Peace Corps Volunteer Sean O'Keefe's Adventures in Benin

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Peace Corps Volunteer Sean O'Keefe's Adventures in Benin

Peace Corps Volunteer Sean O'Keefe's Adventures in Benin

Sean O'Keefe is a Peace Corps volunteer stationed in Ouake in Benin, West Africa. He writes his journal on notebook paper by lantern light and sends the handwritten text, along with film, to his mother in North Carolina. She types his text and has his film developed and then sends them electronically to friends at The Edcomm Group Advanced Design Center in Fort Washington, PA. where staff designed and maintain the website. Hosting services and technical support have also been donated by The Edcomm Group.

"I left the village today and yesterday a few more things were finished....I was right to have a dream and right to force it to follow itself to the end."

7/13/00 The director came to my house at eight o'clock in the morning to tell me that the sous-prefet and the mayor were calling Marissa and me to lunch at noon and he didn't make it sound optional.

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The director came to my house at eight o'clock in the morning to tell me that the sous-prefet and the mayor were calling Marissa and me to lunch at noon and he didn't make it sound optional.

July 2000

7/3/00 Now I'm definitely into the final stretch, to the point where I can see the end but despite my proximity to it I still don't know how it will all shake out. The Peace Corps hasn't made it clear what they intend to do with us in Ouake and for the past few days I've just been enjoying the good life here in Cotonou. I suspect that one way or another they, the Peace Corps, are going to want to bring that to an end. "How" is just not yet clear, much like the "when." I haven't really got anything to do in Ouake other than give what I don't need away and say goodbye to a few people, so the good life isn't much of a burden to bear. As for Ouake, they might be better off waiting and wanting for awhile, in that they seem to take the presence of volunteers for granted and don't know the sacrifices we make to have this experience. I can say that not a lot of people have had a story like mine which is just about par for the course from my point of view.

7/6/00 There aren't a whole lot of experiences you get to have twice in life, especially when the experience is one of the extreme variety. In extremes there is good and bad and in experience we wait our whole lives for the best of them and cringe at the possibilities of even the thought of the worst of them. I got to have an experience for the second time yesterday right down to the details so perfectly the same that it even made me feel and react the same way as the first time. All of this strikes me as rather amazing despite the unfortunate fact that the experience was a bad one and certainly an extreme. Yesterday the Peace Corps sent Marissa and me back to Ouake in a Peace Corps vehicle, with a Peace Corps driver, and a senior staff Peace Corps administration representative. Their stated objective was to determine our security in Ouake and to test the community's reaction to all that has happened. That mainly meant a free ride back to post for me, or so I thought, but considerably more for my post mate who still has six months of service. As soon as we got in the car and started out of Cotonou, Pascal, the Peace Corps representative, asked us to explain to him our problems. My problem all along still being the water, the well, and the mayor's reaction to my complaint when it ran out. Marissa's main concern was the theft that occurred two weeks ago and sent us to Cotonou in the first place. Pascal didn't seem unattentive to what we had to say and, going in, Marissa and I both had the impression that something concrete was going to come out of the day. From his reactions to our stories it appeared that he was taking us seriously, and when we got to Ouake at approximately 4 PM yesterday afternoon we were a little anxious but definitely ready. Pascal first directed us to the mayor's house who wasn't immediately home, and then to the brigade to talk with the police. The deputy was in and went over the particulars of what he knew of the incident, which wasn't far from what actually happened. Pascal asked him a few questions and explained briefly that the Peace Corps was following procedure by sending him out. The deputy was a little put out that we'd brought the Peace Corps to his office and said he didn't see why we had when the issue had already been settled. It's as if we took a family problem outside of the family from the local point of view except we're only in a foster family at best, more likely a halfway home in a foreign country, and we're not children but adults. Nevertheless we finished with the police and continued on to the sous-prefecture in hopes of seeing the sous-prefet. On the ride over Pascal asked us how he was doing and pretended to talk about a strategy he was employing and alluded to what a great job he was doing. At the sous-prefecture the sous-prefet was in but occupied and the three of us waited on a bench out front only a few minutes before he was ready to see us. The sous-prefet's main point of view was that Marissa and I jumped the gun when we left after the incident and normally we should have allowed the village to handle our problems. He pretended to be hurt that we went to the Peace Corps and promised that he would have come to comfort us or whatever else if we'd only waited. Meanwhile we were in the village for a day and a half after the incident and he most certainly never had any intention of checking on us. This time Pascal didn't say much about the Peace Corps role in our departure and definitely didn't bother to explain that we don't report to the sous-prefet, or that we are adults who are capable of making our own decisions,. My only question for the sous-prefet was why he said I was negligent when I was robbed and how he could defend that statement when his half-brother was implicated in the crime. The sous-prefet tried to say that he never said I was negligent and that even if he did it was because I came to him with my problems at the wrong place at the wrong time. I came to him when it happened and I found him where I did, both of which are factors I had no control over. I didn't really feel like getting into it too much and didn't have to because as we sat there the mayor showed up, having heard we were in town with the Peace Corps. It seemed convenient enough at the time and I figured I might finally have a chance to address the issue between the mayor and myself with the advantage of some perspective. Well, the mayor wanted to bring Pascal to my house to explain his point of view so that's what we did. As soon as we got out of the Peace Corps vehicle, literally before I even was out of the car, the mayor started to berate me. For 45 minutes he did nothing but attempt to prove that I was the problem, that I refused to even give people water to drink, even so far as to say I was the reason people were getting robbed in Ouake because the thief was tempted into it by my presence. It was every bit as bad as the first time but somehow through most of it I thought I was at least going to respond to what was being said about me, to defend myself. Only when the time came it wasn't in me. I said nothing and explained nothing. In fact I told Pascal that he could continue his investigation without me as I had no interest in the outcome, at which point he and the mayor left and I began arranging my things for the departure which will be a few days sooner than I thought. So I offered these people two years of my life and was basically spat on in return, twice. Someone recently asked me if all of this was worth it and the answer has still got to be yes. Despite the mayor's sentiments, the Peace Corps' lack of support, the good and the bad of it all, I'm sure it will be worth it in the end but only because I made it worth it from the start. Life is beautiful, even in pain, and I only want as much as I can ask for.

7/8/00 And these are the last few days in Ouake, the last few times I'll be able to be just so a feeling that's hard to express. Most of my things have been given away with a few more to follow. Most of the people I'm friends with have been seen or will be seen in the next few days and then the end will be here. This the saga of Ouake. This part of my life that seems like it began only moments ago is coming to an end. All things will the way that they do and there is no reason to resist it any more than I resisted the beginning, which was alone at all. Yes this part has always been about time which is about eventuality and coming around for all of us.

7/12/00 Today is my last day in Ouake with most of it still before me. I still have plenty to do to get ready to go and I'm kind of expecting a few people to come by to see me, so it will probably be about the same as the first. I wasn't worried then and see no reason to now. I don't have any regrets in this and can see so clearly everything that happened. Asking questions has led me to answers but not so directly as one might think. Really, it was just the wanting to know that brought me this much closer to the truth and I'm glad I wasn't fool enough to see it all through rose-colored glass. The truth is in Ouake people are living by their wits much like people are all over the world. The truth is they have problems and believe in gods or religions just like the rest of us. They are poor for the most part but they don't really suffer as much as you might think because of poverty; it's all they've ever known. These days there are only a few people around who can really remember when a man's wealth grew in his fields, and those people are dying. Now, today, my last day in Ouake, people are alive and working for the pleasure to be so, and they will complain about that like anyone would but only to pass the time. Me, I've got things to do so that I can go and wait on nothing but the beauty of time to bring me what's mine.

7/13/00 I left the village today and yesterday a few more things were finished. I guess it's just the way that things have to be, but there was good and bad in it and that has left me with the feeling this experience has: ambivalence. I want to care more than I do but I can't ask myself to care anymore than I already have. It felt like a lot, maybe even too much, but then again maybe not as much as I thought it did. The good was standing beside my main man Emmanuel and watching him put the finishing touches on another basketball rim, this one for a volunteer in another village far away from Ouake who only wanted one rim made as a model for someone to duplicate. He's going to build a basketball court there. It's the in thing to be doing in world development these days, you know. It means that I was right to have a dream and right to force it to follow itself to the end. Good things come from good things and has to be a good thing. The bad was getting to go one more senseless round with the mayor, senseless from a selfish point of view, I admit, but I'd already settled myself on the point that I'd done all I could to help these people. I'll never even really know if it took, but I gave a lot of people my correct address in the last few days. Maybe once in awhile for the rest of my life I'll get a letter thanking me for teaching someone English or basketball, or something. Hopefully I won't get too many that ask me for money or to bring them to America. Whatever, I really had no intentions of going that last round with the mayor but I did. The director came to my house at eight o'clock in the morning to tell me that the sous-prefet and the mayor were calling Marissa and me to lunch at noon and he didn't make it sound optional. So of course I had to go, and had the idea that I'd get a chance to say a few things before it was all over. There was no need to prepare any remarks as they were all on the tip of my tongue and my only intention with them was to be mildly diplomatic. That I was and with less reason than I needed. After we ate what I couldn't help but feel was a tense meal, the sous-prefet had a few words for me which were for the most part polite, compassionate, and sympathetic to the situation in which I'd been living. His main aim was that I "forget" all the bad parts of the experience and remember all the good parts. Not exactly the advice I'd give myself, but gentle enough in principle. He really wanted to say, "Sorry things didn't work out where you could have had a big send off but even still we can't have it on our conscience that you left without us saying goodbye." That just wouldn't be African of them. After the sous-prefet finished, the mayor decided it was his turn to talk, and for some strange reason he felt like he might as well use the opportunity to berate me one more time. At my last meal, on my last day, with his last breath, that thick headed, stubborn old man wanted to tell me exactly what he thinks of me but with out a backbone of reason in the whole fish. He went on until he was repeating himself and then went on just a little bit more. Then it was my turn to speak and I started to do so by pointing out that up until then, through these encounters, I had yet to have a word to say in the whole affair. I explained several points of interest to the mayor, beginning with the problem of theft. I reminded the mayor that within my first two months in Ouake I came to his house and complained about people taking down my laundry lines. I was only asking him at the time to tell people not to take things from my house. It seemed like a reasonable request when I made it and it seems like a reasonable request now. I doubt he did even that then and he didn't even think to claim that he had now. Then I pointed out that many months later I found one of the lines, a synthetic fishing line, in my neighbor's house, and now just recently the same man also has my camera that was stolen more than a year ago. According to the local logic, which is based on reason, it would clearly follow that if he [the mayor] had only walked over to my house, looked around in four directions, and guessed which family would have people that would take even small things from my house, the larger theft that eventually occurred wouldn't have. Then I got on to the point about the well and the water situation. I illustrated briefly that although they like to claim that they don't have enough water, that in fact is not actually the case. They make tchouk almost everyday all over the place. On Tuesdays they consume hundreds of gallons of it at the market and tchouk is, of course, mainly water. They also manage to build something during the dry season every year, whether it's an addition to their house or whatever. I pointed out that if the truth be told, which truthfully it had not, there was not one single occasion when I refused anyone who asked me first the right to take as much water as they wanted. I explained that when I arrived in the village I had never lived through a "dry" season in my life. It doesn't exist where I come from and probably wouldn't matter to me even if it did since I'm not a farmer. I got into it as deep as I could which with three months to simmer on the roaster with it inside me was pretty deep. I showed them how all they were asked to do in the whole thing was provide the volunteer with a house of his own, and that they had failed to do even that. I tried to make the point that I only came to help them and was only trying to protect what I was told was mine. If at any point the mayor, the sous-prefet, the director, or anyone else had a problem with the way I was interacting with the community, then someone should have stepped up to the plate and been a man about dealing with the problem. That didn't happen and now we're having my send-off in an argument. I don't know if they got the point I was hoping to make, but I think maybe the director and the sous-prefet at least understood. I know Emmanuel got the point and he was just as happy as I was to see another basketball rim finished with a little money in his pocket to boot. So the good and the bad are the way it went in Ouake and all in all there's nothing wrong with that.

7/17/00 So now I'm in Cotonou whiling away my time and waiting to leave. I can't help but feel there has to be at least one more thing, one more adventure, one more challenge, problem, solution, or story. Personally, after all that has happened, I'm really ready to get to a point where nothing else can happen, but I'm not so sure that letting down my guard is the best plan of action. There are a few things to do here that can't be done in Ouake, or anywhere else in Benin for that matter, and that is enough for the moment. All of my travel plans for departure are finally settled and in 10 days I'll be landing in Rome, Italy, the city of my birth. That's been my life's dream as long as I've known that's where I was born, so I can't see how it will be anything less than incredible. After all, it was never my dream to join the Peace Corps, I'd never even heard of Benin, much less Ouake, and look at all that has happened here. I won't say too much, but I definitely can't say not enough. After Rome it's on to Florence, Venice, Prague, Paris, Amsterdam, Dublin, London, Nice, and just about every place in between. Six weeks of travel through a decent part of Europe without a planned day in the whole bunch. After that, back to America. The end is close but not yet here, and if I've learned anything through all of this, it's never say never cause you never know. As for Ouake and the Peace Corps I can only wish them, both of them apart, and the two of them together, the best of luck. My stay here and my service with this organization has ended on something of a sour note but that's not to say I wouldn't do the whole thing again if I hadn't done it already. The adventure continues for us all and, like anything else in life, it's what you make of it and afterwards how you take it.

7/22/00 These days are getting by as slowly and as quickly as this whole thing has. Time has been a funny thing here in Benin in that the minute to minute and day to day of it will go exceedingly slowly but the whole, bigger terms, like the week, or the month, or the year, race by as if none of it was supposed to make sense. Now I'm on the last of each one, and have only thoughts about the future, a future away from this place and these people to occupy my time. I'm not even sure what my plans are for America right now, only that I want to get there and want to keep the ball rolling the way I do. What does this have to do with anything, indeed what does any of it have to do with anything other than everything? A few thoughts that I can't do without.

7/24/00 Just as I feared, things are not over yet, but not in the way I imagined. Yesterday while playing basketball at the American recreation center I twisted my knee somehow and now have something of a limp. That's not going to do me any good walking around in Europe for six weeks but if that was the extent of it, I probably wouldn't even be writing this. In addition to the knee problem, I found out at the med unit that I tested positive for some more parasites in last week's evaluation of my insides and will now have to go on some medication to flush them out of my system. Again, I'll admit it's not really noteworthy. However, while I was waiting to get the knee checked on the nurse checked the result of the tuberculosis test injection that I had last week and she seems to think I may be positive. Positive for TB would not be my idea of a nice farewell present from this place and I can now only hope the second test, that will be read on Wednesday, is negative. TB is treatable but the treatment takes six months and allows for no beer or alcohol the whole time. Besides the inconvenience of that, I just plain don't want to have it in me even if it is treatable. That will suck just about as much as anything else that hasn't gone as well as I would have hoped in this thing and will make the bad of it linger into the next calendar year. Beyond that I wasn't able to get any traveler's checks at the bank today and will have to wait until I get to the airport in Belgium or Rome to do that. Another incipience and potentially disastrous since I'll now be on the airplane with over three thousand dollars in cash in my bag. I don't really like the thought of that any more than the idea of having TB and the combination of the two problems is making this something of a really bad day. Bad days pave the way for the good ones, so says the man who believes in karma. I've got it coming, one way or another, and even in the bad I've got to say it's all right until it's not and then only until it is again.

7/26/00 Today is the day and it's all but done. There's a lunch to eat, a couple of pieces of paper to sign, then more beers to drink. A plane to catch and another adventure to begin. The med unit doesn't think I have TB after looking at the second test so medically I'm probably no worse for the wear, but two years is two years and only time will prove the point. I've had my last run in with the Peace Corps administration and it went about as I'd expected, which is to say I gave the big man a piece of my mind about the way things are run around here, and he gave me a piece of his in reaction. I told him I didn't think the Peace Corps administration was really interested in the work as much as the appearance of the work and he didn't take that too well. He said I was arrogant, and impolite. He said that it was I that brought any problems I'd had on myself and recommended I adjust my attitude. I wouldn't argue the point of my arrogance and didn't. Arrogance is what you end up with when you're used to having things work out your way. I am used to just that and often tell people I live a charmed life. It's not without a substantial amount of effort on my part, however, and I'll give myself as much credit for my successes as I would be willing to take for my failures. In essence that is what this experience has been about. Successes and failures, often in the same day and occasionally at the same time. It's been great and, despite what hasn't gone as well as I might have liked, I wouldn't change a thing. The time has gotten by the way it will when you're deep in the moment and now, finally, now, it's time to say good-bye and move on. So there you have it, an idea of what you can get into if you're willing to get into it. Here is here and probably always will be. Thanks for reading and remember: there will always be other ways of living, seeing and understanding this beautiful thing that is life.

By error on Wednesday, July 16, 2003 - 11:50 am: Edit Post


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