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Disclaimer: The contents of this website are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. government or the Peace Corps.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Its been a while



I’ve defiantly been falling behind in my post entries, but I hope these stories do something to make up for that.

Enjoy.

Bus vs. Cow

Bus wins, no contest.

Let elaborate though. The main system of transport along the main paved highways in Benin is to either cram into 60 year old bush taxis (read past entries for more info on bush taxis), or pay the same price and ride in a coach liner bus where you get your own seat, air conditioning, and if you’re lucky, a broken sound system (nobody wants to hear Beninese soap operas for 11 hours strait.) Call me crazy, but I prefer the bus (as bush taxis lose their allure after about 30 minutes.)

On this particular ride I was in the very first seat, passenger side; meaning I had a direct view as to what’s in front of us.
Five hours into the Beninese equivalent of “As the World Turns” (soap opera) when the evil twin came out of a coma for the third time and impregnated the heroine by pretending to be the good twin, some real life drama was about ready to unfold and I had front row tickets (literally, first row bus tickets . . . get it . . . cause . . . whatever, I’m funny damn-it.)
About 100 meters away (or yards for those metrically challenged) a herd of cattle begin to cross the highway.
Remember those word problems from back in High School? Well, if you’re traveling at 100km/hr and there are cattle 100m in front of you, how long will it take to hit the cattle? Answer, less than 3 seconds.

Most of the cattle got out of the way, but one got confused and changed its mind/direction halfway across the road which turned out to be its fatal error, as half a second later the bus turned over 500lbs of cow into 500lbs of ground beef.
The disturbing part was that the speed bumps before major cities gave the bus more of a jolt than hitting a full grown cow.

When it happened, the entire bus went into an uproar and the first question I heard was “is it alive?” to which I couldn’t even begin to formulate a response, much less in a response in French. We did slow down so the bus attendant could lean out and check for damage while we were still moving (turns out there are cattle guards on buses for just this reason and there was only a red splotch) but they wouldn’t stop to compensate the kids herding the cattle.

Another quick bus related side story (taken secondhand from another volunteer).

When the bus arrived, there was no windshield.
Not cracked, not with holes in it, but entirely missing.
During the hot season this can be pleasant and refreshing, but during the rainy season, not so much.
That said, due to the strange pressure in the cabin, about halfway through the trip, the back windshield blew out.
This essentially made the bus into a giant wind tunnel which would simulate a hurricane anytime it was raining outside (which was apparently most of the way to her destination).

Road Repair

News Flash!!!
“Tractors attempt to repair roads foiled due to the destruction of said tractor by the road it was trying to repair. “ (Beninese Satire International) [B.S. International]

The dirt road to my village cannot be classified as a road. I personally believe it could benefit from a light bombing as that would even out the craters.

Recently the Mayor’s office decided it was time to fix the situation. When they shipped in the bulldozer to level out the road, they decided (for some reason that still confuses me) to start in the middle. In order to accomplish this they brought the tractor in on the back of a flat bed semi-truck.

This backfired

Halfway there,  the truck overturned, dumped the tractor so it landed on its roof, and promptly sank into two feet of mud as a result of the recent rainstorm. In order to solve this problem they had to ship in another tractor (even larger than the first) in order to tow the first one out.

Not kosher: piggy discrimination on bush taxis

4th of July, the day of American Independence, fried foods, grilled meat, beer, and fireworks; just because I’m in West Africa at the moment doesn’t mean I can’t celebrate like my stateside counterparts. It does however mean that I may run into some hiccups along the way.

Our plan was a get-together for a pig roast, gather whatever flammable objects we could find (turns out fireworks are extremely difficult to find here), and wave American flags (at least tiny keychain sized ones).

I was in charge of the pig, which in retrospect was a fantastic (if frustrating) decision. There are no supermarkets here but there are wholesalers . . . of a sort. I know three pig farmers in the vicinity, and after looking into proximity vs. pricing, I found my match. For a bit of background, I have never cooked anything larger than a turkey before, so  was completely lost because if you think about it; how the hell do you cook an entire 4 legged 35lb animal in one go?
After some research I decided to take the Hawaii pig pit roasting method (more to come on that later).

The first step though is to acquire the pig.

Skipping the random small details, I arrived at the pig farm ready to pick up the swine on a motorcycle taxi (they strap live bulls to motorcycles here, so what’s a pig right?) Here comes problem #1: Muslims don’t touch pigs, and most moto-taxi drivers in the north (including mine) are Muslim. So when we arrive and I tell him I want to take a live pig to the taxi station, his fear became palpable. His eyes go wide, he starts sweating, and he is physically backing away from the pig oinking towards him.
But I’m nothing if not culturally sensitive by this point in my service, so I pay the man and decide to try to find another way to transport the hog.

This is where problem #2 raised its ugly humanlike screaming voice; killing the pig.
I’m not morally against eating meat, but I like to imagine it’s just some imaginary fantastic food that doesn’t have a face, and/or is like the cow in ‘the Hitchhikers Guide’ and wants nothing more than to be eaten. This is not the case, and the farmer is insisting that I kill it (so I know it’s fresh.) After arguing about how I don’t know how, etc. etc. I let him talk me into it; because honestly, on some base level, I want to do it.
They don’t have ‘humane’ controls here though; there are no air guns like in ‘no country for old men’, no antiseptic wipe before the injection, and no machine that will do the deed for you. There’s just the knife (That’s not a knife, THIS is a knife!  *read in Australian accent), the pig, and you.
After it was done (gory details aside), shaved and gutted, we crammed it into a cooler so it would stay cold and the taxi drivers wouldn’t see it. They’ll take any animal, dead or alive from A to B without questions accept for le porc. Once again, most taxi drivers in the north are also Muslim which means the piggy is a big no no.

We (the pig and I) eventually get to our destination and I begin work on digging the pit to cook the meat in with Bij (my Kandi brother from another mother . . . and father). Ironically, Bij is also Muslim, but I guess that as he didn’t actually touch the pig, everything is a-ok.
A meter and a half deep and three hours later, we decided to change our mind on the pig pit. Solid rock is rather difficult to dig through, and I’d rather not die in the attempt to reach two and a half meters which is essentially grave level.
Anywho, after prepping the pig with a machete, a few pounds of rock salt, god awful amounts of honey/spices/garlic, etc. and 7 hours of cook time over a recessed cement lined grill; I succeeded in cooking a pig, minus the head and inedible organs.

Bucket list item number 42; check.

You know that feeling. . .

. . . When you realize that after thinking everyone else was crazy, maybe it’s actually you? This isn’t that case, these guys were freaking insane.

As I’ve said before, my village is slowly in the process of getting electricity. The flip has been switched, people are getting counters (electricity monitors? I forget what Americans call them), and shenanigans are occurring as a result.
For instance, there are many houses that are farther out that the professionally installed power lines reach; the solution? Home-made power poles/power lines. This includes spiral duct-taping wires to form a sheath, and then using burned down tree trunks as a power pole.This isn't to say everyone is doing this, just these guys in particular.

Here’s the best part. During the most recent homemade ‘power tower’ installation; they dug the hole, lifted the recently burned down tree into it, then without even solidifying the base, one of my village friends fearlessly climbs up said ‘dead tree post’ to secure the wire at the top.
In order to understand this, try picturing burning down a 40 foot tall Aspen tree (its springy!), taking whatever was left, then sticking it in a 2 foot deep unsecured hole (as in no solidifying cement, rocks, or even sand around the loose space in the hole) before climbing it barefoot with no ropes
I’ve seen people fall before and it isn’t fun, so my reaction is to yell at him to get the hell down, but before I can open my mouth, he does come down . . . the fastest way possible.

Luckily he’s not hurt cause the tree didn’t land on him and he was only 15 feet or so up.
As I was recovering from a sympathetic heart attack, they pick up the tree and DO IT AGAIN!!!

This event cycles a total of 3 times before I’m able to convince them to secure the base before Mr. Red Shirt climbs the death pole again. I felt like I was in the twilight zone during a time warp episode (or at they very least, an extra in ‘Groundhog Day’).

Friday, July 12, 2013

A Year In



An Electrifying Experience

One thing you come to discover in village is that extremely important events happen with (seemingly) no notice whatsoever.  Let me clarify; everyone in village will know of said event well in advance, but for whatever reason they tend to not tell the local Peace Corps Volunteer till (at earliest) the day before said event. I have found that these can include, but are not limited to: weddings, funerals, community meetings, religious ceremonies, concerts, and most recently a visit from Benin’s President, and former leader of the African Union, Dr. Yayi Boni.

For this particular event I was given a total of three hours notice, although, as he was already delayed and originally supposed to show up earlier that morning, you could say I found out after the fact.
Anyway, after searching for a pair of clean clothes that would be acceptable attire to meet the president of my host country in (no easy task for a grungy EA volunteer, trust me), I made my way down to the local elementary school with a few other volunteers to greet him with the rest of my village.

The reason for his visit was to turn on the village’s electricity, which was originally supposed to happen in December, but hey, c’est la vie.

Over the next fifteen minutes of his arrival by helicopter, he made speeches in two languages, turned on power to the school (and therefore my village!) and was close enough to me to touch (not gonna lie, I got a little bit star struck). Then, just as fast as he came, he left in a whir of cheers, music, and a dust storm kicked up by his helo’s blades.

So finally, after over a year of living in Benin, my village has electricity.

The fun part? The power went out for the next four days strait . . . and I still won’t have power for at least two months while I wait for a counter to be installed.

ALRIGHT MAGGOT!!!

I just spent the last hour picking beetle larva out of my uncooked jasmine rice. When I finished, I thought ‘I should have just eaten them for the protein; It’s not like I don’t know what they’ve been eating’.

In retrospect from an American point of view, I should have just thrown it out/given it to the livestock in my front yard, but hey . . . Peace Corps changes people.

Camp ‘les Filles de l’Avenir’ (translated to The Girls of the Future)

For those of you who donated; thank you so very much! It meant the world to these girls and you will be receiving written thanks with some photos in the mail soon.

The camp came through without a hitch, and I hear we’ll be featured in an article written by PC Washington. If so, I’ll post it here once it comes out.

In any case, I don’t have any comical comments or witty remarks for this. It was quite simply a great program that will remain one of the highlights of my service.
One week where girls from all over my region were given the opportunity to travel (many of them for the first time) outside of their villages to learn about their world, their rights, their health, and their self worth.

Has it really been that long?!?

I’ve been in here for over a year now . . . I don’t really have words for this.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Gaaah!



Rain doesn’t quite sum it up

The start of the rainy season here has all the subtly of a sledgehammer on a thumb tack.

Over the course of two days I’ve seen rain fall horizontally (contradicting, I know), my well water level has risen over seven meters (that’s 22.9 feet), my porch has become an extension of a three hectare lake, and lightning strikes so close and frequently next to my house that I believe I’m going deaf and blind. It’s like being thrown into the ocean with twenty flash bang grenades . . . and I’m loving every second of it.

Plotline for a B-Horror Film

Coming home late one night I hear drums off in the distance. The closer I get to my house the louder the drums get. The louder they get, the more Intrigued I am, so I decide to go investigate. It doesn’t take long to find the source as its right in front of my housing concession.

Here I find what looks like your typical Bariba drum fete (party) with all the accoutrements; dancers, straw huts, bonfires, leather hide drums, etc.
As I’m asking around I slowly learn that this is a three week long, 24/7 drum ceremony to respect the dead. Wait, dead? Yes, dead. As it turns out, my house, and the land in front of it was, and still is, the village cemetery.

 All those random piles of dirt I thought were their just cause the field was a convenient dumping site?
Not so random
All those cement covered sections I thought were old sealed off latrine pits?
Not latrine pits

I like to think I would have been intelligent enough to realize a bit sooner that I live in a graveyard, but as they don’t exactly mark their graves (they pass down that knowledge from generation to generation from what surmounts to a line of priestesses) or visit them, I think I get a pass.

So now I've got crocs in my back yard, (probably) pissed off tribal spirits below my house, and ambivalent priestesses banging on drums three weeks a year and burying new bodies in the front . . .
I live in a B-Horror film, that or “Poltergeist Goes to Africa”

Transportation Solutions

As a PCV I’m not allowed to drive any vehicle with an internal combustion engine. This means no cars, trucks, motorcycles, mo-peds, or go-carts (though I can still ride shotgun).

I have been given two obvious solutions to this problem.
The first is my god given feet. They tend to work rather well at getting me from point A to B, though at a slower pace than I prefer at times.
The second is my Peace Corps issued Trek bike. This option comes with 21 gears, front shocks, and the envy of every child in village.
That all said, I have recently discovered option number 3.
There are times in which I just want to get from A to B without expending any energy. This is my ‘Lazy American’ coming out to rear its ugly head. In these cases I have recently taken to commandeering a donkey cart. Here’s how it works; sit on the side of the road, wait for a (un)laden donkey (with attached cart) to come by, and hitch a ride like McFly.

The best part of this is that it works for mass transportation as I was able to exploit a few weeks ago for a pub crawl to every bouv in village.

Condemnation Commendation (this is for incoming EA PCV’s to Benin 2013 - 2015)

One optional job for volunteers is to develop new posts for the incoming volunteers every year.
Before leaving the states just short of a year ago, I was expecting next to nothing in terms of housing, eg: no electricity, no running water, mud hut with a thatch roof, way out in the middle of nowhere. As it turned out, I do have a cement house with a sheet metal roof (though everything else is spot on).

Anyway, back to ‘site development’. I recently came across Batron, an ecologic village way out in the sticks that is an Environmental Action Volunteers wet dream. This place has year round gardening (which is saying something in the desert-ified Alibori) touristic viewing platforms, outside funding opportunities, a motivated work partner, and a solid developable work site.

Sounds great right? Well, there are some drawbacks. You WILL be vrai villageois.
You will speak only local language (Bariba).
There is not even a slight possibility of running water or electricity arriving in village while you’re here.
You won’t have a mud hut, but you will have a . . . house that meets Peace Corps requirements.
Phone reception is sketchy at best.
You will be one of the furthest volunteers from Peace Corps ‘Headquarters’ in Cotonou.

That all said, this is what attracts most people to Peace Corps in the first place, at least it was for me.
Pending administrative approval, one of you lucky EA’ers will be joining the Alibori crew in four months.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Chaleur



Teddyphant:

A while ago I wrote a brief story about being between a flaming cyborg moto bull and a hard place. As terrifying as that was, it was nothing, NOTHING compared to the adrenaline inducing horror of being charged by a fully grown, fully enraged African Matriarch Elephant.

I’ve heard people say in the past that elephants are gentle giants, so graceful, playful, and tolerant around humans. I’ve heard assumptions that due to their size, they have to be a slow moving creature. I’ve heard a lot of things from people (whose only experience with the animals is in the zoo, safely protected behind a 30 ton rebar reinforced concrete barrier).


A few facts I have recently learned the hard way about African Elephants:

1)      When they aren’t threatened and/or do not have babies in the group to protect, the above statement is mostly true. Otherwise . . .
2)      They don’t always give warning before they charge, and then, that trumpeting noise isn’t so cute anymore.
3)      They are easily capable of achieving rapid acceleration to speeds well over 30mph.
4)      Like bulls, they are attracted to/enraged by the sight of bright red (color of the van I was sitting on top of).
5)      When they charge, their ears flap like Dumbo. But thank God almighty they can’t fly, because then humans would NOT be the dominant species on the planet (you think bird poop is annoying. . .).
6)      Climbing a tree is useless. They will just tear it down and trample you anyway (luckily we got away before this step became a necessary experiment).

To give a little back-story, I recently went on safari here in Benin for a couple of days. It was fastastic, awe inspiring, blah blah blah. It's all well and good to watch a lioness sleep, but only gets interesting once you poke it with a stick (No of course I didn't poke a freaking lion with a stick).

And to be fair (in regards to the elephants), I saw over 90 elephants and was only charged by one and a half of them cause there were babies in the group and we were pissing it off by simply being in eyesight.

The Mechanics of Sweat

The entire reason we sweat is to cool down our bodies due to an unwelcome rise in body-temperature. It is normally a very effective system where our body perspires sweat, then with the movement of air, our surface temperature (and eventually core temperature) is lowered to a manageable level. The key concept here is airflow.

Now I have never been a very sweaty person. It can be a hot day while I’m running in a sweatshirt, fleece lined pants, and a wool hat and my armpits might get a bit misty. It’s funny how living just above the equator can change all of that. During peak temp's of the day, sweat will literally pour off of my face in a steady unbroken stream.

Right now is the Chaleur in Northern Benin, which means ‘The Heat’, and let me tell you, the name does not disappoint. 110 degrees and calm without a cloud in the sky is what I call nice weather to wake up to. The only factor of that which will change over the course of the day is the temperature, and that only seems to want to go up.

Now as I’ve said before, you need airflow for your body’s natural A/C system to kick into effect. Otherwise you just turn into a self basting turkey (salt rub built in!). Add the heat and I’ve been well done for a month now.

Fun fact: Your eyebrows act like sponges for all the sweat that is produced above them. This is a nice feature until they’re saturated. Then, if you wear glasses, they turn into your own personal storm clouds, and I didn’t get the windshield wiper feature at Lenscrafters.

DJ Doogo (pronounced Doe-go)

I’ve gone global! Ok, well not quite so global, as communal (not commutable, that’s what influenza is). Communes here are basically counties back in the states.

I’ve now got a weekly-one hour timeslot along with two other volunteers on the (only) FM radio station here in the Banikoara Commune. It’s me, DJ Katagory 5, and DJ Chewbak√© every Saturday from 2 to 3. Not that you’ll ever be able to tune in and listen.

New Segment!

I don't just sit around looking for raging elephants in insane heat and ramble on like a maniac here in Benin, but that's whats fun to write about.
SO, I'm putting a new text box on the side of my page here with "Ongoing", "Current", and Completed" projects.