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Who’s Got a Voodoo Boo-Boo, You Do?!

So a few days ago I get a call from a volunteer nearby, who explains that she needs my help with a voodoo curse. One night a little while ago she had asked her neighbor to keep down the noise. This neighbor was impressed with neither her temerity nor her gumption and thus put a curse on her. In local parlance “curse” is “gree-gree” and, though it sounds silly, is taken pretty seriously. So, her boss insisted that she deal with the curse in the local fashion, by visiting a healer (one might call him a “shaman” if one were so inclined). This volunteer lives in a city, so we need to go en brousse a ways to find someone to perform the ceremony. She and I pile in her boss’s car and head down a dirt path for twenty minutes until we arrive at a little house in the middle of nowhere with lots of kids and goats running around.

The room is, in brief, exactly what is in your head when you imagine “voodoo.” In the corner is a statue that has had dark red palm oil (please please let it be red palm oil) poured all over it. Little relics abound, as do small gourds containing different powders and concoctions. I can see why she has asked me along. Someone explains that this process usually involves the sacrificing of a chicken, though (perhaps out of deference to Western sensibilities, perhaps out of having forgotten to buy a chicken) they will skip that step in this case.

The ceremony begins with scarification. A woman (the healer’s wife? Sister?) makes a small cut on the volunteer’s chest, sides, and back with a fresh razor blade. She then rubs black ash in the cuts, turning them into little tattoos that will protect her from curses. The healer then pours out a gourd of ground black pepper (how do I know that it’s black pepper, you ask? Well, dear reader, keep reading) and makes the symbols of “fa” in it. Fa is a string of cowrie shells, the position of which when thrown on the ground, can tell the nature of curses and other questions pertaining to voodoo. The healer makes a configuration with his fingers, erases it, then makes another. He does this until he has made all possible fa configurations, then collects the pepper back into the gourd, pouring a little bit into everyone’s outstretched hands (including yours truly). We then lick up the pepper in our hands, which is supposed to give us happiness and, of course, protect us from bad spirits. The healer also gives her a bottle of perfume containing special plants, which he insists that we all spray over our left hands (and persists for many, many headachy hours). She gets a little patty (for that is the only shape word that comes to mind) of smelly brown soap with a couple of cowrie shells imbedded in it. She is supposed to wash with this once a week, which will give happiness and, of course, protect her from bad spirits. She gets a little leather pouch that, if sprayed with the special perfume, will give happiness and, of course, protect from bad spirits. We interrupt the voodoo ceremony that is going on in the next room so the healer can give us a little tour (translated by the volunteer’s boss), and then we’re out of there, clear of all curses.

This is the kind of thing that’s not going to happen to me once I move back to the US.

For your visual enjoyment:

A Successful Voodoo Ceremony

Spirit Tools

The next day, we went to visit a famous site in her town: a sacred pile of trash. As far as I know, it is the only sacred pile of trash in existence, though if any of you know of any other blessed refuse receptacles I’d be very interested to hear about them. There are two stories about the pile. The first is that there was a good sorceress who informed the community that the only way that her protection would continue after she was dead was if she was buried under a lot of trash. The other story is that there was an evil sorceress who is buried under a lot of trash to keep her evil power at bay. You may decide for yourself, dear reader.

A Sacred Trash Pile

In mind-boggling  news: this will probably be my last dispatch from Benin, as we are rapidly careening toward my Close-of-Service. It has been a long, strange trip with highs (scores of little children racing down the road to hug me) and lows (food poisoning in Parakou), palm trees and pâte, really hot days and really hot days, one particularly bad sunburn, a few mosquito nets installed, and a few lives (including mine) changed.

Not making any promises, but I may become inspired to write a post once I get back to the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave. After many, many pizzas. And root beer! Why can’t you find root beer anywhere else but the States? I mean, you’d think. That stuff is delicious! If you can find a Sprite in the tiniest of African villages you should be able to get a Barq’s in Cotonou, right? It’s got an international airport, after all!

Donc, on se dit à tout moment.  Eyi zahnday.

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Camp Avenir

Well, folks, it’s that time of year again. When kids head off on summer vacation, little sisters graduate from college, and we all celebrate the birthday of the US of A. And over here in Peace Corps land we bring kids to camp. Last summer I worked as a counselor at the southern regional boys’ camp in Ouidah and at a local girls’ camp in a nearby city called Bohicon. This year, I will again serve as a counselor (and camp nurse) at the boys’ camp in Ouidah and at a girls’ camp in a city called Savalou. But to commemorate the fact that I will be finishing my service in a few months (more on that later), I decided to organize my very own camp in Zagnanado, which happened last week.

Most of the girls’ camps in Benin use the global Peace Corps girls’ camp name of GLOW (Girls Leading Our World). Now some of you may notice that this lovely acronym is in English. Indeed, it is. And you would be correct in asserting that Benin is not an English-speaking country. You would also be correct that the French version (Filles guidant notre monde) doesn’t leave us with a lovely acronym, which would be why all Peace Corps countries have adopted GLOW. And yes, you’d be correct in assuming that the boys’ version would be BLOW, though that has fallen out of favor recently for some reason (this year the boys’ camp is called BRO, Boys Respecting Others).

All of this is to say that I decided to skirt tradition by calling my camp something in French: Camp Avenir (Camp Future). The general idea was to spend a week with the girls with the best grades in the Beninese equivalents of 6th and 7th grade at the secondary school in Zagnanado – the one where I had my English Club and AIDS-free Youth event, etc – to get them to start thinking about their future and to give them the information necessary to succeed. Lofty, yes.

I lucked out for a few reasons. First of all, I am really close with the administration of the school, so they helped me out a lot. Second of all, the mayor’s office agreed to fund almost the entire camp. Third of all, I had some really great Peace Corps volunteers come to organize the camp with me. We split up most of the sessions, with volunteers talking about things like malaria, nutrition, study skills, sexual harassment, possible career options, HIV, self-esteem, healthy relationships, etc. The three women volunteers (along with Estelle, the 12th grader who is also on the Zagnanado Amour et Vie peer education team and who volunteered to help me out throughout the week) gave a session on sex ed – something that is not really a part of a Beninese education. I included this session after a girl at last year’s camp in Bohicon told me that her sister got pregnant from using someone else’s towel. We also had some Beninese guest speakers. Gisele, the woman who is in charge of training at the Peace Corps and who is from my town, came to speak about her experience being harassed at school and about how she succeeded in life. A friend from Bohicon came to speak about Moringa, a plant that grows all over here and can be used to add key nutrients to otherwise simple food. The director of the social services center in Zagnanado came to speak about the rights of girls and women in Benin and about the interventions the center offers. And my neighbor came to speak about how a professional woman can balance the responsibilities of home life with having a full-time job.

Also, we taught them games like 7-Up and Four Corners and had Arts and Crafts sessions and a daily match of soccer.

It was an awesome time, and I think it really succeeded. The girls were all bummed that it couldn’t last more than a week. And the only snag the whole time was that the water in the school was cut so we had to send girls and volunteers to pull water from a neighbor’s well all week. The camp slogan was “L’avenir, c’est moi!” and the girls were chanting it all week long.

In other news: A couple of weeks ago we held the National English Spelling Bee up in Natitingou. Actually, it may turn out that this is the last time I will head up north before leaving Benin. The trip was pretty painless, a whole crew of volunteers and their kids took the bus up – meaning that everyone got their own seat, quite a novelty in African transport. Alas, neither of the kids from Team Zagnanado placed in the top 3. Although the boy who did win was one of my campers at boys’ camp last summer, so I will take all of the credit for his victory. At least they got to see a totally different part of the country. In the case of my boy, it was the first time he had ever left Zagnanado in his life.

Breaking News: PCV Geoff Guenther has booked his return flight to the United States. Mark your calendars for September 24, 2013. Mr. President, if you’re reading (and let’s face it, you probably are) you might want to consider declaring a national holiday.

PHOTOS:

Team Zagnanado studying on the bus to the National English Spelling Bee:

Team Zagnanado 2013

The Bee winner, a kid that was in my group at boys’ camp last summer:

Number 1!

The Peace Corps Director of Training came to speak on Day 1 of Camp Avenir Zagnanado:

Guest Speaker Day 1

A camper shows us all how to wash our hands:

Hand Washing

Americans really know how to brush their teeth:

Americans with Good Dental Hygiene

Apparently I gesticulate wildly when speaking French – who knew?:

The King of Hand Gestures

A rousing game of Red Light, Green Light (every single camper cheated!):

Red Light, Green Light

The whole Camp Avenir crew:

The Whole Camp Avenir Crew

Zagnanado – A Walking Tour

Alright ladies and gentlemen. Gather around, please. We’re about to begin the tour. Okay, here we go. Of course, where else would we begin but Chez Geoff (who totally didn’t clean up most of the squalor just before taking these photos!)? We’ve got a lovely little two-room house, here. There’s the living room:

Tour 1 - Living RoomTour 2 - Living RoomTour 3 - Living Room

And the bedroom:

Tour 4 - Bedroom

And the “kitchen” (really just the walled-in backyard):

Tour 5 - Kitchen

Moving right along, we walk out the front door and, well, there’s a huge pile of charcoal.

Tour 6 - Pile of Charcoal

All for the President of the NGO Geoff is installed with. But if you look a little to the right you can see the rest of the yard:

Tour 7 - Yard

Yes, it is now a construction zone. They’re building an orphanage right there in the yard. The Toyota belongs to the NGO President. A little bit farther to the right and we can appreciate Geoff’s porch, which he shares with the NGO President (when he is not at his real home in Porto-Novo) and the family of the principal of the private primary/secondary school that is also run by the NGO.

Tour 8 - Porch

Speaking of the school, just walk a little bit farther along the porch and:

Tour 9 - School

We’re going to head up to the top floor now, just to get a nice view of the neighborhood:

Tour 10 - View from School Tour 11 - View from School Tour 12 - View from School Tour 13 - View from School

Don’t forget to check out the swing-set as we head out to the road:

Tour 14 - Swing Set

Right across the street, you can see a little stand selling things like tomatoes, soap, etc.

Tour 15 - Stall

And they’ve spotted us, so we’re going to have to spend a few minutes taking pictures of each and every one of the children and showing each photo of each and every one of the children to each and every one of the adults. This is the price you pay for bringing a camera out with you. Okay, now that that’s finished, we can head left toward the market.

Tour 16 - Toward Market

Here’s the baobab tree where all of the zemidjans (taxi motorcycles) hang out:

Tour 17 - Zem Baobab

As you can tell, the Zagnanado zems wear blue uniforms. We’ll make a quick left to the market that leads to the Catholic hospital.

Tour 18 - Market

There are stalls selling all kinds of things to make dinner with, mamans selling rice and beans, fish, tometoes, onions, pasta, fried tofu, hot peppers, oranges, etc. But we’re not hungry or sick right now, are we? No? So we’ll head back the way we came, toward town. Notice on your left a bite-sized establishment called Buvette Clin d’œil (Wink Bar).

Tour 19 - Bar Clin d'Oeil

This is where Geoff gets cold beer whenever he wants; as you can see it is just across the street from his house. This is a point of jealousy amongst many other volunteers. Anyway, we’ll continue on down the path that leads to town.

Tour 20 - Toward Town

Not much to see on this path, just a lot of crops.Tour 21 - Toward Town

We’re at the end of the path. You can see behind me the municipal soccer field, which some nice men are in the process of mowing (with machetes, obviously).

Tour 22 - Soccer Field

Now, if we take a left, we’ll pass a village called Doga and head up a tall hill toward Dovi, where another Peace Corps volunteer, named Jill, lives.

Tour 23 - Toward Dovi

 If we had a motorcycle it would only take a few minutes. But we don’t have a motorcycle. This is a walking tour, so we’re going to go right, toward the center of town.

 

Just a quick pit stop at the bakery. Baguettes cost 100 francs each (20¢).

Tour 25 - Bakery

On we go. From here you can see the main intersection of town.

Tour 26 - Main Intersection

That’s the goudron (tarmac), the road that leads west to Covè (about 5 minutes by zem, the main market town of the region) and Bohicon and east toward Kpedekpo, where you can turn southward to go to Porto-Novo and then Cotonou. This is, essentially, the main highway in Benin. Which means that all of the buses and trucks come zooming past here all the time. Not exactly the quiet little neighborhood where we started out, is it? On the left is a big mango tree, under which is another enclave of zems. In the background is the giant mystical baobab tree that lords over Zagnanado. If you try and cut it down, you will die. It is that powerful. Oh! And we have a visitor! Everyone, this is Geoff’s friend Victorien, who works at the high school.

 

While we’re here, let’s take a look around. There’s a phone credit shop and a barber shop next to a gas station (that’s what they’re selling out of those old liquor bottles).

Tour 28 - Main Intersection

And next we have the big cyber-café, run by the NGO that Geoff works with, and where he meets the rest of the NGO staff for weekly meetings.

Tour 29 - Cyber Cafe

Anyway, let’s head down the goudron (west, toward the mayor’s office).

Tour 30 - West

Here’s a sign for the only cafeteria (that is, coffee-shop; not the same meaning as in English [also, don’t get excited – the coffee is instant]) in Zagnanado, where you can get an omelet sandwich in the morning if you want.

Tour 31 - Cafeteria Ad

Let’s keep walking.

Tour 32 - West

If you look to your left, you can see the “public park,” in which no one ever ever ever hangs out. It is now overgrown.

Tour 33 - Public Park

Moving right along, we can the town Civic Center, which has been commandeered as an annex for the gendarmerie (police) when it is not in use (which it almost never is).

Tour 34 - Civic Center

And here’s the mayor’s office. It’s frowned upon in Benin to take pictures of government buildings, so we’ll just be sneaky about it.

Tour 35 - Mayor's Office

Let’s head east, back toward the intersection, shall we?

Tour 36 - East

We’re going to walk quickly past the high school, here.

Tour 36b - High School

This is where Geoff has his twice-a-week English Club, where he did the big AIDS event, etc. Continuing down the goudron we see a couple more government buildings, the treasury:

Tour 37 - Treasury

And the Social Services Center:

Tour 38 - Social Services

As we reach the intersection again.

Tour 39 - Main Intersection

We’re going to continue east for a bit

Tour 40 - East

Pay no mind to the fact that it’s starting to rain despite the fact that it was a nice sunny day four seconds ago as we pass the boutique (little shop) where Geoff buys his eggs, flour, and milk powder.

Tour 40b - Boutique

Yes, that is gas being sold out of that big glass jug. Now, here’s another famous Zagnanado landmark, the big Jesus statue.

Tour 41 - Jesus Statue

If we turned right here we’d head to the Catholic church, but we’ve got a stop to make so we’ll keep on going east. Here’s the post office:

Tour 42 - Post Office

And the shop that makes custom t-shirts for events:

Tour 43 - T-shirt Store

The town you can see in the background is called Agonlin-Houegbo:

Tour 44 - East

And here we are at Geoff’s favorite bar, Chez Doudou. I’m also going to point out Geoff’s favorite place to sit in the bar:

Tour 45 - Bar Chez DoudouTour 46 - Bar Chez Doudou

Well, it’s getting late so we should head back home. Luckily, I know a shortcut: this nondescript dirt path conveniently located right across from Chez Doudou:

Tour 47 - Shortcut Tour 48 - Shortcut Tour 49 - Shortcut

We’re going to cross the paved church road now. And look! The kids just got out of school:

Tour 50 - Catholic Church

Moving right along,

Tour 51 - Outside Barber Shop

We’re going to stop here at this random barber’s shop because I’ve always wanted to get a picture of the drawing hanging up in here:

Tour 52 - Nelly and Obama

Yes, indeed. That is Nelly giving Barack Obama a haircut. Let’s keep going, shall we?

  Tour 53 - Shortcut Tour 54 - Shortcut Tour 55 - Shortcut

You should be able to see the school Geoff lives next to from here:

Tour 56 - I Can See My House

And we’re back in the neighborhood!

Tour 57 - Back in My Neighborhood

And back at Geoff’s house. Meanwhile, the Toyota seems to have mysteriously moved….

Tour 58 - Front DoorTour 59 - Home Sweet Home

Whoooo. I’m wiped. Thanks for taking this Walking Tour of Zagnanado. That’ll be 10,000 francs each. Cash only.

From Squirrel-land to Black Star Country

For those of you who’ve never crossed an international border on foot in the developing world, I definitely recommend it. Here’s the deal:
A few of my friends and I decided, having a surfeit of vacation days and a rapidly increasing dearth of time remaining in which to use them (someone’s feeling fancy today), we would take a little trip to the only two countries we can get to without flying. What’s that you say? Benin is in a tightly-packed part of Africa with many interesting countries to visit, you say? Ah. Well, Peace Corps volunteers must abide by really strict travel codes – any shenanigans in a country and it gets blocked off the map for us. At the time we were planning the trip Nigeria, Niger, Burkina Faso, Mali, and Côte d’Ivoire were all out-of-bounds for us (Burkina has since been put back on the map). Which leaves us with Togo and Ghana. None of this is to say that I have any interest in going to hang out in Timbuktu or Lagos, or to say that our vacation wasn’t awesome.
So you go to l’Étoile Rouge (the Red Star), a massive Communist monument / roundabout / place where city-dwellers go to exercise / taxi station / bus station in the middle of Cotonou, and you get a taxi going to Lomé, the Togolese capital. It’s pretty straightforward for a few hours. Until your taxi driver stops at what seems to be a random Beninese market town. You look at him. He looks at you. “What’s happening?” You ask. “You’ve got to get out,” he says. “I thought we were going to Lomé.” “We are.” Then you make a sort-of ‘what gives?’ motion with your hands. Now he understands that you have no idea what’s going on, so he helps you out a little bit and points you in the direction of the Togolese border. “I’ll see you on the other side.” So, you and your friends walk around what appears to be a market like every other market in Benin. Except this one has a pretty steady pedestrian traffic flow going on along the road. Whenever you start to doubt that this is, in fact, what you are supposed to be doing, a nice market maman selling spicy goat meat sandwiches points and motions for you to keep going. Eventually, you reached the border, essentially a series of roadblocks with a few cement-brick cabins on either side.
First you have to leave Benin. This involves writing out all of your information then waiting for the police officer to copy it down, check it against your passport, and stamp you out of the country. Then you walk a little bit down the road – still more people selling bread, imported apples, bootleg DVDs, cans of Coke and beer, fabric. Then you cross the road and get to the Togolese cabin. The Togolese policemen are watching music videos on the TV, and you fill out the same type of form you did to leave Benin. They stamp you into Togo. At this point, if you can pass as African, you get to go on your way. If, however, you can fool no one who glances at you that you are African (ahem…) you must go to the next cabin, where you wait for your taxi driver so the policeman can make a note of it. Until you realize that you don’t have your driver’s phone number or even really remember exactly what his dusty 1960s Peugeot looked like (you know it’s a 1960s Peugeot because they all are). So you send one of your friends to go look for him, and it turns out he’s mad for having been made to wait as the Americans filled out all of their paperwork. So you keep going.
Togo is skinny, and before long, you’re in Lomé, at the Ghanaian border. As soon as your taxi stops (this time within sight of the border, at least), men come up holding wads of cash, offering in both French and English to change your francs for Ghanaian Cedis. You do some quick mental math and figure out that they’re offering you a good rate, so you go for it. (Well not you specifically – you thought it would be a good idea to wait until Good Friday to withdraw money from the bank [which is not, as it turns out, possible] so you have no cash and must live off the largesse of your friends until you can get back to a Beninese bank during business hours to pay them back). Then you do the same thing you did before – get stamped out of Togo, get corralled into the Ghanaian cabin (this one’s air-conditioned at least) because you’re not fooling anyone into thinking that you’re from around here.
And now you’re in Ghana. And the first thing that strikes you is the English. The fact that people come up to you and all of a sudden speak English. Which shouldn’t be novel, but it is because this is the first time you’ve been in English-speaking Africa. And it’s pretty cool to be able to speak to your new taxi driver in English. Until you realize that it puts you at a disadvantage vis-à-vis haggling.
Peace Corps volunteers in Benin have a habit of commenting on what’s going on around them (particularly when haggling for taxis) to each other in English because, well, most people in Benin don’t speak it. This can be dangerous – for instance, when you start taking about the Germans at the nearby table without realizing that, duh, they speak perfect English. Awkward.
So you might not have gotten the best price on your taxi to Accra, but then he lets you out in front of the KFC (no that’s not some obscure African acronym; it’s Kentucky Fried Chicken) and it’s all okay. This KFC is fancier than you remember them being in America (flat-screen TVs and leather seats) but you order some food and a Coke and sit with your friends and eat.
Suffice to say that our Ghanaian trip was almost entirely a culinary excursion. Another highlight was eating at a Mexican restaurant (of which there are zero in Benin) (at which our waitress was actually from Mexico). We went to the Accra mall, got some pizza, went to the movie theater, got some real movie theater popcorn, and saw some crappy American movie.
Now, calm down. We also saw some sights. We got out of Accra for a couple of days in Elmina, a beautiful coast town that has the oldest European buildings in Africa. But, to tell the truth, I was more excited about going go-karting for my friend’s birthday. Which, by the way, we totally did.
Fun Fact: the title of this post is a reference to the national team names of Benin (les Écureuils, the Squirrels) and Ghana (the Black Stars – referring to the star on their national flag, not a skin-color thing). I probably should have mentioned that somewhere else. Whoops.
Another Fun Fact: This is pretty much the only picture I was able to take before my camera decided to go on a strike which conveniently lasted almost precisely until getting back to Benin.
Osu Beach, Accra
These were taken by my friend, upon whom I must lavish multitudinous morsels of gratitude both for having taken them and for having allowed me to unceremoniously publish them on the Internet so that my friends back home might enjoy.

Ice cream on Oxford Street, Accra

Go-karting in Accra

Elmina, Ghana

Totally Unrelated Fun Fact: I shared my taxi yesterday with a monkey. #onlyinafrica

The Concert

A few months ago, a student at the local secondary school where I hold my English Club meetings approached me about working with him on an AIDS-awareness event at the school. Now, you might read that last sentence and think that things like that happen all the time in the Peace Corps. I mean, everyone knows that I’m the American volunteer, that I do things with health. So locals must be lining up on my porch every morning begging me to work on projects with them, right? Not so much.
I can only speak from a Beninese perspective – maybe volunteers in Tonga or Azerbaijan have to have a sign-up sheet on their door and some refreshments set up for all the people waiting in their front yard with awesome ideas for collaboration. This is not the case for (most of) the volunteers here. The very idea of Peace Corps is that locals identify the needs of their community and propose ideas to the volunteer, who serves as an overseer and advisor. In my experience, finding people with that level of motivation for the kinds of projects that volunteers do is a rare event, which tends to leave us out here without too many reinforcements.
All of this is to say that a local who honest-to-God comes to you with a good project in mind is like the Holy Grail of Peace Corps experiences.
So you can all picture me doing my little happy dance when I discovered that it was not only this one particular student that wanted my help with the project, but that he was part of a kind-of community-service club at the school that had done something similar with a Peace Corps Volunteer a few years ago. [WE INTERRUPT THIS BROADCAST IN ORDER TO GIVE YOU A MOMENT TO IMAGINE OUR DASHING YOUNG PEACE CORPS VOLUNTEER DOING A HAPPY DANCE.

I'm awesome at soccer
THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION. WE NOW RETURN YOU TO “PEACIN’ OUT”, ALREADY IN PROGRESS]
The idea was this: to invite musicians (read: rappers) from all around Benin to come to Zagnanado to perform in a huge AIDS-themed concert complete with education sessions, HIV testing, condom distribution, a presentation by a Person Living with AIDS, sketches by a theater group made up of students, and a competition between students to find the best rap/poem/song, etc. written on the theme of “AIDS-free Youth.”
I was in. So after Christmas vacation I met with the principal of the school, where we were to have the event, to set down a date. Originally, we had planned on having the event on Valentine’s Day because, of course, it’s la journée d’amour. I thought this would be perfect; the day before Valentine’s Day this year was on a Wednesday and because of an oldentimes agreement between French people wearing wigs and monocles, Beninese schools don’t operate after 10 a.m. on Wednesdays. However, our principal said he’d prefer the event to coincide with the week-long school break, which was to start on the following Thursday, the 21st. “D’accord,” I said, “it’s still around Valentine’s Day. Plus he is giving us a venue for free. The 21st it is.”
So I started filling out the funding request form, which is the most intense Excel spreadsheet that has ever been devised (seriously, I’ll show it to you when I’m back home). I also invited the mobile clinic from the NGO that also funds our Amour et Vie peer health education team to come do HIV testing. They said it was better for their schedule (they travel all over the country) to spend two days in Zagnanado. “D’accord,” I said, “Two days are better than one.” I also invited a Person Living with AIDS who does many presentations around Benin to come and talk to the students. “D’accord,” she said, “I’ll clear my schedule for the 21st.”
So everyone was d’accord. We met with people at the radio station in Covè (our market town) to talk about advertising. We met with the Social Services Center, the mayor’s office, the local health director, and even tried to meet with the King – he was on vacation. Things were happening. Happy dance.
Then about a week before the event I get a phone call. The administration of the school had been wrong about the dates for the break. You see, there had been a discrepancy between the schedules provided by the county education board and the Ministry of Education. We had to reschedule our event. Which of course meant that the Person Living with AIDS who was to give the presentation was unable to do so. Also, the date to which the event has been rescheduled contains a mandatory meeting of every teacher in every secondary school in the country. Which of course meant that the English-teaching volunteers (which constitute the bulk of those who have offered to help me out with the event) cannot come.
Approximately at this precise moment, I discovered that the funding that I had applied for was approved (Yay!) but would not arrive in time for the event (Oh…).
Okay. Nevermind. We would triage the event. Cut it down so that we could pay for it using the cash I had on hand and a series of very official-looking IOUs. I have some clout in Zagnanado so the IOUs were not a huge problem. We cut out a lot of the pre-event advertising to save money. Another volunteer had a bunch of condoms left over from her World AIDS Day event that she would be happy to give me. Things were happening. Less things, granted – but things nonetheless.
So we get to the day. A Wednesday morning. Like I had originally wanted to do on Valentine’s Day (ahem). But no matter. Let’s go!

 
DAY 1
9:00 a.m. – I arrive at the school and meet with the students who are organizing the event.
9:30 a.m. – I discover that the student group president whose house is being used as a base-of-operations for the invited musicians is missing.
9:45 a.m. – Said student arrives, having picked up the banners at the printers clear across town. Having no string, we tie up the banners with masking tape (this is to become a recurrent theme throughout the day).
10:00 a.m. – The bell rings to dismiss the students, who are now on break. Our event technically begins. The principal must officially open the event. He is in his office.
10:10 a.m. – The man who is there to promote the HIV testing (which is to begin the next day) explains to me that if we don’t begin right away the students are going to leave. He proceeds to get up on stage and start warming up the crowd.
10:15 a.m. – The principal asks to see me and the entire organizing crew in his office. “How is everything going,” he asks me. I proceed to laugh. “Sir, you are supposed to start off the event. We’re waiting for you.” “Ah, well give me ten minutes.”
10:30 a.m. – The student group president is, once again, missing. I proceed to search for any student organizer. I find none. The man on stage continues to deftly warm up the crowd, continually promising that we will start soon.
10:45 a.m. – I succeed in finding some of the organizers and ask them where the first musician is – the one to begin just after the principal’s opening words. They do not know. Who knows? The student group president.
11:00 a.m. – The student group president arrives, having gone back to the printers (I repeat, clear across town) to pick up the polo shirts he has ordered for the student organizers to wear during the event. Where are the musicians? At his house. “Mais ils viennent.” But they’re coming. He disappears again.
11:05 a.m. – The principal comes out and walks toward the stage to give his opening remarks. I say that if the musicians are not there that we should begin with the theater group just after the principal. I ask one of the organizers where the theater group is. They’re not here. Well, how about the dancing troupe? Nope.
11:10 a.m. – The principal and I go up on stage and give the opening words for the event. As we are speaking, the musicians show up. Laissons les bons temps rouler.
Mots d'ouverture
11:20 a.m. – I call the volunteer who is to bring the condoms. No answer. The banner (held up by masking tape) falls. Someone repairs it.
[This last entry repeats itself at least seven times throughout the rest of the day.]
11:30 a.m. – It becomes clear that the emcee that we have hired for the event has not arrived. One of my great friends in town, Carlos, a senior and member of the old Amour et Vie team at the school, volunteers to emcee in his absence.
013 - Carlos

11:45 a.m. – The teacher who serves as advisor to the student group organizing the event, and the judge for the creative HIV presentation contest that is to begin any moment, informs me that he has to leave. Carlos again saves the day by organizing an ad-hoc committee of student-judges.
12:40 p.m. – The emcee arrives.
[The event proceeds, though by the third performance we have entirely departed from the scheduled program].
6:00 p.m. – I order a beer at Chez Doodoo (my favorite bar in town) with the four other volunteers who have arrived, most of them having left directly from that all-important teacher’s meeting, to help me out. We all help ourselves to a dinner of akassa (boiled, fermented corn flour) and fish.

 
DAY 2
Day two proceeds as planned. The mobile clinic arrives at the school and tests over 100 people. We manage to get ahold of the volunteer who had planned on bringing condoms. After spending 9 hours in a taxi that didn’t even manage to leave greater Cotonou she realized that West Africa had won the day and gave up.
141 - Clinique Mobile

DAY 3
The mobile clinic set up shop at the Centre de Jeunes et de Loisirs, a kind-of civic center right next to the mayor’s office on the tarmac road. This civic center has recently been annexed by the gendarmerie (police) despite the fact that the actual gendarmerie building is three doors down the road. Because of this, we had been informed long ago that we would not be able to actually use the inside of the building, only the courtyard out front. “D’accord,” I had said, “That’s all the space we’ll need.”
The morning of Day 3 the mobile clinic staff asked me to ask the mayor’s office whether it would bother them if we used a sound system to play music for those waiting to get tested. My friend at the mayor’s office asked me to sit down. Uh-oh.
Last year there were floods throughout the region. Why, you may ask, is this relevant to my AIDS event? Well calm down and I’ll tell you. You see, the Ministry of the Family (you heard me right) called the mayor’s office the night before to inform them that the Minister herself was coming that day to distribute mosquito nets to the community. Because that’s what you do when a part of your country floods. You wait a year and give them mosquito nets. And where was she going to do this? Yes indeed – the gendarme-occupied Centre de Jeunes et de Loisirs de Zagnanado.
After I hyperventilated for about twenty minutes, the man at the mayor’s office decided that we could continue with the HIV testing, but that when the Minister arrived we would have to make ourselves scarce.
Another highlight from Day 3 was that the gendarmes, who had been present since the wee hours of the morning, all of a sudden decided around noon that they wanted to get tested, too. So they did what any grown men would do in such a situation – cutsies. I was so bewildered to see grown-ass men cutting teenaged girls in a line that it took me a while to realize what was going on. The nurse giving the tests finally put a stop to these shenanigans, but not before one of the gendarmes had pushed a sixteen year-old girl out of the way. This was when the Americans decided to take their leave for the afternoon, lest a slap- and/or tickle-fight break out.

The most important trait that a Peace Corps Volunteer can have is a sense of humor. I have, of course, focused on those things that I find funny to relate to you. However, I’ll take just a moment on the serious side to say that, despite all of the hair-pulling-out/maddening moments involved, we tested nearly 200 young people and reached almost twice that with HIV-prevention messages. So there.
Well, I’m off to Ghana and Togo on what should prove to be my last real vacation before leaving the Peace Corps. We are now T-minus one point five months away from Close of Service Conference, when I will get my official Close of Service date for August or September. Stay tuned.
FUN FACT: Sometimes you spend six hours in a dusty minibus on dirt roads and see a gruesome truck accident up ahead and your bus stops and a the nun that’s sitting behind you gets out and starts blessing people for a while and then you finally get to Natitingou and have yourself an antelope steak and fries with a Togolese beer while the sun sets behind the mountains. Sometimes.

THE PHOTOS:
Proof that people showed up:
la Foule

A skit some students put on
023 - Sketch

One of our esteemed musical guests (also the banner fell)
Performers

One of my English Club kids entered into the poetry contest, and won!
Spero

Veronique and Jacques, my Amour et Vie team, organizing a game to demonstrate how HIV affects the body
Amour et Vie Dovi

Carlos and Estelle, the Amour et Vie team organized by the volunteer in Zagnanado before me, demonstrating how to use a condom. They are superstars and continue to help me out whenever I need it even though their volunteer left.
Amour et Vie Zdo

The organizing team – Ezekiel, Omer, Jiroux, Aymard, Donné, and Israël.
les Organisateurs

A Very Merry African New Year

Hi there football fans! We’re broadcasting live from the Beninese Super Bowl Headquarters here at the Peace Corps office in Cotonou. There’s been some confusion in recent weeks. “Soccer” is known absolutely everywhere on earth besides the US as football, so when I tell people that there’s a big championship game for “le football américain,” everyone assumes that I’m talking about some sort of MLS game, and then we start talking about the African Cup of Nations (No! For the hundredth time I did NOT stay up to listen to the Mali – Niger match on the radio). I feel pretty comfortable saying that 99 percent of the residents of Zagnanado have no idea that there’s even a sport called American Football, though this is not unexpected given the shocking number of people who still assume that North America and Europe are the same thing (yovotomè, land of the White people) and is roughly the same percentage of the population who are positively flabbergasted when I tell them that most Americans do not speak French. Alas, I have some cross-cultural work to do. Anyway, given the fact that we’re 6 hours ahead of the East coast, the game doesn’t start until midnight, so here’s looking forward to a well-caffeinated evening.
Christmas was spent in the Beninese beach town of Grand Popo, right next to the Togolese border. There’s a tiny hotel on the beach there run by Rastafarians that’s popular with volunteers because a) it is on the beach, b) it is only $5 a night, c) it is right next to an awesome restaurant run by a French man and his Beninese wife, and d) it is Rasta themed (though this last point meant that the place was blasting reggae music until 3 in the morning on Christmas Eve). Also the fact that the place is next to Togo meant that I got to drink plenty of my favorite beer I’ve found here so far – a Togolese beer called Awooyo.

016
New Year’s was spent chez moi. There was a concert not too far from my house, which started as a concert and, of course, turned into a dancing fête.

New Year’s was also the first time that I’ve seen a Zangbeto in my town. Zangbeto are the “Guardians of the Night,” those haystacks that dance around in Porto-Novo and purportedly do something guardian-like but really just dance around. He came up to the porch in front of my next-door neighbor’s house and spun around for a while. It was quite a sight, though he did end up kicking up a lot of dust, which made it hard to watch toward the end. I also felt like I would be cursed if I took a photo so, alas, you’ll all just have to use your imaginations. Also, for all you Fon etymology enthusiasts out there, you’d be correct in assuming that the word Zangbeto (Guardians of the Night) is related to the name of my town, Zagnanado (an alternative spelling is Zangnanado). My town’s name means “the night has come badly,” because one of the most famous ancient kings of Dahomey, King Guezo, died here after fighting a battle near what is now Ibadan, Nigeria. This is good trivia for if you ever end up on Beninese Jeopardy.
I’ve started an anti-malaria program of teaching the women’s groups that I work with how to make and sell mosquito repellent cream out of cheap, local ingredients including the oil of the Neem tree, which grows like a weed all over the place here. People have a really hard time coming up with the $10 it costs to buy a mosquito net (a significant investment, considering a year’s secondary school tuition costs $20 and many people cannot afford even that), so I think it is important to show them that there are smaller, cheaper things you can do to protect your family from malaria – though I’m always careful to explain that the most effective thing is a mosquito net.
015
I’m also working on a big Valentine’s Day HIV/AIDS event in town, complete with HIV testing, condom distribution, education sessions, contests for students, and a concert. I’ll let you know how it goes!
Fun Fact: This is what happens during the dry season when you’re sitting in the window seat of a World War II-era Peugeot whose windows haven’t closed since the 70s driving down a busy road whose tarmac has been uprooted and is thus entirely made of red dirt. #dustygeoff
038

Fight Fete and AIDS Days

Previously on Peacin’ Out: We watched as our hero, a dashing young Peace Corps Volunteer, was visited by terror incarnate: a wasp’s nest in his shower. We now rejoin his plight:
Well, I threw a shoe at it and ran. Problem solved. Take that! USA! USA! USA!
Well, it is now December, which seems sudden, doesn’t it? I wish I could say that I was trapped in a cryogenic sleep for the past three (three!) months. I wish that I could say that I have been too busy saving the African continent with my superhero powers. I wish I could say that I was held prisoner in the evil lair of a gang of killer bees until I showed them all the error of their ways and we all learned a valuable lesson about inter-species friendship.
Actually, I’ve just been lazy.
Moving right along (we’ve got a lot to cover) to October. There’s a volunteer named David in a mountainside town in the Collines region called Miniki. This particular village is famous for its annual “fête de la lutte traditionelle” which has a word in Nagot which I have completely forgotten but which, in English, means Fighting / Wrestling Festival. A few of us rented a taxi to take us as far as we could go on the paved road. The driver seemed to be very concerned as he let us off at the beginning of a random dirt road, where we each took motorcycle taxis up the mountain (if you think going through sand on a motorcycle on a flat surface is scary…). It really is always such a pleasure to roll up to a completely unsuspecting small village with 15 or so Americans. The reactions of the local residents, especially the children, are each priceless. No matter how much a village might get used to seeing their resident yovo all the time, a whole gang of them never fails to elicit a combination of fear, awe, laughter, and of course the requisite chanting of the local word for white person, in this case “Oyibo.”
The village had set up a wooden arena in the middle of some fields for the fighting. A lot of the village’s kids didn’t want to pay the 200 franc entrance fee so they climbed trees to watch. One fell and sliced open his finger, and I had to EMT him with supplies from David’s first aid kit (as a small crowd gathered to watch me do it). The men and teenage boys of the village and, presumably, surrounding villages, were organized into two teams, one with red headbands and the other with green. One member of each team was called up at a time to wrestle with the other. For being “traditionelle,” the fighting seemed pretty civilized to me; there were referees and points awarded to the winners.
Fight Fete

But the real thing that was exciting about this fête was the nighttime ceremony. Because David is awesome, he and his friends (including yours truly) were invited to the village’s vodun (aka voodoo) ceremony for Gélédé (aka Kélédé), one of the principal vodun deities once described to me as the god of “culture” and often depicted with a bird on his head. Well, boys and girls, next time I will be sure to nap between the fighting fête and the Gélédé fête. The latter didn’t start until midnight.
About half of us decided to forego the entire ceremony in order to sleep, so right away our numbers had dwindled significantly. Miniki does not have electricity, so we walked around by the lights from our cell phones. As soon as we got to the huge baobab tree in the middle of the village square that was to serve as the location, a friend of David’s insisted that we all take a (ahem, massive) shot of “la locale” – sodabi, liquor (fine, moonshine) made from palm trees. A couple of us gave an impromptu English lesson to a bunch of kids who had gathered to stare at us.
Then the dancing started. Slowly, everyone in the square started to dance in a big circle around the whole square to call the deity. This continued for about a half an hour before the Americans (who had not napped) got tired and gracefully bowed out. It was two thirty or so before the deity actually showed up. Except that it wasn’t Gélédé – it was his wife. Much like the picture of the egungun that I posted a while back, the deity was dressed in a shiny, elaborate costume of mostly red and green. She was very tall, wearing a really elaborate carved headdress. She danced around for a while before stopping against a wall, where people shined flashlights in her eyes to force her husband to come out.
Finally around four a.m. Gélédé came out. He was wearing a wider costume and had a shorter, more elaborate headdress with many objects carved into it. I vaguely remember either an airplane or a car carved into the headdress but, as I said, it was four a.m. and my memory was not working very well. He did a sort of berserk, jerky dance for a few minutes before joining the big circle of people dancing. And it was here that we decided to call it quits for the night.
Except that at seven or eight a.m. the fête moved to David’s porch. Apparently, new deities kept on coming out for the rest of the night and they decided to make the party mobile. The deity that was present at this point was not the same Gélédé from the night before, but this one actually did have a bird on his head.
Gelede
November brought the U.S. elections. A habit of many of my Beninese friends is to cast foreign (and, for that matter, domestic) elections into good guys vs. bad guys. I remember this spring I got lots of “congratulations” in Cotonou (where no one on the street can tell I’m American) when Nicolas Sarkozy was ousted in France. “Um, thanks, I guess,” was typically my bemused response. Can you guess who the good guy in these elections was? I’ll give you a hint – they brew “Obama” brand beer in Porto-Novo; incidentally, it’s very bad. A couple volunteers came to my house to “watch” the election, meaning slowly refreshing news websites on my Internet modem whilst searching in vain for the BBC World Service on my radio. We set out to stay up all night to get the results as they came in. So, naturally, we fell asleep at 11 p.m. (when precisely zero results were in). We got up at 4 a.m. and caught the results when they came in an hour later. And then, what do you know, I got lots of congratulations again!
A volunteer in nearby Agbangnizoun (ag-BYE-in-zoon) hosted a whole bunch of us for a Thanksgiving dinner that included, incredibly, chicken, cranberry stuffing, candied yams, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, apple crisp, and chocolate cake. My job was to bring the wine, which should go to show my non-existent culinary skills. Unlike last year, I didn’t eat so much that I had to lie down this time! Success!
December 1 is World AIDS Day, and I celebrated on three different occasions. Because of the (I’ll go ahead and say it) crazy Franco-Beninese school schedule, the only time the sun is out that high school kids have no classes is Wednesday late mornings and afternoons. So I organized a big assembly for Wednesday morning right after classes at the high school in my town where I have my English Club. I got a couple of student friends to help me with the assembly. We broke the ice on what is actually a pretty taboo subject, especially among students, by playing a game in which we blew up condoms like balloons and played Hot Potato with them. The idea was to get the students less freaked out about touching condoms, though a lot of the kids (especially girls) were really shy and refused to play. Maybe I shouldn’t have used mint flavored condoms? I talked about the French acronym ABCD for AIDS prevention which, in English, translates to Abstinence, Staying faithful in relationships, Condoms, and Getting tested.
I also helped Amy, the volunteer in Agbangnizoun with her World AIDS Day event. She had dancing, theater, and a mural as well as nurses from her local hospital to do HIV testing. Here’s me and some other helpers making AIDS Day ribbons
AIDS Day Agbangnizoun

I repeated the successful AIDS Day event at my local high school with a similar event at the school Jill (the volunteer in the next town over) teaches at. When I brought out the wooden condom demonstration model the entire audience cracked up for 5 minutes. I also came dangerously close to losing my voice after screaming in French for an hour so all give-or-take 100 kids could hear me. Here’s a photo of me after the event – I’m smiling through the pain in my throat.
AIDS Day Dovi

One thing about my not having written in such a long time is that I have a perspective on how crazy it is that we’re just about at 2013 already. 2013. The year when I come home. I mean I’ve already been here for 17 months. 8 to go. That’s significantly more than halfway. Time is flying. And I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished nearly all I want to yet. Which means I need to get to work.
Fun Fact: The new song topping the Beninese charts is called “Djogo Djogo.” This is a Fon term for someone (in this case, a young girl) who looks or seems older than they are. Essentially, the song is about being attracted to underage girls, at one point listing ages (fourteen, fifteen, sixteen) and popular girls’ names. So take that, people like me trying to counter the traditional Beninese misogyny! The worst part: it’s super catchy! Who knows – you Westerners with your lightning-fast Internet may even be able to find a copy of it somewhere.
And speaking of lightning fast Internet, you can now use the World Wide Web to donate to Peace Corps’ summer camps for 2013. The links are below, and any (100% tax-deductible!) help you can give would be fantastic and is guaranteed to earn you some strong voodoo karma points.
Camp BRO (Boys Respecting Others) Benin 2013:
https://donate.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=680-249
Camp GLOW: (Girls Leading Our World) Benin 2013:
https://donate.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=680-247

Bonus adorable fact: I’m teaching my little neighbor children how to play American football.
Football Americain