So, after the last post I thought I’d write something a bit….lighter. In this post we’re going to talk about not what goes into your body, but more of what comes out and the culture that surrounds it here in Benin and the Peace Corps.
Before coming to Benin I knew that I would probably come down with dysentery at least once, if not a few times. If you don’t know what dysentery is, google it. It’s not the best thing, and if not taken care of you can get seriously dehydrated and end up in the hospital. I also knew that I would be exposed to different kinds of foods that would, well, interact with my body differently than food did in the States. You know, sometimes you eat something and then your gas or poo kind of smells like what you ate, spaghetti with sausage being the worst for me. (This post is going to get really personal, so if you’re not interested you can skip this one.) So, I was fully prepared for some interesting bowel movements and a bit of sickness.
The Peace Corps, as I think I’ve stated in previous blogs, does a good job at preparing future volunteers, stagaires as we’re known during training, for most things medical. We have sessions on cleaning food, what diseases are most prevalent, how to do a MIF kit (you poop in a container so the Peace Corps can analyze it to see if you have parasites); all of this really builds an environment where talking about poop and your bowel movements feels comfortable, it’s really just a part of this massive experience. During “stage,” which is the first few months of training we all receive in Porto Novo, stagaires are being introduced to new foods and, to be quite honest, new bacteria. These new bacteria are often tolerable for Americans to handle and other times are quite the opposite. I thankfully while in Porto Novo didn’t have many problems. I actually have quite the tank for a stomach and don’t throw up or get diarrhea that often. (I guess that’s what five years of eating/drinking God-only-knows-what at Penn State can do for ya.) Others though were not so lucky.
I had a friend, whom we’ll not name, who said he didn’t have solid stool for the entire two months he was in stage. He would recount incidences where he would be in his outdoor latrine at his host family’s house getting sick (vomit and diarrhea) and his host family would be around the latrine yelling “doucement,” and almost praying for his recovery. (Doucement means slowly, or watch would, or easy does it, or pay attention in Beninese French.) After the first month his host family thought that his lower gastrointestinal tract was possessed by evil spirits and his host father would sleep outside of his door on a mat on the floor so as to protect him from said spirits. This sounds a bit loony. I mean, I’ve heard of some evil gas and I’m sure people have wanted to pray for me after smelling what I’ve done to the bathroom. But, having a family LITERALLY pray for your bowels is a bit different. So, as an added protection for my friends rectal haunting, his host father posted himself outside of my friend’s room and slept on the floor. Again, loony. I’m sure we’ve all had poopy issues before, so we all know that having problems with our lower gastrointestinal tract means that at any moment, day or night, we may have to rush off to the bathroom to evacuate ourselves. Well, my friend being the nice guy that he is didn’t want to wake up with overly protective sleeping father posted on the other side of his bedroom door and proceeded to “relieve himself” one fateful evening in the only ting he could find in his room at that hour: a peanut butter jar. So, imagine a man, he is a burly man, fishing around in his bedroom more than likely only wearing a headlamp for something into which to have diarrhea. Now, imagine finding a small jar of peanut butter, mainly empty, and deciding that you’re going to do THIS. If you know me, you know I love peanut butter, so I imagine couldn’t sully my longtime friend like that. But, my friend, not having any other options and being too nice to wake his host father to run to the outdoor latrine continued with the only option he found at three in the morning. He removed the lid to his peanut butter jar, placed in onto the floor, hopefully away from his clothing and bed, took down his pants, squatted over the jar, carefully took aim so as to not have an “accident” onto the floor, pray, crossed his fingers, and let go. He apparently had become quite the “sharksman” (shit and marksman combined) and managed to get it all into the jar. But, to be quite honest if you missed would you tell anyone? He said he then closed up the jar, set it by the door, and retired back to bed waiting until the morning to dispose of his…Jiffy Jar. I love that he chose to scar himself forever and poop in a jar rather than disturb his host father. But, without his amazing conscience I would have the pleasure of sharing this remarkable story.
Continuing with the Poo Plog I want to revisit the fact that we’re all dealing with lower intestinal adventures and while in stage we spend most of the day/life with our new friends talking about the things we’re experiencing and really founding lasting relationships. Anyone who knows that relationships rely on trust and really opening yourself up realize that this means you have to make yourself vulnerable. I want to tell you that opening yourself up about your bizarre bowel movements is SURELY making yourself vulnerable. And, it’s not just our fellow stagaires who are talking about their bowel movements, the current volunteers are telling us about the digestive fun they’ve been having for the past two years. I would like to pass along a few of those stories.
As I said before, during stage we having medical training that teaches about health related issues we’ll face during stage and our service. During this we learn how to poop in a container to send along to the Peace Corps medical office while at post; not to be confused with pooping in a peanut butter jar so as to not wake up your host father. These containers help the medical office identify illnesses and assign the proper treatment. We’ll, if you’re a volunteer like me and you’re posted in the middle of nowhere, getting to Cotonou is literally a two-day journey. Cotonou is where the medical office is located in the main Peace Corps office. So, to make sure his “sample” got to its appropriate destination, one volunteer paid a taxi going to Cotonou from his post, rather close to me, actually, to take his little turd to the medical office. Yes, that’s right, his number “two” got a “one-way” ticket to the medical office in the sky. I can just imagine the little poopy getting its own little seat next to all the other Beninese people, putting on its seat belt and listening to its iPod rocking out to Miley Cirus (of course it’s going to listen to shitty music, tee hee) as it traveled all the way from the northern part of the country to the southern part. Oh, the crap we have to deal with in the Peace Corps. J
Continuing with our volunteer-submitted stories about poop. Being a teacher means you have to be punctual, come to class, and, to be quite honest, you always have to be there. There are a few exceptions like when you’re so sick you can’t move. It happens. But, a little bit of loose stool is not something to keep a dedicated Peace Corps volunteer away from his or her job. Much to the detriment of this next volunteer. As you’re all probably well aware when you have a case of the runs when you have to go YOU HAVE TO GO. It’s like, “I’m going to shit RIGHT NOW.” That being said, when you’re in front of a class of 70 students and they’re actually paying attention to you you kind of want to remain doing what you’re doing and hopefully get to an activity where you’ll have time to leave the class for a moment and “take care of business.” So, when nature calls you want to ask it to hold on just one or two more minutes. Well, that’s what this volunteer did. He thought that he could just squeeze out a little fart and gain a few minutes to get through his lesson and then run off, literally run off, to the latrine and relieve himself. Well, he gambled… and, he lost. He tried to squeeze out a little fart and squeeze out a lot of shart. According to the one who told me this story it was enough that it came out of the bottom of his pants and he had to leave school at that moment. Can you imagine the students looking up at the teach while he’s trying to give a lesson on irregular verbs and lifts his legs just a little while he’s talking and then makes an irregular face and abruptly stops as you hear something irregular hit the floor. That something was his less-than-solid stool and, I PROMISE YOU, his dignity. Well, whatever is left of it. I have taken note of this and know better than to gamble in a situation where I have crappy odds. Tee hee.
I actually, have quite the opposite problem. When living in America I ate enough fruits and vegetables that I went to the bathroom quite regularly. To be honest it was numerous times a day. I ate lots of fruits and vegetables. Here, especially in Kerou, I don’t eat that much fruit. To be quite honest, I’ve been here 3 weeks and I’ve only had two oranges and two bananas, that’s it. It’s really rather desolate up here. I eat tomatoes and some chili peppers and a few onions, but that’s about it. Because of this I might poop once or twice every three or four days and it’s more likely that I have gas. I sit down and nothing happens. I just fart into the bowl. This is rather alarming for me. I used to poop ALL THE TIME. Now, I feel like Neil: lucky if I take the Browns to the Super Bowl once or twice a week. And, to be honest, I want this stuff out of me. I don’t want it in there. Poop is supposed to come out. It’s like I’m constipated, and, if you know me, you know I generally have trouble keeping things in, regardless of what it is.
Moving right along, I don’t really think about what other animals poop looks like. I just don’t. I have a million other things to think about. But, you kind of have an assumption as to what the animal’s poop should look like in relation to their bodies: kittens have little poops and elephant poop is large enough to sled on. Right? Well, here’s one for you, what does goat poop look like? I thought it would be a single turd, you know, normal, and be in relation to the size of its body. Which, the goats here are a bit smaller than goats elsewhere in the world so I thought his turds would be a bit smaller, golden retriever-sized turds, if you will. Well, just so you know, goat turds look like blackberries, or, raspberries. They’re like little rabbit turds all clumped together and they come out while the goat is walking along. I swear to you, it blew my mind. I was riding my bike trying to avoid this midget goat and, wait for it, REALITY SHIFTED. I was looking at the goat trying not to hit it and all these little blackberry-esque turds start trickling out of his little butt. I literally stopped my bike and was like, “really? bunny-like goat turds? Who knew?” Apparently I did not. You know I didn’t stop with this goat. I had to know if all the other goats pooped like this. It’s not like I was running around town chasing goats waiting for them to poop. I would actually just pay attention to them as they pooped. And, yeah, bunny-like turds all around. I’m a teacher and teaching you about bunny-like, blackberry-esque goat turds are my lesson for the day.
Now, I know I’ve talked about some funny things, but I want to cover some not so funny things, which might actually turn out to be a bit funny. Most, but not all, families have latrines. Latrines are really just little out houses with holes, hopefully deep enough, that when people poop and pee into them it’s deep enough to not come out over time. Then they seal the latrines over with concrete when they get full. The entire idea is gross to me, but I guess wastewater removal hasn’t made its way to Benin. I mean, you’re just leaving the poo and the pee in the ground and let nature sort it out. Well, sometimes these latrines are entirely too close to their wells. Which is where most of me neighbors get the water they drink, cook with, and use to clean themselves. Drinking dirty water, regardless of the dirt is a leading cause of preventable illness around here but I guess that information is just not passed along and/or received. Another note, I guess latrines are saved for the adults because little children just poop and pee right on the pathways we walk/drive/ride our bikes on. So, at any point in the day I’ll be riding my bike and some little kid will sit down and got potty. Notice I didn’t mention that he or she took off his or her pants, that’s because most of these little kids are naked as a jaybird. Naked as the day they came into this world in the middle of the street pooping and or peeing. You know the creepiest part is when they look up while they’re going potty and yell, “hello, white person, hello,” of course in their local language, with a huge smile on their faces waving their hands frantically. Totally creeps me out. Continuing with the pooping wherever, if you’re on a bus traveling for long distances and you have to go to the bathroom there aren’t rest stops like there are in America. The bus just pulls over and the guys, mainly, just walk to the side of the road and relieve themselves. Mainly it’s just pee, but a few fellow volunteers have recounted stories where they had to find a tree out of the way, lean against it, and let it all go. I wonder what they wiped with? Though this is kind of funny, it’s rather disturbing and sanitation in this country could go a long way with regard to maintaining over all health of the country and avoiding many avoidable illnesses.
I was listening to an NPR podcast a few days ago and they were talking about space-aged toilets in Japan. Apparently, they have toilets that play music, automatically put down the seat for you, and have sound machines to mask the sounds of your pooping/peeing/farting. Japan is like a magical place in comparison to Benin where kids pee in the street and Peace Corps volunteers poop into peanut butter jars.
I hope this reaches you well in the States. I miss you all immensely.