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Wonderful Adventuring Me: Peace Corps Volunteer Christy Fuller's Service in Benin
Wonderful Adventuring Me: Peace Corps Volunteer Christy Fuller's Service in Benin
Wonderful Adventuring Me: A Peace Corps Volunteer's Service in Benin
3-21-04: Hot! Hot! Hot!
I am sitting here sweating and there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. I feel the beads of sweat collecting on my forehead, in the corners of my nose, behind my knees, EVERYWHERE. It is 2:30PM and 110 degrees in the shade. The hot season has made its entrance and soon enough I will know what the term "Africa hot" really means. This is the season that I've been absolutely dreading ever since coming to Benin 9 months ago and I know it will only get worse. I'm dehydrated, but my luke-warm water supply hardly quenches my thirst. My shower water that is usually too cold for comfort is now tepid and largely unsatisfying in this heat. But listen to me complaining so much, just days into the two-month long hot season. So that's what's new in Copargo - heat. Plus the post office is opening soon - look out world, Copargo is making its entrance!
School continues with its prerequisite headaches. As one challenge is overcome, another takes irs place. Currently, I am at odds with the disorganized and stubborn management within my school and the lack of creative thinking abilities among my students. Not long ago I was so fed up that I absolutely HAD to leave. There is only so much ingnorance one can take. These days the cravings for exotic adventure are replaced by a longing for normal life and common comforts of home. I am tired of the dirt, tired of sharing my home wuth strange-looking creatures, and tired of showering outside. These feelings are now compounded by an overwhelming feeling of restlessness. I haven't stayed in one place or held a single job for longer than 9 months in the last four years, so the thought of staying in little Copargo, working at the same frustrating job for the next 16 months is a bit difficult to stomach. I find my self thinking of those long 16 months that lay before me like a prison sentence and have even considered throwing in the towel and moving on. But I was taught never to give up, and I will stay here and work through this period of seeming stagnation. I will be stronger for it in the end and I know that I would be plagued with nothing but regrets if I let Africa lick me so easily.
Anyway, so thats the basic gist of what I've been thinking and feeling since returning from Christmas vacation. For the holidays I went south, spending a few days in Cotonou before heading on my first out-of-country adventure - Ghana! Cotonou is a dirty, noisy, polluted that is, however, full of all of the modern luxuries a deprived Peace Corps volunteer could ever want. While I'm stuffing my face with pizza and ice-cream until my stomach hurts, I am also cursing the expats who are across the aisle, dressed all nice and enjoying their air-conditioning and SUVs and beautiful houses and pizza whenever they want. I have reserved a few choice four letter words for them, I assure you. There's nothing like hanging out with rich and fashionable expats to remind me of how I live and how dirty I've really become. So my self-esteem generally takes a dive and another day in Cotonou is a day too many.
The trip to Ghana, like everything in West Africa, had its ups and downs. Traveling itself is never fun - crowded bush taxis, incessant marriage proposals from skeevy border guards, avoiding getting ripped off, and never being sure of what's going to happen. We ended up spending most of our time lounging on a beautiful beach, doing absolutely nothing. We also spent a few star-struck days in Accra, which is so modern that it feels like America. I was overly excited by Champ's Sports Bar and the restrooms that smelled like *gasp!* CLEANING products! Accra falls just short of wonderful, however, since there is no Mcdonald's....Anyway, so all in all, Ghana was a beautiful country, full of hamburgers, friendly people and decent beer. I'm way too tired to get into the details. If you want them, you'll have to pay for the delux version...
So that's life on this side of the ocean - not always fun, but never dull. I hope you are all doing well. Keep sending those letters and packages - they keep me sane!
12-15-03: Fungus and Suicidal Insects: The Great African Adventure
Ok…so here’s my attempt to update you all on what’s been going on in Copargo for the last several months. Where to begin???!!! In early November, I went to a ceremony known locally as “La Chicotte”. It is a coming-of-age celebration in a nearby village that is fairly typical of tradional African culture. It basically consists of one morning when all the boys of the village between the ages of 6 and 18 get together and whip eachother in front of their families and friends. Yes – whip eachother – with cowhide whips and scars to prove you survived last year’s spectacle. It would all be quite disturbing if it weren’t for the light, almost jubilant mood of the crowd as compared to that of the circumcision ceremony I had witnessed the week before. Since I was with the two volunteers working in that particular village, we were given seats of honor at the ceremony and fed complimentary (not to mention bottomless) bowls of “tchouk” (millet beer). The tchouk, which is hard on the gut, and the heat, which is hard on everything, sort of did me in at the end, so I didn’t enjoy the celebration as much as I might have. It was such an honor to have witnessed the ceremony and to have been greeted so warmly by the villagers, who sang and danced for us….and got us sloppy drunk….
As for the weather – the rainy season ended as soon as I got to Copargo. In most of Africa, when it rains, it rains torrentially for about an hour each day. In the dry season, well….it’s dry…it just doesn’t rain. Period. So the lack of cloud cover in October and early November means that temperatures often reach 105 degrees, plus a lot of dust everywhere coupled with dead or dying vegetation. It actually amazed me that I adapted so well to the heat, but luckily it is now Harmattan – the coolest of the seasons. This means cooler temperatures during the day and a dry wind blowing in from the north, kicking up the dust until it hangs in the air like a light fog, which compliments the parched earth and vegetation rather well I think. In the mornings, it can even be downright chilly. This is when the Beninese pull out their winter jackets and ski hats, which I did find to be rather amusing. Then I woke up one morning around 3AM FREEZING to death. I hopped up, pulled on a pair of socks, a pair of pyjama pants, and long-sleeved shirt, a sweater, jumped back into bed, pulled the sheets and blanket up to my chin, and went back to bed. Sheesh.
My house was recently invaded by ants for a few weeks and a friendly lizard has taken up residence in my kitchen (We won’t discuss the mice I hear scratching around in my ceiling at night or the baby frogs that hop gleefully to and fro in my living room. As for the spiders, they’re around, but they rarely leave the wall, so they bother me the least of all African critters. In fact, during one lonely night of reading by my lantern, I noticed a wall spider sitting on the wall looking at me. Thinking he must be lonely, I struck up a bit of conversation with him. I soon noticed that the poor guy was handicapped – he only had seven legs!!! After a bit more prompting, the truth finally came out – yes, he was depressed because of his handicap and yes, the other spiders all made fun of him. He admitted to considering suicide on several occasions and I tried to council him, reminding him that he still had seven good legs left – five more legs than I’ve EVER had. I felt like we had made some progress, so I took leave of him and went to bed. I was even a little excited to have made a new friend! Alas, my counciling was in vain. The next day I went to see my new friend (who I had intermittently named Ralph), but alas his limp, lifeless, seven-legged body was entangled in a web not far from the very spot where we had chatted the night before. Now, I’ll never know if Ralph committed suicide or if he was murdered and savagely eaten, but I mourn the loss – and such violence under my own roof – wounds the heart, it does. (Disclaimer: the author of this story was on Mephloquin, which is known to cause psychotic episodes, at the time of writing)
As for my health, I really can’t complain. I have a fungus (yes, FUNGUS) on my back, which is actually very common among Peace Corps volunteers, but just sounds…well…gross….Otherwise, I’ve had times when I haven’t felt a hundred percent right, but I have luckily had no reason to see the doctor. I’m one of the few among my training-mates who can still say the same.
Hmmm…teaching…I teach four classes each at the Beninese equivalent of grades 7 and 9. My 7th grade classes have about 45 students each and my 9th grade classes have close to 60 each. In each class, about half of my students are repeating the year – but they still seem to manage to know absolutely NO English, even though they took the exact same class last year. As a result of students frequently being held back, I have students in my 9th grade classes that are both bigger and older than I am. None of my students can afford books, let alone other materials, so they depend on me for absolutely everything – I AM their textbook, I write their exercises and prepare every scrap of material. The national textbook that I teach from is practically worthless and I’ve only had two months of training to prepare, so that only adds to the challenge. As you can imagine, I only get more frustrated and disillusioned as the time goes on. The students are also frustrated with the system and don’t understand why they, living in a francophone country, need to waste their time with English. So in a nutshell my job is hard, but offers a good challenge that I can potentially learn a lot from. I keep having to remind myself that I can’t save the world and to do what I can. Maybe my job here isn’t really about teaching English, but being a role model for the community, to bring two worlds just a little closer together.
Harmattan brought with it the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. During the month, Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset for 30 days, then celebrate at the end with a day of prayer and feasting. Since Copargo is mostly Muslim, I was woken up every morning at about 4AM to an only slightly audible thunk thunk thunk-ing. It was all of my neighbors pounding yams at the same time so they could eat before the sun came up. When I wake up to that, it always takes me a minute or two to realise exactly what’s going on – I often asked myself, still half-asleep, who exactly was pounding on their drums at this time of night. Once I realised what it was, I just had to chuckle and try to go back to sleep. I soon got used to the daily disturbance and, after a few weeks, failed to take further notice.
And that is how it goes here in Copargo these days. A new season comes, a season that in 22 years, I have experienced nothing at all similar and consequently have no idea of what to expect from each passing day. I both relish the change and curse the new problems it brings, but am always able to settle back into a familiar pattern of life. It seems that each time I’m finally sufficiently settled, Africa smiles sheepishly, rolls over, and throws yet another curve ball my direction – just to keep me on my toes. As always, it is hard to be away from home this time of year, especially without the change of seasons for a bit of comfort. I am, however, lucky enough to have Americans around to share the holidays with, and even had turkey and pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving!
10-05-03: Nekked men, vomiting and Snickers: What they all have in common.
Hello everyone from 5 degrees above the equator! I hope you are all doing well....So life here us Africa is definately still going well. Mu over-active emotions have finally calmed down to a reasonable level and I'm comfortable in both my home and Copargo in general. School has not yet started - for now they're saying that the rentrée is for the 13th of Octobert, but who knows for sure...They've moved the date twice already, so I'm definately getting impatient to start working. I've had a month now of pure idleness and am starting to get antsy. So what have I done all month? Well...I've read a LOT, for starters. Since I've been at post, I've read the entire Lord of the Rings trilogy, a 500 page book on the history of western philosophy, The POisonwood Bible, The Bean Trees, a book on existentialism and a few hundred pages in my African history survey. And yet I say that my life in Africa is an adventure...
And sometimes it is! One of my best experiences here in Benin so far is the circumcision ceremony I witnessed a few weeks ago.The north of Benin is much more "country" then the cosmopolitan south. Here the poverty is much more prounounced, the people are less educated in general and traditional cultures and ceremonies still have an important place here. In the hills above Copargo is a village called Taneka, where several traditional cultures merge. The village priests still wear nothing but loincloths and magical, protective talismans are visible throughout the family compounds. In this culture, men of around the age of 25 or 30 must pass a test that proves their valor as a man. For one year or more, a man will wear nothing but traditional costumes (a small pair of shorts, with a ton of beads around his waist, large earrings in his ears, and talismans around his neck). This year is spent in mental and spiritual preparation for the ultimate test of manhood - circumcision. Imagine the scene: you are sitting on a hill overlooking the African countryside. On all sides of you are men sitting around, tranquilling eating and chatting. Your gaze cannot avoid the small circle of children staring silently at you. In the background, the village seems abnormally calm for such a big day - women and elders are passing back and forth, going about their daily business. Soon a mans comes up - come on! Your heart starts pounding ns your companions all jump to their feet and hurredly follow the messenger. You come to a path cut through the tall elephant grass and notice chicken feathers strewn about - this must be the blessed entrance the the site of the ceremony ( a chicken had been sacrificed here by the village priest). You form a train with your friends as the crowd thickens and the energy rises. People are pushing feverishly forward along the narrow path, almost panicking in the effort to secure a good vantage point. You are lead to a large flat stone leaning at an angle against a tree and (maybe because you are white, maybe because you tipped the guide) you are put directly in front of the tree and told to stay put. This is easier said than done, as the inertia of the crowd attempts to push you into the elders sitting next to you. Suddenly a distinguished-looking man appears and digs out a small hole at the base of the stone. He chases away a small scorpion and other such potential enemies (including evil spirits) and then blesses the spot. Several sombre young men enter the tight circle. The first, the initiate's older brother, steps into the spot and shows his brother the "way" through the ceremony. The initiate looks on as he removes his loincloth and steps in to take his brother's place. He leans against the stone slab, his face calm, yet tense. He raised two large feathered batons in front of his face. The priest steps in and draws his dull knife. The crowd hushes, the energy intensifies, this is an important moment for the honor of the family. The priest takes ahold of the foreskin and takes his knife - he cuts once, and it takes a few seconds to saw the skin off completely. He then grabs the second layer of skin and cuts a second time. He nods in recognition that the ceremony is complete and the new "man" remains frozen in place. The crowds yells wildly, the on-lookers rush in and pick up the man. The carry him off in a wave of jubilant fervor. You close your eyes, remain in your placee, and take a deep breath, contemplating the drama that you just witnessed. You feel privileged to have had the experience, but feel a twinge of guilt that the color of your skin and the equivalent of one American dollar bought you such an honored position in this important event.
So that was my experience at a circumcision ceremony. I was actually lucky enough to see two circumcisions, and to say the least, it was an intense experience that I will never forget. So I do have adventures, but every once in a while, Africa does get to be too much and cabin fever starts to set in. At that point, I hop into a bush taxi and head to Natitingou, where I watch hours upon hours of American movies at the Peace Corps office, binging on Coke and Snickers, reading Cosmo and People magazines and loving all things American. After a day or two, I'm ready for Copargo again and am happy to return "home". So that's life in Africa for you - an eclectic mix of the boring, empty life of a person on vacation and the exciting adventurous life of a person traveling in Africa. Sadly to say, my health hasn't held up. I've been pretty sick twice now - luckily both bouts only lasted 24 hours, but when you're vomiting out one end and having everything else come out the other end, it is a little harder to deal when you don't even even the most basic conveniences of home. Plus being sick like that really messes up your body, and it takes a good week or so to really start feeling normal again afterwards....sigh...anyway, so thats my life. Please continue writing to me, I miss you all tons and its great to get any news, no matter how small....
9-11-03: Mixed emotions
Hello everyone! I'm pleased that I've been getting so much email from you all recently and even happier that you all seem to be doing so well! I hope you all continue to do well.
As for me, I have survived my first couple of weeks at post. It has been a little crazy and my emotions tend to swing wildly from one extreme to another. I now see what they mean when volunteers say that the first few months at post are very difficult - but fortunately my lows are nowhere near as dramatic as my highs. In general, I'm loving finally having my own place and having a little more freedom to do as I please within my village. I am on a month-long vacation before school starts at the beginning of October, so I haven't done much else other than set up my house, relax, read and get to know my neighbors and community. My swear-in ceremony went very well and I was sad to say goodbye to my fellow volunteers. I am a little more isolated from other Americans that most of my fellow trainees, so that adds an extra challenge to my service. I did get my hair "micro-braided" for the celebration, which means hairdressers spent 7 hours giving me extensions and then braiding them into 200 teeny braids. Take a look and my photos if I get them downloaded and see what I mean! It hurt a little at first, but all of that tugging and pulling turned into excruciating pain after the fourth hour. I'm still shocked that I survived at all and swear that, in the worst moments, I achieved Nirvana. Call me Buddha, for I have seen the light of the Truth as a rewerd for experiencing the most excruciating pain humanly poissibly. I guess you can also say that I am now initiated into Beninese culture and have a new appreciation for African braids.
Then it was off to post. At first, I must admit that I was a little disappointed with Copargo. I am watched over carefully by a family in the village and had a hard time going anywhere or doing anything by myself. I have slowly started establishing my independence and was finally able to break away one afternoon for a walk around the village all by myself. I had a great walk, discovering the sides of Copargo that are not on the main street, discovering the seemingly obvious point that Copargo is a living, breathing AFRICAN village. The people are warm and welcoming and happy to have me there. I have never felt a stronger, fuller, more ALIVE sensation in my life than when I rounded the end of the village and had a stop to reflect a bit under the shadow of the nieghboring mountain. It welled up inside of me like a tidal wave, bowled me over. Tears welled up in my eyes and I continued on my way home with a smile on ly face and an extra skip in my step. The days since have not been without their frustrations and low times, but it is the power of that one moment that has carried me through. Although I'm slowly getting used to using a latrine, having no electricity, and drawing all my water from a well, I still have awhile before I will be able to say that I am one hundred percent comfortable in ly house. But that is not the biggest challenge - cultural matters that will take too long to explain here, as well as the weeks of down time that await me - all make me crave home and its comforts, both physical and emotional. I even got really sick for the first time this week (104 degree fever), but it passed quickly on its own (don't worry mom!) - I'm better now, but being sick did not help the homesickness very much. Now I'm in the city for a few days to relax and see other volunteers and recuperate a little, before jumping into the thick of African culture again.
Luckily, my life lately has been a great adventure. I liken it to a journey, for I am certainly on a quest. I learn so much every day and never know what the next day or even hour will bring. A friend sent me this quote from The Lord of the Rings...it seems to describe my feelings lately in an amazingly eloquent and succint way. I leave you with this:
"The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say."