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What is Africa to Me?

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

- Countee Cullen, Heritage

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#13 in the Series

9 September 1998

Hello Everybody,

Its been so long since I wrote one of these, I bet everybody thought that I had just dropped out of the Peace Corps and moved to Congo to fight against the scourge of Laurant Kabilla. Well, no such luck. In fact, I have actually been busy busy busy, if you can imagine, and as a result have done a very poor job communicating back home to all of you. So, before I get any further into this letter, let me apologize for not being a better communicator, and hopefully now I will be back on track.

That said, I am afraid that I am finding it harder and harder to come up with new things to tell you about. The novelty of being here is wearing off for me, and so when I look around for interesting things to tell you about, I just don't find them as quickly as I once did. Thankfully since the most recent trip lots has happened, so I can at least fill up a decent size letter talking about that.

Anyway, two really exciting things have happened since the last time I wrote one of these. First, and more exciting, is that my mom and dad came and visited me here for a fun-filled and hectic two weeks (during which time I put on a much-needed 10 pounds!). Second, and less exciting (especially to you), I have gotten my project officially kicked off, and have put myself on a grueling pace to get the thing done so I can come home on time at the end of my two years.

So, I will go ahead and tell you about my folks coming to visit. I had had some friends whose folks had come to visit, so in some ways I knew what to expect, but in other ways I was caught off guard to their reaction to the place. I was really looking forward to seeing them, but was at the same time very apprehensious about what I might do with them -- Benin is not exactly full of tourist stuff to do, and I was afraid that they would be either bored or uncomfortable, depending on what we decided to do, or in many cases, both of those.

I don't really know what their feelings on it were. (I am sure that my dad at least will offer some commentary on this on a web site somewhere, so look it up if you want to know). They had called me a few times before I came to prepare, and I tried to suggest things to pack for themselves, as well as a list of stuff from America that I wanted (I sat in my house and tried to envision an American grocery store and all the stuff that they might get for me -- I think I did ok, but I was unable to suggest enough stuff for them to fill up suitcases). I also tried to figure out various logistics ahead of time, using my "planning" skills that I picked up at Florida State. However, it ain't always so easy to, for example, rent a car or make hotel reservations, when one is dealing with the African context. Finally, I managed to get time off of work. The way my work is set up, you have to plan out your vacations at least a year in advance, and they can't be at the same time as anyone else's vacation in the office (there are only about 8 of us, including the drivers, but with everyone getting one month over the year, there is a good chance that there will be some overlap). Since I wasn't here a year in advance to schedule my vacation, I picked to have half of it while my folks were here, and even though there was some overlap with one of the drivers vacation, I managed to talk the folks into letting me have the same time as my folks were here.

Finally the big day showed up, and I went to get them at the airport. I had recently cut my hair really really short (well, shaved it actually, as you can probably tell from the pictures on the net) and I also put on a really strange African outfit somewhat resemblant of a dress (but which, I assure you, is only worn by men here) and went to get them. I figured that if they were going to get some culture shock in the short time they were here, I might as well be the one to give it to them.

They got in on the plane alright, and we rushed them out to the waiting car as soon as they were able to clear formalities. They looked like they had just been run through a gauntlet of some type, but going on a 24 hour trip like that can do it to you. The car took them to the hotel, in my view the nicest in Cotonou (there are two which are more expensive and more westernized, but this one has a better location and the rooms are just as nice). The hotel also has a nice pizzeria/restaurant in the bottom of it (pizzeria might not sound so classy to you, but over here it is one of the nicer things you can say about a restaurant). After getting them a little settled, we went and ate something before putting them off to bed.

The next day started as quite a shock. My boss, by whom I am quite intimidated, and who is a Catholic nun, was getting ready to go on a retreat for the next three weeks, from which she could not have contact with the outside world. She had promised to come to the hotel after mass in the morning to meet my folks -- people here are very into providing an appropriate welcome for visitors -- and so I said I would go get my parents at 10 and wait in the lobby for her. So she shows up a litle earlier than that, like 8:45, on the day after my jet-lagged non-french-speaking folks travelled for 24 hours and went to bed rather late after a glass of palm wine to toast their arrival, and was in kind of a hurry -- turns out she had some other scheduling problem. So she tries to call up to my room, where I am sleeping soundly in air conditioning, looking forward to a shower with hot water and a leisurely breakfast with my parents before seeing my boss. Sometime during the night, however, I had knocked the phone in the room off the hook, so the sister couldn't get a hold of me. So her next step was to call up to my parents room.

Apparently, my mom answered the phone, and it was the sister, talking in french. Mom remembered a little french from college, and got decent with it by the end of the trip, but I don't believe that this was how she wanted to wake up on her first full day here. Meanwhile, I was woken up by a member of the hotel staff beating on my door, and had time to splash water on my face and run downstairs to see the nun sitting and conversing with my mom, or at least trying to. I went and dragged my coffee-less father out of bed and got him down, and then the three of us, all a bit dazed, sat with my boss.

Actually, the meeting with her wasn't so bad after that. We talked, and I translated, which was what I did a lot of during their trip. I think my french got improved more on this trip than it ordinarily does in several months just at work -- I learn to ignore a lot of what I don't understand when its just me, but my folks always seemed interested in what folks had to say. The rest of the day, we walked around a bit in downtown, and then that evening made the first trip out to my house.

My village is not very far from Cotonou -- about 12 miles. It takes at least a half hour, and often more, to cover that distance, but once you get out of the city sprawl, it goes really quickly, and you feel like you are in a different world. My folks had remarked that they were even feeling a bit queasy in Cotonou, probably as a result of all the pollution from motorcycles burning leaded gas and inadequate trash collection / sewage disposal / anything else one would need to stop their city from smelling like this place. But out in the clean air of my village, they seemed much more content. Some friends of mine had organized a little dinner for them, to be served at my house, and they had been preparing that when we arrived around 5-ish. Not too many people came over -- about 6 or 7 aside from me and my folks -- but it was a good number. We had fish and akassa, a corn-based starch, and fried plantains, and my folks met my friends from the village and chatted (with JP as translator in most cases -- a few folks in my village speak English, but it isn't really enough for a true conversation, but rather more for exchanging pleasantries and finding out essential things like the location of the bathroom). My folks showed some pictures around, and we took some pictures, both of which are things that people here really enjoy (people especially like seeing how ordinary life takes place in America on just a day-to-day basis).

Well, then we headed back to Cotonou, and then I turned around and headed back to sleep in my village. I arranged to have coffee delivered to my folks the next morning before taking off. Later in the trip, I decided just to stay with them at the hotel, since they didn't mind paying for it, and they wanted me around in case they needed my french ability.

The next day was Sunday, so we went to church. I had some real difficulty translating what we were talking about in church -- the following Sunday, we went to the English language mass, which was a much better idea. But this time we did the french mass, since one of my co-workers was having a get-together at his house afterwards and we were to meet up after mass.

The get-together was to commenmorate the 10-year anniversary of the death of this guy's mother. People here, when they live to be really old, and when their family is well-to-do, get their death commemorated year after year, and 10 years is a big one (people who are chiefs or like that get commemorated many many years later, like up to 100 years in some cases). We ate something before going over, which turned out to be a bad idea, because then we couldn't eat at the guy's house. But my folks wanted some air conditioning time, and the restaurant we went to had that feature (I guess I am getting used to the temperature here -- I remember feeling like dying when I first got here, and now I don't ever feel so bad -- my grandparents just sent me an outdoor thermometer -- thanks -- and I am amazed when I see that it is 90 or so and I am feeling really comfortable, or even feeling like putting on a t-shirt to keep off the chill). So we just had a drink and said hello and met some of my co-workers, and were on our way.

I think the rest of that day we drove around Cotonou a little bit, and saw the various Communist monuments from the old days of the country, and saw the other sites of the town (my office for CRS, the Peace Corps office, the pizza restaurant at the hotel). We drove out to my village again to try to meet some people, and met some other peace corps volunteers also.

Well, I can't really give you a day-by-day accounting of the trip after the first couple of hectic days, but I will give you an accounting of some of the highlights. The next big thing that we did was go and visit the town of Porto-Novo, about 10 miles past my house away from Cotonou. It is the actual capitol city of Benin, although it is substantially smaller than Cotonou. It is much more pleasant than Cotonou also, because it isn't flat, overrun, and all built (or at least started being built) in the last 10 years. In fact, P-N has pretty old colonial buildings, is situated on a nice lagoon, and is hilly. It also has museums and cultural stuff to check out.

We went with George, a guy from the village who I hired to be our chauffeur for the trip (I rented a car from this very unpleasant guy, and the car kept breaking down, but George was very good about going and getting it fixed and dealing with it), and a good friend of mine from the village who is 1 year older than me, a guy named Clement. Clement took a liking to my folks, and because he is very patient and can speak some limited English, they were able to talk with him and give them a break from me from time to time. Clement also helped a lot with logistics and negotiating the Beninese "system" of bureacracy, and that was very helpful.

Anyhow, we got to P-N, and drove around a bit. Unfortunately, the government is paving much of the town right now (it is actually now finished and is very very nice) but when my folks were there is was kind of a pain to get around. We went and saw the palace of the king of the Gun kingdom, Roi Toffa, which occupied the site before france came and took over, and got a very nice tour. It was in French, and I tried to translate, but there was this little french kid of about 5 years who jumped up and down and yelled and carried on, and that made it much more difficult for me to follow. But the story we got explained the emergence of the 3 main kingdoms of southern Benin (we later went and saw one of the palaces of the Fon kingdom also, and got a similar story from a different perspective), and their history through the colonial period and up to the present. The Gun kingdom no longer has a king per se -- there are two pretenders to the throne at the moment; the system of inheriting the throne got thrown out of wack when Roi Toffa signed a treaty with the french and let them take control of the order of succession. Anyhow, the kings don't have the power they once did anyway -- it is now completely ceremonial. Anyway, we also got to see how the kings lived, and what kind of stuff they used to do various things, and that was neat. I had never gone to see this particular site before, so it was new for me also.

The other really interesting thing we did in P-N was that we went to see the National Assembly building. We originally intended just to drive past the building where Benin's parliament meets. Then we decided to get out and see if we could take a picture -- it is a pretty building, and dates from colonial times. However, to take pictures of government-type installations here, you generally are best suited to ask permission first. Here is where my buddy Clement, who was with us, came in handy. He asked if we could not only take pictures, but take a look around the place. The guards in the front guard area of the building had evidently never been asked this before, and so they sent us across the street to a big security building, to ask their boss. Their boss also never heard of such a thing, and next thing you know we were in the office of some real big shot with air conditioning and everything else, asking if we could go wander around the national assembly of the country. He didn't see why not, and sent us back to the original cops, who he called on the phone while we were walking back across the street, and told them to take us on a tour. We were not allowed to take pictures inside, but we got to see the very modern annex in the back of the building, and the guards pointed out where the president sits, and which parties sit on which side of the room during debate. We also saw the sound-proof rooms where the media and the public could sit, and all that. It was extremely nice, and also extremely nice of the guards to show us around and let us go and have fun in their capital building. Then we went outside, and took our pictures, and were on our way.

After the P-N trip, the next big thing we did was strike out on the road. We had planned to see a number of towns while out on the road, but in fact we ended up cutting our trip short. On day 1, we got up with the intention of starting real early, but our car had problems, and so George didn't show up until substantially late. We struck out anyway, and made it to Ouidah, about 25 miles west of Cotonou, by lunch time. We cruised into Ouidah and went to see the tourist sites there, which are in fact many. Ouidah was a center for slave export under the fon kingdom, and various europeans had set up forts and castles and the such there for the purposes of the trade. In fact, most of these are gone now, but the Portugese government reconstructed its old fort, supposedly as a museum (but you never know . . .). The lady who gave English tours of the museum was getting ready to go to lunch, but I talked her into doing one more quick tour, and it was quick. I was happy that she gave it, though, although we rushed a bit past some of the stuff. I had been one time before, and was also able to point out the stuff that I thought was most interesting. They have an "appliqu‚," which is a type of art done by cutting shapes out of cloth and sticking them to another piece of cloth to make a pattern, which depicts the first encounter of the whites and the beninese at Ouidah. There is also one depicting various phrases, or sayings, that are commonly used here (an American example might be "you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear"; here, it would be, "the fish which finds its way out of the trap one time will not be fooled by the same trap again" and the art would be a picture of a fish and a trap and the fish not getting caught in it). They also had other stuff, like depictions of the life in Ouidah at the time, and an explanation of the Fon kingdom.

So we checked out this museum, and then we went out the road to the coast, called the "Route des Esclaves," or the slave route. Along the road are various monuments that were set up for a festival about the history of Benin that they had here in 1992, in an attempt to get black people from america to come and visit Benin and learn about their ancestors. I don't know how well the plans worked, but I can't imagine that anyone who showed up for that festival was too impressed with the french-language signs and lack of nice hotels. But I digress -- we went down and looked at all the monuments and stuff; there were two trees of special significance, the significance of which we fortunately learned at the musuem tour, as they were rather unmarked -- they were the tree of forgetfulness, around which the slaves were led a number of times to forget their home country, and then the tree of hope, to give them hope; there was also another tree under which slave auctions were held; there were various statues along the way, depicting the symbols of the Fon kingdom; and there was at the beach a big monument called the "Point de Non Retour," or Point of No Return, which commemorrated the place where the slaves were loaded onto ships for America.

I don't mean to demean the government of Benin's attempt to portray its own history and market it, by saying above that the efforts were a bit shabby, but frankly the stuff they have here has nothing on the stuff they have to show in Ghana (with 7 or 8 originally preserved slave castle / dungeons), or in Senegal (Gore Island) and the Gambia (Alex Halley's ancestor Kunta Kinte's village, Juffure), and those countries do a better job explaining stuff in English and having accomodations that Americans would find fitting. So I am not real impressed with that aspect of it. On the other hand, for sheer historical weight, the Fon kingdom, called Dahomey, were awfully big players in the slave trade, and if Benin put their mind to it, they could display that in a much more compelling way, and get people to come and put money here. I hope that tirade was capitalistic enough for you.

Anyhow, on we went to Come, the next stop on our tour. This is where I lived for the period of my training, before being let into the Peace Corps as a volunteer. We checked into the luxerious Hotel Mandela, a recently-completed monstrosity in Come‚ painted up in a surrealistic style. The rooms, while air conditioned, lacked hot water or large sized beds, and my folks (my dad) were less than thrilled with the place. This is another point where I realized I have perhaps been here too long -- the lack of hot water seemed natural, and even the hot water heaters installed in some rooms, but not functional, didn't lead me to expect, as it did my parents, that hot water ought to be available. It was at this point that we decided that continuing the road trip any longer would be no good at all, and that the best way to go would be to do day trips from the comfort of the luxurious (not being facetious this time) Hotel du Lac.

In Come, we had a number of things to take care of. First of all, my folks wanted to meet this guy that I got them in touch with who is in Come -- he is a Nigerian refugee, a victim of Shell Oil Company' and the Nigerian "Government"'s policy of driving Ogoni people off the land where they live to get at the oil which is underneath it. There are a whole mess of them in the refugee camp in Come, ever since the Nigerian government, under the former (and recently deceased) dictator Sami Abacha, killed off Ken Serowiwa (somebody check the spelling on that for me, please), an internationally known playwright and activist on behalf of the Ogoni folks (he was an Ogoni himself) and like 9 of his followers in a public hanging. So anyway, all these Nigerian folks have been stuck in Coe‚ for more than 2 years now, at least, and naturally were very happy to have American people to talk English with, and to talk about how to get to America. I got one of them in touch with my folks, and they have been writing, and they wanted to meet him.

We met at a local hotel, and talked for a while, and took some pictures, and we went and saw the camp where they are housed. My dad gave this one guy some various stuff, and some money to help him with his situation, and we promised to talk to the UN protection officer for him (which we later did in Cotonou).

That night we went to the beachside resort of Grand Popo, not far from Come, to have dinner. The dinner was delicious. The next day, however, found that the meal hadn't sat so well with my father, as he was dying of something which he thought was dysentary (my view -- probably just a virus, and stop being such a baby, but see some of my earlier journal entries for what I used to think of the Africa sickness before I became accustomed to it -- yet another sign of my having become too used to this place). We had planned to all go and have lunch at the house where I lived during my training. As it turned out, though, just me and mom left, and we abandoned dad in the hotel. He was still there when we got back.

Lunch was very nice, but we didn't linger. We got out of Cotonou that day, as soon as dad felt up to travel, and by the grace of George's slow and cautious driving, there were no accidents in the rear of the car. Dad was very happy to see Cotonou, with its reliable air conditioning, refrigerated water, hot water on demand, and other first-world amenities.

We took a couple of days for him to recover, with me and mom not doing too much. I did take mom on a zemidjan, since dad was too scared / sensible to ride on one. These are the taxi motorcycles that are the only way to get around Cotonou. I borrowed a helmet for mom from the Peace Corps (every volunteer must wear a helmet on every motorcycle trip, so there are lots of extra helmets lying around the office). I got us two taxi-motorcycles, gave a vague idea to each of them as to where we were heading (I didn't know the actual name of the neighborhood) and told them to stick together. So naturally, mine takes off like a bat out of hell while mom's pokes around. They manage to stay in sight range, but about halfway there, we can't see mom any more. So I tell my guy to pull over, and we wait. Sure enough, they come along, but my guy doesn't hear me or see them, and doesn't get started. Then, mom's guy makes some turn, and they are gone. Gone. I was pretty stressed out. Fortunately, mom kept her cool, and tried to tell the guy more or less where he should dump us off; I went cruising around with my guy for a while looking, and finally got off, and then miraculously, saw my mom across the street. On the way back was easier, because mom assured me that she knew the way, and I knew the name of the place we were going (Hotel du Lac) so it was easy to tell the guy. So that was an adventure.

When dad felt a little better the next day, but was not 100%, we took a little excursion out to see a commercial and NGO fair that the Peace Corps had set up. I would have been working at it, except that I was on vacation. The program that I am in, Small Business Development, set it up. The fair was in a big exhibition hall in downtown Cotonou, and had producers, manufacturers, and artists invited to attend. Various NGOs, which are a lot like non-profits back home, also showed up and had booths and displays.

We bought a lot of crap at this particular event -- this became a trend as we went to other places. I was rather embarrassed by this, as I am used to living as the Peace Corps Volunteer, even a relatively urban and well-funded one. The stuff was nice, but lord knows what my folks will do with all of it.

I also got some networking for work done at this particular event -- I met with a group of people who produce agricultural equipment specifically suited to Benin, of the type which I need for my project, so I got them to give me some estimates and some demonstrations.

The next thing on the agenda for us was a trip to Abomey, capital of the Dahomey, or Fon, kingdom. It is about a two-hour drive north of Cotonou. Once again, car trouble delayed our start, but we got out ok finally, and went and checked it out. They have a restoration of the palaces of two of the Fon kings -- these guys, when they get a new king, had the habit of building a new palace, which they would connect to the old ones. So there were two of the palaces. The Fon people went to war with the french over control of the slave trade, and of the inland and the various kingdoms that paid patronage to the fons, and got all their castles pretty much destroyed. Their palaces are basically really large mud buildings, and so by comparison to European buildings, are pretty easy to push over (they aren't totally without merit though -- there are ruins of old castles from hundreds of years ago that are still recognizable in various places around the Abomey area -- which is something, considering the environment here and the fact that they were building out of mud).

We saw the history of the Fon people depicted in wall bas-reliefs and appliques (Abomey is the appliqué Mecca of the free world). Their history, basically, boils down to them starting a kingdom, and then kicking other kingdom's butts which were all around them. The tour guide tried to step around the other part of their history, which was the enslavement of those enemy people for sale to the europeans for the slave trade, in return for which they got more guns to go off and kill other people. They seemed rather unpleasant, at least historically. Their kingdom did suffer from certain excesses, however. For example, when one of the king's whose palace was restored died, he was buried in a structure that was made of mud mixed with the blood of 40 of his more than 2000 wives (they were volunteers,' as our tour guide said). However, they did their killing of people with style, and would design appliques and bas-reliefs to depict their victory over the folks they were against. Typical was one of a horse with a guy's head cut off and attached around its neck -- they sent it to a kingdom up north that they had fought in a war, and it was to represent the king of those people, whom they had captured, cut his head off of, and tied it on a string around the head of his own horse.

The main courtyard of the palace, walled in with 30 foot high mud walls, and covering a space as large as a football field, was in the old days the home of various artists who made these things for the king. Now is houses an artists cooperative, which produces fairly high-quality traditional art -- carvings, appliqués, brass, and other stuff. We bought some stuff from them, and moved on.

We saw what was left of the sites of Abomey, which wasn't much -- one statue of the king of Abomey who went to war with the french and was captured, and that's about it -- and got back to the Hotel du Lac. We went to have lunch with my coworkers one day. My coworkers hit my parents up for money for my organization, my dad told embarrassing stories about me and made me translate them, and we stuffed ourselves on good food. One out of three ain't bad. Actually, my co-workers were very nice, and said nice things about me (even though they really didn't believe them) and we had a very pleasant lunch. We took pictures and they gave my folks a wood carving as a token, and that was also very nice.

The last day, we went out to the village of my friend Clement's aunt and uncle, which is a fishing village. We had gone earlier that day to a zoo / hotel / conference center / really bad investment that the former head of the port authority built with all his savings from that great job (official salary is probably around $10,000 per year, which is really good for here, but somehow . . . ). It was interesting -- it had lions, hyenas, monkeys, a camel, and some lizards and stuff. Safety precautions, and animal rations, are a little lower here in Benin than back home, but it was still interesting.

The lake village was more interesting, though. It is less than an hour's drive from Cotonou, but resembles traditional pre-colonial Africa as much as almost any place you will find. We took pictures in front of the outfits which people use to represent their gods during traditional religious manifestations, and in front of a voodoo temple meant to protect the village. Then we rode out on a non-motorized boat for an hour or so to see how people do their fishing here (they grow certain plants that fish really like, and then put traps or lines in the water near these plants).

That done, we got my folks to the airport. We took a few final pictures on the road on the way home, and then went and got another volunteer and his mom who was here visiting and was on the same flight out. We had a tearful goodbye at the airport (well, some of us did) and that was it. I then went and slept very deeply for the next 12 or so hours.

So that was my folks' visit. Pretty long, huh? I cut out a lot of it. Really, it was a great trip, but it was exhausting for all of us. It was worth it, though, to see them, and to let them see what I am doing here.

That said, I have lost my motivation to write about how things are going at work. My project kicked off, by having a big meeting with the field staff who will be carrying it out by working directly with the villagers, and that was very exciting. I then went on to schedule training sessions with these folks to teach them how to do what they are going to do in the villages -- this will lead to some sustainability for my project, through the institutional strengthening of the Caritas organization at its grass-roots levels (was that enough development lingo for you?). Really, what it means is that this way Caritas people next time can run a similar project without someone like me to help run it -- at least this is the theory. I don't know how good a job I am going to do with the training, or whether enough of what I know can be passed on to these folks in the time that we have. We shall see.

But I'll say more about that next time.

Hopefully, now, this will give you a good fix of my writings, and make up for all the time I didn't write. I'll try to get out a more managable installment next time with more information about my project, and how other things are going here.


#14 in the Series

15 September 1998

Hey everyone,

Well, I am back this time more quickly than I might have anticipated. I am going away on business trips for a couple of weeks coming up, and so I wanted to go ahead and get you a letter out to say hello and to finish my story from last time, and that way I will be squared away until I get back.

Last time, I told you about my parents visit. As I recall, I told you about it at length.

After they left, I recovered for a couple of days, and then got back into the swing of work. I had a big meeting that I had planned before they came that was to kick off my project. I spent my last few minutes at work the day their airplane came in getting finishing touches on letters of invitation, written in french and with the signature of my boss, sent off to all of the invited parishes that are working on my project. A couple of the parishes are way out in the bush, with no phone coverage, and so this letter was my one chance of getting to them. Through this process I learned a lot about how to write business letters in french that no one would really want to know.

Anyway, I got back, and just to touch bases with a couple of the parishes, I called and asked if they were planning on coming. Their question: coming to what?

This was somewhat disheartening, naturally. But I recovered from it, and called the 5 parishes that had telephones, and told them all to go and open the unopened letter from the national Caritas office, and to get ready to come to the meeting. My boss, the sister, was going on a trip the next day that would take her past 5 of the parishes, including one of the ones without a phone, and she promised to stop by and yell at the people in each of them for me. She also got on the phone with the parish to the other one that didn't have a phone, and insisted that someone there get on their motorcycle that very second and go talk to the other parish and tell them about the meeting.

I got to Lokossa about 4 days later, when the meeting was scheduled. That morning it was rainy. This is a bad sign for a meeting, since people take motorcycles everywhere. It is just assumed that if there is rain that whatever it is gets cancelled. Thankfully, the rain let up, and the meeting proceeded. By about 1 hour into the scheduled time (I told everyone it would start at 10, but then I made 10-11 on my schedule "greetings and installation of participants") everyone was there, which turned out to be right on time for me. I had someone from each parsish. One parish, Com‚, brought about 15 people, despite receiving an invitation specifying to bring 3 at most. Two guys showed up from a parish that hadn't even been invited, and despite being told that the meeting did not in any way concern them, and that they would not get transport money, they stuck it out. We decided they could at least eat with us, for at least making an effort on behalf of Caritas.

The meeting itself was mostly me speaking in French before a large group. That was somewhat frightening. But I got over it, and I think most people figured out my accent and could understand me well enough. The meeting only got spirited towards the end, during a period I had set aside for making recommendations for changes to the way the project was set up. In fact, there were some quite good ideas, that I have since implemented. However, I also got a lot of requests for additional financing of the project. One of these requests I later granted, for additional transport money for the parishes, because they threatened to not do the project unless they got the cash. I still haven't figured out where this cash is coming from, but I guess this is one of the pitfalls of running a project that one learns about only by running one.

Anyway, the meeting went well, and the host parish fed us (the project bought the food, but basically we just called the parish a week in advance, told them about how many we were expecting, and how much we had, and they did the difficult work).

As a result of this meeting, I have a bunch of trips coming up. I am giving training sessions to the parish-level Caritas volunteers, who will then give training to the villagers who are getting stuff in our project. The training will be in how to manage whatever it is they are getting, so that it won't break down real quickly, or in certain cases so they can be sure to be able to make enough money from its operation to pay for repairs or replacement parts. The local parish workers will speak french, so they can understand me, and they speak the local language of the villagers, so this is the real reason why the trainings are taking place like this. But this is also useful to help make the trainings sustainable -- Caritas staff will now be capable of giving this sort of training, which can be useful for future projects.

Anyway, that was one big thing I accomplished recently.

After that, there was the swear-in ceremony for the new set of volunteers. They have been here training for the last three months, and they finally finished, and now they had a little ceremony like the one we had. I had a little bbq at my house the day of the event, since I live really close to the hotel they rented out for the event. The hotel is out of town about 10 km, and I am about 8 km further, but once you get out of town, traffic moves really quickly, so it isn't that far at all. As a result of the bbq, though, I showed up late to the swear-in, which by all accounts was a good idea, as the event was reported to be quite boring. Afterwards, they ran out of drinks quickly, and the food was a madhouse, with people literally being knocked over for the sake of appetizers (but they were tasty, and that made my conscience feel much better). Then we were trapped out in this hotel on the outskirts of town, and were not allowed to leave on our own because of security concerns (the hotel is located down a long, narrow, unlit road, about 3 km off the main highway, away from all civilization, and it was night-time). So that part wasn't too great either. Our swear-in was in town at the ambassador's residence, which was very nice, and then we could leave immediately after, as it was in town and taxi-motorcycles could be easily found.

Another group of new people is coming in at the end of this month -- they will be on the same schedule as I was when our group came. The people who just were sworn in are teachers, who will work in high schools teaching either english, math, or science; and foresters, who will work in really rural areas, teaching people about conservation, replanting of forests, and stuff like that (fire wood/charcoal is the number one cooking fuel in Africa, and as a result there is a lot of deforestation). The new group that is coming in soon will be rural community development and small business development volunteers, just like when my group came in.

Anyway, that is all for this installation. Hope everyone is well -- write me and tell me about it -- and I will try to get back to you soon, maybe after my trips.


#15 in the Series

28 Sep 1998

Hey you guys,

The new group of trainees is here now. There is a girl from Florida State who was in the same program as me. I was looking over the list of names and saw her name and I thought that it really could not be. But sure enough, when I saw the group for the first time, there she was. It was quite exciting. Oddly, she is not doing the same program as me -- she opted for the rural development program because she wanted to work in more of a village type setting. The rest of the group seems nice -- there are about 30 of them, 20 of whom are headed to Come, which will be just a huge spectacle. I am going to be teaching them in a couple of months -- every week of their training, a different volunteer is responsible for living with the trainees and helping teach their classes and being a counselor or whatever -- I got week 8, so that gives me some time.

The last I wrote I was getting ready for a couple of big trips for work. I went to Bohicon, Lokossa, Come, and Grand Popo. The trips were to give trainings to the Caritas parish volunteers who are now supposed to go out to the villages that are to receive the project I am working on and train them to manage it correctly. Basically, this means putting together a committee to run the project, which will then put together some procedures to raise and spend money, to set user fees in some cases, and to organize public works. This will involve simple accounting systems and a set of controls to make sure the important folks in the village don't bouffe all the money. (Bouffer: french verb meaning to gobble up).

So the first training was in Bohicon. There are two villages that are getting projects there -- one near to Bohicon itself (about 30 miles away, but because of the road, almost 2 hours drive when the road is passable, which it ain't now); and one way out in the middle of nowhere, near a place called Ouihni on the map. For each village, we invited three members of Caritas from the parish to come to be trained so they can go and train the actual village committees that get set up. These members of Caritas are basically volunteers for the church. Of the people at the Bohicon training, three were from Bohicon -- two retired school teachers, and a retired phone company person. The three people from the Sagon parish, on the other hand, were _the_ three literate, French-speaking, church-goers in the greater Sagon region, kids about my age. If you remember Clement talking about how younger people don't talk when older people are in the room (much like how women don't talk when men are in the room), well, it was true. It was almost impossible to pry information, or questions, or answers, or anything, out of these guys. But they did well enough on their written tests that we gave them every day, so I guess they learned the stuff we were teaching.

On the other hand, the old guys in the class were quite outspoken. A few guys at Come and Grand Popo got actually to the point of being rowdy and impolite, but the guys here were just like retired guys back home -- they reminded me of my grandpa a lot -- telling jokes, ribbing each other, and having fun, but also giving lectures to the younger guys and to us trainers.

I keep saying we -- I was teaching the classes with a guy from Caritas. He is Mr. Roger Dossou, our accountant. He was real helpful in talking about accounting and management, but he didn't know the project at all, and had the tendency to give out false information, which was kind of awkward in front of a group. My homologue, who would have given out just as much false information, but who doesn't know much of anything about accounting, is on vacation, so I went with Roger instead. They both are decent at interpreting my french, and translating it into Beninese french.

Anyway, the next set of trainings were to be held half in Come, half in Grand Popo -- we put the two parishes together, and they agreed to split the responsibilities for hosting the thing. (The responsibilities in question were: organizing a class room; and putting together a coffee break with the project money -- in Bohicon, the guys from way out in the woods had to be fed and housed as well, because they couldn't trek back and forth every day). I was somewhat appalled here that the priests in some places, most notably Grand Popo and Bohicon, took all the money they were offered even when they obviously did not use it all, while in other cases the money got reimbursed. The project mentality (somewhat similar to the projects mentality back home) has even made it to the church.

Anyway, in Come, the priest always likes to invite way more people than we say to invite. We had an organizational meeting in Lokossa not long ago, and asked him to invite 3 people, and he showed up with 12. This time, he was to bring 6 people -- three for each village in the parish that is part of the project. The first day of the training I thought there had to be some mistake -- the classroom was to contain 15 people (9 from Grand Popo along with the Come folks) and there were easily 50 people. Oddly, we managed to get a coffee break and feed all these people an actual substantial lunch and have money left over for both days of the training in Come. A lot of the extra folks were either villagers who just came along to see what was happening with the project, or just extra church members, who didn't really know what was going on, but who heard there was something and wanted to show. The second day, a lot of them didn't show up, because they knew a little more, and knew they were not really involved. And when the trainings moved to Grand Popo from Come, all the extras stopped coming, because the budget only gave transport to those who were invited.

Among the best of my students in this group was my host mom from my family in Come, a retired school teacher. Unlike most women here, she has the confidence to shout down a group of men and tell them that they are wrong and give them the right answer. While in Come, I also ate over at her house one night (she got a new Peace Corps trainee -- out of a new group that just came in -- so I went and met the new person and ate with them).

I had a lot of discussion with people about the issue of money in the project. The object of Peace Corps is to not provide money, but to provide technical expertise. The very fact that I identify myself as a Peace Corps volunteer and then have a money-bearing project is very very annoying to the volunteers who work in the same places as my project, because they find that people no longer wish to work with them on things if they can't get fed, or get transportation money, or whatever.

Caritas gave me the same lecture. Caritas has been having problems getting volunteers to work for free ever since they took on a project for the UNHCR for refugees from Togo some years back. The UN bought trucks and motorcycles, and passed out per diem and transportation and lodging money, and as a result, people no longer are so willing to work with them for no money. But Caritas itself, once the project money dries up, has no additional money to pass out.

Aside from having preachers bouffe the project money, I had participants ask for per diem when they were in their own home towns, participants asked for motorcycles, and the chief of a village asked if for the time when the young men of the village would be doing public works (clearing brush where the road they are getting will be put in) could possibly get US surplus food for their labor. On the other hand, I was taking per diem at CRS rates, far more than I would actually eat in day (far more than one could eat in a day in Come, a town without western-style sit-down restaurants), but far less than I would get if I were an actual development worker rather than a Peace Corps volunteer doing the job of one. My experiences here are showing me, though, what the real story is with development -- I am still not sure what my answer to this is, but at least I see the problem a little more clearly now.


#16 in the Series

4 December 1998

Hello everyone,

I know, a long time since the last letter like this. I guess that the longer I stay here, the less things appear to be new and different and worthy of being described in detail, and so the less I can think of to say to everyone. But I have a few stories anyway.

Since the last one of these, I have been working on my project quite a bit, and making some progress. I have also gone up to the north of Benin to Parakou for the general assembly meeting of Caritas. And I worked for two weeks in Come, where I did my training, with the new batch of trainees. There was also thanksgiving.

Anyway, concerning my work here, things are going well. The boss that I work with most of the time at CRS, a guy named Mr. Tingbo, is leaving. He is a Beninese guy, but his english is up to American standards from many long years working for an American outfit -- he eventually became the number 2 guy at CRS Benin, and since the director changes pretty regularly, he was really the go-to guy. Anyway, his leaving will be somewhat traumatic for everyone, just because he is a big mover and shaker, but his replacement is an American guy who also is really on the ball, so it shouldn't be too much of a transition. So I have been working a lot trying to get the new guy caught up on all that has transpired in my project so far. Mr. Tingbo is going to America to live now -- his wife works for the US embassy here, and after 20 years of service, you get citizenship -- their kids are in the states studying (in Iowa of all places) so they are moving there.

In the midst of this changeover, we got official word from the french (Secours Catholique France, which is really Caritas France) that they would fund the project. CRS is going to fund some of it, mostly the training and stuff, but all the actual big capital purchases like roads and the such are being bought by the french. I was just starting to get a little worried because we had been doing training and telling people that the project was coming soon, but we didn't have the money and the news from about 4 or 5 groups that we asked wasn't real encouraging. But then the french stepped up. They're good for about $250,000 -- which might not sound like a lot, but which will build bridges and roads and wells and stuff for 12 villages, as money goes a lot further here than back home.

So anyway, with that taken care of, I finished up my trainings. Now the people that I trained, who are volunteers who work for the church in the towns near the flood-prone villages, are going into these villages to train the local folks about management and stuff. I went along to a couple of those -- it was very neat to see people that I taught a class on how to teach management actually going into these villages and teaching other people about that without me having to set it up or be there or anything.

As soon as that all gets finished, we will start building stuff, hopefully even getting something off the ground this year, but more likely doing that shortly after the new year. I am trying to learn very quickly the finer points of writing contracts in Benin and sending out official letters and all of that, in order to get the engineers that we chose out there and working.

So that is how work is going.

Last month, (November) Caritas Benin had its "general assembly." That is where all the members get together and have their convention and vote on the leadership and do a few votes / discussion groups on policy and stuff like that.

It was held in Parakou, which is about halfway up Benin on the main highway. It is in fact the second biggest city here, after Cotonou.

My ride up to Parakou was with the Caritas vehicle. It was not a pleasant experience. I left my house at 6 so that I could be on a certain corner in Cotonou at 7 so that I could meet the Caritas car. The convention was just for a weekend, but I had a large bag, as I was going directly to Come afterwards to teach the new trainees. The car showed up for me around 8:15, and we ran some errands in town for a few hours, and so didn't really get out of Cotonou until 11 or so. We made a million little stops along the way, including one two-hour stop for a flat tire (we had to put the chauffeur into a taxi to go into a town to get the spare fixed, because it was also flat), and so we got to Parakou a little after 11 at night. The only benefit of our late arrival was that we missed a good deal of the program from the first day of the convention, in the form of long speeches by various dignitaries and church officials.

The only part of the general assembly that I really enjoyed, oddly enough, was mass. We has a lot of mass and prayer sessions to go to, whether one wanted to or not. We slept at a church center in dorm-type rooms and we woke up at 6 to the sound of a guy ringing a bell to wake us up -- morning prayers were from 7-8 each day. Mass was in the late morning, right before lunch. Mass was cool because there were about 20 priests at the thing, and 3 bishops, one of which being an arch-bishop. The chapel at the church center in Parakou was also nice, with more or less authentic-looking African christian art (many of the churches here are decorated with very european looking art and pictures).

I got a little time off the second day to go and explore Parakou, which was nice. I didn't get to see the landscape too much on my way up, because by the time we got to the north, it was already getting dark. But in the day, you could tell the difference. It was a lot dryer, and there was a lot of really really tall grass, of the type that one could easily imagine a lion hanging out and waiting in. The trees were also a lot fewer and further between than in the south. The people were also different. In Parakou, the local people are Bariba -- they are generally taller and thinner than the Fon and other southern peoples. Of course, since Parakou is such a big regional center, there were lots of Fon and other types of people in Parakou also. The market in Parakou was very nice -- I am used to the markets in the south, where people can be quite pushy in trying to get you to buy their stuff, and where quite often a trip to the market is not a pleasure. In Parakou, I could walk around and browse and ask people where certain products could be found in the market without feeling pressured to buy stuff. It was very pleasant. The evening of the second day I went to see the Peace Corps house in Parakou. It is the regional office of Peace Corps -- there is a house with a room to sleep, and a little office with a computer and some books and a phone. Most of the people were off at a Halloween party (one week late) but I ran into a few volunteers, and found a nice place to eat that wasn't too expensive.

The third day of the general assembly was the elections day for new officers. It was not well organized. We were supposed to wrap up the day by around 11, have mass, eat lunch, and get on the road by 1 or 2. Instead, mass hadn't even started by 2, when my car eventually left (thankfully, someone in the car had a meeting Monday morning, and we were allowed to leave a bit early). The president of Caritas got re-elected right before we left. The constitution of Caritas calls for officers to be eligible for 2 5-year terms, and then no more. Our president has done one 13-year term, and got re-elected for a second term, hopefully of only 5 years. He asked the people to vote for the person running against him, but the bishop in charge of Caritas made a speech endorsing him, and he won is a landslide. None of the other officers ran for re-election, mainly because they were all quite old after their 13-year terms, but the new people who were to replace them seemed quite dynamic. I had met a couple of them before, and heard the rest speak during the various debates during the assembly.

Anyway, we got out of there at that point. We stopped off at the market one more time to buy various stuff. I got some honey, which is produced in the north of benin and is very cheap and of good quality. Other people bought lots of ignames (yams) and a few vegetable things that I didn't know about. The ride home didn't take quite as long, but it still was night when we arrived in Cotonou.

I had been planning to go directly to Come that night, because I had to meet with this guy there to do lesson plans so I could start teaching the next day at 10:30. But with our schedule, I decided to stick in Cotonou that night and go to Come really early the next day.

So then I went and taught the new trainees. I did one week, then took one week back at work at Caritas, and then did one more week with them. This is a new peace corps system -- before, they just had volunteers come in for the day to teach certain lessons or do little round tables, and then leave. But they thought this year that it would be better to leave us there for 2 weeks so we could get to know the new people and they would feel more free to talk to us about what to expect and what to do and all that. I broke my two weeks up so I wouldn't miss too much work in a stretch.

Come was nice. The new group doesn't speak that great of french, but once they get stuck at their posts with no one to talk english to, it will pick up. They had just come from their posts, where they go for one week during the training to see their house, and to see their work sites, and all that. So we talked about that, and other stuff. There are two volunteers getting sent to Cotonou this next round, so that will be very exciting -- I will kind of have neighbors, and also some place other than the peace corps office to hang out if I go to Cotonou.

In Come I also got to see my host mother and to see the volunteers from Come. Tucker is the kid from Atlanta who came in at the same time as me. Unfortunately, he was gone most of the time I was there, as his uncle had come to visit from the states, and they were out touring around. But on the Saturday I was leaving my first week, I ran into him, as he was putting together a trip for his basketball team. One of his side projects is that he coaches the Come Bright Stars, a basketball team that he put together and runs. He got donated uniforms from his high school in the states, and they play in those and donated tennis shoes from Peace Corps volunteers. This was his teams first real test -- they had played other small-town teams in the area near Come, and killed them, since the other teams don't have the benefit of someone who knows strategies and stuff for basketball. But this was their first trip to an actual organized tournament in Cotonou. It was against a number of Cotonou teams, and was on a public court in Cotonou that got closed down so they could charge for admission. Tucker's star player is this great huge Nigerian guy from the refugee camp in Come, but he was disqualified, supposedly for age reasons (in fact, he is too big and too good for the other kids). They let Tucker play and he is the same age as this guy, but not so physically imposing. Tucker's team got killed by the much more street-smart kids from Cotonou. The scene was really a lot like something out of the states, with cool looking but somewhat menacing kids hanging out around the court, and a lot of trash-talking. Anyway, Tucker got in one of the papers for this, and is coming back to do some more tournaments this month.

The second week that I worked stage was thanksgiving week. This was very clever on my part, since the trainees and whoever is with them get invited to the directors house for thanksgiving dinner, while the volunteers have to have their own thing separate. My job was to get the trainees to Cotonou safely and to the dinner, and then to carve the turkeys (there were 3). This was definitely a great job. After dinner we watched the Macy's parade and football on the director's satellite hookup, and those of us who weren't so stuffed that they couldn't move helped clean up (I was not in this group). It was a really nice event.

After that, I went on the weekend to the volunteers thanksgiving. It was held in Save, which is on the road to Parakou, but a few hours south of it. The meal was at my friend Corey's house. They got a turkey, which Corey's neighbor killed and cleaned, and they cooked it on a spit over an open fire. Everyone had to bring something -- I made cole slaw. About 20 or so people came, and we ate very well. We all had to go around the table before eating and say what we were thankful for, so it was very homey. For a bunch of the people it was their first thanksgiving here (the new volunteers who got sworn in in September) and they were very sad to be here for it, but I guess that since we have been here longer, we were just grateful to be able to get together with everyone and eat, and didn't miss the back home celebrations as much. As much.

Anyway, that was that. I hope that everyone had a good thanksgiving -- I think I have one more over here, and then I'll be back. I am now back at my village, working, but I have one week of vacation coming up. I am planning on heading to the real north of Benin to see a friend of mine, in a town called Banikoura. I am not looking forward to the ride up or back, but I think it will be neat to see life way up there. This guy actually lives in a village some distance from Banikoura itself, so I will also get to see real village life up there. He does rural radio, so I will maybe get to check out his radio show -- he talks about public health, and agriculture, and gives out local announcements, and plays American music, and is apparently quite the local personality. I'll try to write and tell all about it. If I don't get a long letter out before then, thanks everyone for the Thanksgiving and birthday wishes, and Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.


#17 in the Series

26 December 1998

Hey Everybody,

This is yet another in a long line of letters to everybody. Since I last wrote I had my birthday and a vacation and Christmas, and now the new year is coming up. So this will be a merry christmas and happy new year letter too.

So my project is moving along really quickly right now -- it appears that in January there might actually be some moving around of money and some construction, so naturally I have been trying to get a lot of details taken care of for that. I had scheduled a two-week vacation in the beginning of December, but it looked like it wasn't going to work out in terms of my schedule, but I took one week anyway, because I really needed some break.

I went up to Banikoura, a town way up in the north of Benin, to visit two friends who are posted up there. The ride up to there was miserable. It is about as far as one can go in Benin and still be in the country, and the road for the last 50 or so miles in unpaved and rough going. It took the entire day and well into the evening to get there, and going back was the same story (I went to get a taxi by 8, actually left the town by 11, got to the town where you switch taxis by 7, and got going again by 11, and arrived in Cotonou about 4 AM). So it was really a long and uncomfortable ride.

But once you got there, it was really nice. I had been up to the beginning of the north once before, but this was the first time I got to the way up north. The land changes a lot -- it becomes a lot browner and dryer, and instead of trees, there is lots of savanna-type land. The crops also change -- you get millet and sorghum and yams instead of corn and manioc down south. The houses of the people change too -- I guess the people in general are a lot different. There were lots of Fulani, or Peulh, people, who are cattle herding people who are spread all across the dry parts of West Africa. They have their own villages, and have round mud huts instead of square ones, and are an eccentric people. The men wear earrings, they have lots of tattoos, they wear deep blue colored outfits most of the time, and some of them have mohawks. The other people up north are Bariba people. They are the biggest ethnic group in the north, along with the Dendi people, but in Banikoura and most of that region, there were mostly Bariba people. They are a lot darker and taller than the Fon and the people like that who live in the south, and their language is a lot different. I felt like the people up north were quite a bit more laid back than the people in the south also, but I am practically in Cotonou, the big city, where people are bound to be a bit less civil.

I went with Bill, a guy who joined at the same time as me, and does rural community development work, and followed him on his work, since he hadn't been forewarned of this vacation (mail is a bit slow up there). It was cool. He is doing a tree contest with a rural public radio station that he works a lot with. He has a little show once a week, and he plays music but also gives out information and discusses cultural matters, and now runs a reforestation project. The plan is that people can buy trees at wholesale prices from bill, and then he got some sponsors to donate some stuff for prizes, and whoever plants and maintains their trees the best over the period of the contest can get the prizes. We rode around his town to beg for sponsorship at the local cotton factory, the biggest thing in the whole town. (Cotton is the main economy up there). We went and talked to people about trees and stuff.

We hung out with this guy called Waga, Bill's local collaborator, who is going to run the trees project next year. Bill and Waga are very funny to see together, because Bill is about 6'4 or 6'5 and big, and Waga is just about the same size, and they are an intimidating pair going around. People call Bill "baturi geant," meaning giant white guy, as kind of a title of respect. Later, we all rode out to this village way out in the middle of nowhere where we were supposed to be meeting with some people to talk about their trees. But there was a ceremony, so no one was around. Bill rescheduled. We also went to the radio station and I recorded a 30 minute show on rap, and played some rap songs and answered questions about rap asked by the technical guys at the station. I am going on air in early January. That was a lot of fun.

I stayed at the expansive house of the other volunteer in Banikoura, Erin, who teaches english at the high school. She was in the most recent group of new volunteers (well, now there are another new set who just swore in exactly one year after me, so she is the second-most new). Bill doesn't live in Banikoura itself, but in a little village about 10 km outside of there. We went one day for a wedding -- this guy was taking a second wife, and had a big party for everyone, and we ate and drank with them -- but we stayed in town at Erins, as she had plenty of space. His actual house is mud and small, and currently the main room is entirely full of cotton, because Bill lets his neighbors store their harvest there.

So Banikoura was really nice, and I will try to get back some time when I can stay longer. It is the place to enter the national parks from, so maybe some time I will take a park trip up there. I came back early for the swear-in of new volunteers, for those who are one year after me. It was like ours, at the new ambassador's house (he speaks french decently, unlike the last one) and it was nice.

Then I was working up until Christmas eve. I was out in a village when we bombed Iraq, and didn't hear about it for another week or so. I have been signing contracts for my project, and making last-minute trainings and preparations, which has been stressful but still good.

On Christmas eve, there was a thing out at Caritas for poor kids to have a little christmas party. It was nice, but for the kids, so we worked and just went and joined them for a short while. Then we got to go home early. I went to Cotonou to call home, and then went back to my village to celebrate. In my village there was a big party for the Christianistes Celestes, a sort of hybrid christian/voodoo church from my part of Benin that has been very successful. At Christmas, they all gather on the beach by my house to have a big revival and party. In my actual village, where I spent the evening, people cut bamboo and made it into torches about 5 feet tall or so, and placed them all over the village, and they light them for Christmas eve and New Years eve. It was very pretty to walk about in. I went to friends houses and spent the evening that way.

Well, that brings us up to date. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, and I'll write more later.


#18 in the Series

30 July 1999

Hello everyone,

This letter is very long, at least date-wise, from the most recent of these letters, and for that I apologize. I should probably be making more of an effort to keep people back home up to date on what I am up to, but recently I have been busy enough that out-of-sight, out-of-mind has been the rule, at least when it comes to taking a good amount of time out and really working on writing a good letter.

However, I was goaded into writing by my father the last time I spoke to him on the phone, and when I sat and reflected on it, I figured that I should just go ahead and sit down and get out a bunch of my ideas.

I guess another aspect of why I haven't written for so long, or at least an excuse that I use to justify this to myself, is that nothing much happens to me anymore. At the beginning, when I first started sending these letters out, and later when they started appearing on the web so that everyone could see them, I kind of saw this as an extension of the third goal of the Peace Corps, which is in bringing the experiences we are having out in the world back home to the US so that people can learn something about a different culture. But unfortunately, things aren't so exciting and new to me as they used to be, but rather what once seemed exotic now seems routine, and so doesn't seem so newsworthy. But as my father said, "you don't have to say you rode on an elephant" -- that even more ordinary things I have to say might be of interest at least to friends and family. So here goes.

Well, when I get to thinking about it, a lot has actually happened since last time I wrote one of these. I guess one advantage of waiting a long time between letters is that even if it seems like not much is happening, when you look back on it a lot has. The main things of interest were of course two sets of visiters that I had -- my good friend Travis from college in March, and my mom and brother at the end of April and early May. I will just describe that quickly, since there are pictures and possibly even other commentary on those trips; also, my project is coming along pretty well, so I will talk about that (there are also pictures of that); finally, my dad suggested I share my thoughts on my future plans / career options, something I have been thinking a whole lot about and which I talked over with my family when they were here and my dad over the phone. Also, just because it is one of my biggest backside-pains right now, I will talk about the rainy season and the road project in front of my house.

Well, the two trips. First of all Travis came and visited me. He is a going-on third year law student at UVA, and lived with me for 3 years of college -- freshman year we were randomly assigned, and the other years, oddly enough, we chose to live together. I also lived with Travis and some other folks for the summer after grad school and before Peace Corps. I never much liked the kid.

Anyway, Travis came for his spring break -- not a long time to take a trip to Africa. But 2nd year law students, especially those who like Travis aspire to do decently, don't have a lot of time to go on vacation. Despite the time constraints, however, we managed to squeeze a lot into the trip. Immediately upon his arrival, Travis started eating African food with his right hand, travelling two-to-one-seat in derelict Peugot bush taxis, and sleeping on the floor -- all part of life for Peace Corps people that we get broken into slowly during our training process. This, however, was Travis's vacation, and he got thrown right into it.

I think on our third day, with something of a hangover, Travis and I and Tucker (another Peace Corps volunteer) and Katy (a Fulbright student who is Tucker's girlfriend) and a bunch of their friends from back home -- as it turns out from Atlanta, including this guy Nathan Bolster that I went to preschool with -- all loaded up into a bush taxi and rode about 15 hours north to Nattitingou, to go and see the game park up there.

We saw a good number of animals, including hippos, monkeys and baboons, antelopes, various types of birds, warthogs, and other stuff. The highlight was that we saw a family of elephants and followed them for a good while. So that was a good time.

We also went and saw a very small village called Niarroson where Anna, a forestry volunteer, was posted at the time (she has since gone back home to Atlanta). This was just a very cool place way out there, and was very nice since Anna knew everyone and we got to basically have the run of the village. We also sat with Anna's dad (who was there visiting at the time) and drank a goodly quantity of tchouk, the local millet beer. We also saw some waterfalls that were up there, and went swimming / diving in them. Check out the pictures.

We then headed south, leaving the Tucker/Katy party behind -- they were travelling a different route home, through Ghana. We stopped off in Abomey on the way south to see the Fon palace and all the mean nasty things that the old Fon kings used to do the Yoruba and other kings back in the old days (the official highlight is the actual throne used by one of the kings which rests on the skulls of four Yoruba chiefs with whom he had a disagreement; but I prefer these bas-reliefs that have been restored which depict in a graphic way some creative ways of killing folks which were sent to enemies and then later some military folks were sent over to make good on the threat).

We then came back south and spent the balance of the time visiting Ganvie, the lake city; my village; Porto-Novo; and Cotonou. My village finally managed to get Travis sick, even though all the travel and unfamiliar food and whatnot before that did not manage to do the trick. It also got me sick at the same time, though, so it had to have been a pretty strong strain of illness. Anyway, we got over it, and Travis got back to law school just about on time.

Well, pretty soon later, my mom and brother came to visit. They had a little more time -- almost two weeks -- but we followed a fairly similar schedule. We did the national parks and the waterfalls up north -- unfortunately we saw no small villages up there as we had no Peace Corps person to guide us to one. For animals, we saw all the same stuff as the last time, except no elephants. But we did see buffalo -- a fairly large group of them up close. They are pretty big suckers too. We also went to see Grand Popo and saw the beach and ate lunch in Come at the family where I lived for training, none of which I did with Travis, and that we didn't really get to do last year when mom and dad came (we went to G.P. to eat and it got dad sick the next day, when we had planned to go and see the beach and see my host-family). Then we went and saw one of the villages where my project is -- it is a footbridge over a river. So we looked at the construction area, and then a guy from the village who is on the management committee for the project took us around the village and showed us the sites.

We spent a lot of time in my village as well on this trip -- unlike when mom and dad came. (My brother is somewhat tougher than my dad when it comes to things like no a/c or hot water and a broken toilet). That meant we got a lot more local culture stuff, like sitting around and greeting people, and eating African food. I think they both, and my brother in particular, were bored stiff at sitting around greeting people, which is a great pastime for Africans -- the fact that it was in french and that they didn't know the people I'm sure didn't make it any more fun. In any case, they both seemed to like the food a good deal, and my brother seemed to have liked the sodabi fairly well. In fact, people in my village still refer to a really big cup of sodabi as a John-Marc size cup if we are sitting having a drink at my house.

During their trip, and partly as a result of some talks I had with Travis while he was here, and in large part because of some really serious thought that I have been giving to things, I talked over my future plans with my mom and brother, and then later with my dad on the phone.

So I guess I'll give you a little taste of that. At the time, I was kind of torn -- I wanted with one part of me to stay in the Peace Corps a little while longer at least, if not for a whole year, and see my project completed; I also want to get a job in international development and get started in my career. At this point, I've pretty much decided to only stay a little while longer in the Peace Corps -- maybe until the end of next April or early May -- in order to finish off my project. I thought I might want to stay longer to see about starting a new project and to learn some needs assessment methods that get used at the beginning of a project that were done for my project before I got here, but I think I am going to let that go for a number of reasons. At any rate, I guess the big thing to my family was what comes after.

Right now, I am interested and started looking for a job in international development or relief. In fact, to begin with, I would probably prefer relief -- which is provision of emergency assistance to people in bad situations like disastors or war, as opposed to development, which is helping in normal situations of poverty. In the long run, what I studies at Florida State at the planning program could serve me for any number of careers, but is best suited for international planning work. I figure that overseas is where I could therefore work for something that I consider to be just and put my skills to good work. At the same time, I am not considering staying gone forever -- maybe just for four or five years, or maybe longer. My main obstacle is personal, because I would one day like to have a family and raising a family overseas seems awfully difficult and would deprive my kids of being in the American cultural context (I know some of you would probably say that is a good thing, but I'm still not so sure . . .).

Anyway, that's the scoop on that. Of course, I'll be able to come home and visit if I have a real job over here, so I won't be so isolated as I am now. I might even one day get reliable e-mail or a phone or something like that.

OK, so my final topic is my river in front of my house. I mean my road. I will try to send home a picture of it after a good rain. It is the main trans-West African highway, running from Abidjan to Lagos. In Benin, it runs from Cotonou towards the capital city of Porto-Novo and the border with Nigeria. At some places, if there was no traffic I could lay down and put my toes in the dirt on one side and my fingers in the dirt on the other side (of course, nowadays I'd drown if I tried that stunt instead of just being run over).

The authorities here are working on redoing this road, making it into a four-lane divided highway. However, they neglected to think of any form or drainage for the current road. So in what used to be the ditch on one side of the road they are building up another road, which drains down into - - - the road that people use. On the other side are some train tracks which are also built up, so water can't escape. It would be pretty amusing if I didn't have to go through it to get to work on occasion.

Anyway, right now the first rainy season is almost over, and we will have a dry month of August hopefully, which will be good for the construction on my project, and will be good to give these jokers building the road in front of my house some time to maybe install some gutters or something. At any rate, I'll try to keep you updated on it.

Thats the good word from here.


#19 in the Series

24 September 1999

Hello everyone,

This is once again an open letter to be posted on the net and copied and sent around to non-net folks. The typical caveat will open the letter: sorry these don't come out more frequently, and sorry there isn't too much new and interesting stuff to relate to you. That said, I'll tell you what's been going on these past couple of months.

Well, the biggest thing going on here hasn't even happened yet: all the people I came over with are going home. And I'm not -- at least, not yet. We had a big conference that brought together all the folks that I came over on the airplane with from Washington back in September of 1997, probably for the first time since we finished training (some of the people got sent off to places that are as far away as one can be and still be in Benin, and so it was very cool to get to see them again, since I hadn't seen them at all for the past couple of years -- the others, some I see all the time, and others I see rarely, but never all at once). The conference was held at the luxurious Hotel du Lac, featuring air conditioned rooms, TVs with CNN (in English!) and a couple of French cable channels, a pool, and a pizza restaurant. It was the reward for those of us who made it. Out of our original group that came of 29, I can think of 3 people who left fairly early on (including unfortunately the best friend that I have made in this country), one who got kicked out for not wearing his helmet (but stayed -- next story) and one person who just recently left due to family reasons. That's a pretty good proportion -- most groups lose a lot more (in Togo, they have about a 2/3 attrition rate overall, so we must be doing pretty well).

So our motley crew of survivors got together for three days of conference. The Peace Corps told us all types of logistical things, like what medical things we have to do before we leave, how we get our plane tickets home, how long insurance covers us after we get home, etc etc. Then they brought in various folks to tell us other things. There is a current Peace Corps guy (in his third year now) who used to work for Morgan Stanley or some other great big investment bank type of thing; he and our Peace Corps director, who used to be a professor at the School for International Training (SIT) in Vermont came and told us about writing resumes and trying to get a job, and about getting into grad school, and other stuff. Then they had three former Peace Corps volunteers come and tell us about readjusting to life back in the states, and reverse culture shock, and about what their experiences were. They were a skewed, screwed up group, though, because they were the three former PCVs that one could find in Benin. So they were the ones who found life back in the States so intolerable that they moved back overseas! One worked for the embassy, one worked for USAID, and one worked for a private non-profit that tries to get folks here to use birth control (a tough sell at best). It was a pretty hilarious session, with them relating misadventures of their lives back home, with bad jobs, small apartments, too many bills to pay, etc etc, culminating in them coming here. It was not so useful for most folks except me, however, because I am the only person who is pretty sure to come back to Africa to work (a few others are considering it).

The guy who works for the Prudence condom project (Population Services International is the name of the outfit, but Prudence is the name that everyone in Benin knows) was especially funny -- he seemed to be a bitter man. He was in the Peace Corps in the former Zaire for five years -- in itself a ridiculous feat -- and he was just was not suited to life in DC. He said that almost everyone who works for the Environmental Protection Agency in DC is a former PCV, since RPCVs get special privileges in getting government jobs and apparently prefer the EPA, and so he did too and hated it. Then he got married and hated that (although he never said he was divorced -- he might still even be with the woman over here, but just bitter about it). Then he went somewhere else and hated that. Then he came here, and apparently hates it. Then when the other two were talking, he would contradict them, or just throw in snide asides. I think maybe he just got up on the wrong side of the bed that morning, but it was hard to say. During the question and answer session, I asked the least tactful question: what do y'all make (not in those words, but the idea was there). I was pretty proud of myself for asking that. The Peace Corps invited them to lunch with us afterwards, and none of them took it up.

After the conference, pretty much everyone went to Grand Popo to go to the beach for two more days, just to kind of wind down their service. We went to a place called Awali Plage, where I stayed with my mom and brother on their recent trip here, and went swimming and played football and volleyball and so forth and generally had a good time.

But all of it was also kind of sad, because everyone is getting ready to leave and go their separate ways. I am staying for a while longer, along with one other person, and another guy is staying an extra year (the good news is that I am coming home for Christmas -- thanks mom and dad -- so I will get a little break from work before coming back to finish up). Everyone else is leaving between October and December. I think the hardest part of my service will be the four months or so after everyone else has left and I've come back, just because the people you do your training with are the closest ones to you. But then I suppose that if I get a job working overseas afterwards, I'll have a lot fewer American friends than I do in Peace Corps, so maybe this will be a good intermediate point.

Anyway, right after that, my friend Bill left. He also came in at the same time as us, but got kicked out of the Peace Corps for riding a motorcycle without a helmet (actually, for admitting to riding a motorcycle without a helmet -- a key difference). At any rate, I probably already related some of his story. He stayed on, with the invitation of a bunch of folks from his village including the king, the sous-prefet (the local government authority for county-size regions), the director of the local radio station, and some other folks. He was working on a re-forestation project -- he lived in the north of Benin, which is turning from savanna and park-land to sahel, and needs trees to at least slow the progress of the desert. So he stayed to make sure that the project would work, and that it would become an organization that would continue to function in his absence. I don't know if he quite succeeded in goal two, but he achieved goal one, to finish the next year's worth of tree planting, thereby exhausting all his financial resources.

So he was on his way out, and stopped by my place with a buddy of his from the village and his Beninese girlfriend. We wanted to do something a little unusual so we had a cook-out featuring a variety of meat not normally consumed in the US, although sometimes associated with China. The rest of this story has been removed for reasons of taste (although the taste was quite good).

Then the next day, we had leftovers and sodabi for breakfast at 8 AM -- another Beninese habit that just wouldn't fly over in the states -- and then they all took off for the airport in Togo, from where the cheapest flight was leaving. (Peace Corps didn't even let Bill hold his one free flight home until after he finished his work -- they said he could leave immediately with the Peace Corps ticket or he could make his own way home -- a fact that makes me lose some respect for our country director, who had the choice to do so). Bill is probably now back in Utah, working and trying to get himself out of the financial hole that he dug for himself. His father is running for mayor of Salt Lake City, although I don't have any news on how thats going for him.

I guess I have one pretty interesting story that was told me recently. It is about how my village got its name, and how the language that is spoken there came to be. As it turns out, my village is in a zone where Gun is the main language (pronounced goon). It is very similar to Fon, the majority language of the south of Benin (and the largest language group in the country). However, the language of my village and the two villages next to it is Xola (pronounced Hola). Since I speak neither acceptable Gun nor Xola, I never distinguished between the two, and always assumed Xola to be a subset of Gun. As it turns out, people who speak Gun can't understand Xola, whereas most people who speak Xola are forced to also speak Gun or Fon, because it is the majority language group around us. To further complicate things, the people in my village don't speak actual Xola, but a subset of it used in traditional religious ceremonies.

But I am getting ahead of the story. I was sitting and chatting with a good friend in the village, and I told him how I had recently found out that town names and person names in Benin all have a meaning, except for imported names. I vaguely had this sense before, but it was never confirmed. Then an employee of Peace Corps (a Beninese guy) asked me if I lived in a village called Condji, and I told him no, my village was called Podji, and he said that the two mean the same thing (Condji in Mina is Podji in Fon and Gun) and that was why he was confused. They mean high place. I asked my friend in the village if this was true, and he confirmed it. Our actual village is Podji-Agueh, meaning high place where there is no water -- the village behind mine is just plain Podji, and is surrounded by swamps, so this makes sense.

The next village over is Djeffa, which means something on the order of place where we found safety -- this intrigued me, and led into the story about the Xola people. It turns out that the Xola people are actually related to the Mina people of the west side of Benin. However, the founder of Djeffa, which eventually led to the establishment of Podji, Podji-Agueh, and one other village, came over from the Xola area under some duress. He was a travelling Yoruba guy from Nigeria who ended up over in Xola country, and was taken in by this family. The family happened to be the family of the local voudoun fetish priest. He lived with them, but never became a member of their religion (an initiate into their sect, in the parlance). As a non-initiate, he was supposed to stay away from the voudounsi, the women who were adepts of the particular voudoun worshipped in the area.

There is one more complication in the story. Apparently, there are two versions of most languages here -- one which is spoken by regular people, and one which is spoken only by adepts of the voudoun faith and by initiates into the sects during certain ceremonies. (An adept would live in the fetish house and speak only the other version, while the initiates are just regular people who worship this faith and use both versions of the language). From what I understand, the voudoun version of a language is a sort of extra-complicated Pig Latin treatment of the language -- certain syllables reverse themselves, vowels change around, etc. You would have to know the code to understand, but if you were from there, it would be easy enough to do. Also, it is considered somewhat gauche at the least to use the voudoun version of the language except in certain religious contexts.

All that said, the founder falls in love with a voudounsi, and the fetish priest gets mad and wants to kill them both, and so off they run to over here. The problem is that the girl has lived her whole life in the sect, and speaks nothing but the voudoun version of the Xola language, so that is what the two speak. So even nowadays, some several hundred years later, the language spoken in my village and two or three others is the same as that spoken in the fetish temples of a region several ethnic groups (but fewer than 100 miles) away. The story was particularly interesting because my friend who told me the story comes not from here, but originally from the main stock of Xola people. He has been here long enough, however, that when he goes home he was to really watch himself to make sure he isn't using the forbidden version of the language to talk to folks.

Anyway, that was a story about my village that I had never heard until just recently. Other than that, my project is trucking along. Some stuff is finished, some stuff is on hold for the next dry season (around December or January, hopefully) and some is waiting for Caritas France to send us some cash to get started (hopefully also around December or January). I have had some conflicts in the villages, over whose palm trees get cut down to build the road in a certain direction, or whether the guard rails on the bridges should be placed here or there, but nothing too major. The biggest pain in the backside has been the end of the fiscal year, the end of this month, which has meant that I have had to get all the financial stuff for my project together and justify all the expenditures and present all the receipts and so forth to CRS by the 15th of September, which somehow I did. Now we are back on track, finances-wise, and I am catching up on writing reports and calling folks and visiting villages that I neglected the first half of the month.

I have made some progress on my job search situation -- I have pretty much decided to go to work for CRS, CARE, Africare, or maybe the Red Cross or the UN. I want to work for some large international organization, and one that doesn't just specialize in one aspect of development like health or education but does lots of different types of things (that's why the Red Cross is a maybe rather than a sure possibility) and one that doesn't have some objectionable moral groundwork on which it is standing (ruling out the embassy or USAID, and putting the UN on the maybe list). CRS has some less than purely humanitarian motives behind it -- the teachings of the Catholic Church -- but they are reasons with which I agree, even if I am irked sometimes to be imposed upon working directly for the Catholic Church at Caritas. CRS is sufficiently apart from the church, and doesn't try to proselytize, and I really like the humanitarian teachings of the church. CARE and Africare are based only on humanitarian and development principles, so I like them also. Other big non-specialist organizations tend to be run by the other churches (the Baptists, the Methodists, the Lutherans, the Quakers, and a couple of Jewish and Islamic organizations are the ones I have found out about so far). I still haven't decided if I really want to work in a "high-stress" zone like Bosnia or central Africa, or just in a poor country like Benin. Never having really seen the former, its hard to say. I guess that choice will be made by what job openings there are at the various places I would work for around July or so of 2000, when I will be ready to hit the road again. I've been getting some copies of job listings in CRS, and it seems that jobs are opening up all over all the time, and I am pretty well qualified to do them I think, so it might well just be a question of timing.

Well, that's the good word from here. Send me an e-mail or a letter or something if you get a chance, and even if I don't respond to it in what seems a reasonable delay to you American folks, I'll try to get to it eventually. Quick story -- a guy in my village has been telling me about his French pen pal for some time, with whom he is in (in his mind) fairly constant communication. Then one day I was at his house and he happened to show me his most recent letter from her, that he is planning "soon" to respond to -- it was dated 1986. I'll try not to be that late.


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