part of a large tree farm which was where my village is now - it is still there on the other side of the road, for miles in either direction east or west, and for about 1.5 miles between the road and the sea - and it is still there in the village, with only a few trees missing from any row where houses are put up, and occasional whole rows missing for roads. The only rooms in my house with anything in them are the 2 on the left - I have a bed and my peace-corps issued trunk in the bedroom, and my peace corps chairs and table in the living room, and another (small) bed as a sofa and two cool chairs made out of bamboo with a bamboo table for entertaining/relaxing. These will be good patio furniture later. There is a sort of dump next to my house, used by 4 or 5 households, so I can just dump my trash over my wall.

Anyway, that's enough about the house. I'll get some pictures of it eventually. Next the job. The job is coming along. I was a bit lost at first, not knowing what I should be doing (other than writing letters, of course), but now I have enough to keep my going most of the day. I have been doing some translation of documents between english and french for the other people here - a lot of groups which deal with development, with AIDS, and with refugees, all of which interest CARITAS, put out their stuff in English, so I do some work so people here can use the stuff. On my own project, the flooding village thing, I have been directed by CRS to produce a raft project for all 12 of my villages by the end of February, so we can start looking for funding on it - it would start getting organized next rainy season (provided the villages don't flood, at which point CARITAS and CRS would have to go back to emergency aid) and by next dry season (one year from now) we could break ground. Fortunately, the draft doesn't have to be too great, and it can be written in English, and I don't have to visit all 12 villages before I do it, but it still is a pretty good chunk of work. So I have library books (form the Peace Corps technical library) on well-building, rural road construction, latrines, etc., just so I can get a grasp of all the issues. I am also scheduling my first 3 village visits, but doing things that require organization, like this, take time here, so it is likely that this won't happen until around the 9th or 10th of February.

I am also getting more used to workplace rhythms than before, although I still don't have much idea of what people here do all day, with the exception of the secretary and the guardians/cleaners/gardeners, who have obvious jobs. The other people, like me I guess, sit and pore over papers and write stuff and joke around with one another. Right now, I go in Mon-Thr, 0-12:30 and 3-6, and Fri 9-2, unless I have a meeting in Cotonou. However, with the house tuff, I have missed some 3-6 sessions. Later on, when that is done, I am going to hire a Gun (or Fon or some other useful local language) teacher with the Peace Corps language fund, and do that a few afternoons each week, both so that I can start talking to more than the few people with French or English, and so I don't always stay cooped up in the office.

Anyway, enough about the job - just pray my villages don't flood this rainy season, as these people will be just as screwed as they were during the last flooding (1995) and needed food aid, because maybe once this project happens they will be better able to ride out the tough times.

I'm trying to think of something good in terms of culture to tell - I already went into the time thing a bit, which is most definitely cultural, and even for someone a bit laid back like myself, it can be frustrating. My grandfather Chandonia told me once, by way of advice, that if you are one minute late, whoever is waiting for you won't know if you're coming at all. I guess here the rule is that if you're over 4 hours late, maybe you're not coming. People here don't have phones, generally, so you can't call. You can send a small boy running with a message for a few cents, but only if the place is reasonably close. Generally, you just get used to sitting on your hands or coming back the next day over and over to get things done. On the other hand, you can avoid things you are too tired to do, or don't want to do, by just not doing them, and then as an excuse you say 'j'ai eu des empechements' - a very useful phrase. It means literally, 'I had a hitch' - but it can mean any problem not covered by some obvious cause, like being sick. But it's considered just as valid an excuse as sickness or death in the family, and people are understanding about other people's empechements.

I guess a final note on culture is that people here, when asked yes-no questions about almost any subject (except maybe offensive or obviously detrimental questions), people say yes even if no is the answer. 1) Do you know where such-and-such is? Yes. Well, where? I don't know. 2) Bring me a coke. OK. 30 minutes later, you go look for your coke, and are told 'oh, we are out of coke.' 3) Will you come work today? Yes. And then don't show up.

Apparently, it is not polite to say no or to refuse something as an answer, but once you get used to this, you figure out how to avoid misunderstandings because of this, but it takes you off-guard at first.

OK, I'll write more later. Thanks for all the letters, packages, stuff. Send stuff like sauce mixes/ lightweight prefab U.S. dinner food, etc. & I will be eternally grateful, at least for a while.


#11 in the Series

19 February 98

Hey everybody,

Once again, it seems that the big letter to everyone is somewhat less than on time - however, as you read on, I suppose you will come to understand why. I am in fact these days feeling less and less like a Peace Corps Volunteer and more and more like the worst paid development worker in the world - possibly even the worst paid planner. The good side to all of this is that I get a bunch of development-worker benefits that most Peace Corps volunteers don't get (rides around in air-conditioned Toyota Land Cruisers, can go sit in the air-conditioned CRS office, etc. etc. involving air conditioners) and yet I can still claim the validity that comes from living in a village among regular folk fairly modestly that Peace Corps is known and liked for and that development workers wouldn't be involved in, and subsequently have a little less of that good vibes feeling with the locals.

Anyway, that was possibly the most obscure opening ever, but we will go with it. My big adventures these past few weeks have focused on heading out to my villages for the project I'm doing (in air-conditioned comfort) and meeting local Catholic officials, local development workers and others, and with them going to villages to meet the folks who will supposedly benefit from this project. Apart from that, I've been splitting long days in Cotonou at CRS headquarters and long days out in the sand at CARITAS headquarters, trying to get this huge and nasty project up to a completed first draft in time for the end of this month. This part of my job here is rather like being in grad school again, except everything is in French and, if possible, the workload is even nastier. Check out the web site for authentic pictures of me working and of me out in the villages (also working, but much more interesting and novel work for me).

Anyway, since the gripping story of me sitting behind a desk writing or typing a draft of a development project wouldn't hold the attention of anyone I went to planning school with, much less those others of you, I'll tell a bit about my villages that I went and checked out.

So for now I've been to see 5 of 12 villages covered under this project (4 one trip, 3 the other, but 2 were overlaps). Except for one of these, the villages are all way out in the bush - usually an hour from a paved road, and 30 minutes from something that could honestly be called a road at all as opposed to the more fitting 'path' or 'trail'. It's pretty hard to believe that you can go that far off away from it all in the south of Benin, which is so small to begin with and fairly densely roaded and developed. The other one is just about 1/2 mile from Lokossa, the capital of the Mono department of Benin, but straight downhill towards a river and with a big marsh in between, so it is still a pain to get there. Almost all of my villages are on the Mono river, which makes the Benin-Togo boundary, and (as can be seen in the diagram below) they flood really frequently now because of a dam Togo built upstream on the river. The main road runs parallel to the river (a paved road far enough away to escape flooding - a dirt road, well built and maintained, closer in). These villages are mostly 5 or so miles off of secondary dirt roads off of the main all-year dirt roads - but this 5 miles is through what has become permanent bog-land, not even passable in the mighty CRS air conditioned 4x4 Toyota Land Cruiser (much less the dinkier CARITAS 4x2 pickup truck). So, naturally, after walking/wading to these places for upwards of an hour after the vehicle got stopped, and meeting the chief and the donkpegan (traditional chief of young people - basically a guy appointed for life to organize village public works by telling all the young people to go and do them) and any elected officials, and listening to songs and drumming, and eating banana and sugar cane, they tell me the obvious: we need a road. Then I make the long, muddy hike back out, armed with this new knowledge. In fact, not all of these villages are going after roads - some already have them, having built them themselves or (somehow) getting the government to put one in (or more likely having gotten a previous development project to put one in).

Two of the villages are neither on the Mono nor one of its tributaries, and so they can't blame the dam for their flooding. The popular culprit for increased flooding at home is development, and these places don't have that problem either - but deforestation might well be a big part of their problem. The forests all turn into firewood and charcoal everywhere in southern Benin - the forest was once quite thick and full of animals (agouti, or bush rat, a popular favorite food, is a lot more expensive now than it once was, people say; it is well worth the price, though). Now, the only thick forests are ancestral forests in each village where the dead are buried and the fetish priests go to commune with them and make powders and all that. It is in fact the traditional religion with its attachment to a particular plot of land and to the ancestors and spirits which are living there, which keeps the people from moving, the obvious answer if you know long floods are coming pretty regularly. I am happy that CARITAS and CRS work in animist villages as well as Catholic ones (or places which have at least enough Catholics to have a mass once a month) - one of the priests I met said he didn't have 2 converts in a particular village, but when we showed up, everyone knew and liked him because he also worked on their other problems or just hung out and joked with them. This to me is better than some churches which show up and offer development and stuff only to their converts, which is like a bribe for conversion. Also, I get to work with and talk with people who are very very different from me in their outlook. (I know, as opposed to strict Catholics...)

The one thing that struck me was the extent of the underdevelopment of these villages - I have only seen this matched by places way out in the desert of Mali - (of course there it looked even worse as it was not lush & tropical like here). I saw lots of blind people - from river blindness, which one gets by, ahem, wading or otherwise immersing in slow-moving warm fresh water in tropical Africa. (I will try to avoid this particular disease if at all possible). The kids were almost all naked, the clothing for adults was much more predominantly African (than in the cities, where western clothing is on about 1/2 the people), and on the banks of the river women and children were in abundance, fetching drinking and cooking water, washing clothes, and doing everything else with the same water. Schools are in some villages, but most are served by neighboring village schools so the kids really do have to walk (or row) 5 miles each way to school. So that is one thing that really struck me.

The villagers all gave me a nice welcome and I got to speak to everyone who showed up (50 or so adults usually, 200 kids, and then the chief and the donkpegan and the vieux sages - old wise people (men) - and the folks who run the local gari or palm oil groupements) and I got music, or food, or drinks, or lots of sugar cane and bananas, or a combination, in every village I visited. The people were obviously interested in getting something for free. It was harder to judge how well the free stuff we provide will be managed - it is part of my job to work on that. Benin, like all of Africa that I've seen, is littered with broken down mills and water pumps and overgrown roads with collapsed bridges as legacies of poor planning.

Anyway, gotta go. I'll write more later,


#12 in the Series

5 March 1998

Hey everybody,

This last section of time marked off in incrementals of letters has been a fairly busy and profitable one for me, and it is to be followed by a period even busier, so I wanted to go ahead and get all of this in. The main thing has been my finishing my draft plan for my project that I have been working on and will be (hopefully) getting funded and running over the rest of my time here. In addition, the Peace Corps celebrated 30 years in Benin with an open house and a shindig (on the same day as my report was due, mind you). Also, I've had some friends from the Peace Corps come and check out my village--and so I got some different perspectives on the place to share.

So, if you didn't go to FSU with me, this section will be pretty dull to you. If you did, just think back to finishing the Methods 3 report, or, more accurately, your studio. The project wasn't really too hard to write - it was just a lot to get through pretty quickly, since I really got only about 5 days in Cotonou with a computer to type. Also, I really only saw a few of the villages in question, and didn't have too much in the way of hard numbers for the budget. Still, I thought I put out a pretty decent document, and it was long enough: 50 pages single spaced, with a 4-page gantt chart and a 3-page budget. Thankfully, it was in English. (I'll have down time while waiting for funding from America to translate it to "french," or whatever approximation of it I can put together.)

All in all, it contains a lot of stuff that FSU beat into me--sustainability, participation, women, the environment--and has a really strong management/training section (my part, with Mary, in the dreaded Belize project) and a fairly weak budget. Now CRS project managers are tearing into it, and I have a revisions deadline in 2 weeks (3 weeks from the draft but next week I am at a Peace Corps seminar, so I get one week to clean it up). I never thought that Western-style deadlining and stress would touch me over here, but in fact it is a bit welcome to move fast for a while after a while of not getting a whole lot done, or at least nothing tangible towards my goal.

Anyway, that was due on the 27th of February, and I got it done at 1600 (they use military time here) - offices shut at 1700. Obviously, I needed a break, and as it happened, it was the day of the 30th anniversary of the Peace Corps in Benin. (From the looks of some charts I saw on display, we have been here continuously, despite the various government problems the place has had in the past.) There was a big open house at the Peace Corps headquarters, with pictures, videos (including the video of me at the commercial fair giving my speech), displays on various subjects (women in development, environmental action, etc.) and volunteers with stuff that they did - my friend Bill, who is a rural community development volunteer in Bandikoura, way up north near the Niger border, brought a farm he was working on, and someone else brought a mud stove. I wasn't invited to display, but I brought my copy of the report and tried to impress people with its weight. I only caught the tail end of the open house, as I was working until the last minute, but it appeared to have been a hit. The road was closed down and a big tent was put up to shade the street - the zemidjans just rode through the tents anyway. Various government and important types came and looked, and Peace Corps security kept out the neighborhood types (the Janquet is not a nice place).

Anyway, the Ambassador was throwing a little reception for us at his place later that evening, so I got to talk to all the people I hadn't seen in a while and take in the lavish spread of American food (calamari, not deep fried; chicken wings; a huge roast beef) and the imports-only open bar. There was a band, and people did skits and songs, and my boss from CRS and other such Beninese were there. All this greatly helped me forget about my report (although obviously not enough for the sake of readers of this letter.

Other than that, I got some insight into how people are doing at post. As a group, it seems pretty well. None of the 29 in my group have quit (compared to the group that left for Togo at the same time as us, down to 6 out of 18 remaining). People in the SBD group were getting some work done, meeting people and working on accounting and small business stuff pretty regularly, but most people were still also dealing with getting their houses together and that kind of thing. Next week is our 3-month early service conference, so then I'll have a better idea about such things.

Finally, I've had some house guests, so I have some insight into my village. It is officially small, foremost. It is also rather exceptionally hot and muggy, and bug filled. Kind of like south Florida in hot season, I imagine, but you don't live in such contact with the outside over there. This aside, it has also been labeled a tropical paradise, which is how I like to think of it. People were a bit annoyed that there is little to do here, despite my being so close to Cotonou, but there really isn't much to do anywhere in Benin except the big cities, and I am accessible enough to the excitement that my calm village is quite welcoming. It's not quite a suburban lifestyle, but in many ways it is similar. Anyway, come on over and look, or look at the Web site pictures, if you want to judge for yourself. I was happy to have someone else see my village, since I have seen people's cities and towns. It was nice for my neighbors also, because they like talking to Americans who speak French (which we do better than missionaries in general). So anyway, that's what I've been up to.

I'll write more later,


#13 in the Series


Hey Everybody,

Sorry if I'm getting lax with these big letters - it just seems like there is less new and interesting stuff to report to you on, and I'd hate to bore you with a big long letter with nothing to say.

Well, the disclaimer aside, the main things happening here were Easter and the whole week leading up to it, and I went to an interesting ceremony in the village. Also, there was one other interesting thing that happened in he village, and finally I got a pet cat. So that is the story in headlines from here. And oh yeah, the power's still out.

So I'll start with leading up to Easter. Turned out to be a very big deal here at Caritas, involving us all having to get dressed up to go to work. The sister had us come in a half-hour early every day, and the prayers took much longer than usual. But then every day was cut short so that people could go home and go to mass also. Fortunately, though, all this turned into a 4-day weekend as Good Friday was off for us and Easter Monday is a national holiday in Benin. (it is good to live in a country with lots of both Christians and Muslims because you get lots of official holidays). Anyway, I say 'fortunately' here the week was cut short because when the work day gets cut short here, it really doesn't, and is more of a pain. Normally, I work 9-12:30 and 3-6. I don't get lunch on shortened days though, and so I go 9-3. But since we showed up at 8:30 all this week, instead of being happy about shortened days, I was mostly just tired and hungry. On the other hand, they got a generator at Caritas, so passing the midday heat under a fan certainly brightened me up. Anyway, we had more power than usual over the holiday (I guess 'industry' such as it is here wasn't using any) and that was nice - we even got all day Sunday. So I spent large parts of my long weekend sitting in front of my fan drinking ice water and reading. My neighbor took me to mass on Saturday night - he has been wanting me to go for a while - but it was in Gun and the actual homily in Xola (the local dialect of Gun) so it was more an opportunity for me to reflect and to be really lost as to what I was supposed to be doing, but it was still an experience.

Speaking of the electricity, still no rain here. Normally I am told that mid-April is the official start of the rainy season - 4 or 5 days a week of rain - and this is preceded by a few weeks of off and on rain. We still haven't had that yet, so who knows when the real rain will come. The rain which will turn the power back on here is in the north of Ghana - further north here, the rainy season comes later. So I have no clue when it wills start up there, or for that matter, how long the rain will need to get the reservoir full enough to sell power to Benin. Meanwhile, it's hot here. I wish I had a thermometer to know how hot - send me an outside one and I'll keep you a little log. I saw one at a friend's house that said it was 95, and it didn't feel that bad out to me, so I sometimes kind of would like to know how bad it is out. The rain will supposedly cool the place down, too, but we shall see. The bright side is if you want a hot shower, you got it. Even if you don't want, you got it. Some days around mid afternoon I can get 10 straight minutes full blast of what would be a very hot shower by American standards.

So anyway, subject 2 - I went to a liberation in a neighboring village. My carpenter, who in fact is a terrible carpenter (I have the worst set of screen doors you have ever seen - built and installed by his 12-year old apprentices), invited me. A liberation is a ceremony to celebrate someone's turning from an apprentice carpenter (who pays the master to work as his apprentice and learn the trade but in fact does all the work) to a master carpenter (who can, after a few lowly years of establishing a decent reputation, begin to take on apprentices and then retire). Folks here with money send a kid or two all the way through school to university and get the rest into apprenticeships - boys can be carpenters, masons, truck or car drivers and repairmen, or welders; girls get in being seamstresses, hair dressers (quite prestigious here actually) and cooks. Folks without money can get maybe one or two kids either all the way through high school or into kind of crappy apprenticeships (working with a sand and gravel outfit shoveling it onto the back of a truck; working for a bad carpenter, like my own). Anyway, when the better-off kids finish, which can take 10 years for some trades, they get a big ceremony thrown for them.

So anyway, the ceremony was in a big hall, and all the master carpenters sat on a stage. The had drummers - one playing a snare drum, the other playing the big bass drum like in marching bands at home. They had little skits - just to be humorous, not really related to the event at hand. Probably 800 people showed up - along with 50 or so master carpenters. Everything was in Gun, so it was hard to follow, but a guy next to me sort of gave me the gist of the happenings. There was prayer, and they passed out kola nut to everyone as sort of a traditional African welcome (it was in fact finely chopped up kola nut, kind of like almonds in those little thin slices but more bitter, covered in wild honey - very tasty). Then bunches of big shots came and gave speeches, which was boring for me. Then the guy who was liberating his three apprentices came out, and they came out, and got on their knees in front of everyone. He lectured at them for a good half hour and then went into the ceremonial part. First, he took a glass of water. They were on their knees, and put their hands out palm up like they were begging. He took a sip and spit it onto their hands, and again, and then one onto their heads. He did this for each one, making lofty comments between them. Then he got some Youki, this gross mellow-yellow-like soft drink, and repeated this process. The final step was he got a big wooden stick of the kind masters use to hit their apprentices, and was going to give them each their ceremonial last beating. First he called the families of the guys, now in their mid 20s, to inspect them and see if they were physically OK (they had been living under the charge of the master for some years now). Then he had them assume the position and do lots of threats and posturing. He said he would hit each 300 times, unless the families and audience could buy back those hits at 1000f each (about $1.75), or 300,000 total - a lot of money. The families and audiences came up for each kid in turn and donated - mostly coins- and the master worked the crowd like an auctioneer. This was interesting, as you could see which kid and which family went together. The families - extended - all bought the same fabric, so you had 50 or so people wearing the same outfit, rushing the stage to give. Eventually, as it turned out, the last beating was symbolic - no one raised 300,000, but each kid just got one real light tap on the hand, and that was all. Then the master gave them each a carpenter's claw, a tape measure, and a diploma (with a really nicely carved frame) and that was it. Over in 4 hours (not counting the 1 1/2 hour late start...) Then food was served to the master carpenters and honored guests (I got put into this group) and it was over. We talked a lot in training about ceremonies here, and how they cost a lot of money - weddings, funerals, and liberations are the big three. I have seen some funerals (and been to the after-party for one of them) and so this was interesting to see what Peace Corps meant.

Anyway, the other thing culturally in the village was a little more creepy. We don't have too much voodoo in our village - but there is some. In particular, we don't have Oro, the spirit of dead people, because we don't have a sacred forest to bury voodoo folks in like some places (the next village over I think has the nearest sacred forest). Anyway, Oro is real bad, and comes out at night, and if you are not an initiate and see him or his initiates doing their ceremonies and stuff that they do, it's bad. They make a noise by whipping this thing around that makes a bass noise, and that means go inside and shut out the lights right away. (Oro, like all the voodoo deities, is in fact represented by a guy in an Oro suit who goes and does ceremonies - his initiates and himself are part of a secret society, which is why you can't see them). Anyway, we have a more mundane secret society and ghost/spirit/deity thing in our village. I had never heard him out at night, but he also has a noise that means 'go away I'm coming through', and during the day I know where to find his suit hanging up. He dances around at day doing non-secret stuff (unlike Oro) like attending your wedding or signifying various holy days, and it's OK to see hime - you just can't know who is under the big outfit and mask (he basically is dressed as a big stack of hay). So apparently someone about 3 villages away got drunk and started running his mouth and told some people that he knew who was in the secret society and started naming names. This got out, and so all the ghosts from the local area - maybe the nearest 15 or 20 villages - and all their initiates in the society got together and decided to show this guy the error of his ways. So, the power out, I was sitting outside catching the breeze, and around 9 or so the bass noise to go home and cut out the lights started. There was also a kind of hi-pitched shrieking. Anyway, I'd never heard this before, but knew what it was from volunteers from more voodoo-infested areas. So I turned off my lamp and waited. It went on more than 4 hours, and was kind of unnerving. Then it quieted off, so I relit my lamp and got ready for bed. The next day I found out that all the ghosts got together and went and woke this guy up in the middle of the night and then they pushed his house over (it was a bamboo and palm house, rather easy to shove over) to teach him a lesson. So that was my voodoo experience.

Anyway, the only other thing of excitement was I got a cat. I've been seeing mice in the yard, and figured that would take care of that - plus I like cats. I got him in the market - disturbingly in the meat section - for 500f - less than a buck. He seems healthy and smart enough, although he has trouble realizing he is an outdoor cat - (a) I am allergic to cats; (b) I don't want ticks and fleas and stuff inside). He is quite cute, though, and once he came out of hiding (the move traumatized him so he hid in a big pile of crap for about the first 5 days) quite friendly. Cats are easy to care for here - they just eat leftovers, not cat food per se. I still have to take him to the vet to get a rabies shot and to get him fixed, but after that they are cheap too. For the moment, he is still scared of the mice, but I am just assuming that will change.

Anyway, other than that, no news. Work is becoming kind of a drag, but only because I am waiting for CRS central office, and various funding agencies, to read my project document and send out a response. Right now, I am at work on Friday afternoon. Usually, Friday afternoon is off, but one unfortunate has to stay until 6 (5:30 max) to answer the phone. It's 4 now, and no one has called yet. So I figured I'd write. I am going to Bohicon, in central Benin, next week for a conference, and then to Glazoue, also in central Benin, so I'll have some other stuff to tell next time. I'm also sending you pics, so check the web site. And please write me when you can.


PS - I'm writing to a High School teacher in Lake Butler, FL - Union County. Part of a Peace Corps program to tell a class about what's going on. Anyone (FSU folks) ever hear of it? (the place, that is)

#14 in the Series

6 May 1998

Hey Everybody,

Well, I just got my last big letter to you guys back - apparently, I tried to stuff too much stuff into one envelope, something the folks who took my money at the post office didn't mention at the time I was sending it. So I figured I would send that again as 2 letters and send this at the same time. Not only that, they cancelled my stamps. I spoke to the lady at the post office window about it, and she agreed that my stamps had indeed been cancelled. So did her manager. What can you do? Anyway, I hope an extra-large dose of me will make up for the delay.

So, since that update, I've been to Bohicon, Glazoue, and Dassa, and was away for about a week. In addition, I went to the CRS labor day picnic and went and saw Pobe and Porto-Novo that same weekend. Now I am safely back at work, and a bit swamped, but only by African standards. It also has started raining a little bit, but the power situation, while a bit better, leaves something to be desired.

So anyway, there was a big Small Business Development seminar in Bohicon. From the 20th to the 22nd in Bohicon. It is a pretty big town, and is about 2 Km from Abomey, also a big town and chief city of the Zou region. Together they are kind of a metropolis - well, kind of. Our hotel was on the same power line as the cotton factory, so we did not get cut off - this was great. The rooms had a/c also. The conference was on credit programs - we heard from a couple of grass-roots NGOs that do micro-credits (now called poverty lending) and literacy/numeracy training for rural folks, including CRS, but also real Beninese groups, and from the farmers credit union of Benin, a very grass roots organization, and then did visits to see people who get the loans and how they got them, what business/activity they do with them, and how they manage their money. That was the best part by far. We saw a big women's groupement (the groupement, not the women). It consisted of about 70 women, and had 10 or 11 businesses going - from making soap, printing fabric, silk-screening t-shirts, making snacks to sell on the road, manufacturing whiskey...did I mention free samples of the whiskey and snack foods? Anyway, we talked to them - they subdivided into smaller groups and got loans to the small groups, but still had a central structure and set of rules for bookkeeping and dividing the revenues - pretty organized for rural women in Africa. Then we went to the local CLCAM (the farmers credit union) and saw the set-up. They were computerized. They also had some motorcycles and trucks parked in a fenced-in area for folks who defaulted - the loans here were a little bigger. Finally, we went and saw the castle for the king of the Fon people. There is an artisinal group - a cooperative - that works in one of the courtyards. The castle wasn't too impressive - it is in mud, and one story high. Apparently where the king hangs out is nice, but we didn't go there - that's another story. What is impressive about the place is its size. The particular courtyard where the art group was set up was the size of a football field - and there were supposedly many more like it. The art group was cool - they told us about their business end, and we walked and looked at the artists working, and had some time to browse. The hand looms for fabric and the bronze work was the most impressive, but the woodwork wasn't that great.

Anyway, on the king. He doesn't really run anything any more - he can still hold ceremonies and make all the traditional chiefs show up and listen to him, and he still has a nice place, but the real Fon kingdom is gone. Nonetheless, 2 days before I showed up, there was a palace coup and a new king took over. Security was very tight afterwards. I'm not real sure how such a thing works, but apparently it was like a real coup - guys with guns subdued the old king's guards and then kicked him out and set up shop. Didn't seem to faze the art co-op, so I didn't worry about it too long.

Anyhow, the seminar was OK. It was good to see everyone, and to sit in the a/c.

After that, I took time off work and went north, a little bit. I went to Glazoue, a smallish town with a really big market, on the main road to the north, to visit a Peace Corps volunteer there, Regina. She had just moved - Peace Corps initially set her up in a little 2-room annex to this family's house, and she was not happy with the set-up - lots of little kids running through the house at all times. (Actually, her local partner organization got this place for her). So she moved to a place that was much nicer - 3 rooms, and water (the old place had a well) - rent 8000/month ($12.50). Despite a distinct lack of electricity in the entire town - not related to the current problems here - Glazoue just never has power - the place was nice. I just kind of bummed around for a few days - we also made a side trip to Dassa, a bigger town located in some mountains (north of Bohicon, Benin gets very pretty, with rolling hills, some small mountains, and rock formations, all covered with lush vegetation). There is a teacher volunteer there. They had a little bar looking out over the city from the ledge of a mountain, so we sat there a while. I also met a Mennonite girl - kind of a rebel insofar as Mennonites go, drinking and all that - who was in the Dassa area learning midwife techniques from some traditional wise women in the area. The volunteer in Dassa is a great cook, and this Mennonite girl had been living way out in a little village for a while, and so was even happier than the rest of us to have a first-rate dinner.

Anyhow, the next Friday was Labor Day in Benin (May 1, or May Day for the commies). We had the day off, so I went to a CRS picnic on the beach at Cotonou. It consisted mostly of stuffing myself (which I need to do - I'm down 30 pounds from when I came at last check) and drinking with the CRS folks, and was a good way to spend the afternoon. The next day was the Volunteer Area Committee (VAC) meeting for the Oueme, my province in Benin. It was in Pobe, a 3-volunteer town (but still a small place) about an hour north of Porto Novo. The taxi ride up went all through Porto Novo, convincing me I have to go really hang out there some time - it is a much prettier town than Cotonou, and not so congested. Lots of colonial buildings, too, as it's the capital. North of Porto Novo is seldom-traveled territory, even for Beninese. The road goes up another hour after Pobe, then fizzles out, and a big lake blocks travel west - with Nigeria to the east, that doesn't leave much. The land gets hilly much further south in the Oueme, and is quite spectacular at points. The VAC meeting itself wasn't real useful, but there was a Cinqo do Mayo theme reception/party with it, with good Mexican food. I met a Senegalese couple working for Africare (a big aid organization), and it was neat to try to remember my Wolof.

Anyway, now I'm back at work, and I got my project back from CRS technical commission with changes to make. I also talked to Cooperation Canadien, who might give some money. They want a big environmental assessment added into the project (CRS had me cut such a section out) - good for them.

So, I'll get back to it. Write, and all that.


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