Oct
15

Navigating Niger: My Last Days in West Africa


After finishing up with my job at USAID and saying farewell to my friends in Benin, I boarded a bus that would eventually get me to Niger (around 500 miles north of my former home city of Cotonou.) First, I stopped half way up the stretch of Benin to visit a few Peace Corps friends. The biggest challenge in this is that I was lugging with my all my  baggage, which included two large suitcases that we well over the airport weight limit…Oops! And of course, when I stopped to meet my friends, getting my baggage from the bus to the hotel was, well let’s just say interesting…

But what matters is that my baggage got there in one piece and that, it did. The next day we ventured out to find the right bus to take me up the rest of the country and through the border of Niger. The first bus I bought my ticket for was full, but the bus manager assured me that another bus would come soon. As it arrived and I boarded the steps, I realized that the only seat available to this last minute passanger was on top of a stack of blankets in the very front of the bus. So this was my view for the next 12.5 hours…

While crossing the border I took what maybe my favorite shot thus far:

Finally I arrived in Niger and was very happy to meet my friend Caroline, who I knew from her days in Cotonou. Caroline works for Catholic Relief Services, and just moved to Niger this past May. She has been the best hostess ever and I have had an absolute blast experiencing all that Niger has to offer. Here we are at dinner of the riverbank my first day in country:

At the restaurant we came across this giant bug, I ‘m sure my biologist dad would have had a field day with it!

As promised, Caroline took me to see the wild animals of Niger (other than the one pictured above), which was something I have very much looked forward to since all I have seen in Benin are goats, chickens, and cats. Friday afternoon, we decided to brave the 105 degree heat and ride some camels out into the desert. I should preface this by saying this was the first time Ihave ever seen a camel up close, much less climbed on top of one. So let’s just say I was less than comfortable as my sitting camel rised up from the ground as I got onto it..

And off into the desert we went..

 

The next day we ventured out to see West Africa’s last wild herd of giraffes.. We wanted to start out early to avoid the mid-day heat. But little did we know things wouldn’t go quite our way. Right at outskirts of town, the car broke down… we pulled off the road to the only shade we could find, which happen to be right next to a giant dead sheep… The four of us tried our best to keep it together while we waited for the mechanic, but the smell was incredibly hard to stomach…

Eventually the mechanics came and replaced a broken belt of some kind in engine, I guess? (Yea, you can tell I know nothing about the inside working of cars..)

But after a 2.5 hour delay, we finally got to the giraffe reserve. First we found their tracks…

And then we found them! I was amazed at how majestic and graceful they were…

And at how close we got..

Here are some of my other favorite pictures:

So ends my African adventure.. I leave tomorrow night for New York, DC, then eventually the Bay Area in CA.  Thanks to everyone for reading and following me on this long and exciting journey. I will try to write one more post once I am home and have more time to reflect on all the ways in which Africa has changed me, which I feel like is an endless list. Words can’t express the gratitude I feel for all that I have absorbed, overcomes, and have been humbled by this past year. Much love!

Syambra

Oct
05

Pack it Up, Pack it In, I’m Leaving Benin!


It is diffucult to know exactly how to express my experience of preparing to say good-bye to the city of Cotonou and all the people that have made it feel like home.  I arrived here in January knowing all of five words in French, and having only one person as a contact to help me find my way. Almost 10 months later, my French is slightly better (still embarrassingly awkward), and I have created a family of both expats and Beninese that I never would have imagined. From my local friends, to Peace Corps Volunteers, to Embassy and USAID staff, I am so incredibly grateful for the friendships I will be taking with me when I leave.

In honor of my final days in country, I have created a list some of the things I will  miss dearly. (Note that this list isn’t in order of importance, only in the order that things come to mind.)

 1. Community Created by Circumstance

In West Africa, life is challenging in many ways for it’s inhabitants. People make less money, people (especially children) die more frequently from illnesses that could be easily prevented, infrastructure is not built to withstand weather ( note the flooding in the north of Benin that has currently is currently driving hundreds of people to homelessness.) But these challenges cause a certain bond in the community. This is true of my experience in both Ghana and Benin. I remember my first evidence of this was in Ghana, when I would ride on a tro-tro (those shared vans-turned-buses that are built to seat 8 but regularly seat 20). I remember squeezing in between five people, and out of nowhere a baby would be placed on my lap. Of course, I have no idea whose baby it was or how long that baby would be there, but there it was. I wasn’t special in this situation, that was just the way things were. There wasn’t much space, the mother probably already had one child on her lap, so she would pass her other child to someone else who had a lap to spare. This showed me the level of trust that people create in order to make life work. Such a drastic difference to life in America, where that woman easily could have been reported to social services for entrusting her child to a stranger without their permission.

You see evidence of this sense of community everyday in Benin as well. The way people greet each other with sincerity and a smile, and also in more severe, less positive ways. You often here about the ‘mob mentality’ of community justice. If someone is accused of stealing or some other crime, the people will take it upon themselves to make sure that justice is served. Sometimes this includes brutal and violent actions where the criminal is left in bad condition needing serious medical treatment. (This part I won’t necessarily miss.) People here know that they are the answer for their own survival and depend on each other for it. You definitely don’t see that as much in the developed world.

2. Never-Sweater Weather

When I arrived Ghana, the only warm weather clothes I had was my UC Santa Cruz sweatshirt and a zip-up sweater. The only time I have worn either was when I was stuck in an air-conditioned office for too long. While the days here can be sweltering, the evenings here are always perfect for tank tops and skirts. Weekends are often spent at the beach and I’ve enjoyed competing with friends on who can have the most awesome tan. (Don’t worry, I wear sunscreen always!)

3. (Almost) Anything You Want, Just Cheaper!

Want a local beer? That will cost you about a dollar. Jeans at the market? $5. Most things that would sustain the average expat are incredibly well priced compared to the U.S. The main exceptions are actual American products, which can be found at the one large and fancy grocery store in Cotonou, Erevan. There you can buy yourself pint of Ben and Jerry’s  ice cream.. for the equivalent of $23.oo USD. But if you want fresh pineapple or a mango (or the chocolate ice cream bar pictured below that you can buy for 25 cents), it’s just small change, and that I will definitely miss.

4. Conversations with People from Around the World

Last week I went to a Lebanese restaurant with a group of friends. We were Americans, Lebanese, Egyptians ,and Nigerians. This was days after the attacks on the Embassy in Libya and I was interested to see what people from other African countries and the Middle East would think. The Egyptian thought that Americans had to much freedom (he was also misinformed and thought that the movie that has brought about so much controversy was funded and supported by the American government.) The Nigerian held only the protesters responsible for their actions as well as the maker of the film. We went back and forth throughout the evening talking about the different perspectives of all parties involved and the larger concepts surrounding American foreign policy and arising conflict in these countries. I remember thinking how rare it was so be able to sit down with people from all over the world and have these kinds of discussions casually over dinner. Of course, not all my international expat experiences are so serious. Who could forget the night the Japanese, French, Beninese, Dutch and Germans united with us over karaoke!

 

4. The Smells and Sounds of Africa

Many of my friends will disagree on what I am about to say, but there is something truly special about the way West Africa smells. Yes, it is often something of a mixture of body odor, excrement, exhaust from trucks and motos, and burning trash, but is also of the ocean, coconut water, and…more burning trash. But sometimes the burning trash smells like fall leaves (that’s when you know they are burning coconut shells.) Regardless of how disgusting it can be, I will miss it. The sounds of Benin are always chaotic and loud; engines revving in traffic, women calling out to their children, children shouting “Yovo, Yovo!” (that means white person) as you pass by. In quieter moments you hear wind through the palm trees and chickens or other birds. I will miss the horns of the ice cream carts, which sound like the kind of clown noses that squeak, and the French greetings of ‘bonjour’, ‘bonsoir’, and ‘Au Demain’, meaning ‘good day’, ‘good afternoon’, and ‘See you tomorrow.”

6. Being Part of the American Diplomtic Community

Here in Benin, USAID (my employer) is a joint Mission with the U.S. Embassy as well as the Peace Corps Bureau. We share many aspects of our day-to-day work life; things like the cafeteria, and housing pool, as well as all major events. We had a fabulous 4th of July celebration at the Ambassador’s residence, and most recently (and to me, most importantly) staged an event where the American diplomatic community had the opportunity to mean Secretary of State, and one of my personal  role models, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Secretary Clinton came to the Ambassador’s residence after attending the funeral for John Atta Mills, the late President of Ghana.  She gave a speech, where she acknowledge that the country of Benin was ‘small, but mighty’, and that our hard work had not gone unnoticed. Then she went around and individually shook all of our hands. When she came to me, I said, “Madame Secretary, it is an honor!” Her response? Warmly, she said, “No, the honor is mine.” That may be one of my all time favorite moments of living and working in Benin. Below is a picture of yours truly and my Embassy  buddy, Claire, shortly after meeting the Hillary (can’t you see we are glowing with excitement!)

Claire and I in front of Hillary's plane

I know that I could make this list go on to 100, but I also know I have expressed in previous blogs what I have come to love about this ‘small, but mighty’ country. More than anything I will of course  miss my friends. Peace Corps has become my social backdrop, and one volunteer in particular has become my very best friend. Also nick-named my ‘Soulmate,’ Andrea Leiser and I joke that it was the fates that brought us together. We met on her birthday, when a group of voluteers went to the beach to celebrate. We were having the basic ‘getting to know you’ conversations, asking questions like ‘what did you study?’ and ‘How do you like Benin?’ as we sat on the edge of the shore where the waves would just barely touch our feet. Then, out of no where, this monster of a wave pummeled us. For most people it would be incredibly awkward, as there were legs, arms, and who knows what else entangled between me, and this stranger I had just met a hour before. But Andrea just both cracked up, laughing until we cried. So it was the waves of Africa that forged our friendship.  The rest is pretty much history, we have both had incredibly challenging moments over this past year, and I know I am incredibly grateful that was around for them (I have a feeling she would say the same.)

I will end this post by saying that words cannot express how glad I am that I took the risk in the beginning on 2012, and jumped on a bus with a visa and fingers crossed that I would make life work here in Cotonou. While I have had many frustrating and uncomfortable moments, the benefit of living and working here has far outweighed the cost. I will miss you Cotonou, but I must move on to the next adventure. My last African blog post will be from Niger, where I will spend the next week learning about one more African country before  heading to home sweet, America! Much love to all my dear readers, I am so grateful to have had you with me on this amazing journey. Niger, here I come!

Sep
07

Around the World in 16 Days…


Ok actually, its more like half-away around the world twice, but same general idea right? As many of you know, I recently took a trip back home  to be a bridesmaid in two weddings (back to back weekends I might add…) both in my hometown in Northern California and in lovely Orange County (that’s south of L.A.)

It had been exactly 365 days that I had been away from America, the beautiful, and I have to admit, I think the reverse culture shock was stranger and more intense than the initial adjustment to moving to Africa. Of course the first thing I noticed was the abundance of white people. Seriously! I’m used to being a minority now, so much whiteness around me totally threw me off.  Though  California is a very diverse area, I still hadn’t seen many Hispanics or Asians (other than my Peace Corps buddies and friends from the Japanese Embassy), so it was  an interesting adjustment!

I also forgot how expensive America is, though I know California is in a league of its own. I went to Walgreens to buy a toothbrush and it cost me $6! My friends and I joked that I could pay someone to brush my teeth for me for a month with that money in Africa (funny, and also probably true.) The closest I felt to being home in Africa is when my sister-in-law, Lila took me to a Bikram yoga class. You know the kind where its like 50 people in a small studio with the temperature turned up to like 120… felt right at home, sweating my ass off crammed next to other sweaty people.

One of the absolute highlights of my trip home was getting to see my family. When my mom pulled up at the airport, I did a total happy dance right there at the curb. I have three nieces, who were 2,3, and 7 when I left, and now they are 3,4 and 8 going on 30! I was super excited to get some much needed play time with them, both at the pool and home. Below is a picture of Marcella (8) and I in total goof ball mode…

Below: Annika (4) and Tahlia (3). Lila, you sure know how to make cute babies!!!

My first few days home were spent both recovering from jetlag and attempting to help Danielle (bride #1) with last minute preparation for her wedding. Danielle and I have been friends since freshman year of high school, even though she is technically a year and four days older than me, I still felt like watching her get ready to be a married woman was like watching my baby girl all grown up!

I got to catch up with old friends/fellow bridesmaids at her rehearsal dinner. It felt like there was no possible way I had been gone a whole year, I feel like I saw these girls (and Dennis) yesterday!

 

The day of the wedding started at 9 am with hair and make up.. Lots of mimosas and bagels and curling irons and fake eyelashes. Danielle is a hair stylist and make up artist by trade (as are many of her bridesmaids) so no detail went missed on making her bridal crew (and bride) absolutely lovely.

Below is Brittany (high school friend) refreshing her mimosa while getting ready!)

And the bride doing her make up… I absolutely LOVED her hair that day (Bravo Deanna, you did a great job!)

 

 Of course once the dress was on, we all realized how thankful we were to be wearing waterproof make up… (cue waterworks..)

 

Pictured above, Brittany’s daughter Savannah (who also was much tinier last time I saw her..she was the most precious flower girl and made it down the aisle quite gracefully for a two-year-old). I love this shot I took of Dani looking down on her venue and guests moments before we walked down the aisle.

For those of you who want to see official wedding photos, the photographer (who was AMAZING) has put together an initial slideshow link:

http://gladysjem.myshowit.com/daniandnate

It was truly a wonderful evening. I have only met her husband (still getting used to saying that..) a few times, but have been incredibly impressed by his humor, kindness and deep love for my friend. I know that everyone  at the wedding said the same thing, they couldn’t have asked for a better match for them both. They deserve each other.

A few days later, I was on a plane again, this time to Southern California. Two of my favorite friends from college both live in the Newport Beach area and it was great to see them both. My college roommate, Melissa, and I hadn’t seen each other in six years, and it was so wonderful to  meet her husband and baby girl.

Since bride number two flew in from Washington, D.C. we fit in a mini bachelorette party the day before the rehearsal… as you can see the bride, Christy wasted no time to start celebrating. :)

The rehearsal dinner was on a Tiki Boat in the lovely Newport Harbor…

And the wedding at a country club in San Juan Capistrano (a town famous for its swallows.)

I had never met any of the other bridesmaids before, but we got along just great. 2 of the 3 currently live in New York City, which was great for me to hear since I am moving there in 4 months!

The day of the wedding, preparations started a 9 am (I felt like I was getting into the routine..) and I was elected official make artist to the bridal party.. a choice I knew the first bride, Danielle, would be proud of, since she was the one who taught me how to do make up ( back when we were teenagers..) :)

 

With some last minute bridesmaid duties (like fluffing the dress and getting the brides shoes on…) We were out the door!

The ceremony was lovely and incorporated several wedding traditions from around the world (including Buddhist handwashing… so cool!)

And of course after the ceremony, it was time to party…

Alas, the day after Christy’s wedding I had to jump back  on a plane to Africa. And here I sit at my desk (with less than a month left here at USAID!), and soon will be off again to Niger, NY, DC, and then home sweet, home.. Until then I will definitely be California dreamin’…

A huge, huge thank you to both Daniella and Christy for making me a part of your special day. Congrats and I love you!!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aug
06

The Final Countdown…


I know my schedule for when I am actually leaving Africa has been a bit confusing (even to me!)… So for those of you out there who are wondering when in the world I am actually moving back to the United States, this blog is for you!

My FINAL date of work at USAID is October 5th…

 

Am I excited? YES! Am I sad? DOUBLE YES. This country has really become home to me over the past 6 months… a challenging home, but home regardless.

Then I trek up the length of Benin into Niger ( 646.5 miles) to visit my friend Caroline, in Niamey. But first visiting some of my favorite Peace Corps Volunteers in their more remote villages on the way up to Niger.

I have heard Niger is quite different from the more coastal Benin that I am used to. Dryer environment, more interesting animals (not that chickens and goats aren’t awesome or anything.) Also, unfortunately, Niger has been dealing with serious food shortage and famine, which is part of what my friend Caroline does there while working with Catholic Relief Services. But I am really looking forward to putting one more stamp on my passport and have heard great things from my friends who live there.

After a few days exploring a new country, I fly out of Niger on October 17th!

NIGER-> BURKINA FASO -> CASABLANCA->PARIS-> NYC.

Ugh.. long and way too many stops, but it was the cheapest option for me finally getting off this rock, so I am not complaining.

I can’t wait to see this view out of my window seat….

I will spend the next week apartment hunting with my new roommates (who I will also be meeting for the first time in person, we connected from my grad school’s website and they seem REALLY great!)

And of course, how could I be on the East Coast and NOT take a Bolt Bus down to my old stomping grounds in DC! It will have been almost two years since I have seen my friends and old neighborhood and cannot wait for this reunion.

Right around the very end of October, I am taking my final leg from DC to the Bay Area just in time to be with my family for Halloween! Since we have little one’s who still enjoy the trick-or-treating festivities, we are aiming for a group costume and dressing up as the Wizard of Oz cast. Who wants to take a guess on what I get to be…?   (it was my first choice, and I am soooo excited about it.)

 

 

FLYING MONKEYS!!! Words can’t express my excitement about this.. I think it will be better than that time in college when i wrapped my body in foil and put a Land O’ Lakes butter box on my head.. (I was a baked potato.)

So that is the long term plan.. Even MORE exciting is the short term, because in… wait for it…

DAYS, I leave for a mini-adventure back to the states to stand next to two fabulous brides on their wedding day. (Side note, these are two separate brides,  separate weddings, seperate parts of California..)

But I could NOT be more happy and honored to be a part of their special day!

California, here I come.. it’s the Final Countdown!

 

Jul
31

Ganvie: The ‘Venice of Africa’.. (kinda.)


A city built on the water is familiar to us all in the Western world. Venice, Italy is a watery, romantic wonderland that lures lovers of ancient scenery from around the world.

Ganvie, found a few miles outside my home city of Cotonou, is like that. But instead of  gondolas and hot Italians, we have huts built on sticks and a African tour guide driving our fuming motor boat while singing some local African song about fish. It was still kind of romantic, though.

Literally meaning “the collection of those who have found peace at last”, Ganvie was founded over 400 years ago. It’s commonly believed that the Tofinu people settled here to escape slavers who came from the Fon tribe and were not allowed to fight in water for traditional reasons (or perhaps could not swim).

With a population of roughly 30,000 people, today  Ganvie is a village where most income is based on fishing and tourism. These little one’s let me take their picture and then demanded 500 CFA (about $1 USD.)

Everything that one might find on land seemed to exist in this water environment. They had churches…

… and restaurants, school houses, big houses, little houses…

..and plenty of places to shop for local crafts.

I really loved taking the opportunity to capture some of their artifacts.. like this dual-gendered symbol of power:

And other things found in West African water villages…

I love this shot below of the hand-woven shrimping baskets used by villages to catch local fare.

 

And of course, got some shots of the lovely people that I traveled with. Below is Andrea, my ‘soul mate’ a.k.a. best friend in country.

And Rebecca, who is currently completingher PhD at The Fletcher School at Tufts. She was here to do a short-term consultancy with Catholic Relief Services.

We had a really great day seeing more of what Benin has to offer. :)

Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jul
25

Would You Like a Side of Amoebas with That?


Warning to my readers: What I am about to talk about is gross. Really gross.  Bodily functions, little critters living inside the human body, poop, etc.  If choose not to read this blog, I won’t be offended. If you do, don’t judge me for what I write. I am only doing it because I want to accurately document the African experience, even the less glamorous parts (in fact, especially the less glamorous.) Enjoy! :)

A month before I moved to Africa, I talked with a former NGO volunteer about what to expect when living abroad. He talked about making sure to drink enough (clean) water, the kinds of food that are available, and to expect to get diarrhea a lot. I was thinking, as he was talking about his bowel movements, “Too much information, dude, that’s gross, and I don’t even know you, but you are talking to me about poop.” But now that I live here, I talk about poop with my friends on a weekly, if not daily basis. It’s about as common of a subject as talking about the weather or how our days have been going.

Over the past six months that I have been in Benin, I have had a plethora of minor/major health issues. I was surprised because the 5 months prior spent in Ghana went rather painlessly. Aside from some minor intestinal issues and a fever that came and went in an afternoon, I got off scott-free.

But starting my first week in Cotonou, I had severe diarrhea somewhat regularly, as well as the unpleasant side effects that come with it. (Dehydration, constipation, etc). The initial intestinal issues were most likely a product of adjusting to a different water supply/food.

But over the past months, issues have… evolved. Parasites and amoebas are quite common here. You get them from basically (and this is gross, but) eating food that was at some point exposed to poop. Like someone wiped their ass, didn’t wash their hands, and then served my lunch. Or flies eat poop and then land on my food. Yummy, right? :)

First I got giardia (also called giardia lambia  if you want to get technical.)

Awww, ain’t he cute? That little guy, and about a million of his parasitic friends gave me all sorts of fun symptoms. Other than the big D, I was bloated, nauseated, stomach cramps, burping every 5 minutes, and had no appetite. But with a healthy dose of a medication called Ciprox, as well as Flagyl,  I was good as new in no time.

Ciprox (Ciprofloxacin) is one hell of a drug, and is NOT to be taken frequently. It has been used to treat everything from UTI’s to typhoid to anthrax poisoning (holy crap!!).

A few weeks after my initial dance with this intenstinal devil, I returned to the doctor with similar symptoms. This time, she made me poop in a cup. (good times.)

The results of the test showed that I had shigella (shigellosis  for you science nerds out there.)  Shigella is basically the redheaded step-child to salmonella and e. coli. It causes dysentery, diarrhea, fever, stomach cramps, fatigue, etc. Fun fact: Shigella get its name from the Japanese doctor who discovered it over 100 years ago, Dr. Shiga.  There are four types of Shigella, only one kind is deadly. I don’t think I had that kind.

Everyone, meet Shigella. Shigella, meet everyone:

Ok, so I know this all sounds disgusting, and probably makes some of you say, “See this is why I don’t go to exotic places or developing countries.” However, you should all know, that everything I, and many of my expat friends have had, has been treatable and quickly cured (not to mention temporarily good for my girlish figure.)

Besides, you know what I haven’t gotten since I have been in West Africa? Malaria. I actually wrote a blog 7 or 8 months back about my conflicted feelings about staying on anti-malarial medications for the long haul, but I decided to stick with it. Staying on preventative meds does not, however, guarantee that one will not get malaria. I’ve seen Peace Corps friends who are religious about their meds and still get it, as well as friends who refuse to take the pills manage to not get it at all. Go figure. I have less than 100 days left on this continent so I am praying that I can stay malaria-free for the rest of my journey.

Of course there are several other health risks here in Africa, some not found in this country (thank God), like Guinea worm, which grows in your skin and lays eggs inside you and stuff… no thanks! Or there was the time that I got shocked by all the faucets in my house (apparently there were a disconnected wire under the house somewhere.)  But all in all, I feel strong and happy for my health, so no one feel bad for me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jul
19

The Key to International Diplomacy? Karaoke! (duh.)


A Dutch contractor,  a Japanese surgeon, a Russian diplomat, a few Beninese locals , and four Americans walk into a bar….

No, it’s not a bad joke, it’s just your average Saturday night in Cotonou.. ;)

Last weekend, my friend Claire , Will, Wesley (also Embassy folks) and I joined with our local Beninese crew to revive such classics as Grease’s ” You’re The One that I Want..” and R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly..” as we serenaded the locals and other expats at a local karaoke bar in the hot summer night air.

We tried to encourage the other bar goers to join in, but they skeptically declined, song after song, smiling but shying away from the microphone. But, dear readers, we discovered that there is ONE song, that internationally, people around the world, cannot help but sing along to… and the winner is…

 

That’s right, friends.. “My Heart Will Go On” can apparently turn any wallflower into, well, this:

And that, my friends, is how you bring people of all nations together…(except the Russians, apparently.They remained seated quietly and observed this whole process from afar, though one promised to join in next time…)

Is it any coincidence that Claire is the Public Diplomacy intern for the Embassy and instigated all this coming together? I think not.

Jun
28

Who’ll Stop the Rain?


You are all welcome for the Creedence Clearwater Revival reference in the title.. I thought for a long time about which song titles would also work for blog titles about climate change in Africa… it was either that, or Rock Me Like A Hurricane by Scorpions.  Or even better… a Toto reference ;) :

But the chosen titles are especially appropriate since we are in the middle of the rainy season here in Benin, and our roads are quickly becoming quite lake-like.

 

Photo by Shalom Konstantino

Last week when I walked into work, I had an email waiting for me in my inbox requesting I attend a meeting on climate change, I secretly rolled my eyes feeling like I already knew what they were going to say.. we need to conserve, the detriments of human impact on the world… yada, yada. (No offense, I know it’s important, but haven’t we heard it all?)

Two hours later, I left the meeting with so many new questions and insights, realizing how little I really knew about the real problems and impacts, especially about the relationship between climate change and the developing world.

Before I talk about that part , though, let’s do a quick recap of the impacts climate change on our lovely little planet:

1. Increasing Average Temperatures:  Greenhouse Gas (GHG) Emissions affect temperature because they trap heat in our atmosphere. While 77% of GHG Emissions are carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and and methane are more powerful GHG’s that trap more heat.

2. Rising Sea Levels : Sea levels are rising due to the melting of polar ice and thermal expansion (warmer water takes up more space).

3. More extreme weather events: This includes stronger storms, hurricanes, etc. Higher temperatures provide more energy for storms.

4. More erratic precipitation patterns: Droughts and floods are more common.

5. Glacial Melting: Rise in temperatures make ice melt… self explanatory I know. This impacts the rising sea levels mentioned above.

6. Ocean Acidicifation: Oceans are becoming more acidic since carbon dioxide becomes an acid when it dissolves in ocean water, lowering the ph, a common indicator of acidity.  This effects the delicate balance of marine life.

This fancy graph above (courtesy of Andre Mershon of the USAID Global Climate Change Team) shows how the Industrial Revolution spurred a increase in GHG that cannot and will not be reversed.  The red line represents the increase in temperature and the yellow and pink lines show the increase in GHG over time. As you can see from the chart, the increase started slowly in the 1800′s with a sharper spike in the early 1900′s. And of course there is a direct correlation to the production of the Ford Model T (1908–1927) along with growth in cities and manufacturers among other things.

Carbon dioxide alone lasts  100 years in the atmosphere   Let that fun fact sink in… the carbon emissions from the car you may have driven to work today will be around long after you are gone.

Climate Change in the Developing World…

Climate change is a global phenomenon, but will be felt differently in different places. There may be significant variations in local impacts. Some regions may see few impacts, while others will see devastating impacts. Developing nations are particularly vulnerable to these effects. The biggest reason for this is because they depend directly on climate related activities (like farming, hearding, fishing etc.) and lack the resources to adapt. To be more specific, here is a list of how climate change specifically effects developing countries like Benin:

1. Alters water availability: Changing water availability impacts agricultural production, as well as water for sanitation, industry, energy, environment, undermining economic growth and human security.

2. Disrupts food production: Changing seasons and more droughts and floods reduce crop production, impacting agriculture and food security.

3. Issues in Global Health:  Changing temperature and precipitation patterns will lead to diseases in places they didn’t exist before and increased overall disease burdens, adding an additional challenge to public health work.

4. Infrastructure: Climate change impacts, such as extreme weather events, could overwhelm infrastructure undermining economic growth, trade, and health.

5. Enviromental Issues: Warmer temperatures could put additional pressures on animal and plant species, harming biodiversity conservation efforts.

6.Migration: People affected by more severe natural disaster are likely to migrate, increasing the chance of humanitarian problems.

7.Democracy and governance: Insecure livelihoods, diminished access to food and water, and depressed economic growth will exacerbate governance problems and increase potential for conflict, undermining D&G efforts.

A local example of this  enviromental impact is the 2010 floods here in Benin, where 56 people were killed and over 680000 people were effected, according to the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development. For more information in the floods, click here –> (link to Benin Floods)

Bottom line is…

 Climate change is not just an environmental problem, but a human problem with direct implications for hunger, poverty, conflict, water scarcity, infrastructure integrity, sanitation, disease, and survival. 

This was brought to our attention here at USAID as it has become more of a priority since the connection to our work in health and other development initiatives. Hopefully our future projects can have an emphasis on climate change so we can start to educate and invest in this imperative global issue.

Ok kids, that’s my lesson of the day, I know my scientist father would be grinning with delight at my much delayed interest in the environment!

Jun
05

Justice and ‘The Peace’


In my past few months  in Benin, I have gotten to know many of the local Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) who are serving in the country. Besides being a nice introduction to quasi-normal social life, I have heard remarkable stories about the courage, patience and endurance it takes to work and live in this country as a volunteer.

One story in particular left me with a new found respect for those who have not only the courage to be themselves in a hostile environment but who, maybe without the intention  at the start of their service, take a stand for a silenced community: LGBTQs (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer, for those who don’t know the acronym.)

PCV  Marcus Kendrick, a 24- year-old Seattle native, came out slowly to his friends and family in his late teens and early twenties.  When I asked him how his parents responded to his sexuality he replied, “ It was a shock to them both, but with time they came to be very supportive and today we enjoy a relationship where I’m open about my sexuality and my boyfriends. Last year my dad asked me for a HRC bumper sticker! And my mom is pro gay marriage too.”

Marcus with the sacred pythons of Ouidah in Benin

But when Marcus initially joined the Peace Corps as a volunteer in Zambia, fighting for the rights of LGBTQ in Africa was far from his mind. But he explained that he changed his mind in August of 2010, a few short months after arriving in Africa:

“I had no idea I’d be taking a stand for gay rights in Africa. After my first three intense months living in my village, I went back to the capital, Lusaka, for two weeks of training in the month of August 2010. In one of the Peace Corps sessions a Canadian social worker, whom Peace Corps sends volunteers  to for counseling, came to talk with us about coping mechanisms and he told us one way he copes as a gay man living in Zambia is by hosting meetings in his home for the only gay rights  organization in the country. I had no idea that this organization existed. I wanted more information! I asked him after the session if he would give me the contact information for the organization.”

Little did Marcus know that this one small step would turn into both the best and worst part of his time in Zambia. He was put in contact with Lundu, a leader of the local  gay rights organization. Marcus noted, “He was a well-educated, brave young man who I admire very much. I have yet to meet anyone here in Benin that can match his or his colleagues’ courage.  And Lundu was interested in working with me.”

Marcus set up a time to go to the organization’s office. Marcus explained that the org,  Friends of Rainka, ‘officially’ marketed themselves as a NGO that advocates for minority populations at a higher risk of contracting HIV, not a gay organization, because it was the only way that could become  an official organization recognized by the Zambian government.

Aware that gay rights were a sensitive subject and knowing that he was representing Peace Corps, Marcus checked in with the acting Peace Corps Country Director to make sure it would be okay for him to go to Friends of Rainka. Her response was that as long as he kept out of public demonstrations and did not meet with official government ministers, she would allow it. Marcus agreed and moved forward with the organization.

“I asked them if they’d like for me to work with them to help them build capacity and better reach the LGBT community and engage in gay rights advocacy. They said yes, so I prepared a document with a few ideas for them to consider.”

But little did he know he wouldn’t get any farther with his plan to assist gay rights advocacy in Zambia.

“After my visit to the organization’s office I went to the physical therapist I was seeing at the time . Peace Corps contracted with this lady, Musonda, and I had seen her maybe five times at this point. She asked me how my day was going and what I had been up to. Not feeling it necessary to lie, given my faith in doctor-patient privilege, I told her I had visited—nothing more, nothing less—the offices of a gay rights organization. And she was not pleased. This led to a 20 minute debate between the two of us on the topic of gay rights. I was very level-headed the entire time, and tried encouraging her to look at the subject from various different perspectives. She said she had gay friends in New York, whom she had visited, and supported ‘that’ there, but not in Zambia. Ultimately I asked her if we could agree to disagree. She didn’t understand what I meant by that and tried pushing the subject further, but I insisted we stop talking about it.

“I learned later that she had reported me to the office of her friend, the Zambian President, for my involvement with a gay rights organization. Despite my saying nothing of the like, I believe she came to the conclusion that Peace Corps had sent me to Zambia to promote gay rights—which was absolutely not the case. Not that that would be a bad thing, it just wasn’t the truth. ”

News got back to Peace Corps officials who told Marcus that he should to lie low for a while. Marcus’ response?…”But how could I possibly not share this crazy story with my Facebook friends? So I did, and I maybe used the words ‘I feel badass’ for having stood up for something I believe in.” (Personal kudos to Marcus for this one.)

Marcus feeding a baby monkey in Parakou

Little did he know, Marcus’ self-confident Facebook post rocked the boat more than he intended. Shortly after he got a call that a chauffeur was on the way to pick him up and take him directly to the  Peace Corps Country Director’s Office. “Apparently another volunteer saw my status and copied it in an email to the Director. The Director lacked an understanding of Facebook and thought that I was cockily blogging about my having been reported to the Zambian goverment despite the administration’s insistence I lie low, when in reality I was just telling my friends about what was going on ; I had strict privacy settings on my feed.”

Peace Corps agreed to send Marcus home citing “safety concerns out of his control”, instead of firing him.

“I was devastated. Zambia had become my home—more so than Benin will ever be my home (I really don’t like it here very much). I appealed the Country Director’s decision to send me home to the Regional Director for Peace Corps Africa, Dick Day. Dick replied to the Country Director that he was not accepting my appeal and that he thought my actions did ‘not meet the basic standards of professionalism and maturity.’—despite my asking for permission to work with the organization—”

And so ended Marcus’ volunteer service in Zambia. He had only been there seven short months.  While Marcus grew—and still is— disillusioned with Peace Corps bureaucracy, Marcus did not want to give up on serving overseas and enjoyed the Peace Corps experience so he asked for another placement. The woman who reassigned him gave him one choice: Benin. He was also more or less told that he would have to suppress ‘that part’ of who he was if he wanted to serve abroad with Peace Corps again, meaning no more standing up for gay rights.

When I asked Marcus if he was happy with his choice to come back to Africa, he said, “In Benin, the people are much ruder. Aside from Benin being ranked by the UN as the second unhappiest country in the world, it was among the worst countries they could have sent me to, given my history of engaging in gay rights advocacy. Venezuela, Mexico, and Southeast Asia are much more accepting than Africa.  But here I am.”

Since returning to Africa as a Peace Corps Volunteer, Marcus has found a way to keep his commitment to gay rights in a way that is acceptable to his sponsoring organization. He has helped found the Peace Corps Gay-Straight Alliance. Along with two other PCVs from Benin and the Peace Corps Benin’s Training Manager (a Beninese LGBTQ ally), he was invited to Togo by Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C. to attend a workshop to create  and edit materials that will soon be distributed worldwide and aim at making all Peace Corps programs more inclusive for LGBTQ volunteers. Marcus and his colleagues returned to Benin with a passion to start a Gay-Straight Alliance modeled on that of Peace Corps Togo. The Gay-Straight Alliance will support volunteer and Beninese staff education on LGBTQ issues and it will seek to network with local Beninese NGOs in hopes of building their capacity to better support LGBTQ people and their human rights.

Marcus and his fellow Environmental Action Peace Corps Volunteers in Benin

I asked Marcus if he had seen hate crimes in Africa. I have personally heard stories about the mob mentality that is seen as justice. For example, stealing is very highly criminalized here. One volunteer confirmed a story I had heard where a man accused of stealing was hunted down by a group of people that lived in the area. After pouring gasoline down his throat, they set him on fire. The Regional Security Officer for the U.S. Embassy in Benin also reported that he’s seen the mob mentality first hand in cases where people get robbed, and one criminal was tracked down by a group of people that lived nearby and was beaten to death.

One can imagine if that kind of brutality occurs when people steal, what would happen to a person for being openly gay in such a closed minded society.

Marcus responds, “Being Gay is outlawed in 38 African countries. While I have not seen a hate crime against a gay in Africa, I know human rights groups document its prevalence.”

My last question to Marcus was,  If you could accomplish one step or action here before you leave that would leave the gay community better off, what would it be?

His reply?

“I would teach the LGBT people whom I know the importance of identity politics. It’s through identity politics that groups like gays and lesbians rise up as a community and raise consciousness of the struggles they face, who they are, that medical and psychological experts agree that homosexuality is a natural human behavior, and that homosexuality can and should be embraced and is not going to tear apart the threads of African society. I know of at least one gay man in Benin that wants to adopt children. Considering African society is built around family, it will be  stories like his that will help bring greater acceptance to the LGBTQ community.”

I am in awe and have so much respect for who Marcus is and what he stands for. He has reminded me of the importance of standing up for what’s right, especially when it’s not popular, because that is the only way the world is going to change for the better to become a more tolerant place for all of humanity.

 

May
25

Thanking My Guardian Angels..


“First of all, before I go on, know that I am alive, not missing any appendages or suffering from any broken bones..”

These were the first words I said to my mom on the phone when I called her yesterday from the hospital. For those of you who haven’t read previous posts regarding me living in Benin, motorcycles are the main mode of public transportation here in Cotonou. We call them ‘zemijan’ or moto taxi, which literally translates to “take me quick and safe” in  the local language of Fon. I have also mentioned that I have personally witnessed several nasty accidents in my time in Cotonou. Yesterday, I was unfortunately involved in one myself.

My usual driver, Pete, who I have also blogged about, was in Nigeria for the week, so I flagged a zemijan down to get to work in the morning. I was already running late, and the zem was careful to navigate around potholes, and other vehicles. We were less that 2 km from the house when a man, whose parents apparently never taught him to look both ways before crossing the street, stepped out in front of the moto. I would say there was about 3 seconds between when I realized we would crash and I was flying through the air. I was thrown from the bike and landed in the opposite lane of traffic.

I remember my helmet hitting the ground, face down and feeling the ground slide beneath me. It was the first time I had ever encountered road rash and I have to say, one the strangest feelings I have ever had the earth slide underneath you and knowing there is nothing you can do but wait for your body to stop.

I sat up and started screaming, within a few seconds I felt my body being lifted from my shoulders and knees. By the time I took my helmet off I was surrounded by 15 locals asking me things in French I could not answer nor understand. My mind flashed back to my first day of work, when I met with the head of security for the U.S. Embassy. He told me if I was ever in trouble to call him, day or night.

I grabbed the phone and called his cell (thank goodness I had thought to store it in my address book). Within 5 minutes, he arrived with other Embassy staff and rushed me to the medical clinic at the Embassy. I could tell that other that the scrapes and bruises on the left side of my body, something was wrong with my hip. They brought the Embassy doctor to the car and he said he was afraid it was a fracture, so he jumped in and off to the hospital we went for x-rays.

African hospitals are probably the last place I would want to be on earth, maybe other than stuck inside a New York City sewer… actually, I may prefer the sewer. But the doctors were respectful and the x-ray technicians patient with my lack of French skills. It was particularly hard for me to be there because of the special treatment I received. Don’t get me wrong, I am grateful to receive it, but basically, at the first sight of me, I was ushered to the front of every line, given the most attention, while locals who were there for hours, still sat and laid waiting in the hall.

The same was true at the scene of the accident. Locals crowded around me offering assistance (the injured moto driver included), while the  man who was hit by the motorcycle sat across the street with not a single person checking to see if he was ok. I asked the people in broken French several times to please check on him, and they kept insisting that he was fine and asking if they could take me to the hospital..

I was relieved to finally see the x-rays, no broken bones! I was checked out, staff from the Embassy brought me by the pharmacy to pick up my (much, much appreciated) pain meds, and took me home.

Today I am on crutches, but I made it to work for our quarterly staff meeting/review of health programs/ staff birthday celebration.. (There was free cake, who is gonna stay home when there is free cake at work?..Come on!)

After work today, my friend Andrea  (who rocks and you will hear more of in the future) came home with me and helped me re-bandage my wounds. I also gave her some rice-pudding I bought at the store. (Known fact: Peace Corps Volunteers get INCREDIBLY excited about modern food when they see it, especially since most of them live in the middle of nowhere…evidence below.)

There are not words to express the gratidude I have for the American community here. Both the Embassy staff and USAID  (not to mention my other friends) have been absolutely amazing during this traumatic time, I seriously don’t know what I would have done without them. Thank you to everyone who supported me.

Also, this is my public service announcement of the year: Anyone on a motocycle or bike.. WEAR YOUR HELMET! I would be a goner right now if I hadn’t!

 

 

Older posts «