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 (https://www.ted.com/talks/verna_myers_how_to_overcome_our_biases_walk_boldly_toward_them?language=en), 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! http://pclive.peacecorps.gov/pclive/ 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
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.
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:
- Creepy crawlies
- Looking down at the pavement sliding under the zemidjan and realizing that if we crashed at this speed, we'd both die
- Being a little celebrity
- Well digging
- Intestinal distress
Will absolutely miss:
- My families in Porto, Ewe, and Sabo
- The rolling hills between Ewe and Sabo
- Beninese children and their ability to have fun with almost anything
- Sodabe nights with mama
- 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,