Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Final Post & Final Projects: Why We Were Too Busy to Finish our Blog

Charlie and I completed our service in Benin on September 16, 2011. We want to apologize that we didn't post for the last 8 months of our service, but we really busy and it became more difficult to have access to a computer- mainly Internet! However, we would like to thank those that did follow our blog and write a final entry to conclude our time in the Peace Corps.

Charlie and I spent out last year working hard on two projects for the community of Lalo. Many of you are most familiar with the school's library project because we reached out to many of you for a donation to help us complete this project. Thank you, again, to those of you that supported this project!

These are some "before" pictures to give you an idea of why we decided to re-do the school library. It was a mess and totally inaccessible!

These are pictures of the project in progress: Cleaning and classifying the books, installing the new furniture, and moving the books into their new home.

And... the final product!

We could not have completed this project without the support of those that donated, so again a big THANK YOU on behalf of the students at CEG Lalo.

Charlie worked hard on organizing a project to install 10 latrines for communities in or near Lalo that did not currently have them. You may be thinking, "Where, then, did they go to the bathroom?" Answer: the closest field. As a public health specialist, Charlie had to do his part to make sure that the citizens of Lalo had access to the most basic means of sanitation! Here are a few pictures to show that process:

While it may seem that these projects made a large impact on the lives of those living in Lalo, we feel that the Beninese made a larger impact on our lives than anything that we left behind. We had a great experience and wouldn't trade it for anything. We miss our friends there, but they will stay in our hearts forever. Again, thank you to all of our friends and family (and blog readers!) for their support- we wouldn't have made it through without you!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Becoming a Real Beninese Family...

Community integration plays a key role in the Peace Corps experience. We decided that in order to better integrate into the Beninese culture, we needed more children! One child is not acceptable in KoKoKo helped us out in this effort...we have three new additions!

Too cute for words...the kitties that is, not Charlie!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Birthdays in Benin

Birthdays are not big celebrations in Benin. Most people don't even know when their birthday is. This makes teaching age in English class very difficult when you have children telling you that they are 18 years old and they look like they are 12. Most really have no idea how old they are!

A popular nightly TV show here is the "obituaries." They have a 15-20 minute segment of scrolling pictures (with really awful, mournful music) and the dates people died. Sounds dreadful, right? But people love it! It is common for people to have over 100 years of age when they died- 113 years old for example. We don't personally believe they were that old, but however they kept track of their age from the time they were born, that is what they believed!The oldest women in Lalo recently died and she was supposedly over 150 years old. I'm not kidding. People tell us this with a straight face. We have yet to figure out the secret to longevity in Benin!

However, our birthdays were still big celebrations! In October we celebrated Miranna's 31st and in January we celebrated Charlie's 33rd.
Below, a few pictures to document the celebrations!

1) The first of Miranna's two birthday celebration was at the village chief's house- with the 13 kids! We attempted to make a large rice krispy treat to didn't turn out so hot. Considering the Beninese had never eaten a rice krispy treat before, they still thought it was good!
2) The second event was a smaller affair with our neighbors. The youngest daughter also has an October birthday. This is the preparation of the birthday meal at our neighbor's house. This is a typical Beninese kitchen- the open back area of the house with a mud stove or fire circle.
3) Friends and neighbors singing "Happy Birthday."
4) Dancing the night away! (sidenote: notice the 2 dads in their matching track suits!).
5) Last, but not least, Charlie ringing in his 33rd year with the local beer named "33!" How appropriate!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Holidays- American and Beninese Style!

Where as our "holiday season" is from Thanksgiving 'til New Years- the holiday season here pretty much lasts the whole 2 months of December and January! So, we have been doing a lot of celebrating!

It all started with a "traditional" American Thanksgiving meal- all made possible with the help of a package from home containing all the necessary ingredients. We didn't find a whole turkey to stuff, but we made grilled turkey wings, stuffing, green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes and a homemade pumpkin pie!

Charlie enjoying a grilled turkey wing and Meredith (a volunteer that lives near us) displaying the green bean casserole.

Bon Appetit! We were joined by one of our neighbor kids, Moreau- he wasn't thrilled with the American food, but he did like the mashed potatoes!

Charlie and Erik (our closest volunteer) grilling the turkey wings. Andrea, one of my students and the daughter of our neighbors, supervising.

Meredith and Miranna doing the prep work: Chopping potatoes and rolling out pie crust!

They do celebrate Christmas in Benin- at least in the South where we live. The North is predominately Muslim so I’m not sure if is the same in the North. Christmas is often referred to as a "kids" holiday. However, they don't believe in Santa Clause- if you ask anyone they'll tell you he is dead so how could he leave you presents?! You can imagine how confused they were when we tried to explain that Santa comes down a chimney and leaves presents in stockings! Children make masks (called Kaletas) and go from house to house singing and dancing in exchange for a small donation or candy. Its kind of like Halloween!
Gifts are not exchanged between families- mostly because of the lack of money. Families spend their money on buying a lot of food and drinks with which to celebrate. Families typically kill a goat or a pig, which are too expensive to be everyday fare, and have that with rice- also not something typically eaten on a daily basis because it is also more expensive. They invite friends and family over to eat and drink. On Christmas Eve we had some neighborhood kids over to make Caletas and then that night went to midnight mass with our neighbors. On Christmas day we went to a mass that the Catholic Church had at the health center where Charlie works and then we went to 4 different people’s houses to eat, drink, and visit.
Below: 1) Kids in front of our house in their masks singing and dancing- one even on stilts! 2) Miranna with neighborhood kids in a mask making session we hosted at our house. We saved all the goodies from our packages (ribbons, wrapping paper, etc) and were able to make some great masks. 3)Charlie helping the kids whom live at the health center make Kaletas.

New Years Day is a bigger celebration in Benin than New Year's Eve- mainly because it isn't religiously based. However, it is very similar to Christmas because it also consists of visiting friends, eating, and drinking. All-in-all it was a pretty low-key holiday, but we were happy to spend it in Lalo with our friends.
Next entry...and the celebrations continue.

Back to School

Despite what you may be thinking, we have not abandoned our blog. Life has just been very busy- which by our standards is a very good thing (it makes you forget about the heat…kinda)! So, since we last wrote, what have we been up to?
At the end of September we went to Ghana for a week. It was a great vacation and a good break from Benin. Ghana is much more developed than Benin, so we were able to eat sushi and go to a real movie- what a treat! We spent most of the time travelling along the coast visiting historical European forts and slave trade sites- as well as enjoying the beach! (will post more on this later along with some pics)

School started at the beginning of October- and well, that is mainly why you haven’t heard from us (because I am the one that writes the blog posts)! The beginning of the school year is always interesting because it is a demonstration in the lack of efficiency of the Beninese government. So even thought the 1st day of school was set for October 4th, that didn’t mean much. The school administration showed up and started paper work, but teachers and students don’t actually start showing up until about a week later- and classes really start another week after that. So the beginning of this year was even more interesting because a week after the “official” start date, the government announced administration changes. Why they didn’t take the 3 month break to do this so that the new administration could be in place for the new school year, I am not sure. The top 3 people in my school administration were to be sent elsewhere. Even though this was good news (the Director was very dishonest), it meant a huge delay on the already delayed start to the school year. However, Madame Miranna ignored the confusion around her and started teaching. Another week later the government held a mandatory week-long training for all the teachers. Again, why didn’t they take any week in the 3 month break to do this? The new administration arrived at the end of October and it was at this point that teachers began receiving their class schedule. So, most teachers actually started teaching at the beginning of November- a full month later. It is now one week into December and exams are next week. After 1 month of classes (and not even a full month, depending on how often teachers actually show up for work) students are going to be tested.

All in all, I love teaching and am so glad this was my assignment. But, there are many frustrating moments- not just because of the structure of the system, but also because of attidues towards learning? By the time I am get the students in my classes they have already spent 7-8 years in the Beninese school system. This is a system that rewards those that can copy, memorize, and regurgitate. There is absolutely no creative thinking developed in these children. I push my students to try and think outside the box in multiple ways but it is a struggle because students don’t want to be pushed. They simple want the answer so they can memorize it. As long as they can get the passing average on the test, that is all they need. There are no rewards in this system for top students, no honor classes, no scholarships, etc. So, why does it matter if a student has the best grade in the class? There is no push for students to be the best and the brightest. To me this is really sad, because I have a few really talented students and I see them just getting lost in the system.

These are just some of the many problems with the Beninese educational system- I can’t even begin to write about them all. It is so frustrating to watch the inefficiency of the school system because it is just hurting the children- and subsequently the future of Benin. Since we’ve been here, I have concluded that this is the #1 problem in Benin. Granted, I might be a little biased in my view because I see the problems on a day to day basis- whereas an environmental or health volunteer might have a different opinion. However, until the education system is reformed Benin is never going to be able to develop. The lack of creative thinking permeates all levels of society here and this will take a long time to change.

I am only one person and I can’t change the system, but I do my best to be a positive role model for the other teachers to inspire them to change teaching methods and attitudes. I also devote a lot of time and energy to working with students- especially those that excel. On this end, I also hope that I have helped one or two students decide to stay in school, be creative thinkers, and be the best they can be.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Good Times in Ghana

We decided to take a trip to Ghana at the end of September to enjoy the last bit of "free time" before Miranna started back to school. While Ghana doesn’t seem that far from Benin, from our house in Lalo- through Togo- and then to Accra, the capital of Ghana, it was about a 7 hour taxi ride- multiple taxis, that is. But, the reward at the end of a long travel day was mojitos and sushi- a big treat for us!

Accra is very developed, probably the most developed city in West Africa, so we took full advantage and pretended we were back in America for a few days. This included a trip to a mall and a real movie theater!After a few days in Accra, we travelled along the coast to visit many of the coastal forts that were used during the slave trade days- mainly by the Portuguese and Dutch. It was really interesting- and also sad- to see this side of history. One the forts was visited by Obama when he was in Ghana. The fort has a place where visiting dignitaries lay reefs as a memorial to those having gone through the slave trade. Aside from some historical tourism, we also spent some time relaxing on the beach in the coastal towns and visiting a national park where we walked across a swinging bridge through the tree canapoy. Ghana really does have a beautiful coastline! Enjoy the pics….

Our beach hut.

Portuguese Catholic mission that turned into a fort to fend off the Dutch.

Fishing village.

M making me pose while the fishermen bring in their catch.

Animal santuary we visited that protects endangered monkeys, birds and just about any other animal brought in. The owners pay the hunters to not kill trapped animals or young who are orphaned by hunting.

View of Cape Coast from the top of the fort. That's Charlie's Benin Squirrels soccer jersey. Yes the national team is called the Benin Squirrels.

Terrified, we took this picture from the hanging bridge. The suspension system hung some 80 meters above the ground in the giant trees.

Cape Coast fort.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Believin' in Benin

Benin is a very religious nation. Christianity is the largest religion in the South (there are a lot of Catholics, in particular, in Lalo) and Islam is more prevalent in the North. However, the national and biggest religion of Benin is “Vodoun,” or Voodoo as we spell it. Voodoo is an animistic religion, but its beliefs and gods are usually mixed with other religions. That is to say that if a Beninese is Catholic, they also practice Voodoo as well.

Voodoo in Benin is not the violent religion of bloody-sacrifices and voodoo dolls that we think of, but instead it is about the power of nature and the natural forces in life. It permeates every aspect of life in Benin because they believe that spirits are everywhere and are an integral part of daily happenings in life. It is most easy to relate Voodoo beliefs to the Native Americans’ beliefs that there were spirits in every part of nature and they must be properly cared for, if they are going to care for you in return. For example, this rainy season there was not a lot of rain. The Beninese explained this by saying that the gods must not have been properly thanked after last year’s rainy season. In this case they would do a sacrifice for the gods- typically a chicken or a goat. That being said, this is not an everyday occurrence that we see here.

The Beninese also use voodoo to explain what happens in life that they can’t understand. For example, if a person suddenly dies, it is assumed that they must have done something bad and they were either cursed by someone or a god. Whereas we would contribute a death to a medical condition and then have an autopsy performed, the Beninese assume that they died for a reason. We have seen this on multiple occasions, including with one of Miranna’s students, Ivette, that died in November. It was explained to us (in a very matter of fact manner) that her sister had refused to get married because she wanted to stay in school, so Ivette helped her run away. Her father was upset with her and put “gris-gris” on her. Shortly thereafter Ivette developed a headache and then she died. This story was hard to digest because common sense tells us that people don’t just suddenly die of headaches. Maybe she had already been sick and it was a coincidence that she died when her dad was upset with her- or maybe the Beninese have some rhyme and reason to their beliefs.

“Gris-gris” is a ceremonial process where someone is either partaking in an effort to protect themselves from evil spirits or performing an act to bring harm to someone. An example of the latter is mentioned above. As an example of protecting themselves, people often make a special soap with which to wash themselves. We were privy to watching one of these soap making ceremonies- which was very interesting. The process was as follows: grounding up a lot of leaves, roots, and herbs that all have medicinal powers, mixing in some sodabi (the local alcohol), sacrificing a chicken on top of the soap, and then chanting in the local language. We were told that if you wash yourself with this soap at least once a month, then you are protected from all the evil spirits. We personally declined taking some home, we’re happy with Dove.

The Village Chief adding alcohol to the soap during the ceremony.

Another aspect of voodoo that plays an important role in life here is the strong belief in the afterlife. When someone dies they turn into a spirit- and this is one reason why funerals are such a big event (and why so much money is spent on them). Not only is it necessary to celebrate the life they lived, but it is necessary to welcome the rebirth of their spirit. The two types of “spirits” that we commonly see are pictured below. At some point, before, during or after a funeral service the spirits come out and dance and “speak” to the onlookers. These are really big events in Lalo which involve a lot of drumming, singing, and dancing. The spirits also “chase” the onlookers and it is forbidden that they touch you because you will then die- so you better run fast!

Zangbetos (don't they look like the characters in the book "Where the Wild Things Are"?)

Egunguns (While not the most friendly of fellows, their costumes are really bright and colorful!)

This is just an overview of beliefs here in Benin- as we have experienced them. Voodoo is a complicated and mysterious religion that we will not fully understand even after 2 years. It’s hard to explain the depths to which these beliefs affect everyday life. In addition, religion, whether voodoo or otherwise, has an enormous economic toll. The amount of money that is spent on special clothes, religious items, funerals, and offerings blows our mind. We have been to a few religious services and at each one they take offerings no less than five times throughout the mass. At the end of the service, they then announce how much money was raised for the church that day. However, when there are not too many other distractions in life in a small village, on what else are you going to spend your money and time?

Miranna with our neighbors after Inez, the youngest daughter in the family, was confirmed in the Catholic church. For a ceremony such as this, most everybody in the church will wear outfits made of matching cloth. We had been out of town before the big event, so we were not able to purchase religious fabric featuring the Saint Augustin. We were crushed!