Saturday, November 7, 2009

Poo Plog

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.

Adjusting to Kerou

All throughout the Peace Corps application process I knew my adjustment to my village would be difficult. I knew that I had become quite habituated to my technologically advanced life with my iPhone, then NUMEROUS Blackberrys, and my MacBook that was constantly connected to the Internet—as was I through my numerous communications devices—my large, flat screen television (Thanks Lajuan and Ian) which was recording television programs at my whim, and the fantastic public transportation system that helps the Washington Metro area thrive. I also had become quite comfortable living in an area where I could dine at restaurants featuring food from all corners of the planet from Thailand to Ethiopia to Mexico. I had a nimiety of friends from all sorts of different cultural backgrounds and who hailed from different parts of the country, not to mention the world. To be quite honest, I was living the dream. With that life came a lot of temptations, some of which I wasn’t able to cede. These temptations could have led me down a path into a life and a person I didn’t want. I knew that the Peace Corps would be a welcomed distraction from those temptations and would help me to NOT become the person I had seen in my future. Also, I knew I did well at Penn State, I was involved, I got good grades, I could get recommendations from my professors, and the Peace Corps would be another assurance to help me secure a position at a top university for a masters and potentially a doctorate. (That’s right, I might become a doctor. But, not one of those save-your-life doctors, just the kind that pontificate about things they’ve spent too many hours studying. The kind that suits my personality.) I have certain goals for my future and I want to know that I’ve done all that I can to assure that future. Life rarely goes according to plan, but there’s nothing wrong with having an idea of which route you want to take and making sure there’s enough fuel in the tank to get there.

Thus, I’m in the Peace Corps in Africa; Benin, to be exact; Kerou, to be even more precise. Kerou is large enough that I have electricity, which is a lifesaver. I wouldn’t be writing this blog posting without it. It’s small enough that I don’t have paved roads, which are about two to four hours away, depending on which direction you go and the state of the vehicle you’re in. I also have to walk about two football fields to get to running water. Which, isn’t as bad as you think, I make the neighbor kids fetch my drinking water and the water I use to clean my dishes and wash my hands. I have a well just outside my door where I get my shower water and toilet-flushing water. (Side note: children in Africa are viewed a bit differently than they are in the States. They’re seen as a way to help the family prosper—as in do chores, around the house and serve the older members of the family. In America we seen them as our future, and it’s not that they aren’t seen that way here, there is just more importance placed on older members of the family to younger members. It may of something to do with the child mortality rate and or the importance placed on the paternal role in society.)

These few characteristics of Kerou should help shed some light on the difficulty I’m having adjusting to a Beninese style of living. While living in Porto Novo during training my new friends surrounded me, I had the Internet at my fingertips, there were numerous places to eat, and I could watch a television in the morning. I had markets I could go to everyday to get the things I needed, and, to be quite honest, though it was a change from my Logan Circle living (Logan Circle adjacent), it wasn’t something that made me change the way I lived dramatically. I was just a bit less “connected.”

Living in Kerou is completely different than living in the States. In the States it’s extremely easy to let your environment dictate your social development and generally happiness with your life. If you’re feeling lonely you can call up a friend, meet for some coffee or a beer, go to a movie, go bowling, sweet heaven, you can just walk down the street and find something to do. In Kerou, I have to make myself happy and actively go out and find things to occupy my time. I have to create everything on my own. As I said, American society gives you things to make you happy, here I have to find out what makes me happy and then make it happen. Essentially, I have to create my own happiness. I know it’s something we here about as we grow up, “look for what makes you happy and then do it,” but here you ACTUALLY have to do it, or you’ll go nuts, or read eight books in three months, as I have already. Taking this control of yourself and your own well-being might be the hardest and more important development for Peace Corps volunteers. I think it’s aspect that makes or breaks a Peace Corps volunteer and I hope I have the right attitude. I have realized this already and am doing what I can to address this.

Another serious adjustment is the pace of life. Life in Africa just moves at a slower pace; it moves at a slower pace because everything takes more time. It takes 20 minutes just to start cooking tomato sauce, as I have to soak the tomatoes in bleach water just to kill and parasites on the skin. Then, though it’s not hard or time consuming, I have to light the flame on my little gas stove with a match, which is far more advanced than any other stove in Kerou, I promise you. From that point, I just cook away to my hearts content. It’s the preparation that so time consuming. In DC I could go to one Whole Foods and find all the necessary ingredients, and, let’s be honest, some things I didn’t know I needed, in one place. In Kerou it’s a multi-hour adventure just to get the things I need to make dinner. I have to plan things out. I’m surprised I haven’t started making charts. (Anyone who has seen me at work knows that I make lists. I have lists for lists and lists on lists. It’s one of the tactics I’ve developed to help with my ADD. Which is non-existent here. There isn’t enough to distract me from what I’m doing to even HAVE an attention deficit disorder, though I still make lots of lists.)

Being a technophile, it’s been a bit difficult. But, there are some saving points. The phones here are interesting. I love communications technologies and just seeing the different kinds of phones they have here entertains me. Because cell phone providers don’t cover all areas and it’s cheaper to call people on the same network, there are cell phones that have numerous slots for SIM cards. I’ve seen some phones with up to three slots. (And some people who don’t spend the money for a fancy phone with three phones, which I think they think is “baller.”) Which is kind of cool. Also, most phones here have flashlights on the top. Though they have electricity in my village, and 70 percent of the areas in Benin, the current cuts out frequently, usually when a lot of people turn on their lights and when there are storms, you know, when you need electricity the most, and thus have handy lights at their convenience.

I have also been able to keep abreast of what’s going on in the world as I have befriended some people who work at the local hotel bar, which is right down the “street” (dirt path where children pee and poo on a daily basis) from where I live. The bar has a television and I watch French news and the African Voice of America channel. (French news carries a lot of American news. Everyone wants to know what’s going on in America, whether they like it or not.) But, it’s not like having the Internet in front of you and constantly refreshing my google news and homepage. I also can’t check my “buddies” GChat or facebook statuses ad nauseum.

Some parts that have been even more difficult: for some reason unbeknownst to me, I have sudden and almost overwhelming feelings of sadness. They’re fleeting, but nonetheless there. They were more frequent when I first arrived in Kerou, and as I have adjusted, they have become less frequent. I don’t know if it’s because I didn’t ACTUALLY realize what I was getting myself into and how much I loved my life in America, or some other reason. I can only speculate. They occur at random moments and, as I can tell, have no cause. When I start to feel this way I try to get out of my house and go for a bike ride, listen to music, or go read a book at my hotel and drink a beer. We were told all throughout training that there would be some serious ups and downs through your time in the Peace Corps. You don’t really know the severity of what they’re saying until you experience it on your own. Another difficult area has been social inclusion. In America if you can’t find a social group to relate to you’re not looking hard enough. Other than Karina, I’m the only American within 75 kilometers. And the Beninese are nice, it’s just a lot easier to sit down with your peers and talk about life when you don’t have cultural and linguistic barriers to overcome. Thankfully I do have a post mate. She is definitely going to make my experience in Kerou infinitely better. (Not to mention she’s rather attractive and buckets of fun. CORNY ALERT – she’s a little bit of sunshine in Kerou on an otherwise cloudy day.)

There are a lot of things that will take some time to adjust to. And, for that matter, be difficult to readjust from when I return to the States. Which will happen, fret not. I like what I’m doing and growing accustom to Keroise life, but nothing will make you love America more than living somewhere that doesn’t compare to it.

I know I this post has been a bit “down in the dumps,” but I want people to know what it’s really like in the Peace Corps. This blog is also serving as a journal for me to chronicle the “ups” and the “downs” and the “happenings” that will help me realize the progress I’ve made throughout my “sejour” here in Benin.

Fret not faithful followers, Brandoni will make it out of his Peace Corps experience a stronger man, both mentally and emotionally. This experience will teach me the benefits of a slower pace in life. It will show me the importance of creating worthwhile relationships with people who are different from me. I hope it’ll help me find some humility, but I doubt it. But, if nothing else, it’ll help me create the person I want to be instead of the person society dictates I should be.