Thursday, June 3, 2010

My Life in Pictures

It’s been a while since I wrote, and I’d like to blame the oh-so-busy lifestyle I live in Cotonou. And while I do find myself busy a lot, I also find time to spend hours reading other people’s blogs – blogs of friends, acquaintances, acquaintances of friends, and of people I’ve never met before. And in reading these blogs, I shamed myself into finally posting again. If Pioneer Woman can find the time to update her blog approximately 75 times a day while also homeschooling four children and remodeling a house and writing a cookbook and cooking yummy looking food, documenting with gorgeous photographs all the while, then I can take some time out of my busy program of looking busy at work (because I’m procrastinating on all the real stuff I have to do to) to update this silly blog.

I have plans for this blog – I will write a comparative study of different types of moto-taxis. I will do an indepth report on my favorite bar in Cotonou. I might even take you behind the scenes of a tailor’s shop – the gritty underbelly of the fashionably dressed in Cotonou.

In the meantime, I’ll give you a quick recap of the last several months of my life.

I moved to Cotonou! From the tropical paradise of Grand Popo to the congested, polluted, vibrant, exciting big city. I still have mixed feelings about the whole thing, but at heart I’m a big city girl so really, I’ve been pretty comfortable here.

My mom came to visit! It was great. She is a fantastic traveler and only got heat exhaustion once (my fault). Highlights include her egging our guide on so that we could get closer to feasting lions while on safari, and her eye-rolling “do I have to?” attitude about wearing her moto helmet. It’s a wonder I survived past childhood.

I went to Mali! We climbed an escarpment in Dogon country. I was not aware there would be heights involved and had more than one panic attack on the side of a mountain, but I only got heat exhaustion once (not my fault). Mali is beautiful. Ouagadougou, where we spent New Year’s eve, is a great city.

Kate came to visit! It was great. We battled a giant mutant butterfly statue, braved the snake monkey monster lurking in the wilderness of Camaté when we lost the trail, and ate an obscene amount of food (including snails on a stick), as per usual.

And, now, I’m starting to think about leaving – the date is August 9th, folks. We had our Close Of Service conference recently – the first and last time every volunteer from my group has been together since we swore in as volunteers two years ago. It’s a strange feeling…

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Electric Slide...

The scene: A drab electric company office, with chairs hugging the wall. Though it could accomodate over a hundred customers, thankfully there are only about 15 ahead of you. Rather than line up, you take a seat in a chair, in order. But don't get comfortable. Every 3 minutes or so, you must get up and move to a chair closer to the counter, as customers ahead of you are served. You must do this quickly, even if you are juggling a helmet, a cooler, a handbag, a pen, a notebook, and your electricity bill as you rapidly try to calculate your bill to see if there is a mistake in it. You are doing this by hand because your cell phone just died, because it wasn't charged, because your power has been cut for two days.

Me: i think there's a mistake on my bill
société Béninoise d'Energie Electrique (SBEE): no, we raised our prices.
Me: but the bill still lists the old prices on the back.
SBEE: (rolling her eyes) well, you're supposed to look at the front of the bill.
Me: how was I supposed to know that?
SBEE: well, there's a sign posted over there
Me: OK, if I pay, will you turn my electricity back on today?
SBEE: Yes, that will be 3,500cfa additional.
Me: But I was travelling for work and didn't even get my bill until a few days ago.
SBEE: That's too bad. 3,500cfa.

End scene.

(If only it had ended like that and not with me stomping out filled with righteous indignation, holding back tears because I was so annoyed and powerless and right, dammit).

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Women for Women, International

There was a controversial bathroom at Georgetown when I was there. The walls of the girls bathroom on the 2nd floor of White Gravenor were a testimonial to the men to avoid at Georgetown. It ran from the mundane remarks about physical endowments and the like to serious warnings about physical and emotional violence – stay away from so-and-so. People’s opinions on the bathroom ranged from thinking it was a horrible violation of privacy to believing that it was a necessary early warning system for sexual predators.

I was reminded of the bathroom tonight as I was walking Yovo. A woman came up to me and said, “Hey, that guy you were talking to last night? He’s no good. Stay away from him. I live next door to him.” She didn’t go into specifics, but I suspect she wasn’t saying that he had loud parties or was un-neighborly. The guy in question had given me the creeps, quite frankly. I tried to avoid letting on exactly where I lived, and refused to give him my phone number. But he was one of those persistent creeps, who somehow makes you feel like you’re at fault for being creeped out by them. I have been here long enough that my instinct when a man starts talking to me is to brush them off, but every once in a while I feel bad, like I’m closing myself off to friends or conversations. So every once in awhile I actually listen to what creepy guy X is saying, and last night, I chatted with him for a few minutes (despite what they tell us in Peace Corps training, nonverbal communication doesn’t really help – my arms were folded, I slowly edged away, but nothing stopped him from trying to chat me up).

Anyway, she warned me against him, much like the bathroom wall in White Gravenor has warned hundreds (thousands?) of Georgetown students. It struck me how indirect this method is – passing information after the fact, through informal networks, rather than involve authorities or official capacities. But that’s what makes it effective, and I think necessary – there is no burden of proof, which means it can be abused, but also means that people can share instincts and hearsay. And honestly, I would rather trust someone else’s instincts and hearsay, which confirm my own, than wait for something horrible to happen and have the police confirm it with proper evidentiary procedure. Anyway, sort of a random post, but it really made me think about how networks of women have looked out for each other and found ways outside the formal channels to pass information and try to keep each other safe. I don’t think I’m in any danger from this guy, but it’s good to know to stay away, and I’m glad that woman said something to me.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Bonne Douche

Sometimes, something happens that just begs a blog post. Really, I am compelled to write about what happened to me today: the Most Awkward Peeing Experience Ever (MAPEE, if you will – truly the mother of all awkward peeing experiences). Surely, you say, nothing could be more awkward than the time the fat Italian baristo had to break down the bathroom door to let you out to a crowd of well-dressed Italians having cappuccino and what not. Indeed, my friend, this tops it.

A few things you should know about Beninese culture: 1) The owner of a bar and his family usually live in a house behind the bar 2) Beninese people pee in their showers 3) People are pretty comfortable with nudity and bodily excretions here. So, today I was at a bar, having dinner with my friend. I ask to use the bathroom and the server leads me through a curtain, past a woman and child taking a nap in a bedroom, and to their shower. Pretty normal so far. Except there is a woman showering there. (Perhaps a 4th cultural note: by “shower” I mean bucket bath). I explained that I could wait until the woman was finished. “Nonsense,” said the server. “Just go over there and do it.” (I’m paraphrasing only slightly). So, I sidle past this fully naked and soapy woman (it was not a very wide shower area) and crouch to do my business. Meanwhile, she just hangs out in the shower, waiting for me to be done. I truthfully had to bite my lip to keep from laughing at the absurdity of the moment. I finished, sidled past again, wished her a “bonne douche” (good shower) and was on my way. I appeared to be the only person even slightly surprised by the situation.

I guess I’ll miss these ridiculous moments when I’m done. In the meantime, let this be a lesson to always wear shower shoes when in Benin.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Sorry guys. I'm still here!

Can I still call myself a blogger (could I ever?)? Apologies for the six-month delay in writing. I wish I could say I’ve been busy but mostly that’s not true. Instead of chronicling what I’ve been doing, I’m just gonna jump write into a post about sharing…which is hopefully not as lame as I make it sound.

Every time I get frustrated here – feeling like people are just using me for money or status or whatever, something happens to shake me up and make me realize how much I really like Beninese culture. Often, it is the incredible and unexpected generosity of the Beninese, though I remain a bit conflicted about it. The other day, a friend and I were having a beer and the guys at the table next to us sent us over a beer. With no expectations – they didn’t try to talk to us or get our phone numbers. We were clearly foreigners and so they were welcoming us. I was talking with another friend about gifts and giving. In American culture, we have pretty limited and defined terms for gift giving – we give gifts on holidays and birthdays, to our friends and family. Our friends are pretty tightly defined as well – people we have known for a while and with whom we share some kind of bond or intimacy. Here, people use the term “friend” pretty loosely – the woman who sells me vegetables in the market calls me her friend, the student I met on the bus who asked if we could be friends, the little boy in Grand Popo who talks about his Canadian friends (probably the Quebecois nurses who come every year to work at the health center).

But, they also give things away with astounding ease. From buying beer for strangers at a local bar, to sharing your meal with your seat mate in a taxi, to showing up at someone’s house with fruit or vegetables, the vast majority of people I’ve met here take giving as a given. There is usually not an expectation of anything in return – the seat mate in a taxi, for example, might not have spoken a word to me before or after the food exchange is made. A friend invited me over the other day and insisted on sending me home with ice, avocadoes, and fried dough balls she had made that morning. When I tried to return the Tupperware the dough balls had come in, she said, “Oh, is it useful to you? If so, you should just keep it.”

There are times when this generosity of spirit causes problems for me. I find myself confronting my own selfishness at times – is it selfishness or being the product of a culture that prizes individualism and personal property? Maybe I’m just way more of a capitalist than I ever thought. But when people come up to me when I’m buying a snack and say “Oh, you’re going to buy me one too, right?” my reaction is usually “No, why the hell would I buy you a snack if I don’t even know you?” Or when the kids who help take care of my yard come to my house and start pointing at things: “what is this? Can I have it?” my instinct is to shout at them. Because it’s MY stuff, dammit. I bought it, or was gifted it and it’s in my house…I would never go to their house and start pointing to things or asking for them. But in truth, if I did, they would give me whatever it was without a second thought.

And maybe that’s where I have trouble with the whole system: In the States, I feel like I would give anything to a friend in need, and I would know in return that my friend would do the same. I would expect a friend not to ask for something unreasonable and I wouldn’t ask them for something unreasonable. Here, though, I’m still learning the rules and the expectations. It seems the lines of friendship are much looser and sharing and giving are an obligation of living in society, rather than a choice you make based on a shared relationship. And, it’s hard to say no, knowing that I have a lot more than many of the people around me, and that on the whole, my community has welcomed me with extraordinary generosity – feeding me, inviting me out, and looking out for my well-being. I’m still figuring out how to deal with those little cultural situations as they arise – sometimes I buy a snack for people, other times I make a joke or an excuse and get out of there. I’m hoping that I come back to the US a more generous and open person, but it’s amazing how deep this cultural training runs – I just hope I can find a middle ground between the reactionary-Republican-dismantle-the-welfare-state attitude and the sure-I’ll-let-you-have-ten-dollars-why-don’t-you-take-my-credit-card-too mindset. In the meantime, I’ll go on enjoying the occasional free beer and muddling my way through daily social interactions.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Today is a Good Day

Lest you think that life in the Peace Corps is one big frustrating, hot, bug-filled waste of two years (in dark moments, I sometimes think this), I share with you today’s (well, Friday's)awesome story of success.

The local artists (think hand carved wooden statues, beaded necklaces, and batiks) are in the process of forming an association. They were struggling a bit with getting started, so I offered to step in to facilitate meetings. Last week, we talked about what a good association looked like and what the qualities and responsibilities of the association’s leaders should be. I was pretty pleased with how it went, especially when they asked me afterwards to continue in my role as facilitator for the next meeting, where they would elect their officers.

The Ministry of Artisanal Crafts, Tourism, and Culture has a complicated, decentralized structure with representatives at the village, commune, department, and national level, covering all the different métiers covered under “artisinat.” I’m not entirely sure how to translate “artisinat” but really, it just means anything made by hand – from cheese to furniture to clothing to salt. Each métier has an association and then each association sends representatives to the commune level, which sends reps to the department, etc. I don’t quite get all the different pieces of it, so I invited a very cool old lady to come in and break it down for us. She is a couturier by profession, is the former president of the artisans collective at the commune level, and was just elected as an advisor at the department level.

I was nervous – I invited her this morning, without consulting the guys in the group. I wasn’t even sure she was going to show up. She’s a talker, and can be hard to reign in once she gets going. And, I didn’t entirely know what she was going to say. Once she had the floor though, she was incredible. She had such as command of the room and an incredible gift for storytelling. She ended up talking for over an hour (which I hadn’t quite predicted) but in the end it was clearly worth it. The newly elected officers took the membership (there were a grand total of 7 people at the meeting, including the officers) to a back room and conferred. A few minutes later, they came back and bashfully offered up a 2000 CFA bill, to cover “transport and to buy a soda.” We promptly donated it back to the association. But it was so cool that they felt like they got that much out of the meeting that they wanted to pay us back some how.

As if that weren’t crowning achievement enough, Madame then gave a little closing statement, entirely in local language. She turned to me and said, in Mina, “And now we should also thank Big Sister Elizabeth for getting us together.” And I understood! Not just the gist of what she was saying, but actually the entire sentence – the vocabulary, sentence structure, everything. When I responded, “You’re welcome” in Mina, they burst into applause. Not to toot my own horn or anything (my Mina is pretty awful usually) but I was really freaking proud of myself at that moment.

There’s still a long way to go before I can say that the Association is a success – for all I know, people lose interest next week and the whole thing folds. But, in any case, I did a good thing at this meeting and I’m pretty jazzed about it. So jazzed in fact, that I baked a chocolate banana cake, which I am now going to eat. (And I wonder why I’m gaining weight here…). So, TTFN in the words of Tigger (or Pooh? Ugh, can’t keep my Milne characters straight).

Monday, January 19, 2009

Tu es là? Oui, je suis là.

Sorry for the long delay. Now that I’ve been in Benin over six months (holy crap, how did that happen?) things seem more normal and so I don’t always know what to write about. Recently, I’ve been having some work setbacks, based on the fact that there is NO COMMUNICATION between anyone, anywhere. For example, my English club was ready to go (you will remember that I blogged about this months ago), and two days before it’s supposed to start, when 350 students had been informed of this start, I found out about a bureaucratic hurdle I hadn’t cleared and I had to cancel the first meeting. Nevermind that my coworkers had heard me talk about the club since October…you would think that at least once in the intervening months they would think to mention these kinds of things. But, have no fear, the students of Grand Popo will have all the English they can stand starting this Wednesday.
Those random kids with me are Ado and Grido, the kids of my counterpart. They are actually really sweet kids who seem to genuinely like me, but they are pulling Beninese picture taking faces so they look like they've never heard the word "fun" in their lives.

Meanwhile, Yovo puppy continues to grow at an alarming rate. She must be at least 3 times as big as when I got her. Her favorite activities include chewing things up and jumping on my face when I’m trying to sleep. She also dabbles in tracking dirt throughout my house and not listening to me when I tell her not to strew my underwear around the house. Unfortunately, she is so very cute and has a tendency to curl up on my feet when she’s tired. So I guess I can’t get rid of her.

Hmm…in other news I’m planning my trip to Burkina Faso for FESPACO (first week in March), the largest film festival in West Africa. Apparently, Ouagadougou is the film capital of West Africa (who knew?) and the Burkinabe love movies. It’s supposed to be a pretty big deal. Right now, the plan is to take an overnight bus from Cotonou to Ouaga, which is supposed to take about 20 hours. I suspect it will be a memorable voyage. I have heard rumours that the trip can take as long as 35 hours, what with breakdowns etc. There better be some damn good cinema at the other end of that ride.

On a sadder note, my Finnish intern friend is leaving, which is a bummer since we have become good friends (and he’s my dogsitter). However, we’ve had several days of awesome (and inventive) food as a result, including last night’s creation: pineapple-mango-coconut curry with couscous and mashed sweet potatoes. Delicious. But, Jaakko, you will be missed in the ‘Po.

On the docket today: calling Finland for a local artist; getting the key to the American Corner library (where we will be holding the club); drumming up interest for a training on forming a good association among local artisans; and talking with the condescending Chamber of Commerce rep about the Tourism Information Center. While that doesn’t seem like it could occupy a full 8 hours, I am doubtful I will even get to it all today. But, on that note, I should at least get started.

P.S. The title of this post is a reference to the extremely obvious questions that make up about 90% of my interactions. It's rude to walk by someone without saying something, but often there isn't anything to say. So instead; you can just ask something to the effect of "are you there?' and the person responds "yes, i'm here". You could also just ask them a question based on what they're doing. For example: "are you typing?" "yes i'm typing." "are you riding your bicycle?" "yes i'm riding my bicycle". It used to annoy me until I realized that I never had to struggle to make conversation again.