Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Benin there, done that

After two years of pain, sweat, tears, elation, smiles, and no regret, I've finished.

I packed up most of my house after selling most of my furniture. I gave away most of my clothing to Abib, lord knows he deserves it. I had a going away party with my friends, both Beninese and American. I ate my favorite meals. I drank my favorite tchouk and sodabi. I reminisced about the things i love, like wagashi, little kids dancing in the streets, too many holidays/having a lot of down time, and etc, etc, etc. It's hard to capture in words the incredible experiences I've had in the past two years. And, I also thought about all the things that drove me to the brink insanity, such as lack of respect for time tables and appointments, being screamed at in the streets because of my skin color, having people talk about me in front of me in a language they think i don't understand, pooping a millions times a day, and the horrible hangovers that La Beninoise will give you. I've honestly had every single emotion i've ever had during my service. And, some i had never had before.

On my last few night in Benin I had great company. My friends allowed me to digress at every step to recount a story, be it of some guy walking up to me in the streets and asking me about money that was obviously from Korea (It said Bank of Korea on it) and having him refute me every time i said so saying it was Chinois, to the time i got licked by a monkey, to the time Kali got hit by a moto in village because she never looked as she crossed the street, to the time a dog tried to fight a dust devil, to the time i danced with the farmer ladies at this King's festival. Ashley, Jared, Suzi, Dave, and Sarah all did their best to console/encourage me in this nostalgic time. I'm eternally grateful.

I feel as though I did so many things and nothing at all. Everyday i tried something new. Everyday i learned something new. And, everyday i failed at something new. I fell down a lot, literally. Though, not as much as Karina. I stepped in a lot of poo, both literally and figuratively. And i've laughed so hard i've cried and farted at the same time. My service has changed me in a way that i think calms me a bit. Inspires me to live a life with purpose. And, to always go out and try to find a way to give back at gain at the same time. I know that i'm a different person. That's obvious. I've lost a bunch of weight. But, it's the profound and humbling effect that giving myself up to something larger than me that will surely be a constant presence in my life.

Can I talk about specifics? Not yet. Can I imagine what my life would be like if I hadn't joined the Peace Corps? Yes. I see it all around me. Am i glad i served? Absolutely.

The hardest part of leaving Peace Corps, and Kerou for that matter, is leaving the life behind I spent two years creating. The first year of my service I was trying to figure out/learn how to live as a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin. I came in as a bright-eyed Washingtonian who thought he might affect the lives of four or five people. I knew how to catch the subway, hail a taxi, set up a webinar, and coordinate national media events. Now, I'm leaving Benin knowing how to work with and speak to the Bariba, teach English, teach people how to build a windmill-powered water pump, coordinate a girls camp to teach about life planning, and to kill, cook, and eat a variety of bizarre animals. And I'm positive that i've affected more than five lives. I know this because I've taught new skills to people, I've encouraged people to continue their educations, I've encouraged fathers to pay for their daughters' educations, I've helped women take control of their finances, and I've taught new computer skills to eager learners who are ready to go out and put those skills to use. Sometimes you can sense the change and inspiration you've instilled in people. You can see it in their eyes.

People ask me now that I've returned if i would do it again. Heavens, no. I did it once already. It was easily the hardest thing I've ever done. But, would I take it all back if I could? Never. Not one tiny second. (Well, maybe the time I fell into the open sewer and ripped my shorts and the entire main intersection in Pehunco was privy to my man parts. I guess I'd take that back. Though, it's an amazing story. Ask me about it sometime.)

I want to thank all my friends and family for their unwavering support through this entire journey. I want to thanks those who sent me packages. A little contact with home was exactly what i needed through those tough times. I couldn't be luckier. I have the best family and friends a guy could ever ask for.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Kamp Kerou – Where Kids Can!

For the past year I’ve been organizing a girls’ youth camp

for thirty girls here in Kerou. The goal of the camp is to encourage young
girls to have and then achieve their goals, as well as teaching them about
sexual health and reproduction.

Thankfully I was lucky enough to partner with one of my good

friends Kimberly Sanders from California, who helped out with a lot of the
logistical planning and report writing. I prefer working on teams and she was a
great partner. I also had three other volunteers help out and be camp

Kamp Kerou consisted of 30 girls from CEF Kerou chosen by

their grades, class particpation, and overall personality. Nothing is worse
than having a camp where no one is participating in the activities, songs, and
games. I also employed the assistance of five female professors from my school.
These women were fantastic. They were just as engaged as the girls. They
encouraged the girls to raise their hands, gave anecdotes about things they’d
experienced as girls when they were the campers’ ages. Their experiences had a
profound effect on the girls. The counselors were able to show them that they
too had been in the exact same situation and had found a way to succeed. (Being
a school teacher in Benin is a very good job, especially for a woman.) I
wouldn’t have traded their presence for a million cfa.

The week was filled with laughing and learning and playing

and participating. I truly believe that we helped to open the eyes of at least
a few girls who had never before thought they could become something other than
mothers. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) This could very well have
been the first time that someone, especially someone with stature such as
teachers, has ever told these young girls that they could dream about a future.
In Benin one isn’t really encouraged to dream to live above one’s family. If
you’re from a family of farmers, you’re to be a farmer, etc. They feel that if
you want to be something else it’s because you’re ashamed of where you come
from, or you think you’re better than your upbringing. (An idea that is not too
different from those that some have in the U.S.) We had a career panel with a
midwife, teachers, the school accountant, Peace Corps volunteers, and a local
business woman. The girls asked great questions from “How did you put off being
a mother to become a professor?,” to “What did your family say about you
leaving your family to go off and learn?,” to
“How did you pay for your education?” You could really see the
excitement and genuine inquiry in their eyes. Another one of those moments
where you know you’re making a difference.

At the end of camp the girls put on skits to show what

they’d learnt throughout the week. There were presentations on “Sex for Grades”
(which is an unfotunate reality of the Beninese education system), “Proper
Menstrual Hygiene,” and “How to Keep Boys at Bay.” All of the girls had a great
time with this activity. It was their chance to get up and give the
presentations instead of watching them. Most made us laugh, some made us tear
up as girls shared their experiences of losing their virginities as a frightfully
young age, and most made us proud. You’re never really sure if your audience as
received your intended message, let alone understood it. After seeing their
skits, it was clear that both had been achieved.

At the very end we had a little dance with the girls and the

counselors. We all got together and showed off our moves. The girls showed us
how to dance properly Beninese style, doing the yam pile dance, and other
various village dance moves, and we showed them how to fist pump!

It is routinely said that camps are the highlight of a

volunteers service. The curriculm is usually your own. You’re not being
critiqued by Beninese inspectors. You’re teaching material you know in your
heart to be critically important to the development of your students, and is
not covered in the classroom, and more often than not, never broached in the
home. These camps are an opportunity for us to have direct contact with the
girls on a level that potentially could have the most profound effects. Kamp
Kerou was surely one of the brightest and most rewarding experiences of my
Peace Corps service.

I want to give the biggest THANKS I can give to all of those

who donated to Kamp Kerou. Without your generous support this camp never could
have happened. Rest assured knowing that you not only helped us teach girls how
to achieve their dreams, but also plan for their futures, and you all paid for
another year of schooling that was surely not assured. You’re all heroes to
these girls. Thank you so much.

Class Dismissed

My second year of teaching in Benin ended with little
fanfare, no parties, less than average drama, but with quite a bit of

Year two was definitely easier, as I was more familiar with
the Beninese education system, the curriculm, and I didn’t have to teach 4th
grade. I prefer my students be able to understand simple phrases like “I am Mr.
T,” and “Sit down and stop talking!” 6th grade students (4eme in the
Beninese system) are older, more engaging, and more experienced. This means, in
my opinion, you can be more daring and creative with the material, as well as
introduce teenage/puberty-related topics. Don’t forget that at this age some of
them are having children, working 20-30 hours a week, and, though not many,
some are contemplating leaving school and becoming full-time adults. We
broached topics such as alcohol, smoking, HIV/AIDS, sex, sexual health, healthy
living practices, and abstinence. It was obvious that some of the kids, because
they still are kids, were reticent to participate in class, but there were many
who were quite learned on the dangers of drinking too much and having too many
sexual partners. (I’m not sure I want to know why/how.)

I had one class that was filled with bright students. And,
those who weren’t bright enjoyed participating. This class was literally the
highlight of my teaching week. We played games, laughed, learned, and generally
had a great time in class. My two favorite students were also in this class: a
girl named Faida, who was by far my best/favorite student (and is pictured next
to me on my Facebook profile picture), and a boy named Joseph, whom I taught
how to play chess. They were engaging in class. They participated daily, if not
too eagerly. They asked questions that demonstrated their understanding of the
material and desire to use/adapt/modify it to previous lessons. They encouraged
others around them to participate and rarely
disrupted the classroom. You could not have asked for better students. I
promise you, I will surely miss them both.

After my last day of class I felt both joy and sadness. I
was excited to have completed the two years of teaching obligatory to my
service, I accomplished something; I struggled, I prospered, I tried, I failed,
and, for lack of a better word, I taught. I stood in front of 70 studnets per
class with two two-hour long classes a day and found a way to overcome so many
obstacles to imbue an understanding, if though merely cursory, of the English
language. Most days didn’t go according to plan, but I found a way to make it
work. Somedays I left skippy and jocund, others I left distraught and downtrodden.
But, looking back on my two years as a teacher, I wouldn’t have changed a
thing. I challenged myself to not let hardships overcome me and to always look
for a solution. Sometimes I had to reteach things three or four times, but
progression was made and I know my students are better for it.

Before teaching in Benin, it was my job to “teach” people
about advanced automotive teachnologies; to breakdown complex ideas and
concepts into digestable content suited for all. I think my experience in Benin
has heled me hone my abilities to break down different concepts and ideas
making them accessible to a different audience. I know that my teaching
experience has made me a better “teacher.”
Will I ever be a classroom teacher again? Not sure. I’d love
to be a professor later on in life. I can think of nothing better at keeping
someone young at heart that surrounding themselves with the freshness of youth
and eagerness to learn one experience in a classroom environment.

Thanks to all of you who’ve supported me throughout these
two years by sending markers and supplies. I promise you it was appreciated by
more than just me.

Monday, May 23, 2011

home = yenu (in Bariba)

Many of you may have wondered over the holiday season what a typical home in Kerou looks like. In the States we all travelled to grandma’s house to celebrate the holidays, or some of us stayed at home to be with the new family we’d just started.

A typical home here in Kerou is quite different from a one in the States, for many reasons. First, let’s start with the make-up of the household. There is usually one “Poppa.” He is the king of the castle and literally whatever he says goes. There is no real arguing with him. If he says jump, who say how high and how many times. Typically there is one main wife, who would have been the first, and their children. They live in the main house of the courtyard. More than likely, if he can afford it, he has a few children with her. If he’s a well-to-do man he’s invited her parents, as well as his own, to live in one or two room houses that are connected to the same courtyard. Remember, these houses usually do not have bathrooms, nor do they have kitchens. As shown in one of my earlier photos, a kitchens usually consists of three rocks over a fire to hold a cauldren. Most of the houses are made of mud with cement over top of the mud. This isn’t the best construction material as termites LOVE to eat mud and can usually eat through the cement to get to it. But, alas, c’est comme ca. (It’s like that.)

Usually after a few years with the Poppa’s first wife, if he’s finalcially stable enough, and not a Chrstian, for the most part, the Poppa will find another wife. She is usually much younger than he and of the ripe age to have more children. In some instances i’ve seen him marry someone 20 years younger. She had ambition to become a successful woman in the community and unfortunately one of the only ways to do that is to marry someone with clout.

So, now we have one family, let’s call them the “Idrissou’s” and there are the grandparents from both sides, if they’re still alive, the life expectancy here isn’t much higher than 50, a few sisters from either side of the family and their children if their father is absent. (note: men don’t usually support other men as men are to support themselves and as many members of their family who need it, the females and children, that is.) Then he has all of his own children, as well. This can lead to households up to 20 people. Now, don’t think that the Poppa is the only one making any money. For the most part, women do what they can to donate to the cause. Unfortunately most women in Kerou don’t have an education further than sixth grade. Therefore, their aide extends to selling things in the market, becoming a seamstress, and/or if they’re young/pretty enough becoming a bar waitress which usually leads to a bit of prostitution. If there are boys around the house who are of age to go work in the fields, or help out with Poppa’s business, perhaps he’s a mechanic, merchant, or farmer, they are required to do so. It’s not easy for one man to support 20 people. I know I have to use money that i’ve saved from America to help myself and i’m just one guy.

Typically, when a man takes a wife, and he is financially stable enough, he moves into his own house/consession. And, in theory, starts his own concession. (A concession is a group of houses/apartments with a surrounding fence of some sort. In these houses/apartments is where he houses his extended family) In the house there is usually a main salon, with one of two rooms extending off of that. There are no hallswalls, typically between rooms, just doors that lead into other rooms. Most of the time there is only one doorway leading out of the house and that leads into the courtyard. The courtyard is really like a big living space. Because of the extreme temperature, there is usually a large shade tree in the courtyard, underwhich daily life almost always takes place: cooking, dish washing, bathing (if you’re a baby), reading, studying, talking, and just plain old loungin’ around. Trust me, being under a shady tree is the most enjoyable place in Kerou. Yes, it’s stifling hot, but that’s because of the sun. There’s usually a breeze, so when you’ve found an escape from the sun with a breeze, you’re very much so in luck. Under a mango tree right at the end of the hot season might be one of the best places in Benin: you’re out of the sun and you have the most delicious fruit in the world hanging in front of you. Not so bad.

In Kerou, many of the residents are related somehow, literally everyone is a cousin. Big events are quite literally a third of the residents of Kerou. Big family events are things like baptisms, funerals, marriages, and New Years. Men who are financially stable enough are expected to have big parties, kill lots of goats and chickens and provide meals for all of his family and friends. During holidays children from poor families put on their best clothing and walk around from concession to concession dancing and begging for money. In Muslims communities those who have are expected to give to those who haven’t. It’s a community that tries to help others out when it can. Which is a really cool thing. In America we’re reluctant to help others around us sometimes because we feel like we’re getting scammed, we don’t know them, or it’s just not in our nature. Don’t get me wrong, we love to donate, but i feel like it’s sometimes to those who are outside of our community. That being said, this is where faith-based communities really come together. It’s the same here. Those of the same faith help each other out whenever possible.

There are many things about family life in Kerou that are completely different, from the family structure to where you live/eat/bathe. The idea that women aren’t seen has having a career-focused future, to children worked on the farm. But, there are a lot of things that span our two cultures, as well: family support, sharing holidays, and knowing where you call home. I miss mine and am eager to be apart of it once again.

I miss you all deeply and will be in MY HOME very soon.

A Functioning Democracy in Africa

There’s been a lot of upheaval around the world, especially regarding elections. Cote d’Ivoire was engulfed in a multi-month quasi-civil war, Libya has its citizens rising up declaring their desire for a democracy, the same with Egypt. That being said, there are many countries in Africa where democracies flourish, Benin is one of those countries.

As with many things in this country, the election was slow to start and took awhile to actually get up and running. One of the main culprits was a lack of voter registration. The literacy rate in Benin is rather low, and the rate of those with actual identification cards is even lower. This means that registration is impossible for some, difficult for most, The president, Dr. Thomas Yayi Boni, postponed the election to allow the Beninese citizenry to go and get their identification cards after many information campaigns headed be local election officials all over the country. In Kerou, there were lines of interested Beninois that stretched for “blocks” of people who were trying to get their voter registration cards. Ingeniously, the government declared that these registration cards would double as citizen identification cards.

After weeks of postponing and hemming and hawing around, the elections finally took place. In Benin campaigning can only begin two weeks before the election actually takes places. Unfortunately, the voting date got pushed back three or four times. So, the two-week campaign season turned into a month. All throughout the country posters supporting candidates such as Abdoulaye Bio Tchane, Salifou Issa, incumbent Yayi Boni, and Akuavi Marie-Elise Christiana Gbedo proclaiming their unique visions for the future and how they’ll be the ones to take Benin there.

Historically, there are normally two rounds of elections. The first round is for all of the candidates, this year there were 14. After the first round, things are usually whittled down to the top two candidates, who face in a run-off. They usually find some of the candidates who haven’t made it to the second round and create alliances. Then the non-second rounders throw their support behind the second rounders in hopes of garnering influence from the winning candidate and hopefully a position in the new president’s administration. A candidate must get more than 50% percent of the vote to win. This normally doesn’t happen in the first round, with some candidates getting up to 30% and thus needing the support of the other candidates. If during the first round a candidate gets the necessary 50%, there will not be a second round.

This year we had such an event. Yayi Boni, the incumbent, got 54% of the vote in the first round. This is not a regular occurrence and garnered some attention from those of whom did not get enough votes. There were some protests in and around the capital, Porto Novo, and Cotonou, populated by people expressing their discontent with someone from the north; Yayi Boni is Bariba and from the same area and people who have taken me in. Yayi Boni has thus been sworn in as the president of the Republic of Benin.

It was exciting to see how a democracy functions in a culture that is so completely different from my own. In America, it’s taboo to speak of politics and for whom you’ll be voting. Here, you’re encouraged to talk about your feelings and political leanings, as long as they coincide with your heritage and tradition: Muslims are to vote for Muslims, Christians for Christians, Fon for Fon and Bariba for Bariba, et cetera. Having a dissenting view is looked down upon and might evince upbraiding from those closest to you. But, is that really so different from America? Oh, how I’ve been chided by family members for being a liberal. But, I’m surely allowed to vote for whomever I please without fear of reprisal. I’m not so sure that’s the case for my neighbors.

Elections are tricky things. Everyone has an idea about how the country should be led. Everyone is passionate about their feelings. In a democracy there is nothing more important than an election. We’ve seen that sometimes this passion can lead to violence and upheaval, but we’ve also been witness to how democracies are supposed to function: people vote, leaders listen, and the country moves forward. I’m glad Benin is one of those countries.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Christmas on the Beach

Joyeux Noel!!! (Merry Christmas) Meillieurs Voeux!!! (Best Wishes) Bon Fete!!! (Good Party)

The holiday season was just upon me and boy was it something. My best friend Steven has told me about these Christmases at the beach and I really didn’t understand their appeal until this year.

Last year I spent Christmas with my postmate. I decorated the house with snowflakes, pin the nose on the reindeer, and a naughty and nice list. (Def. on the naughty list, duh. As most of you are as well, I’m sure.) So, that means that I did the Christmas at my post, which is something you’re supposed to do at least once. Check. This year I decided that I would do something I bit more adventurous/relaxing/around more of the friends I’ve created this year. So, I got a bungalow on the beach at a place called Auberge Grand Po Po with Shannon. Apparently this was one of the first places built in the area, is known for its food, and when I called I asked about food and he informed me that this was a “real” hotel. I daydreamed that perhaps, at least, I’d be able to get a massage while drinking out of a coconut.

We got there the Monday before Christmas and were excited for a relaxing week on the beach eating good food and forgetting we were in Benin. I had just recently been passed Hunger Games and was excited to read it. We arrived to the usual taximoto/argument/overpriced turmoil usually associated with Zemijohns to find our adorable little white bungalow nestled a few meters back from the ocean in a coconut grove. Not bad.

The first evening we decided to have dinner there. A few drinks beforehand on the little patio over looking the ocean: obviously. So, we’re about two American-sized (American-sized beers are about half the size of the beers we normally drink) beers deep and the cute little waitress asks if we’d like to move upstairs to eat. We said, why no. I think eating right here on the beach would be just perfect. Thanks, we’ll just stay here. To which she replied that they didn’t do that. Didn’t do what I wondered. Apparently you weren’t allowed to sit down on the patio and eat. They refused to serve us our food at a table on the beach-front patio because they didn’t do that. Anyone who knows me knows that I don’t understand stupid. I wasn’t asking to eat baby sea turtle off the forehead of a trafficked child. I was asking to eat dinner at the same table I was having drinks because it had a fantastic view of the ocean. Strike one.

The days passed like the breeze billowing across the surf. I collected seashells. Did some beach yoga. Almost died trying to swim in the ocean. Seriously people, it’s not a bad idea to pay attention to the State Department’s travel warnings regarding swimming in the ocean in Benin. It was nearly impossible to get out and Shannon was literally swept from her feet by the undertow.

A few times at lunch we wandered the beach road looking for places to eat and souvenir shops. We stumbled past a makeshift hut/stand thing when its patron yelled to us asking if we were hungry. Though we had already eaten, the hot sun was pounding on us and a cold drink sounded nice. Marcel, the patron, was a super nice guy offering us ice-cold coca colas and beers to help beat the heat. Marcel’s Pizzeria turned out to be one of of lunchtime hot spots as he made fantastic thin crust pizzas, accommodated all of our white-guy necessities, and was centrally located between all of the hotels where our friends would later be staying. After a few beverages we ventured out onto the road again looking for some keep sakes.

The cool thing about this area is that most of the touristy stuff is actually made by the dude who’s selling it. That being said, the quality/usefulness of the products is questionable. A wallet made from a gourd hanging from my neck, yeah, not so sure. A wooden statue of an elephant, not sure that’ll fit in the taxi I’ll be forced into on the way home. That being said, I did manage to find a sweet bottle that was painted with mud and superglue. I got it filled with some of the locally made liquor, sodabi at this road-side stand I found the first time I was in Grand Po Po. (Side note, share this with your older relatives who may remember. Sodabi is similar to Jake, the liquor they used to sell during prohibition. Therefore, after prolonged consumption people have gone blind. I’ve heard of temporary blindness after bender one evening. And, everyone I know who likes sodabi is just a bit crazy.)

After one day of lazily flouncing around the beach, building beach chairs, jumping in the surf, resting under a beach hut, we decided to rinse off by the pool. It was just after midday and the sun was pounding, it was a million degrees, and I had sand in most of my crevices. We head over to the pool and there’s a guy cleaning it and his hose is attached to the faucet we would use to rinse off. So, I ask the guy if we can get in to wash off and he could just suck up the sand then. Or, we could hang out at the other end of the pool. Also, don’t think that our sand would clog the filtration system because there isn’t one. It’s just a concrete hole in the ground with water in it. They use the hose next to the pool to fill it up. He said that we couldn’t and to come back in an hour. In an hour I would be irritated and hungry; and in an hour I wanted to be at Marcel’s eating a pizza and cooling off. As you can see, I was not happy. Call me a prissy American and I’ll ask you to come live in my concrete hut for 15 months and try to call me prissy again. I’m on vacation. ::stomps foot::

After this I’d grown tired of the “real” hotel. On one of our earlier excursion we stumbled across an adorable little group of bungalows closer to where our friends had rented a place. So, we decided to move to the Saviors of Africa! Cuter rooms. No pool. Better service. Worth it.

While eating lunch one day at Marcel’s I noticed a clang clanging going on down by the beach. Marcel said that it was the local tradition of pulling in the nets everyday for the bounty. Apparently, everyday, except Sunday because the fish rest, men from all over the village come down in the morning and start pulling in the nets. This whole process takes about three to four hours as the nets are about half a kilometer, if not more, out to sea. I decided that I would go down there one morning and help bring in some fish. It sounded like the clang clanging was to a rhythm, which made me want to whistle/dance while I worked, and I decided to give it a whirl.

Normally you have to ask for permission before you take a picture. They get quite angry if you don’t. You usually have to pay. When you don’t ask permission you pay more. Sometimes they force you to buy them sodabi. Remember, always ask first.

I walked down to the ocean, attracted by the rhythmic banging, and asked if I could help. Of course. They love seeing the white guy do the work. Normally we’re just rolling around this country in an air conditioned SUV, unless you’re a PCV, then you’re smashed into a taxi/on the back of a zemijohn/sweating your balls off. I danced about as I tugged the line just like everyone else. They sang songs which I’m sure spoke of fish, women, and sodabi, and routinely got off the line to dance. Some of my fellow yankers were more serious than others. Some were obviously inebriated. Others looked respectable and family oriented. Each wanted his picture taken with a fevor unexpected given their insistence on me paying beforehand.

After the second hour of yanking I grew tired and my hands hurt. I was trying to figure out why I had paid money to come down to the beach to do work. And, the hotel had called down to say that my breakfast was ready and we all know they clearly weren’t going to bring it to me. J

Around one in the afternoon the nets finally reached shore and we separated the catch. Women from all over town came down to claim/pay for their basin of fish. Apparently most of the men who pulled the nets in were from Ghana and are brought in to do the manual labor. All of the profits go to some consortium in Ghana, which is two countries over, and the men are paid monthly. I noticed that a after the nets were caught in representatives from the consortium arrived, gave the prices for the basins and larger fish, took the best catches, and left immediately.

Later in the week some of my fellow PCVs arrived and we mingled, threw Frisbee, played games, and enjoyed the collective environment. This was the first time that the newest stage was allowed to take vacation, so you can be assured we profited from that.

Christmas day came along and I exchanged gifts with some of my friends. Up in Kerou I’ve had a lot of time on my hands and I was looking for a hobby. I remembered that I had a friend who repurposed old cow horns into decorations, and that I had bought some jewelry made from the same material. I can do that, I thought, and took to creating jewelry for my female friends. I made a few bracelets, a necklace, and some earrings. It felt pretty cool making something that was this pretty by hand. I hope I’ll be able to continue making jewelry from other materials when I get back. I’m sure whatever school I go to will have an art class to meet my needs.

After Christmas I went back to Kerou. Sometimes it’s pretty easy to get to Kerou, other times I have to take planes, trains, and automobiles to get home. Let’s just say that it took a car, a bus, three taxis, and two tractor trailers to get home. I was smashed in between kids, old women, PCVs, cotton, and at one point I thought I was livestock.

Being in Kerou for New Years was cool. I forgot that people don’t party on New Years Eve except at the stroke of midnight. Then the party begins. It’s not as hectic that evening, but New Years day is the real party. I went from house to house visiting my friends and colleagues. We ate lots of food, drank with friends, and danced the day away. That evening we went to one of the local clubs. (I know, I couldn’t believe there was a club here either.) Unfortunately the club didn’t have air conditioning, and it seemed as though it was nothing but students there. I decided that at my apartment was the best venue and returned.

Welcoming in the New Year in Kerou means that I’ve spent one entire year in my tiny village in the bushes. Among the many things I learned in 2010, how to actually live in Kerou was the most important. 2010 was the year I spent in Africa.

What does 2011 have for me. I’m sure new adventures and friends await; as well as reunions with the old. I have a sweet European vacation planned, and could potentially be ending the year in South America.

I wish you the best of wishes. Know that I love you all and will see you soon.

P.S. – there should be pictures up soon. Also, I’m still here for 7 months. I still need soap, shaving crème, chocolate, loose-leaf tea, and your love. The favor will be returned upon my own.

10 Things I Miss More Than Running Water

I chose this title because there are a lot of concessions I’ve made over here. I’ve given up a lot of things and I’ve been able to replace with other things. Not having air conditioning means I get a fan. I don’t have a ZipCar but I do have a bike. Simple things. But, there are some things that I miss more than I miss running water. Please, don’t be offended if you’re not on this list. It’s obvious that I miss my family and my friends. I miss holidays. I miss celebrations. Duh. This is some of the other stuff.

1. Brunch. I’m sorry Mom. I’m sorry Internet. I miss brunch more than I miss flushing toilets, the metro, and sexting. I miss delicious Bloody Marys, crab cakes benedict, fried chicken with sweet onion gravy, scrambled eggs and thickly cut bacon. I miss endless mimosas. I miss jarring to life at some time on Saturday or Sunday morning/afternoons texting my besties, putting some clothes on, and stumbling to one of my fav. brunch spots. I miss the Logan Circle Leisure Sports Association.

2. My BlackBerry. A few years ago I ditched my iPhone/it fell in a pool. I decided to get a Blackberry. The feeling of the leather on my fingers as I updated my Facebook status was incomparable. I long to see that little red dot blinking at me just to get my attention. I miss my Google calendar that auto sync’d with my Blackberry Calendar. I miss BBM. Because I couldn’t take it any longer, I asked my mother to send my Blackberry Bold to me. The cell service here isn’t too bad. And, they advertise this phone as new, which it is not, on the billboards in Cotonou. I hope this implies MTN supports all of my required services. (Update-given the less than stellar electrical system in this country and its questionable presence, i decided to stick with my w810i—it has a flashlight, infinitely useful, long battery life, the Bold comparably does not, and will more than likely die right as i’m leaving—instead of switching to my Bold. Maybe if the Guyana thing works.)

3. The Internet. I don’t actually think I can explain how much the Internet was a part of my life before my service; therefore, I am equally incapable of describing how much I miss it.

4. Whole Foods. Monday night was my grocery shopping night. I would get back from working out and change out my bags and rush off to the Whole Foods a few blocks away between 14th and 15th on P. I would put my newly downloaded podcast about media on my iPod and shop away with the best looking shopping crowd in DC. This Whole Foods is in a particularly good looking part of the city. So, not only is the food nice to look at but the people are too. I got to pick out what delicious salads I would make for the week while learning about “the dismal state of health reporting on America’s morning news programs,” or about video games for the differently-abled. This shopping ritual made Mondays not so bad.

5. Drink Specials/Dance Parties/Night Clubs. $2 Skyy drinks. Philadelphia special: PBR and a shot of whisky. Two for One Top Shelf. Bliss. Shift. Black Cat. Town. Pants off Dance off. Hipsters. Awkward Dancing. Great hair cuts. Smart/Weird People. Those who understand this understand what I am going through. Those who do not, sadly, do not.

6. Mexican Restaurants/Chips and Salsa. Nuff Said.

7. The Metro. I lived two blocks from the Metro in DC. It was my main mode of transportation in and around the city. I was on the Yellow/Green line. This meant I could get to work in 15 minutes if train showed up right as I got there. Which happened. The Metro was romantic. It could take me all throughout the city, it was paid for, and there were other people to look at. Which could and did range from college students, to White House staff, to cooks at the Hilton. It’s clean and efficient. And, at times it’s funny. So far, it’s been my favorite regular means of transportation. And, you can go out with your friends and have as much fun as you want and have a safe way to get home.

8. Holiday Seasons. Jingle bells! Bat Man smells! Robin laid an egg. I love getting all dressed up for holidays. I miss dressing for International Talk Like A Pirate Day. It’s not everyday you get to wear a paper parrot on your shoulder during a staff meeting. I also miss getting together with family. I miss buying gifts for people. I miss eating too much. I miss falling asleep while watching “A Christmas Story.” I miss putting up stockings at work. I loved it when Mama D, my boss, invited us all over to make cookies! I miss Labor Day/Memorial Day weekends and the Fourth of July. I miss cookouts and Sam Adams. We definitely fete over here in Benin, but it’s just not like what I partied to in the States.

9. Racquetball. I’ve played sports my entire life. I like being in a league and the weekly competition. I picked up racquet sports in college and have been hooked ever since. I miss having my Thursday evening/Saturday morning racquetball matches against guys from all over the political/profession/age spectrum. I was playing in a league, so every match counted. I surely didn’t win all the time. But, I definitely didn’t lose all the time, either. And, I like the way racquetball makes my butt look. I miss having a regular outlet for the all-sport inside.

10. TiVo. Ok, it’s not just TiVo. I miss television, as well. I miss watching Big Bang Theory and then How I Met Your Mother on Mondays. Then, sometimes I would have to TiVo Dexter because of a date. Or that if I wanted to watch a movie I had ten movie channels and pay-per-view. Cash Cab. Mythbusters. Dirty Jobs. And, I could rewind and pause it at leisure. Granted, I’m watching a lot of television shows over here on my laptop, I want to be able to channel surf while eating some Chinese takeout. Guilty.

This list has been brewing in the back of my mind for a few months now. While all the PCVs are together for a meeting or haphazardly in the same workstation on transit, we/I like to talk about what’s happening in the States and what parts of my life I miss. You learn a lot about someone by the things that they miss.

And, as always, know that I miss you all terribly, especially my mother.