Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Birth of Mr. T.

We’re all aware that I’m here in Benin and I have no idea what I’m doing. Jokes. Actually, I’m a teacher. To be specific, I’ll be teaching English. We’re also well aware that I like being the center of attention. In my future, I would love to be a college professor and I feel that if I can teach kids in Benin to speak English I could probably teach some Americans. It might be a bit presumptuous of me, but… I like being presumptuous.

I’ve been in training since I arrived in Benin. I’ve been learning French, I’ve been learning how to live in Benin, I’ve been learning how to haggle in Beninese markets, I’ve also been learning the Beninese educational system and how to function properly in it. The Beninese classroom runs a bit differently than an American classroom. The most obvious difference is the lack of educational supplies. In America we have all of the luxuries associated with advanced and multifaceted learning. We have computers, flash cards, I think there’s something called a “magic board” which is like a chalk board but is magic, (I think it records what you’ve written on it and has the capability of emailing it to the students, or some other space-aged thing.) and numerous other educational tools to help students with all sorts of learning characteristics learn all the wonderful things that are out there to learn. Contrarily, there isn’t anything in a Beninese classroom but students, a teacher, and a blackboard. To be honest, they don’t even have books. What we kind of have are photocopies of books that the teachers get and then use as a guide to help teach. The students then copy whatever is on the board into their copybooks. Honestly, they’ll copy anything you write on the board in the exact same way that you write it. If you leave too much spacing between letters it’ll show as two different words in their copybooks.

All of this training is to prepare me for my teaching life in Benin. Appropriately, we have a few weeks of model school, which takes place at the school where I’ve been receiving my training. Model school, which is supposed to mimic the teaching environment in which I’ll find myself in Kerou, was the first time I had had real teaching experience. In college I tutored and worked at a learning center, but never have I been the actual teacher. This was the first time I was the one in charge of the scholastic development of not one, but 30 to 40 students.

Thus the birth of Mr. T., not to be confused with the 1980’s television bad-ass known for his gold chains and Mohawk. That being said, I have had a faux hawk a few times. I don’t drive a van, and I surely don’t use the phrase, “I pity the fool.” I pity plenty of things, a fool isn’t one of them. Mr. T. is an easy name for students to say, and, according to how often it’s repeated throughout campus, quite easy to remember. As you can probably imagine, I’m a rather animated teacher, I move around a lot, I tend to speak a bit fast, which isn’t the best for comprehension, and I like making my students laugh. I act things out, such as vocabulary, and I want to teach my students some cleaned-up rap lyrics. (By the end of my stay in Kerou I promise you 5th and 6th graders all over that town will be singing Biggie Smalls. You mark my word.) Students tend to remember me and there have been cascading eruptions of students screaming Mr. T. as I cross the campus. In one class, the week after I had taught a 5th grade class, another teacher was teaching the present continuous and one student stood up and was like, “Mr. T. is laughing.” As you can probably imagine, my fellow Volunteers got a kick out of it.

So far I’ve been having a lot of fun teaching. It really feeds into my personality traits, and is something I enjoy. I like having to think on the fly to figure out ways of presenting the information in an accessible way. And, it’s a lot of fun being in front of these students essentially doing whatever I’d like. It’s kind of like I’m my own boss.

Model school is now over and i'll be moving to Kerou in a few days. I won't have people shadowing my classes and giving me advice. I'll be making the decisions, (scary, i know) and i'll be our on my own. Staging really has been a rewarding experience but it's nothing like what my real Peace Corps experience will be. I'm about to make the giant leap into the real Peace Corps life. (Also scary, i know.)

I've always known that teaching would be something that i would like, it's nice to know that my presumptions were correct.

Getting Around - Beninese style

So, as of this blog I’ve merely written about my experience here in Benin and nothing of general observations. I’ve essentially chronicled my time here, not given an assessment of what I’ve seen. If you know me, and or my professional life, you know that I’m intimately involved with transportation, and more acutely, clean-energy technologies and automotive efficiency. I’ve worked with clean energy transportation for awhile: I was in a hybrid vehicle building competition, I worked with the Department of Energy’s Vehicle Technologies program, I’ve given presentations on the advancements of automotive technology, and I’ve hosted events on clean public transportation. In brief, I like clean energy, I like transportation, and I like technology. Here in Benin, which I realize is a third world nation, I don’t find much clean energy. To be quite honest, I don’t think they care too much about their environment. Benin is struggling to just have enough to help its self along, let alone think about the future. Benin is very much so an in-the-moment kind of thinker not really looking too far into the future.

Most vehicles in this country run on diesel, which, of all the fuels, is my favorite. (Diesel inherently is more efficient, 30% to 40% more efficient, due to the higher energy-per-volume content of the fuel and how it’s combusted in the engine.) That being said, diesel was progressing in a clean energy direction in the States (Ultra-Low Sulfur Diesel, advancements in diesel engine and exhaust technology), but as you can probably imagine that technology has yet to make it over to Benin. In the United States we have fuel standards. These standards are assigned and then checked and regimented all throughout the country. In Benin, fuel is sold out of coke bottles and old wine bottles on the side of the street, for the most part. (I have a photo of a small gas station on the side of the largest road in the country.) That essentially means that there are no standards, you can find numerous things mixed in with the fuel (i.e. water, soda, oil, urine, etc.) and standards don’t exist. Also, most vehicles in this country are scooters and motorcycles. Most of the scooters are of the two-stroke variety and have their oil and fuel mixed together. What this does is increase the particulate matter content of the exhaust, which is already super high with regard to diesel, thus injecting the air we breathe with yummy-delicious harmful toxins and carcinogens. (Side note: all this great and yummy air that I’m breathing, and, specifically, the particulate matter in the air will be stuck in my lungs for the rest of my life.) Most large trucks are left over from the 60s and 70s and therefore have no exhaust treatment to clean/neutralize the exhaust. I’m sure you can all imagine the thick, black smoke that used to come out of tractor-trailers, multiply that by about three; also, the exhaust pipe comes out of the bottom of the truck, not out of a stack that shoots upward. That means if you’re standing/driving/riding anywhere near the trucks as it passes you you’re in store for a delicious exhaust-filled treat, which I’m sure has the same effect as smoking 30 packs of cigarettes. A fellow Peace Corps volunteer was recounting a vacation of his in Egypt after I asked him why he smoked and his response I feel is quite applicable: “It’s better than breathing.”

I’ve already brought up the idea of gas stations, which are merely side-of-the road shanties with coke bottles, wine bottles, and really fat wine bottles filled with fuel, which I’m sure they’ve mixed themselves. To display the price they place a gas jug in front of the gas shanty with the price displayed on the front in chalk. (It’s around a dollar a litre.)

In Benin they have taxis, which are normally station wagons with orange license plates and far too many people shoved into them. To give you an example, my friend Catherine was in a taxi from Parakou to Kandi, both of which are fairly large cities, and she sat/was squished into her taxi with 13 other people. The mere physics of it defies all my preconceived notions of available space in a taxi, let alone how this encroaches on my idea of personal space. We like to think that back seats hold two MAYBE three people. No so much here in Benin. For the most part, they shove four people to a row, and sometimes five. Children sit on their parents laps, I’m not sure if they have to pay or not, and I’ve yet to see a taxi with air conditioning. So, as you can imagine the noxious odors coming from the diesel fuel, the exhaust, mixed with the lovely aroma of 12-14 people shoved into a station wagon with no air conditioning, not to mention the general lack of hygiene in Benin, can be a bit overwhelming. These taxis are mainly long distance taxis. You would only take a vehicle like this if you were traveling between cities. For traveling within a city, or from a larger city to a smaller village near by, you take a Zemijohn. A Zemijohn is a moto-taxi, or a dude on a motorcycle with a hat, generally. They are always men, I think I’ve heard of a female one time, they sometimes are crazy, and they always are trying to screw you out of money, well, in Porto Novo. Elsewhere in the country there are set prices for things. (I don’t know if I’ve covered this before, but, for the most part, you have to haggle every price in this country. Whether it’s a Zemijohn, or a woman at the market, you have to argue down prices and haggle to the best possible price available. This idea is a bit taxing, sometimes I just want to know what the price is an pay it while not feeling like I’ve been screwed over.) As I’ve stated before, most vehicles in this country are scooters and motorcycles and it might have something to do with the over abundance of Zemijohn drivers. They drive erratically, they speed, they cut corners, and sometimes they’re not sober. I have to take them from time to time, especially when I have to travel long distances through the city, but for the most part I enjoy riding my bike. It’s a tad safer. But, when you’re traveling away from your hometown you have to ride Zemijohns to get around. (Side note: Benin is the only Peace Corps country where volunteers are allowed to ride motos, per my staging director. And, that’s because it would be impossible to get around without riding on them. That being said, we HAVE to wear helmets or we’ll be sent home, no questions asked.)

I want to let everyone know something else about Benin. Everyone is horny. And, i mean this in the I-have-to-honk-my-horn-at-any-chance-I-get kind of way. It's as though a car/moto horn is how they exact their personal vendetta against placidity and calmness. I can't say this enough. People in this country honk their horn at every chance they get. They honk to let you know they're behind you, they honk to let you know they're in front of you, they honk to let people know they've arrived at an intersection, they honk to let you know that they've received your honk, Zemijohn drivers honk to let you know they see you, Zemijohn drivers honk to let you know they are around, and sometimes, I promise you I'm not making this up, people drive down the road honking at nothing. They just honk to honk. Honk. This country is honky-horn happy and it creeps me out.

Another form of transportation, and by far my favorite, is large tour bus. They’re usually air conditioned, they have an assigned number of seats, and, for the most part, are safe. I mean, we’re the largest thing on the road. You do have to watch out of the window at every stop to make sure no one is stealing your luggage, or, just setting it on the curb thinking that its owner is getting off at that stop. Buses in this country are the most expensive way to travel, but by far the most efficient and safe. I’m sure I’ll be taking lots of them.

Now we move on to personally owned vehicles. This is the first country I’ve lived in that didn’t have its own automotive country (U.S.A., France, Japan) and it’s kind of interesting to see what vehicles make it to this country. If you’re not a taxi driver and you’re not rich, you probably don’t have a car. That means, for the most part, it’s taxis and nicer vehicles. People drive Lexuses, Mercedes, BMWs, I saw a Cadillac Escalade, I’ve seen vehicles from all over the spectrum. But, for the most part, there really aren’t that many American vehicles over here. The aforementioned Escalade is one of about five gas-guzzlin’ machines I’ve seen make it across the pond. And, the vehicles I have seen have been pretty random. I’ve seen a Dodge Intrepid, a Buick Rendezvous, a Dodge Caliber, and a few others I can’t remember. But, all in all, it’s just a random mix of vehicles. I’ve seen a Volkswagen dealership, a Toyota dealership, a Mitsubishi dealership but I’ve seen no American dealerships in this country. I guess these American automotive dealerships didn’t see the Africa market as a viable option.

Transportation in Benin is all over the map. (he he, puns) We have crazy Zemijohn drivers, and thick, smog-filled air, and over stuffed taxis. Though some of the vehicles may barely work, let me assure you, their horns do. It really goes along with all the other things in Benin that are mind boggling and amazing, but it’s just one of the many things that makes this adventure worth every minute.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Literally, i'm living in the middle of the bushes.... literally.

August 31, 2009

Porto Novo, Benin

We received our post announcements a few weeks ago and I was told that I’ll be moving to Kerou, which is in the Atacora region of Benin. (For those looking at a map, it’s in the northern region, right in the middle.) Kerou is a medium-sized village known for its dairy products, yam pile (pronounced pee-lay), and for generally being a bit difficult to get to.

Growing up, as we’re probably all aware, I was an only child. As such, I normally got what I wanted. (That sounds horrible, I know. I couldn’t figure out a nicer way to phrase it.) So, when things happen that I’m not expecting it’s takes me a moment to adjust. It’s not that I’m inflexible, or throw tantrums when things don’t go my way, it’s just something with which I hadn’t dealt much in my early childhood development and is something I’m learning to deal with as I mature. So, when I first found out where I was going to be posted I was a bit disappointed. I was disappointed because I wasn’t really posted close to anyone I knew. I was in the middle of nowhere. (To give a general understanding of how remote Kerou is you must understand that it’s a two-day journey from Porto Novo, where I’m living now, to Kerou and for one of those days I’m not on paved roads.) Therefore, for a few days following my post announcement I was a bit, how should I say this, disoriented, as I needed a few days to step back, revaluate, and look at my situation from a new vantage point.

After speaking with a few people I learned that I’ll be located in one of the prettiest areas of Benin and directly between two national parks. One of the national parks has lions, elephants, and giraffes. I’m close to Natitingou, which is a beautiful city situated in the mountains of Benin. I also have some really cool people with whom I share my workstation, which means we’re close to one another. (A workstation is like a Peace Corps Volunteer office. They are located in large cities generally close to volunteers and they have Internet, a library, and there are beds so we can stay over night.) Also, I found out that I will have a post mate, whom I’ve not met as of this posting. Word on the street is that she’s pretty cool: likes to joke and laugh and is generally a good time. I like those kinds of people.

One week after we found out where we would be going we left for a post visit so as to check out our new living arrangements, make sure that if there was still work to be done to our housing people knew about it, and to meet some of our colleagues and see our new schools.

I made the two-day journey with my new director, who is my boss, and we made a stop over in Parakou for the evening. (The Peace Corps mandates that we do not travel at night for safety concerns.) I had dinner with my boss and his family (there are pictures of him, his home, and one of his sons in my pictures) and had the best sauce legume (vegetable sauce) that I’ve had yet in Benin. After leaving Parakou the following day we got off the Goudrone (the paved road that goes to the north of the country) and onto the terre rouge (red ground). This is the point in my journey where I said goodbye to paved roads, which I wouldn’t see again for three days. After nine hours in the car we made it to Kerou. It’s a fine little town. I stayed with Professor Bandele and his family while in Kerou. Professor Bandele is a math professor and has a laugh that sounds like Sloth from the Goonies. This by no means implies that he’s of a deteriorated mental state, his laugh just sounds exactly like Sloth’s. The following day Professor Bandele took me around the village to meet a few of my fellow professors, the mayor, the chief of police, I got to see the school grounds (pictured), and where I’ll be living for the next two years (also pictured). Living in a third world country one needs to never have their expectations of things set too high. One must also realize that one is living in a developing country (Benin being the ninth least developed country in the world according to our training) and be surprised when things turn out well. So, after my nine-hour car ride on dirt roads and seeing how some people live in this country I was a bit afraid of where I’d be living. So, when I arrived at my new house I was pleasantly surprised. My walls are a nice color of green, there are paintings on the ceilings, and I HAVE A TOILET!!!! The house is new, so I’ll be the first people living there, and, for that matter, pooping in the toilet. When I saw the plumber installing a real, not-squatter toilet, I jumped for joy. If you’re not aware, toilets in this country are a luxury and we were not guaranteed to have one. We could potentially have a latrine, which I had used for the first time seven hours prior, and I surely didn’t want that. I know any some point I will be getting diarrhea sick and I surely don’t want to have to do that in a latrine. I also want you all to know that I DO NOT have running water, I have to dump water down the toilet as it doesn’t “flush.”

After checking out my new abode I ate dinner with Professor Bandele and my director, as well as a few other professors. It was interesting. The next morning I fell pretty ill as I am not all that acclimated to the food in the north, also, if the vegetables aren’t properly clean it can be pretty bad for us Americans. (To be quite honest, we have pretty weak stomachs in general.)

The rest of this story is something that needs to be told in person or over the phone… Just know that at three in the morning I found myself in a field evacuating my lower intestinal tract and stomach wearing a headlamp and staring up at the sky looking for a shooting star upon which to wish. I mean, I was looking for a sharfing star! Quite possibly the most demoralizing moment yet… and if you know me, that’s saying something. The next morning I was taken to the hospital in Kerou and was given some SERIOUS antibiotics. All is well now. But for a few moments there the S.S. Tartanic was loosing steam and taking on water. Ha, actually… I couldn’t even keep water in. I had to drink a salt-water solution.

On another note, the sky at night in Kerou was absolutely beautiful (I had plenty of instances to see it throughout the evening). Due to the lack of lights, and electricity for that matter, there is no light pollution. I had actually never seen so many stars at night in my life. If anyone reading this sends me a package a star chart would be a wonderful surprise/addition.

After my less-than-enjoyable trip to Natitingou, from where I would be taking a bus back to Porto Novo, and after the 12-hour trip from Natitingou to Porto Novo, I never thought I would be so excited to see my mosquito-netted bed and wooden desk.

That was my post visit. Though I got really sick I’m excited to get there and be a resident of Kerou. I’m excited to teach at my school and I’m excited to have my Peace Corps life start. Right now I’m teaching in model school and having a lot of fun, but being a stagaire (trainer) is nothing like what it’s going to be like when I’m a volunteer. I’m excited to have my own students and my own house and my own toilet! It’s nice being in Porto Novo, I’m just ready for my service to begin.

My “Swearing In” ceremony is September 25th, 2009. So, after that I’ll be moving to Kerou. When I know my address in Kerou I’ll have it changed on the sidebar of my blog. More than likely I will have things sent to Natitingou as I will have to go there quite frequently, Kerou doesn’t have a bank and no one in Kerou takes my VISA card. If you’re going to send something, don’t hesitate, it doesn’t matter where I am I’ll get the package.

Please take a look at my photos and let me know what you think. I’m sorry if it’s taking me awhile to answer emails. It’s not easy to get to the Internet. Also, it take a really long time for me to mail letters as the easiest way is to send them is with a volunteer who is ending his or her service. Receiving mail is easy. Sending mail is difficult. Emailing is probably the easiest way to communicate, though infrequent, but if you’d really like a letter please be patient with me. I’ve written them I just don’t have an easy way to send them.

I want to thank Mama D for her package. She won the race and was the first person to send me one. The soap is great. The soap that i find here leaves a gross sheen and it's hard to wash off when you have to use a bucket to take a shower.

Melf, you're the best. Thank you so much for my chocolate. You brightened not only my day but a few of my friends. lol, i loved my T-Bag. :-)

Know that someone in Africa thinks of you and misses you greatly…