May
23

For All You Sports Fans…


She kicks to the left…. counters to the right….one final shot.. she SCORES!!!!!!

This past weekend I was invited to play in the Cotonou Embassy Soccer Tournament for the USA Team. France, The European Union, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, and the United Nations all met at 9 am to see who would come out as official champions of the ‘Embassy’ circuit in the 5 games. My team consisted of various staff from the U.S. Embassy, and  a spouse or two.

 

We played The European Union in the first match winning 1-0. It was my first time ever playing soccer.. like literally, I don’t think I have ever kicked a soccer ball in my life (you can blame my parents for not forcing me to do team sports as a child…just kidding, Mom.) Regardless, I didn’t do too bad on the field, I was pretty aggressive and even blocked a couple shots from the opposing team in the first game! The picture below is of me and Will, our goalie/ the  Embassy’s Consular Officer before our first game.

Next we played Belgium with a 0-0 tie…

Third match was against Denmark, and we beat them 2-0!!!

In the semi-finals we played against the United Nations Development Program team, which was actually made up of all local players. There was a few players on their team that were particularly intimidating… I later found out that they played for the national team. We lost 2-0 (no wonder!) This officially ended our participation, but…

The final match was between the UN and France, France won.

It was such a great experience, not only to be part of a team sport I have never played, but also to see fans (friends and family) of the different countries come out to support their teams with pride. My friend Alexis and her son, Flynn came out to support her husband, Andy.

And another child rooted on her father as he plays for the German team.

Thanks to everyone who came out to support us, and thanks to the team for taking on a rookie like me!

 

 

 

May
16

Learning from USAID, Peanuts, and “Sun Sickness”


I have been working for USAID/Benin (U.S. Agency for International Development) for a little over a month now, and have learned so much about both development issues in Africa and how the U.S. government operates within the arena.

To give a little background about USAID for those who aren’t as familiar, it was  created when President John F. Kennedy signed the Foreign Assistance Act in 1961. This followed the success of the reconstruction of Europe after World War II through the Marshall Plan and the Truman Administration’s Point Four Program — the 1950 program to engage in technically-based international economic development.

USAID uses less than half a percent of the federal budget and has offices and projects in over 100 countries. Fun fact right?  Just wait, there’s more..

I work in the Office of Program Coordination as a “Program Specialist,” though the Mission Director always introduces me as a Consultant (the ultimate catch-all term for someone who still doesn’t know exactly what they do…) It is really great to be at such a small Mission because I get to see much more of what goes on than say being in Washington or a larger Country Office.

USAID has given our specific country office $30 million for this fiscal year. To some that might sound like a lot of money, but when you look at the countries that recieve the most, we pale in comparison. For example for FY2011, these are the top 5 befitting countries:

1. Afghanistan…….. $1,438,596,449

2. Haiti……………….$970,910,372

3.Kenya………………$498,728,751

4. Jordan…………….$460,251,837

5.Pakistan………….$393,000,846

Also among the top benifitting countries are Tanzania, South Africa, Nigeria, South Sudan,  Iraq, and West Bank/Gaza.

Program funding ranges globally from Health (more money goes to health than any other program),  to Agriculture, Good Governance, Education, Conflict Mitigation and Reconciliation, Counter-Narcotics, Disaster Readiness, the list goes on…

Here in Benin, partly because of what I consider to be a  midget of a budget, we really mainly concentrate on health, with some residual funding for educational projects. Over half of our program budget goes to combatting malaria alone. But, mention this to a Peace Corps. Volunteer here and you are likely to get a scoff or rolling of the eyes. I’ve talked to many who think it’s not a wise way to use resources.  And I can’t say I necessarily blame them. To most locals, getting malaria is like getting a flu, they don’t relate to it the same way an expat would.  But there are definitely vulnerable populations, particular infants and children under 5. This can often be fatal to their more delicate systems.

USAID and other health orgs have created Public Service Announcements (PSA), held events where bed nets are given out, etc. What Benin may need to most is effective education. I was fascinated to find that many people call malaria “Malade de Soleil” or in English, “Sun Sickness.” Why? Because some village person decided that people get malaria from being in the sun too long, not from mosquitos and the idea spread… many others believe malaria comes from peanuts. Yes, peanuts. Another village myth.

So… spending money distributing bed nets to a population that thinks that they get malaria from peanuts and the sun,  may not be the most effective route? Who knows. I can’t speak from any sort of expertise, I just think it is interesting to hear different view points.

So that is a little about the work that is done here, USAID has lots of other programs here that deal with maternal health, etc., but that is what I found most interesting.

Last little fact, we are in transition of welcome a new Ambassodor and just bid farewell to Ambassador James Knight. I met him during his last week in office, nice guy, super super tall. The Embassy and USAID threw him a surprise going away party and we all ordered handmade African outfits ( a common tradition here…) We even gave the Ambassador and his wife matching outfits as a going away present. Below is a picture of the Ambassador, his wife, Amelia, and yours truly. (Note I am almost 5’7″ and wearing heels, he’s soo tall!)

So that is all for now, I know I will be learning so much more in my next five months and hope to share with you soon! Sending lots of love from Cotonou!

 

Apr
14

My Return ‘Home’ to Ghana


Knowing that I would be re-entering the world of the 9 to 5 day this week  (actually mine is 8 to 6, but who’s keeping track) I took the opportunity to return to my first African home country and took the nine hour bus to Ghana last week. My friend, Sangeeta, who is the Fulbright Scholar for Togo, accompanied me to Accra and my former village home.

The first day in Accra, we were invited to the Tedx Conference where we would participate in a live stream from Melinda Gates, who spoke about birth control in developing countries. For those who aren’t familiar with TEDx,  it is a conference series devoted to the concept of “ideas worth spreading.” TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) is a non-profit that has been devoted to this since 1984. It is global and growing, (ironically, my mom, J.J. Martin, spent yesterday volunteering at a TEDx conference in our home town area.)

Melinda Gates was fascinating, and so incredibly relevant to the world that I have been living in for the past 8 months.  She diplomatically tackled controversial issues  that surround the contraception debate with a grace and simplicity that spoke truthfully. I’ve included the link here and highly encourage you to watch! –>Link to Melinda Gates …. Please feel free to share your thoughts about the video on my blog comment box.

After the conference, I introduced Sangeeta to the wonderful modern world of Accra. When I left Ghana for Benin, I knew that I would be taking a step back from the modern world, but returning to Accra made me realize how drastic the difference was.  When I got off the plane from the U.S. to Ghana, I felt like it was so far behind what I considered to be modern society.  But who knew five short months later, I would be moving even farther away from that concept. I mean, Accra has coffee shops and a mall (though a pretty crappy one by U.S. standards). Sangeeta and I spent the weekend spoiling ourselves with salads, milkshakes, sushi… we even went to see “The Lorax” at local the theater.

The next day we ventured back to my village, Medie. This was by far, the highlight of the trip. I called the headmaster of my school and told him I was coming. He told me that the children wouldn’t be in school because of the Easter holiday, but to come anyway. When I arrived,  my entire class was at the school waiting for me!!! Apparently he had gone around the village and gathered them for me. When I walked up to the class, I got the BEST group hug ever!

I sat with the kids and asked them if they had remembered things I had taught them. One by one their hands went up, and their answers were astounding. “You taught us about water purification, which is when we remove bad things from the water so that it is safe for us to drink…” “..The three states of matter are solid, liquid, and gas. Matter is anything that has weight and takes up space.” And on and on..

After the kids left, the headmaster, Raymond, told me that when I taught them about personal hygiene, like washing hands and keeping perishable foods cold, they went home and told their parents. The parent’s came back to the headmaster and told them how happy they were to have learned from their kids, and now at home, everyone washed their hands before they ate. It was so moving to know that my small lessons were spreading throughout the community.

We also went to visit my old neighbors, who run their own NGO called AFRICED, which takes medical students from the U.S. to Africa so that they can gain clinical experience in a developing country. They invited us to stay the night and made us dinner. I have missed Ghanaian food so much!

 

 

I took some shots of my ol’ stomping grounds like I was there…

I also took Sangeeta to the Accra Art Market, where my friend Jackson lives and works. For those of you who have been following my posts since the beginning, Jackson is doing really well, he has continued to learn how to read since I left and is trying to return to school.

On Sunday, Sangeeta and I jumped back on a tro-tro and headed home… I took advantage of photo ops along the way and have included them for your viewing pleasure!

 

 

 

 

That’s all for now. Sending lots of love from Cotonou! xoxo

Mar
28

Meet Pete, Songhai, and… my new JOB!


I have mentioned in previous posts that one of the biggest differences between Ghana and Benin (other than the languages) is mode of public transportation. Zemijans, or what the average American would know as a motorcycle, is the Beninese taxi. The zem drivers all wear yellow shirts to signify their profession, though the color of the shirt will change depending on the city you are in. Similar to when I feared for my life every day on the tro-tros of Ghana, I pray for guardian angels when I am on a zem. I have seen several fatal zem accidents, as helmets are rarely worn (though I am shopping around for my own.)

But my luck changed the night I met Pete. Technically he goes by Peter, but I like saying the word  ’Pete’, so that is what I call him. Anyway, one night my friend Logan and I were trying to find me a ride home, when Pete pulls up on his zem. This is no ordinary motorcycle, however. And Pete, no ordinary zem driver. Pete’s zem has THREE wheels, like a giant, awesome, motorized tricycle. This picture below is of Pete driving my friend Andrea and I on her birthday last week.

Pete suffered from severe polio as a child and was left permanently disfigured, hence his amazing 3-wheeled zem. But he is the biggest bucket of sunshine I have ever met. I have hired him as my personal zem driver because a) I feel like a 3-wheeled zem has to be somewhat safer that a two-wheeled one b) he is reliable and has a big heart and c) would do pretty much anything for me. Once I was out with friends and it started to rain crazy Africa rain, and he appeared out of nowhere with a pancho for me so that I wouldn’t get wet.

He also has a wonderful family, who he took me to meet. His wife is just as sweet as he is and his kids  melted my heart.

When I asked if I could take a picture of the family, Pete got so excited, he went and made the children change into their nicest clothes. Pete’s dream is for his daughter to go to school in America, (big surprise) and he keeps hinting to me that I should take her back with me when I return in the fall.

A few weeks ago, I went up to Songhai in Porto Novo with Pete. Songhai is this amazing organization made of several different “green” and self sustainable communities throughout Africa. It was founded by a Nigerian who grew up in California (holla!) and had a vision of teaching Africans to empower their own success through sustainable socio-economic entrepreneurship. With support from USAID and other organizations, they have a site in Porto Novo that trains students  in farming organic products, cooking, services such as customer relations (Lord knows Africa needs more of that), etc. Everyone reading this shoud check out their website to get the full effect of how great Songhai is:

www.songhai.org

When I went on the campus tour, they let me and Pete feed the fish!

I feel very lucky to have such a trustworthy partner to assist me during my next six months in Benin…

So, saving the best for last, I have some other BIG news.. For the last month, I have been waiting for my U.S. government clearance to be processed because… I have been offered a job at USAID Benin!

So here is the whole story: My first week here, I wanted to give Cotonou my best shot for potential jobs, so I literally just printed several copies of my resume and walked around the district where all the international organizations are: Peace Corps., US Embassy, UNDP, Unicef, you get the idea. I ran into an American aid worker coming out of one of the buildings and struck up a conversation with her. She hinted that USAID might need help, but wasn’t sure if they were hiring. I called USAID, dropped her name, and arranged a meeting with the Mission Director. When I met with him, within the first two minutes, we find out that we are from not only the same state, but the same hometown. (Go me, making the right connections.) We also went to rival high schools… A few weeks later, I get a call from him saying that the team is working to arrange a contract for me. (Guess those years of learning how to “network” in Washington, D.C. have finally paid off!) I waited until after I got the job offer to tell him how much his high school football team sucked (Sorry, Saratoga High, but it is true.) Then he retorted by telling me the only time anyone should wear orange and black (my high school’s colors) is on Halloween… ouch. But back to the job part…

As exciting as this job news was, I did not anticipate the long wait for the U.S. clearance. In the states, a government security clearance can take up to six months, but since I was hired out of Benin, somehow the process was expedited. So… five short weeks later, I am the new Program Specialist for USAID Benin on a six-month contract.  I will be home in time to be with my family for a couple months and start graduate school in New York in January!

Big sigh of relief, I can’t wait to dive head first into this new step in my career. I know I am going to learn so much in the coming months, and hope to share whatever lessons in international development I learn.

Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mar
22

And on the Other Side of the World….


One side effect of living in a developing nation, thousands of miles away from the people you love most in the world, is loneliness.  While there are plenty of interesting locals and worldly expats to meet and experiences to be had, it can’t replace your best friend who hugged you hardest when second you found out you got into the college you  wanted, or your two-year-old niece, who you proudly taught the concept of the “fist bump” to right  before you left the states.

It is easy to be distracted by to eccentricities of living in a place where gasoline is smuggled in from neighboring countries, and where people use frog heads and dead snakes to conjure spirits and practice voodoo curses. Yet, after a certain amount of days or weeks, even that becomes normal and you can’t  help but be reminded of places where you don’t have to worry if you are going to get an amoeba from the food you just ate.

And nothing can make you yearn for home more than the day you get the email from your best friend that reads,

“Hey Babe, I have some amazing news! Nate proposed, I said YES!  Wish you could be here to celebrate with us.”

I was with a few friends when I read these words, and when I told them, they asked me why I sounded so sad. I was surprised at first, because I didn’t realize that I was. I mean, of course I was happy for her. Daniella is one of the most generous, good hearted, and kind people I know, (not to mention talented and beautiful, but the list goes on.) Nothing makes me happier than knowing that she has found someone who will treat her well and love her unconditionally. At the same time, it was a milestone that I was absent for, and a sign of the times, that we are all growing up. Dani was the girl who drove me home after school because she got her drivers license first, who knows every teenage (and post-teenage) secret , and told me I was too good for every person who ever broke my heart. We have inside jokes that make absolutely no sense, and I swear fifteen was yesterday.

See… 15 was yesterday, right? That is Dani and I New Years eve, 2000.

And the night before I moved to Washington, D.C. in 2008. (Yes, I was blonde once upon a time.)

And in other big news…… I heard back this week from my graduate school applications and, I GOT INTO MY FIRST CHOICE SCHOOL!!!! Sooo excited, I will be joining the next class of the Milano School for International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at the New School in New York City. Many of you know it has been a dream of mine to live in New York since I was a little kid, and I will be getting my M.A. in International Affairs, so best of both worlds! I will start in January 2013.

I don’t regret my choice to come here, and once I start my new job (will post on that soon), I am sure I will learn so much that will fuel my future career choices, but right now, I just want to board the first plane out of Africa. It sounds stupid, but sometimes when I am homesick, I imagine getting off a plane in San Francisco, and everyone is waiting for me at baggage claim, my whole family, my closest friends… kind of like that scene at the end of Titanic, except I’m not dead, and Leonardo Dicaprio is not at the top of a staircase in a tuxedo.  But I digress.

In times like these, I remind myself that all we have is now, and that someday in the not so distant future, I will miss the scorching African sun, the naked children running in the streets, and even incessant mosquitoes that bite me through my clothes. Sorry, I know this is not an African themed post, but I am documenting my real world experiences, even if they are on the other side of the world.

Thanks for reading!

Feb
27

Oui, Oui, Ouidah!


This weekend, Alainna and I took a shared taxi to the historic beach side township of Ouidah. About an hour west of Cotonou, Ouidah is home to a Musee D’Histoire that was once a Portuguese fort.

As the museum’s exhibits showed, I found it interesting  that while it often assumed to be true, Europeans did not necessarily come in a “steal” Africans, turning them into slaves. They bargained with the tribal leaders and purchased people in trade for goods. By no means am I trying to ignore how awful and inhumane this practice was, only that the dehumanization occurred on both sides. There is a large sign in this museum that reads, “While the kings of Africa did not instigate the slave trade, they did benefit handsomely from it.”

 

We were not allowed to take pictures inside the museum, but there were lots of interesting artifacts, especially ancient newpaper articles published in the 1700s and 1800s with graphic depictions for the wars waged over the slave trade.

After the museum, Alainna and I headed to the beach for lunch and found this amazing hotel/restaurant called Brazilian Diaspora Hotel (bad English translation from French on my part.) The name of this place is interesting because many of the slaves from Benin were shipped to Brazil. Years later, many  came back to their “home country” bringing with them their Brazilian culture, so you do see the mix of cultures here.

We walked down the beach to the Door of No Return, where many slaves saw Africa for the last time. Alainna found some sheep on the beach and wanted to take a picture of them, but they were looking the wrong way.. So I  started to call them in Sheep Talk (aka “bah-bah”)… and they came! I am like a sheep whisperer.. Alainna said I should add my newly discovered talent to my resume. I didn’t get a picture of the sheep, but they were cute! You can see the memorial to the Door of No Return in the background in the picture below.

And upclose, it is really beautiful…

 

 

Our least enjoyable part of this trip was how intensely we were harassed by the locals. Lord, they were aggressive. One of them grabbed Alainna’s arm and would literally not let go, they all wanted our numbers and to be our “new friends.” This concept is not new to us, but the level of aggression about it was obnoxious. I got a good picture or Alainna being annoyed by a local.

Anyway, we also  found another memorial farther down the beach that wasn’t listed in any travel books.  Alainna and I guessed that it was dedicated to the diaspora?

I love how there is a cut out in the middle in the shape of Benin… Yes, that is Benin, no it is not a drumstick..(though I also kind of think it the shape of Benin is similar to a shriveled piece of broccoli, no? I mean, no offense. But it does definitely look like a piece of chicken.) Here is an up close shot…

OK, so our next stop was  by far the most interesting of the whole trip..the Temple of the Pythons… Part of the long standing voodoo religion, people believe that the snakes are sacred and have dedicated a temple to them where about 60 of them currently reside. When we went in, our guide practically threw them at us… NOT what I expected.. Alainna was super comfortable with the whole snake around her neck thing.. me, not so much. I was surprised how freaked out I was considering I grew up with a biologist dad who, when I was a kid,  would bring home every kind of bug/snake/ thing that bites ever.

I may be smiling, but there are literally tears in my eyes..

I love this picture.. It is a great one to play that game of “How many funny lines can you create to fit here…” This was my best try.

1. Nice snake, Alainna, did you get that at Macy’s? Mine was on sale. It is so your color.  So stylish!

2. Um… I smell snake pee, is that you or me?

3. (or the more realistic line..) Ok, seriously, get it off me!! Take mine, I can’t handle this, get it off! OFF!

But, no they did not take it off, instead, they gave me more..

I have officially seen enough pythons to last  me a lifetime.. After the Python Temple, we squished into a taxi back to Cotonou.. and by squished, I mean 7 people in a 5 person car.

A very long and eventful day, and by the time I got home was so very  ready for a shower. You know, because of the snake pee.

Feb
20

Abomey: City of Voodoo Kings, Fetishes, and One Cute Chameleon


This weekend I ventured north with three other American girls to the historical town of Abomey. Amanda, Sarah, Alainna and I all come from different parts of the country and have different reasons for being in West Africa, but we had a blast exploring more of the country and it was nice to be around the comforts of American company. :)

From left to right, Sarah is from Ohio and is on her third year as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I was relieved to  hear she has been here for three years without ever getting malaria.  Then on the other side of me is Alainna from Colorado, she is volunteering here at a medical clinic and is applying to med school soon. Amanda, on the end, is here as a Fulbright Scholar doing research on the relationship between Voodoo and Christianity as well as Gender Rights issues.  They are all super fun girls and I am so glad I have found new friends in the most unlikely places.

I also learned a lot about the history of Benin. Abomey is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is known for its ancient palaces that once belonged to kings that ruled not only Benin, but at times parts of Togo, Niger, Nigeria, etc.  Voodoo is a huge part of the Beninese culture, as it originated here. All voodoo that people hear of in Haiti originated in Benin and spread to Haiti and other areas with the dawn of the slave trade when many Beninese slaves were sent to such countries.

So we arrived on Saturday and checked into our hotel, then went in search of a zem so we could get to the famous palace museum. Negotiating with the zems is always a pain because they always try to overcharge you for being a Yovo (white person, or person not from Benin). Here you can see the girls trying to bring down the price.

We headed off to the big museum in town, which is also the site of an ancient palace. Unfortunately they wouldn’t let us take any pictures, but I heard some incredible stories, many of which involved the presence of voodoo in their culture.

I know that when many people think voodoo, they think little voodoo dolls with pins sticking out everywhere, but there is much more to this animalistic religion. From what I have come to understand, much of it has to do with honoring the spirits of ancestors  (the original word for voodoo is vodun and means “spirit” in the local Fon language.) The stereotype of using peoples hair or bodily fluids to create spells and curses is however, accurate. For example,  one of the exhibit displays showed a calabash bowl that was carried by a princess for her father, the king. She followed him around so that when he wanted to spit, he could do so in the bowl. Then she had to disappear with the bowl and bury it in a place where no one would see. She did this because if one of the king’s enemies got a hold of his spit, they could use it to create bad voodoo against the king and create all sorts of havoc.

From 1625 to 1900 twelve kings ruled in succession in the Kingdom of Abomey. Each king had his own seperate palace, so there was so much to see while we were there! With his own palace, each king also had his own symbol, be it a lion, a fish and basket or what have you, as well as his own speciality (like voodoo, war, or art.)

On Sunday we took a tour of several other historical sites around Dahomey. Our guide, who was absoultely awesome, started off by drawing a map in the dust of the historical empire of Abomey.

Then, the fellow guides joined him in a sort of song/prayer to the map.  We couldn’t understand what they were doing, but they were singing and dancing to it and it was cool to watch.

We also made some little friends at the beginning and end of the tour. First, this tiny little kitten (so cute.)

Sarah then told us the story of  how when she first got here, she had a pet cat, and it went missing. She asked the neighbor kids if they had seen it, and they pointed her to a house down the street, where found her neighbors preparing it for dinner. :( Guess it is a good thing I didn’t bring my cat, Olive, with me!

And Alainna made friends with a baby goat… no stories associated with that one, but people (including yours truly) eat goats here all the time.

One of our first stops was to a palace where there is this legendary tree.  The story is that before the kingdom was named “Dahomey” there was a a man who became a famous ruler in a very unique way. The voodoo oracle told him that he must kill a member of the court. When he followed through in this murder, he threw him down in the grave face up, then split open the man’s stomach and planted a seed inside. That seed grew into the tree pictured below…

This is a closer one of the intricate roots…

Then we went to another palace where we learned that most of the kings had upwards of 200 wives… Part of their voodoo culture often involved human sacrifice (I have heard this still exists today).. hundred of member of the royal court could be beheaded and sacrificed to the voodoo gods during times of war, general unrest, or sometimes during peace. When a king died, all of his wives would be buried alive so that they could serve him in the afterlife. One king married 12 new wives every year. At one point two of his former wives got fed up with never seeing him and plotted to kill him (understandable, I think.) He heard of this plotting and they confessed their intentions when confronted. As punishment, he buried them up to the neck for seven days, but not before putting oil in the holes that would attract flesh-eating ants. (Nice guy.)

During the seven days that his defiant wives suffered in the ground, he began to have strange dreams. He dreamed that his wives came to him while he was sleeping and asked for forgiveness, even trying to seduce him. He was so bothered by these dreams that he went to the oracle and asked what they meant. He said it was true, his wives did come to him, because the voodoo had already taken them. The oracle then instructed him to build a temple to honor  his dead wives, the Temple of Jealousy. The temple is  pictured here:

After visiting the Temple of Jealousy we went to the Fetish Market. This may have been the most interesting part of the trip. You know how in stories about witches, you hear them say that make potions out of, “A tail of rat, a scale of snake, a lizard’s nose…” Well this is where those witches went shopping…

Every kind of animal head, butt, or arm was available for purchase here.

Boars, leopards, horses, armadillo looking things, snakes, birds, grass cutters (basically giant rats), hedge hogs, literally anything you could think of was there.

Then the boys who were running the fetish stand brought out the live animals.. first a pair of snow white owls, which Sarah contemplated trying to free, but decided against it. They just looked so sad in their little cage. But we did get to play with the cutest chameleon ever! He was sooo tiny. Can you see him?

Here, you can see him better in this one….

and this one…

 

That was close to the end of our tour! After several history lessons and putting little Mr. Chameleon on our faces, we jumped in a cab and headed back to Cotonou and Porto Novo! More to come soon!

Feb
17

Don’t Eat Like a Rich Kid: My Lesson in Food Etiquette


In the past, I have devoted blogs to what I have been eating in West Africa, but recently I realized it is just as important to share my lessons in how people eat.

This realization came to me at the dinner table, when Boris complained that I “eat like a rich person” after noticing that I didn’t eat every morsel of chicken on the drumsticks I was served. He then explained that people in Africa eat all their food, because many people don’t have anything to eat at all. After I got through the guilt trip that ensued from his explanation, I thought about my own potential reasoning for not eating every single scrap of food on my plate at every meal.

My first contention followed the adage in the United States, “A lady never eats everything on her plate; you must leave a polite bite left.” The logic feeding into America’s obsession with women watching their figures and their image as dainty dames who don’t pig out, right? However, I have never been one to follow conventional ideas about how women should act (or eat for that matter.) When comparing the African and American line of though, I think the African one makes more sense.

Since the conventional “American Culture” argument falls through, my second contention as to why I don’t eat every single bite served is more of an observation of the amount of food served in West Africa. These are not the portions I am used to in the U.S. They are bigger!  (At least I think they are..) So if I eat until I am sated, there is usually food left. The easy answer to this is to take a smaller portion, right? So I tried this. In my commitment to not looking like a wasteful rich person, at the next meal, I took a smaller portion of food, so as to impress upon the group that I could take a cue.

It was a fufu like mash in a yummy eggplant soup, I ate everything, down to the fish off the bones and last spoonful of soup. I sat, beaming with pride at my accomplishment, and quite full. The host of our meal was sitting next to me and said, “Ah, your plate is empty, you must want more.” Before I could open my mouth to object, another full serving of fufu and soup was before me.  I couldn’t win.

I noticed this is a different degree in Ghana. I used to eat fufu and ground nut soup for lunch almost every day at the corner spot in Medie. They always served an enormous amount of food that no one in their right mind would finish, or at least in their American mind. Many Ghanaians would finish their meal, but it would be the only meal of their day, since fufu and banku takes so long to digest.  Whenever I would get up to leave with any fufu or soup left, Patience, the cook would look at me with disappointment and say, “Why don’t you like my food?” I tried to explain my food logic, but never to her satisfaction.

After all my challenges in adjusting to a new culture of food, I am reminded of something my  wise ol’ dad once said..

…. Never eat anything bigger than your face.

Now, this, I believe is good logic that anyone should follow, maybe next time I am chided for my eating habits, I will use his words of wisdom.

 

Feb
09

Getting Around Benin: Hiss and Zem.


Some of you may recall my stories of tro-tros in Ghana. The main mode of public transportation, they were gutted vans that were refit to seat up to 30 people. I learned from my experiences in tro-tros that Ghanaians have very little need for personal space, as I would be crammed next to strangers for hours on end.

Benin has a different approach to public transportation, though I can’t say it is any safer. It does however, provide one with the exhilarating feeling of seeing their life flash before their eyes on the back of a motorcycle in a world without traffic laws or safety helmets.

Zemidjan’s are what the Beninese call these motocycle taxi’s. The literal translation is “Bring me there quickly!” And that they do, even you think you might die on the way to your destination. Below is a picture of my friend, Amanda on the back of a zem.

One thing I found really cool is that many of the zems in Cotonou sport shirts with the Rotary Polio campaign emblem on them. This is the same program I volunteered with in Ghana where I went out in the villages distributing the oral polio vaccines.

Now about the “Hiss” in the title. This cultural tidbit is true for both Ghana and Benin (and I assume for most of West Africa.) In the United States, if we want to get someone’s attention, we might say, “Excuse me, Sir?” or “Hello? Ma’am.” Sometimes we accompany this with a wave or other hand gesture. Here in West Africa, you hiss. Yes, hiss, like a snake. At first I was offended by this because vendors would often hiss at me in the street to get my attention. But after a while, I realized it was really the only way to get anyone’s attention, period.

So, in Benin as well as in Ghana, I hiss. I hiss at the waiter to order another beer, I hiss at the zem driver to ask him to take me downtown. This new habit is something I desperately  hope to leave in West Africa as I leave, as I would be so embarassed if a little hiss slipped out when calling out to someone back in the U.S. :)

Feb
04

First Days in Cotonou…


First off, I apologize for the delay in this post. The internet in Benin is even worse than Ghana, if that’s possible.

My first week in my new home country has been very educational and exciting. I have learned a little about the history and culture here, and a lot about its public transportation.

Benin is similar to its coastal neighbors in that it is a major port city. Historically, like Accra, it was a major hub during the slave trade in the 1600s. Cotonou literally translates to “The mouth of the river of death,” in the local dialect of Fon.  As grim and dark as its meaning may be, I have found the city to be anything but dismal or depressing.

Cotonou, while not the technical capital of Benin, is the heart of much of the government, business, and social activity. It is diverse, and I find it to be romantic (mainly because everyone speaks French and it is near the ocean), though I know some disagree.

On my first full day here, Boris introduced me to his American friend, Nick, who happens to be from Berkeley, California (an hour-ish away from my hometown.) Nick works for Malaria No More, an NGO in Chad. He is also a producer for National Geographic’s  show, Taboo, where different cultural quirks are exploited for entertainment purposes.

Nick took  his daughter-in-law , grandson, granddaughter, and me to a coastal tourist spot called Bab’s Dock. It was a nice little lagoon area where you take a small boat into a lake.

There was a pleasant waterfront restaurant where we had lunch and drank my first glass of legitimate white wine since coming to Africa. After an amazing lunch I had a petite waffle and tiny little coffee.

It would have been a perfectly pleasant afternoon if it hadn’t been for the donkeys. The couple that owned this little restaurant kept them in a little pen next to our tables. There were three donkeys, two males, one female. It was mating season, maybe, or whatever, but the two males were fighting over the female… At one point one male bit the female and started pulling her by his teeth around in circles. I got an awesome video of it, but it won’t load, so you will  have to just look at the picture and use your imagination.

After Bab’s Dock and the horrible donkey experience, we took Nick’s grandson, Constantine to a beach side carnival. Nick described it as the most ghetto fair he had ever been to. I understand this assessment as every ride looked like it was about to fall apart and they played this super explicit rap music reaaalllly loudly. We had a good time regardless.

 

After the fair, we ventured to a roof top bar in downtown Cotonou that has some great city views!

I had my first good bloody mary of 2012 and later went to dinner with Boris before returning home. When  I got home, I was greeted my this little guy in my shower. He was so tiny! Like the size of a penny. Adorable. :)

I’ll write more soon! xoxo

 

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