Sunday, October 11, 2015

The End.

First things first: On my previous entry, some kind soul decided to compliment my blog. I want to thank them publicly; I tried to reply to their comment, but, apparently, Google has decided that the owner of a blog should not be able to comment on it (or I’m just too stupid to figure it out). So, anyway, Anonymous gets a big, public “You are a good person and I’m glad that you exist on the planet.”

Now, on to the more narcissistic topics.

The last month has been a total blur, and a ton has happened. 
4 weeks ago (imagine the “duh dun” noises from Law & Order playing):
This was my second-to-last week on the job. I was frantically trying to simultaneously get all my stuff done and train my replacement. Plus, there was the minor task of applying to 6 graduate schools. My successor, also an EA volunteer, seems really excited to take over and I have high hopes for him. I think that he will excel in areas in which I did not, but I'm not sure that he possesses the same obsessive attention to detail that tricked everyone into thinking that I was excellent at my job. En tous cas, the food security program seems to be in good hands. 
3 weeks ago:
My last full week on the job. I wish I could tell you that I spent every minute of every day finishing up my food security work; I did not. I closed up food security relatively quickly, and then spent a decent amount of time filling out my graduate school applications. Everything was pretty straightforward, but I have come to the conclusion that the personal statement is a genre of writing that should be banned. Does anyone enjoy writing them? I would almost rather find a tick in my gluteal cleft than write a personal statement (almost).
I also spent a lot of time preparing for the Global Leadership Summit, a PC-wide conference that I had the honor of being invited to attend. Only 6 volunteers from all over the world got the call, and I didn't feel right refusing to go (in spite of the fact that I COS-ed only three days after I had returned). So, three weeks ago, in addition to finishing up my job and applying to graduate school, I was frantically packing up my life so that I could bring a huge suitcase back to the States. I also had to give up Papaya cat, to a lovely couple of roommates. I think he's fitting in well there, but I do miss that orange SOB.
All of that done, I flew to DC on Friday

2 weeks ago:
The conference was a wild experience. All in all, I'm glad I went, and it was great to meet the other PCVLs. I wrote up a summary of it, which I sent to all current Benin staff and volunteers, and I have included a slightly edited version of the email below:

Hi Fellow Benin PCVs and Staff!
This is your outgoing Food Security PCVL, and I recently attended Peace Corps’ Global Leadership Summit in America. As Benin’s only representative, I want to share with you the key points I gathered at the conference.
1. I had the pleasure to work with over 200 PC Country Directors and HQ staff, and I was truly impressed by how hard they work and how much they want to foster volunteers’ health, happiness, and success. I know cross-cultural, cross-generational, and cross-oceanic professional relationships can be frustrating sometimes, but I encourage you all to remember that we work for a great organization, full of driven and excellent people. In the end, we all are working towards the same thing: the accomplishment of PC’s three goals.
a. A productive work environment can’t be one built on a dichotomy of “us” and “admin.” If you’re having a problem, talk to one another! We all want to do great work in Benin!
2. The theme of the conference was “Inspire, Include, Innovate.” These are lofty goals, no? But we can make them a bigger part of Peace Corps.
a. Inspire: Many volunteers fall in the Millennial demographic. At the conference, a speaker (Bruce Tulgan) talked about how to motivate millennials; he said that we want the freedom to make our own decisions, but that we like having clear expectations and goals defined. Here’s what I will remember about this talk: Peace Corps Volunteers represent a special group of people. We are willing to go out into a random Beninese village, live for two years, and be flexible, adaptable, and innovative enough to inspire our counterparts to achieve their goals for their communities. It’s not easy, but we give it our best shot. This is admirable, and the skills that PCVs develop here will serve them very well in the future.
b. Include: Peace Corps as a whole is trying to be more inclusive; however, there are some barriers. We need to be more aware of our own unconscious biases. If there’s a conflict, we need to validate, appreciate, and investigate each other’s experiences; it’s not a question of right or wrong. Rather, we need to talk it out to build a stronger, more inclusive Peace Corps. I listened to speaker Vernā Myers, and she did a great job of helping me and all the participants introspectively consider our own biases and prejudices. She has a Ted Talk (, and I encourage you all to watch it. It’s not a comfortable or easy topic, but when was the last time PCVs wanted to be comfortable?
c. Innovate: As PCVs, we’re innovating all the time. Try out Open Street Map in your communities! Try out mobile data reporting. Innovation comes when people have the room to experiment. We definitely have lots of flexibility in our jobs – don’t be afraid to try something new!
i. PCLIVE HAS LAUNCHED! Are you sick of reinventing the wheel? Do you want a centralized repository of all things PC? Well, do I have a resource for you! Start uploading all your lesson plans, diagrams, and PPTs to streamline our resource sharing! There’s even a social media platform!
3. Sexual Assault Response
a. Peace Corps thinks that they have improved the Sexual Assault response through the inclusion of the Sexual Assault Response Liaison and Victim Advocate Positions.
b. If they’re not doing better, let them know!
c. If a Volunteer is the victim of a sexual assault, staff encourages the PCV to focus on getting the help, services, and support that he/she needs.
4. Alcohol and Drug Policies
a. The main priority is to keep volunteers safe, and Peace Corps, as a whole, tries to have a supportive (and not punitive) attitude about substance abuse. Peer to peer support is the most effective way to keep people safe – if you’re worried about someone, talk to them! If someone gets too tipsy during a night out, help them get home! As PCVs, we need to be our own little family.
b. (To be clear, this next part is all my opinion.) To my fellow PCVs: that said, please be responsible. Sometimes, it’s hard to remember what standards in America look like. Don’t do anything in Benin that you wouldn’t do at a job in America. Don’t show up to work hungover (don’t get hungover in the first place). I know that you’ve seen your Papa get wasted on sodabe at Tabaski, but that doesn’t mean that you should. Also, drugs are illegal in Benin, and you don’t want to go to Beninese jail, trust me – don’t do them. We are here to do a job, not party. Don’t be the PCV that is always in Cotonou (or Nati, or PK, or Kandi). I’m a third year, I’ve seen a lot of them; they’re usually the ones that have problems at post.
5. Resources for life after PC
a. Look at the job board on the PC website
b. Get on the PC’s NCE roster after you COS 
c. Use the RPCV career fairs and career counseling services
6. PCVLs
a. In your first of second year? Fresh out of college? Staying a third year as a PCVL is a great way to get experience managing people and projects. It’s also a great way to help PC/Benin, as a whole, have better programs (Food Security, WASH, GenEq, LGL, BAM – there’s something for everyone!). Think about it.
7. Peace Corps
a. Volunteers: I spent much of my service focusing on the negatives – the projects that failed, the money wasted, the time lost. Don’t be me! All PCVs leave an impact, and for the vast, vast majority, that impact is very positive; however, we probably won’t know it or see it completely (if at all). Focus on the positives: the relationships built, the kittens/puppies cuddled, and the work accomplished. Peace Corps allows us to get something that very few people experience: a second family and hometown. When it’s time for you to leave, you’ll have a lot of warm memories to reflect on. Rejoice in knowing that you have made a difference in someone’s life.
To my fellow PCVs: Thank you for tolerating all of my paperwork harassment and FB food security trolling. You all have done (or will do) some amazing work, and I’m proud to call you my colleagues.
To PC Staff: Working with all of you has been a pleasure. I know that it can’t be easy to wrangle 100 Americans in Benin, but you do it with aplomb. Thank you for a great three years.
If you have made it to the end of this email, I congratulate you.
Bon travail and meilleurs vœux, Sarah The HBIC of FS
So that's the email I sent out. What I wanted to include, but didn't, was a note to volunteers about managing their expectations. I was attempting to be positive and did not think that the email was the place for me to accuse some volunteers of being spoiled and unprofessional idiots. When you move to Benin (or pretty much anywhere else PC operates), expectations need to be managed. When I hear volunteers complaining about their lack of running hot water, I get very disappointed. I mean, why on earth did you join the PC? There is no coddling in West Africa. Volunteers need to be flexible and adapt to challenging circumstances, or they SHOULD NOT be PCVs. So, if any prospective volunteers read this blog, know this: to be a successful PCV, your expectations need to be realistic and you need to be willing to have a hard life for two years. You will be dirty. You will get sick. You could get injured. You will have frustrating work partners. You will be stared at. People will say things to you that you don't like. You'll probably be very lonely sometimes. All that said, you will find a second family. You will have the opportunity to do meaningful work (probably not the work you planned to do though). You will have good days. You will see new places. You will meet people that you will grow to love. Peace Corps can absolutely be a great experience, but if you come in and expect Benin to adapt to your needs, you will be disappointed and you should not join the PC. My service wasn't perfect, mind you; I failed more than I am comfortable saying. In three years, however, you learn a lot, and I can spot the people who shouldn't be here. 
Last week:
After an exhausting 24 hours of traveling, during which I had a terrible cold and probably earned the wrath of all the people sitting around me on two flights (it sounded like my brain was draining out of me through my nose), I made I back to Benin on Sunday night. 
On Monday and Tuesday, I ran around the office like a crazy person, filling out the many forms that it takes to close your PC service (to “COS”). Closing my bank account was, by far, the worst experience, and I'm embarrassed to confess that I made my discontent known to everyone at the bank. The problem? The checkbook, that the bank had made me buy the previous year, was “unregistered.” How on earth a document that the bank produced can be unregistered within the bank's system is beyond me. Luckily, at the end of a 1.5 very sullen hours, I got the document that said that my bank account was closed. I returned to the office, and finished my COS paperwork by Tuesday afternoon. Wednesday was my official COS date. Since all of the paperwork was already done, I used all of Wednesday to bang out final copies of all of my personal statements, and I finished by 4 pm. This was a huge relief; for my last week in Benin, I get to just relax and entertain the BF's visiting friend. On Wednesday at 430, we were “gonged out;” this is a Benin-specific tradition in which a gong is rung and then all of the present PCVs and staff members get together and say nice things about the COSing PCVs, who then give a little speech. Ian's and my gonging was perfect, but Benin got the last laugh: usually, gonging happens outside, but at 430 on Wednesday, the septic tank was being pumped, and outside smelled like, well, an open septic tank. Thus, the gonging took place on the third floor. People said many complimentary things about Ian and me, and it was a great way to cap off my PC service.

One thing remained, however: the farewell tour to village. On Thursday morning, I headed up to Ketou to say goodbye and try to sear the images of Ewe and Sabo into my brain. The first stop: Ketou, to see my scholarship girl. I've been in touch with her consistently for the three years, and she is really bright. When things seem really shitty, I've always got Z. to remind me that Benin has a bright future. I took her out to lunch (admittedly, a very cheap one), and we chatted for a while about school and her future. However, the visit was cut short because we noticed that ominous clouds were gathering on the horizon. I hopped on a zem, and, true to form, I arrived in Ewe literally two minutes before a rainstorm hit. After 2 hours of constant rain, it finally let up enough for me to go visit all of my old friends and neighbors (and the piglets that have been born since my departure). The original goodbye, back in August 2014, was more emotional, but this one was not easy. How do you say goodbye to people you love but you're not sure you'll ever see again? I certainly hope to go back, but a lot can change very quickly in Benin. Ewe provided me with so many mamas, papas, sisters, brothers, and it kills me a little that I get to go live in America and they will probably never get to share in that life. Lord knows they deserve it. But the world doesn't care about who deserves what. 
Friday morning, my lovable boss Alexis drove me out to Sabo. Remember, it had rained like crazy the day before. The road was less than excellent, and we were slipping and sliding all over the place. This is particularly exciting when you are unemployed and PC isn't obligated to treat you if you get injured. Luckily, we avoided catastrophe and arrived in Sabo, where we saw the goddamn wells. The one the mairie built seems to actually be functional now, and the cement taste has disappeared. To be sure, I encouraged them to get the water tested again, but it's in their hands now. After I had already returned to Cotonou, I got a call from the only guy in village who speaks French, and he told me that he had said goodbye on my behalf to the people I didn't see, and that everyone had spoken highly of me. After three years working on a project with very little thanks, I was surprised, but thrilled, to hear that.

We raced the rain home, again, as we left Sabo. After arriving in Ewe, I did a few final goodbyes, waited for the shower to stop, and got a ride to Ketou with a teacher. Right before I got on the moto, I turned to Alexis and tried to think of something meaningful to say to the man that had served as my boss, coworker, brother, dad, and friend for the past three years. To put me out of my misery, he just said, “Tata, on ne va pas dire quelquechose maintenant.” (Tata, we're not going to say anything now). Thank god, because I did not want to start crying. It didn't feel like a final farewell, and I hope that it wasn't one.
I got on the moto, and we drove away, leaving behind people and places that I had grown to love (and hate, on some days). The ride went by quickly, and before I knew it, we were in Ketou. The teacher dropped me off at the station, and for the first time ever, I was the last person in the taxi; we departed right after I arrived, and made it to Cotonou in record time. It was time to leave, and Ketou let me go.

The last week in Cotonou has been full of fun and stressful events. Getting Ian's dog on the plane was an ordeal, but I'll let him write about that. Saying goodbye is never easy, but we've had a lot of fun hanging out with people before we need to go. Tomorrow, we're going to Happy Reggae Place Forever for one final day in Popo. Thursday, we get on a plane and go explore another continent.

I've been struggling to think of something profound to say about my PC service, but it's hard to sum it up. Am I happy I did it? Yes. Would I do it again? Probably. Did I learn a lot? Yes. Did I meet some wonderful people, Beninese and American? Absolutely. Am I ready to go? Yes.
One of the advertising slogans of PC is “The Toughest Job You'll Ever Love,” and I think that describes my service perfectly. It was so hard, to fit in, find work, and then say goodbye. Did I love every minute of it? No. When I look back, however, I find myself focusing on the positives, and there were a lot (even through my lens of pessimism and negativity). I'm not Beninoise, but being Ewe's Tata has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. I hope I have more like it to come.

To finish out my last thoughts on Benin, I want to leave you, my faithful readers, with lists of 5 things I am happy to be leaving in Benin and 5 things that I will desperately miss.

Will not miss:
  1. Creepy crawlies
  1. Looking down at the pavement sliding under the zemidjan and realizing that if we crashed at this speed, we'd both die
  1. Being a little celebrity
  1. Well digging
  1. Intestinal distress
Will absolutely miss:
  1. My families in Porto, Ewe, and Sabo
  1. The rolling hills between Ewe and Sabo
  1. Beninese children and their ability to have fun with almost anything
  1. Sodabe nights with mama
  1. Working with the most optimistic and ambitious man I have ever known, Alexis
I hope to come back. I hope I did something good here. I hope that people will look back fondly on their memories of the crazy and neurotic Yovo/Oyibo that lived with them for two years. I will probably never know the complete impact of my service here, and that is just the way it has to be. After all, on ne peut rien. 
Benin, a bientot. Readers, thanks for reading. I might update this blog if something interesting happens in India or Vietnam, but this will be my last post from Benin.

Until next time, a la prochaine, eh yi hwedenu,

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Tick

Disclaimer: This post involves finding a parasite in an intimate part of my body. Proceed at your own risk.
                In village, I had plenty of close calls with spiders, camel spiders, scorpions, snakes, mosquitoes, cockroaches, shrews, rats, lizards, bats, fourmis maillantes (“meshing ants” - the ants that will devour a bunny alive if they find one trapped in a cage; they come out after rain storms in huge angry swarms looking for things to destroy), and pretty much any other creepy-crawly that you can imagine – except ticks.  Hobbes (repose en paix) came back covered in ticks after running away the first time, but all I did was pick them off and squish them; they were never interested in biting me. Then I moved to the big city, Cotonou. Nature was supposed to stop. Sure, mosquitos and malaria were always going to be there, but camel spiders were a thing of the past. Bats and I were no longer allowed to cohabitate. Snakes? There are no snakes in Cotonou. I thought I was in the clear – I had made it for more than three years without having an unwanted arthropod crawl all over me.
                Then last Friday arrived. After spending the night at the manor that Ian had been house-sitting, home to two dinosaurs (AKA gigantic, rambunctious dogs), Ian and I went to the beach with a few friends. After four hours hanging out in the sun, I was pretty sleepy and dehydrated. At about 7pm, I took a shower, washing the sunscreen and sand off me, and crawled into bed. I drifted in and out of sleep for the next three hours. On my back, tuchus, and thighs, I had felt a faint tickle every now and then as I slept; however, since Benin is 1000 degrees, I assumed that it was just sweat trickling down my body. Finally, around 10, it occurred to me that I should just bite the bullet and transition from nap to sleep. As I slowly came out of my stupor, I decided that I should go to the bathroom one more time before hitting the hay for real.
                [I’m not kidding; it’s going to get graphic.] I peed, but I felt a tickle in a place where I shouldn’t have felt a tickle, the apex of my gluteal cleft. I grabbed some TP and wiped. When I pulled the TP away, what did I see? A fully formed, disgusting, wriggling tick,

which had been preparing to make a comfy home for itself in a nice, quiet, private part of my body.

I did not react well. I like to think that I’m big into animal rights and avoiding violence when possible, but I squished that motherfucker in less than a second. Then I stood up, looked at myself in the mirror, clutched the sink, and attempted not to scream bloody murder. I muscled through, but I was this close to hysterics. As I stared at my reflection and pondered my fate, I debated whether drowning myself in the bucket bath would be a preferable outcome to the ensuing paranoia of checking everything I own for parasites.
              My worst nightmare had come true. I had found a tick between my cheeks. Before this happened, I had always hated ticks: they sneak up on you, latch on to parts that are difficult to reach, carry diseases, and suck blood to the point of becoming giant, gluttonous, turgid beasts. They are like the creepy neighbors of disease vectors. Miraculously, in the unknown number of hours that it had been crawling on me, it never latched on. I assume that it was looking for the most unpleasant locale in which to settle, and I thwarted it at the last minute.
              Now, I’m not proud of what happened next, but to Ian’s credit, he humored my panic reasonably well. Since he grew up in squalor (his language – I’m sure that he is exaggerating and his childhood home was very clean), I guess he has plenty of experience with ticks, and my freak-out seemed unnecessarily dramatic.  I texted him that I needed him to come over, NOW, to help me check the rest of my body and bedding for more bugs interested in violating my personal space. Mercifully, at the end of a thorough examination, the coast was clear.
Let me tell you, you get some philosophical thoughts as you let your boyfriend check your hair for ticks. Here’s a sampling:
1)      Oh, sweet Jesus
2)      Why on earth did I stay here for three years?
3)      If I get tick-borne encephalitis, Ian is going to be sorry for making fun of me.
4)      I wonder if they make tick medicine for humans…
5)      I’m going to kill those damn dogs.
6)      But, but, but… I’m usually so clean…
             What boggles my mind is how long it must have been hanging out on me. Did I pick it up from the dogs? The beach? Papaya never goes out, so it couldn’t have been him. Were there more on my clothes? My sheets? Between my toes? In my ears? The possibilities were endless.
             I realize how silly this is. My gut has been harboring probably millions of parasitic blastocysts for months and they don’t bother me at all. But one silly tick and I go crazy.
              Needless to say, I did not drown myself in the bucket bath. If I find a camel spider coming out of my nostril or something, however, I make no promises.

Nature. Am I right? 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Monthly updates

Since my last post, in which I described the harrowing adventure of being in a car crash, things calmed down a little bit for me. However, in true Peace Corps fashion, the peaceful period didn’t last long, and March, April, and May were full of drama, intrigue, and …. poop. This post is going to be a compilation of the high (and low) points that I have hit over the past few months. I’ll start with the less-than-excellent points, which include political unrest, gas shortages, power outages, illness, and indicator headaches.
Political unrest
For the past year, there have been murmurings that the current president of Benin, Son Excellence le President de la Republic, Docteur Boni Yayi, wants to stay for a third term; the constitution only allows for two. To the best of my knowledge, he has never actually come out and said this, but people talk. As often happens with politics, some people want a change in administration; a third time around therefore conflicts with a lot of citizens’ aspirations for their country. In late April, the country held elections to decide the members of parliament; these elections went off peacefully. To be clear, I have absolutely no dog in this fight; I might have opinions about the situation, but I am keeping them to myself.
The point of describing the political situation is to provide you with a backdrop so that you will have a foundation to understand what happened in early May. One of the leaders of an opposition political party was given a “convocation” at his house by a bunch of gendarmes (military police) in response to a perceived insulting comment that he had made about the president. Convocations are official summons to appear in response to an accusation, and normally, I believe, they are delivered by local government officials, not gendarmes. The prevailing feeling of the people I talked to (again, not my own opinion) was that the president was trying to intimidate people that disagreed with him.
On my walk to work the morning that this all started (Monday, May 4), I passed a newsstand where someone collects the regional newspapers and posts them up for people to see. I had to walk well into the street because the sidewalk was overflowing with people clamoring to look at the headlines. Given that one of the newsstand’s owners has taken to trying to dance all up on me and calling me “Cherie koko” whenever I pass, I decided not to stop and investigate. After all, it was probably nothing. Little did I know that Cotonou was about to go absolutely crazy.
Throughout the day, we got periodic updates from Peace Corps, warning us that there were demonstrations going on in parts of town and that we were advised to steer clear of them and not be out late at night. We were warned to stay away from the stadium, a landmark that is after Ian’s house. Sure, sure, we’ve heard this all before. Once or twice a year, we’d get a warning about demonstrations in Cotonou, all of which have died down pretty quickly. This one, however, turned into a three day extravaganza.
Ian and I went about our work day normally. After 530, we went to my house; the traffic on the ride home was a little nuts, since the police and military had decided to close certain roads, including the road in front of the president’s house (which, coincidentally, is the road to my house). But we made it home. Ian cooked me a delicious dinner of nachos, I believe (I’m incredibly lazy when it comes to cooking in Africa, and Ian is a fantastic chef, so I’m perfectly happy to let him take over), we watched some TV, and then, since we had a warning not to be out late, Ian and I decided that he should go home at about 830. After all, he had to get home to take his dog out to poop.
For the next 30 minutes, I had a relatively peaceful time. I ate some salad, took a shower, and occasionally checked my phone to see if Ian made it home safely. Ian’s experience, on the other hand, was not peaceful at all. It turns out that the bulk of the protests had moved away from the stadium, instead stopping at Carrefour Toyota, a landmark before Ian’s neighborhood.  A few zems didn’t want to go that way, since they knew something we didn’t. But Ian found an ignorant zem who took him as far as the Carrefour. They weren’t able to go any farther, because fires, crowds of young men, police officers with giant batons, and panic were in their way. The crowds would charge at the line of cops, the cops would stand firm, grab a few of the protesters/rioters (I don’t know the correct term to use in this case), and beat them senseless with batons. I can only imagine the fear that a scene like this could have inspired. Ian describes it as the opening scenes of 28 Days Later, a charming movie that I now have no desire to watch.
Luckily, he and his zem were able to turn around and make it back to my place. Ian slept over, and early the next morning went to check on his dog, Bea. On the road, he saw smoldering tires, a destroyed fire engine, and the remnants of chaos. Bea was fine, which is not a miracle we should disregard since the burned-out fire engine was on Ian’s block. The rest of Tuesday passed relatively calmly, though many roads were still closed and gendarmes and cops were out in force around the city. On Wednesday, however, the opposition organized a march to protest the actions of the government. It was scheduled for midday. I walked to work at 7:30, seeing no indication that my very path to work would be overrun in a few hours by police, protestors, and tear gas canisters. The police blocked the protesters’ march, and made them disperse, but not before they got a few good licks in. Roads remained closed for a few more days, finally reopening on Friday or Saturday. Since then, there have not been any protests I have seen; municipal elections are going to happen in June, however, which leaves many more opportunities for people to demonstrate.
After two years in a calm, welcoming village that I came to call my home, the discontent that I saw in Cotonou was jarring. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen villagers angry, shouting, gesticulating wildly, getting very close to exchanging blows. But I had hardly ever seen Beninese people cross over the threshold into physical violence. In fact, many of my friends in village would say with pride that the Beninese people were not a violent bunch. However, in Cotonou, tensions ran high and boiled over. To their credit, cooler heads did prevail quickly, and other than some minor destruction of property (and whatever injuries were exchanged between the cops and protestors), there wasn’t much permanent damage, and, as far as I know, zero deaths. Benin is a complicated country, and I saw a new side of it; the outcomes of the next few elections could make life very interesting here.  
Gas shortages
Besides the city going up in flames for a few days, we’ve also been experiencing chronic gas shortages. This is almost certainly related to Nigeria; a large proportion of the gas used by Beninese consumers comes in from Nigeria on smugglers’ motorcycles loaded with 10+ plastic jerry cans full of the flammable liquid. These motorcycles are basically moving bombs ready to detonate. However, that’s beside the point. Nigeria’s  gas wholesalers were refusing to sell gas to anyone, claiming the government owed them 1 billion dollars in subsidies (whether this is true or not is a moot point – the outcome is the same: Nigerian and Beninese consumers had to wait in long, long lines for gas).
Usually in Benin, people get gas from mamas who sell gas in liter bottles on the side of the road. For a while, these roadside stands just disappeared. People were forced to go to the official gas stations, which are generally more expensive than the stands. After a few days, however, the stands started to pop up again, but because the cost of smuggling the gas over the border had increased and quantity of smuggled gas decreased, the price at the mamas’ stands was actually higher than the price at the official gas stations. The result? People were waiting in lines, blocking traffic, and getting in arguments at the gas stations to save 50-100 cfa/liter (10-20 cents/liter).
Now, here is the more important question: What was the impact on me? Well, these gas shortages have made my commute to work more expensive and more frustrating. Whenever I now take a zemidjan, I get to hear the refrain “l’essence est cher, quoi,” and, for once, it’s actually true. I liked to think of myself as the zemidjan whisperer; with a casual mixture of charm, good looks, and Fon, I thought I could talk any kekeno down to whatever price I wanted. Not so, Sarah, not so; my confidence has been shattered. Plus, my petite monnaie stash has been decimated completely. If I didn’t know better, I would say my life is hard. But here comes my next obstacle: the dreaded extended power outage.
Power outages
During the election period in late April, the electricity in Benin was awful. We had 24-hour power outages on an off during the weeks leading up to the election. The national Beninese power company apologized and said that it wouldn’t be like that again. But LOL JK:  false.
Benin gets much of its power from Ghana, specifically from the dam in Lake Volta. But guess what? It hasn’t been raining in Ghana (or Benin, for that matter). There’s just not enough water to power the turbines to make the energy that runs my beloved fan (I’ve named the fan: Sawyer; don’t tell Ian, Lost fans). So, thanks climate change; not only are you destroying the planet, you’re making me wake up in a pool of sweat night after night.
For two years, I lived in a village that didn’t have regular power, so Cotonou was my first experience with the crippling public health problem known as “fan dependency.” I’ve never been addicted to anything. Now that I’ve moved to Cotonou, though, things have changed. When I’m in a place without AC or a fan, I crave them; before, I would have sucked it up and suffered. It’s almost a religious experience, the moment that the fan turns on after a power outage: you hear the low murmur, you feel the air starting to move around you, the sweat sitting on your skin starts to cool you instead of just soaking your sheets. My dear boyfriend said that I hardly ever look spontaneously happy (this might be true; but since I can’t see my own face, I can claim ignorance); however, when Sawyer comes on, he can automatically make me happy. This is how I imagine addiction to hard drugs feels. When the fan remains stubbornly motionless, I go through withdrawal. The heat that I became used to in village is infinitely more oppressive in Cotonou, now that I know what it feels like to have the glorious fan moving the air around me. 
                The frightening thing is this: there is no end in sight to the rain, and therefore power, problems. June is supposed to be the big rainy season, so we can hope that West Africa gets the rain it desperately needs for farmers to grow their crops, water their livestock, drink, and provide power for spoiled Cotonou volunteers (and others that don’t have generators). And I haven’t even mentioned the deep, deep depression that accompanies power outages that spoil all the cheese in your mini fridge.
Illness (descriptions of intestinal problems ahead; proceed at your own risk)
Back in March, I took a trip to visit some of the small grants projects I approved as the food security PCVL. The visits went off without a hitch, but on the ride back down to Cotonou, I made a fateful decision: I ate a street meat and avocado sandwich from the Bohicon bus station. The street meat man had been standing under the sun for who knows how long, and I should have known better. But, god damn it, I wanted that sandwich. I make it back to Cotonou fine; for dinner, a friend at the embassy invited me and Ian over for waffles (score!). I thought there might be some rumblings of things to come, but I ignored them. Bad decision.
After eating a delicious waffle, it became very clear that all was not well. In this big, beautiful house full  of AC, hot water, and waffles, I needed to dash to the bathroom a few times. Chloe, our friend’s dog, was still a puppy at this point, and was refusing to go to the bathroom. I volunteer to take her outside and lock the door; she was going to stay outside until she pooped. As I lay in the fetal position on the patio, desperately trying to hold it in, Chloe struts around, clearly proud of herself that she doesn’t need to go. After 15 or so minutes, she relents and we get to go in. Ian and I beg off quickly, and I rush home at around 8. The next 11 hours are a bit of a blur.  I know I went to the bathroom at least 20 times. I know that around 1am, on the way back from said bathroom, I fainted from dehydration and exhaustion. I know that I lost about 8 pounds. I know that the next morning, I felt as sick as I have ever felt in Benin, including the Malaria incident of Halloween 2012.
Luckily for me, drugs exist. The PC doctor ordered me to do a poop sample (and I had no problem producing one!), and they found that I had a hefty bacterial infection. With the assistance of the magical, beautiful, and fantastic drug of Ciprofloxacin, I was feeling normal again in 48 hours. Moral of the story: if you get diarrhea, don’t get dehydrated, or you will faint, collapsing dangerously close to a full litterbox.
But, I don’t do things half-way. Just last night, I went out to dinner at my favorite restaurant in Cotonou, an Indian place owned by the loveliest man on the planet. I ate way too much palak paneer, naan, and, since someone else was paying, I drank two margaritas. To be clear, I regret nothing about this meal, and this restaurant is still the best place in Cotonou. But, at 130 am, my stomach decided that it was not happy, and I had to dash to the bathroom to throw up. I did my business and fell back in bed. Not 15 minutes after falling back asleep, I hear a loud thump from outside and then a few people screaming in sheer terror and a baby crying. I don’t know exactly what happened, but here are the facts I do know: 1) someone was shouting in Yoruba, 2) a woman was shouting in English, saying alternatively, “You’ll see tomorrow,” and “I promise you!”, and 3)in my once again dehydrated and sick state, I became increasingly paranoid that there was something related to sorcery going on. This means that I have been in Benin too long. Now let me be clear: I don’t believe in sorcery, but I do believe that Beninese people believe in it all day long.  Chances are, it was a standard domestic disturbance. However, at 2 am, in the dark, with a storm approaching, and screaming that sounded like someone was being murdered, it all seemed terrifying and eerie. Even Papaya cat didn’t like it.
This morning, I have not seen any evidence of sorcery, so I’m just going to assume that the drama from last night was over some pate that fell on the ground.
Long ago, when I took up the helm as food security PCVL, I promised a post about the indicators I need to work with. I’m going to give you some highlights to demonstrate the challenges associated with this job; if you, on your own, come to the conclusion that I do an excellent job in difficult circumstances, I will not contradict you.
First, we need to get a key term out of the way:
·         Indicator- a measurable data point that attempts to capture given information. Indicators are used by development organizations basically to say, “Look, see how many people/cows/farmers/businesses/etc. we’re helping! We’re amazing! Give us more money!” Ok, that was a somewhat cynical reading of the situation. Truth be told, indicators, if measured well, can shed a lot of light on the successes (or failures) of a program. Monitoring and Evaluation is a very important field and development workers, me included, are always trying to do it better. 
My work as food security PCVL involved me mastering seven indicators from the Feed the Future program, a US government initiative that gives money to organizations that are working to improve the availability, accessibility, utilization, and stability of food in developing countries.  Then I need to convince volunteers to report on these indicators; volunteers can be lazy. We’ll get to that later.
So here are simplified readings of the 7 indicators:
1)      Did volunteers train people in food security/agriculture topics?
2)      Did the people trained by volunteers actually take what they learned and use the techniques on their own?
3)      Did volunteers help any community groups working in food security?
4)      Did volunteers help businesses improve their money-making capabilities?
5)      Did volunteers train people in child health and nutrition?
6)      Did volunteers train people in maternal health and nutrition?
7)      Were the people trained in health and nutrition are responsible for children younger than 5? How many?
See, that’s not too hard right? Well these 7 indicators have 9 pages of definition sheets explaining them. In tiny print. Here’s an example from an indicator definition sheet. This segment is trying to draw a contrast between the meaning of one indicator and the meaning of another. Give it a read:
This indicator,4.5.2(5),counts individuals who applied improved technologies, whereas indicator 4.5.2(28)Number of private enterprises, producers organizations…and community-based organizations (CBOs) that applied improved technologies or management practices counts firms, associations, or other group entities applying association-or organization-level improved technologies or practices. 4.5.2(5) Number of farmers and others applying technologies/practices individual-level indicator should not count all members of an organization as having applied a technology or practice just because the technology/practice was applied by the group entity. For example, a producer association implements a new computer-based accounting system during the reporting year. The association would be counted as having applied an improved technology/practice under 4.5.2(42)Number of private enterprises, producers organizations…applying indicator, but the members of the producer association would not be counted as having individually-applied an improved technology/practice under 4.5.2(5)Number of farmers and others applying technologies/practices individual-level indicator. However, there are scenarios where both the group entity and its members can be counted, the group counted once under 4.5.2(42)and individual members that applied the technology/practice under 4.5.2(5). For example, a producer association purchases a dryer and then provides drying services for a fee to its members. The producer association can be counted under 4.5.2(42)and any association member that uses the dryer service can be counted as applying an improved technology/practice under 4.5.2(5).”  (Feed the Future Indicator Handbook: Definition Sheets, October 2014)
Dense, no? Just looking at it makes me woozy. And I’ve been wrestling with this language since August. Part of my job is convincing 100 volunteers that understanding and using this information is a good use of their time; it’s an uphill battle to say the least. But I give it my best shot. This year, we’re doing ok. People bring me reports and evidence for their activities, I summarize it and send it to the WAFSP coordinator in quarterly.
However, back in March, I was locked in an epic battle of wills over where we should pull data for our reports. We had two possible sources:
·         My reports that take information directly from the volunteers soon after they finish an activity. I look at their projects and make sure that they have all the relevant evidence sheets (participant lists, lesson plans, logs, notes – these evidence sheets help us understand exactly how many people/groups/etc. we reached)
·         PCVs’ biannual reporting form that volunteers write themselves with activities that don’t necessarily have any evidence (the “VRF”).
Naturally, I want to use the data that I verify. Peace Corps Washington wants us to use the VRF.  Here’s the problem with the VRF: Volunteers don’t care about it. To directly quote one volunteer, “I did a shit job on my VRF.” I’m not going to go into all the problems with the VRF, but suffice it to say, when you only have to fill something out every 6 months, there’s a lot of time to forget important details. Volunteers often report stuff without having any paper evidence to back up their numbers; basically, for the VRF, we have no way of verifying if the values the volunteer is reporting are anywhere in the ballpark of reality. USAID West Africa, who finances Peace Corps Benin’s food security program, realizing that there might be a few flaws in the VRF reporting system, asks that we have evidence for the numbers we report to them; this makes perfect sense to me. However, PC but a lot of time and resources into developing the VRF, and they want it to be successful. While the current VRF is a much better reporting tool than previous versions, there are still some flaws, many of which stem from volunteer habits; we can be lazy, stubborn, jaded, and stuck in our ways. As a result, when it comes to reporting correctly, volunteers can give the following excuses for not doing a good job: I forgot the activities I did 5 months ago; I don’t have time; my language skills aren’t good enough; what’s it all worth anyway?; it’s my work that is important, not the reporting; reporting is stupid, etc. In the future, Peace Corps has plans to move to a mobile app VRF reporting system that could greatly increase the validity of the data volunteers report, but we’re still years off from that. For these reasons, I wanted to stick to using the data that have evidence which volunteers bring to me willingly.
Long story short, I won this battle and we only use the data I verify to do our reports, but it was a frustrating couple of weeks.
So that covers all the less-than excellent things that have happened over the past few months. Now, we’re going to talk about the good things. Although this list will be shorter than the 7 page juggernaut above, I have had some excellent times since February, and the length of post is not a good indicator of the good vs. bad distribution. The bad stuff is just usually more fun to write about.
                Well, believe it or not, the construction of the well in Sabo is actually done, and they even tested the water. Because I don’t trust the entrepreneur who built the well at all (if he took a bottle of Evian and submitted it to the test as the Sabo water, I would not be at all surprised), I’m trying to make Peace Corps do another test, including an arsenic test, which the first test excluded. However, the first test said that the water was ok, although not perfect. I won’t really be satisfied until we have a Peace Corps funded test, but at least the damn thing exists, a full two years after the project was started. In my future job search, whenever the interviewer asks, “Tell me about a time when you faced adversity,” I will have a story full of frustration, rage, incompetence, political shenanigans, and then, apparently, triumph.*

                At the end of April, I decided to go to Latvia. “Latvia?”, you might be thinking, “Why?” During my year in Cotonou, I have been lucky enough to befriend a Latvian-American citizen who went back to Riga to finish up her degree in classical Latin and Greek (yeah, she’s smart). I had never been to northern Europe, so I saw this as a great opportunity to expand my horizons and see a new part of the world. I was not disappointed. I arrived in Riga just as the trees were blooming again, so it was beautiful; empirically, it wasn’t even that cold, although I was freezing most of the time. Benin has made me weak in cold temperatures.
                I hung out a lot with her friends, wandered around old Riga, admired the art nouveau buildings that are all over the place, visited the KGB museum (which used to be an old prison and is literally a block away from my friend’s house; her door has bullet holes in it, coincidentally). Plus, there was the food. I ate A LOT. I had potato pancakes with salmon, tried pickled herring (Dad, you get to keep that one all to yourself), devoured a delicious piece of grilled salmon, ate many burgers, tried smoked meat and cheese, ate an entire kilo of strawberries by myself (no regrets), and drank all sorts of delicious beer and cider. It was a fantastic trip, and visiting a native made me feel super cool and not like all the lame tourists (LOL JK, I was a lame tourist, but I can pretend, OK?)
                Her birthday happened to fall during my visit, and we played laser tag. Although I didn’t have the most kills, I did consistently have the highest accuracy. I’m considering dropping out of public health/international development and becoming a sharpshooter. Thoughts?

The Birthday Extravaganza
                This month, I turned 25. A whole quarter century. To celebrate, my incredible friends and boyfriend took me to Happy Reggae Place Forever in Grand Popo. Ian rented an actual hotel room with air conditioning, and I felt like we were living in the lap of luxury. Coconut drinks  were plentiful, the ocean and the sun were absolutely beautiful, and the food was to die for. In Popo, there’s a place where you can get a HUGE steak of delicious fish, fried to perfection for 4 dollars. Plus, we went to a nice fresh restaurant with steak and coconut flan.
                But the true highlight of the event was the birthday present Ian masterminded: He had my friends and family all over the world send me birthday messages, which he compiled in a video set to the timeless classics “Chop My Money” and “Azonto” (look them up). I might have even teared up a little as I watched it (when the people present laughed at me, I deeply regret not coming up with the comeback, “I’m allergic to nice things”… next time, I guess). Point is, my birthday extravaganza in Grand Popo made me feel very loved; even with the 7 pages of shit above that you all slogged through (assuming that you’re now reading this), I’m still counting the last few months a win.
                Now, I need to go prank the COSing stage, so you’ll forgive me for not waxing more poetically on all the positive things I have in my life. I have high hopes for the next quarter century.

*no jinx, no jinx, no jinx

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Car Crash

I suppose I should start this post with a disclaimer: I’m fine, I have no broken bones, and my brain still seems to be functioning well… or, you know, as well as it was this time last week.
Last Friday, I was going to a training session in Parakou, a city about 8 hours north of Cotonou. Starting on Thursday night, my angst began to fester for a variety of reasons: we’d be travelling 16+ hours for a training that would last all of 7, it was the hot season and I would have to sleep without my beloved fan, and I wouldn’t be getting a free ride down in the Peace Corps car because of scheduling conflicts with other PC staffers, meaning that I’d need to take an awful bus. I shoved all of those annoyances out of my brain, packed for the trip, and woke up early to get to the office before our scheduled departure at 8AM. As soon as I got there, it became very clear that we would not be leaving at 8. There were two trainings going on in Parakou: my measly moringa one and a hygiene one. Although I had prepped all the moringa materials ahead of time, the people responsible for the hygiene lessons had not had the opportunity to do the same.
                Not only was the training paperwork not ready, our PC driver had a lot of baggage to collect from what I assume were many different locations around Cotonou. After doing all that I could do to move the proceedings along, I gave up and went to wait for everyone to get ready. There were many people in the workstation who heard me grumbling about how I hate leaving late. I texted Ian multiple complaints concerning incompetence, tardiness, and my accursed existence (I was feeling dramatic). A fellow volunteer, whom I will call “Unlucky,” heard most of my verbal grievances because he was unable to hide from me. Why? Poor Unlucky has not had a lot of, well,  luck in Benin. He had been in a motorcycle accident that messed up his hand badly enough to see the tendons through the wound, and he had recently been in a bike accident that left him with casts on his right wrist and left foot, meaning that he has been trapped in the workstation, unable to move other than by hopping along on his right foot. Unlucky wanted to go to the moringa training, and was (un)lucky enough to reserve a spot in the PC car heading up to Parakou. He, too, was annoyed with the lateness, but was not voicing his thoughts nearly as vociferously as I was.  
                Finally, at 11AM, a full three hours after our scheduled departure, we piled into the car. It was incredibly hot and humid already, and I was sweaty from doing absolutely nothing. Unlucky was on my right in the backseat, I was in the middle, and Peace Corps staffers were seated on my left, in the front passenger seat, and in the driver’s seat. Although I didn’t say anything, I was very grumpy about being in the middle seat. Why? There’s no headrest for sleeping, and I was begrudging Unlucky for taking up my headrest for the 8-hour ride. We left the office, the trunk fully loaded with stuff, the roof piled high with baggage. After about 3 hours (around 2PM), we stopped in Bohicon (a major city in the south) for lunch. Once that was done, we continued on to Parakou.
                Thirty minutes out of Bohicon, as we drove through a small village whose name I don’t even remember, our driver-side rear tire blew out. At first we heard a popping noise, then a dragging noise… after that, I wasn’t really paying attention to the noises, because we swerved into the oncoming traffic lane. Luckily for everyone involved, there were no motorcycles, trucks, cars, semis, or people coming. The driver managed to regain some control of the car and steered us back into our correct lane. If he hadn’t done that, the results could have been much worse. The left side of the road was about 8 feet higher than the village that it went through, and there were numerous houses and bystanders around. If we had crashed on the left side of the road, there is a very real possibility that someone, in the car or outside of it, could have died. However, we avoided that catastrophe.
                So we’re coasting in our own lane, but the driver did not have total control of the car. He was unable to bring us to a stop before we careened over the narrow shoulder of the road, going airborne, and landed on the right side of the car in a plant-filled ditch off the road, which (again) is at least 6 feet above the village around it. I have no idea why roads in Benin are built like this, but I am beginning to feel that this design has flaws.
                As we’re falling, I remember having two realizations: 1) “oh dear, this will not end well” and 2) “the road is not that wide…yep, we’re going over.” However, my life definitely did NOT flash before my eyes. Once we’re stationary, our positions have shifted from vertical to horizontal and we are all tethered into the car by our seatbelts. I verbally confirmed that everyone is alright (probably in English, but my French had left me at that point, so sue me). Everyone answered in the affirmative, and I basically went limp, relieved that no one was dead. I did realize that we’d need to get out of the car eventually, but the urgency of the situation hadn’t really clicked yet. The PC staffer on my left undid his seatbelt and fought his way out of the window like a cat. I managed to get my seatbelt off, wedged myself into a semi-vertical position, and avoided crashing into Unlucky beneath me; however, that’s about as far as I could go. At this point, a huge crowd of villagers has amassed, and a few very strong men dragged me up out of the car (as soon as my shoulder stops hurting, I am going to work on my upper body strength). The two people in the front of the car make it out in similar fashions. Once I’m out, they make me sit down as they pull Unlucky out of the car and carry him across the road to the shade under a tree.
                Once it has become clear that (1) holy shit we got into a car accident and (2) I’m really not that injured, I crossed the street to go check on Unlucky. Remember that his right arm was banged up? Well, now he had two gaping gashes in his right elbow to complete the image of a truly fucked-up arm; his elbow went through the window of the car. Gore was dripping from dirty wounds that we attempted to clean up with toilet paper, and the driver poured alcohol on his arm when poor Unlucky isn’t looking. The Peace Corps staffers got the doctors on the phone, and they decided that we were going back to Bohicon to get Unlucky’s arm stitched up.
                Truth be told, this was really the first medical crisis situation in which I’ve been involved. I’ve always wondered what I would be like under pressure – would I faint at the sight of blood (I’ve been known to dance with unconsciousness while giving blood)? Would I spring into action? Would I keep the spirits of my comrade high? Would I become a blithering idiot? All in all, I think I held it together relatively well. I should have just parked it next to Unlucky to keep his mind off his injury by talking with him in English; instead, I disappeared occasionally to make a phone call to Ian, check on the other people, look at the car, try to find water, etc... But you live and you learn. When I was with Unlucky, I drew on our mutual hatred of the Patriots (he’s a Jets fan, I prefer the Chargers), and I made many disparaging comments about Tom-too-pretty-for-his-own-good Brady. I must have scared the villagers by getting giddy and giggling at inappropriate moments, while my friend’s arm dripped all over the place. After a hectic 20 minutes, we flagged down a taxi, and Unlucky, the guy to my left, and I headed back to Bohicon. The driver stayed with the car, and the woman in the passenger seat continued on to Parakou to do the training, even after she pulled a 1/2 inch long piece of metal out of her foot. Once in Bohicon, the doctor stitched up Unlucky’s two arm wounds, took x-rays of his arm to check for fractures, took x-rays of my chest and right side to check from rib injuries (I had some soreness and trouble moving around, but I think it was just a bad bruise and whiplash), and sent us to a hotel. While they were stitching him up, I attempted to be as present as possible, but I never want to see that again. The local anesthetic shots were awful to watch – it was like the nurse was trying to crochet with the flesh of Unlucky’s arm. I didn’t pass out, but I did excuse myself a few times.
                 Later that night, some other PC staffers drove up to the crash site, got the car upright, and towed it to our hotel in Bohicon. The next morning, we bought some motor oil and tried to start the damaged car; lo and behold, it drove. Both cars headed back to Cotonou, where Unlucky and I each got new sets of x-rays, frying my ovaries and confirming that there were no breaks. The doctor gave me some extra-strength Ibuprofen and sent me on my way. About a week later, I still have a little bit of rib/shoulder pain, but it’s getting a lot better. Considering that (1) the worst injuries in a car accident that sent five people flying off the road were two arm wounds that required stitches, (2) it was a one-vehicle accident, (3) it wasn’t really anyone’s fault, and (4) the car still drives (albeit with a lot of exhaust), I’m going to say that we dodged a few serious bullets. Now I can cross “get in a car accident” off of my bucket list.  
What have we learned?
1)      Wear your goddamn seatbelts
2)      Sit in the middle of cars
3)      I’m not terrible in a crisis
4)      Don’t resent someone for taking your headrest
5)      Getting stitches in Benin sucks. Avoid it.

                                               [here's our damaged, yet functioning, car]
[that's Unlucky's blood smeared all over the window]

             Since I didn’t die in a fiery explosion, I guess I need to start thinking about the future (darn it!). Peace Corps will end for me in October, after all. The more I think about it, the more Public Health appeals to  me; I want to continue to work internationally, but with a humanitarian/emergency response focus. I’ve never been a really religious person and I’ve never believed in fate. To  me, the more likely explanation for life is that there is no explanation - it just is. Random chance has bounced around in such a way that this magical and beautiful and awful and disgusting world exists in the way it does today; if that’s the case, I hit the jackpot – I grew up in America’s finest city, I had all the benefits and opportunities that a middle-class upbringing provides, I have loving parents and friends,  I’ve never been seriously ill, I possess reasonable intelligence, and the car crash that could have killed me gave me just a few sore ribs and bruises. I’m lucky (privileged, some would say), and I know it. But life isn’t  a zero-sum game; if I win, others don’t have to lose. So, even if I don’t believe in cosmic justice or retribution, I do believe that most suffering is not guaranteed or natural, it’s manufactured, and a world is possible where it ceases to be manufactured. That’s what I want to do: work in a field that minimizes the suffering of those who drew the short straws in the universal game of chance.
              I have a few concerns about grad school (I need to develop marketable skills,  not waste a bunch of money, be able to get a job, not turn into a stress monkey, etc.), but this is the first time in a long time when I feel like I have a plan. Maybe I’ll wake up tomorrow and realize, “What was I thinking?! Underwater basket weaving is the career for me!” Or maybe my zem will crash tomorrow, and none of this will matter. But I can’t plan for that possibility; I need to start moving forward instead of dithering around the kingdom of indecision, where up until recently, I reigned supreme. And I will start moving forward… as soon as my ribs stop hurting.