Finally, a Peace Corps Blog

Posted 17 January 2019

Hello from Benin!
Keeping a regular Peace Corps blog from week one sounded like a great idea, but so do a lot of things before you sign on for a 27-month commitment that makes you experience a full emotional rollercoaster every 20 minutes. PST (pre-service training), spotty Wi-Fi, and complete exhaustion had other plans for this blog. 4 months ago our cohort of 44 trainees left Washington, D.C. to spend 17 hours on a plane (DC → Ethiopia → Benin). Since most of my friends still live in D.C., I took advantage of our departure city to spend one last night out with my friends. I got to the hotel for our 5 AM departure to the airport in a very Carly Aquino fashion: straight back from from the club. It was a crazy start to a crazy experience, so here we go…

First Week

When we first got to Benin, we had a hectic orientation week before moving into our host families and getting ready for the busy weeks to begin. We lived with Beninese host families for all of training. I was placed with a really wonderful family with my two parents, a 10-year-old sister (Francide), and a 7-year-old brother (Bergier) in a village called Atikpeta. My family took great care of me, helped me practice my French, and taught me how to adjust to life here. Certain things I was ready for: I already knew how to wash clothes by hand, use water buckets and a plastic cup to shower, and I remember to take my malaria pills. But the first weekend with our host families was one of the most overwhelming times of being here. It was all of the difficulties of being in a completely new country coupled with the daunting realization that I would be here for more than 2 years, all while adjusting to village life. While people like to refer to Peace Corps service as a great adventure, it is also a commitment and sometimes a sacrifice.

Site/What I’m Actually Doing

About half way through PST, we had our site announcement ceremony where we learned the villages and towns that we would call home for the next 2 years. I fully expected to be sent all the way to the North of the country, have no electricity and little access to water, and be in the tiniest village. Instead, I was assigned a large town called Dogbo, with great phone connection and consistent electricity. Whereas I had been expecting to work with little structure or in a new site, my host organization is a very established association of women’s agricultural groups called Mialebouni, which roughly translates to “Let’s Take Care of Each Other.” While Mialebouni seems like a very well organized structure, I will have a lot of freedom to lead trainings on topics ranging from organic gardening to youth entrepreneurship. As an agriculture volunteer here, we work under PC Benin’s Sustainable Agriculture Systems (SAS) framework, which takes a holistic approach to increasing household productivity, increasing incomes, and improving food security in our communities. In addition to working with Mialebouni, I’ll also have the chance to English clubs in schools, work with local small business owners, and other organizations in Dogbo.

About Benin + Culture Shocks

Even though I studied abroad in Rwanda and have experience living in a different culture, this experience is much different from study abroad. Adapting to life in village was much more challenging than when I lived in a big city. There are dozens of local languages spoken here in Benin, and as a former French colony the most common language spoken is French. The first half of training was spent becoming proficient enough in French to communicate before we move on to struggling through local language lessons. I don’t think I came in with the expectation that almost all of my interactions would be in French, but it’s one aspect of Peace Corps Benin for which I’m extremely grateful. I’ve been taking French classes since I was 14 and while I could write essays and take exams in the language, my ability to speak was non-existent. After 4 months of being here, I can have full conversations without having to think about what I want to say in English. So many people here speak French and I can hear mine improving daily, but there are still days where I find myself stumbling through sentences. I’m also studying Adja, the local language in Dogbo. It’s been a struggle but little by little, we’re getting there.

Some culture shocks were expected: I had to make the same adjustment to the slower pace of life here as I did in Rwanda. Unless it’s something extremely important, time is VERY flexible and lateness is never a sign of disrespect. Not that I’m ever known for being on time, but I really appreciate everyone I’ve worked with so far in that I’ve never waited more than 20 minutes for a meeting with my work counterpart or a language lesson. The most popular form of local transportation is motorcycle taxis (here known as Zemijans or Zems); if I have to travel farther, I have to take regular taxis, which are just regular cars packed with as many people as the driver can get away with. Also as it was in Rwanda, almost everything here is negotiable. I never pay the first price the Zem asks and going to the market usually involves begging the mamas selling their things to lower the price in some mix of French and Adja. Hopefully I’ll start to develop better negotiating tactics as I start to remember prices and phrases in Adja.

These are more logistical culture shocks to me: they impact my life on a day-to-day basis but they rarely leave me confused or emotionally drained. There are other kinds of cultural differences here that have made me much more aware of my assumptions and practices I bring to the table as an American, from the East Coast, a woman, a white woman, a college graduate. Being here makes me question every aspect of my identity and how it affects my work and daily interactions here. Benin has a very collectivist culture, which by definition “emphasizes the needs and goals of the group as a whole over the needs and desires of each individual.” There’s not really a sense of privacy or private property here, almost everything is shared and your door is always open unless it’s literally locked. My host siblings gave me the best lessons on this part of Beninese culture, as they liked to touch and pick up almost everything I owned. A passing compliment usually involves someone telling you to give them your dress or your shoes. If I make dinner for myself, my neighbor will eat some of it without asking. And of course, everyone is conspiring to have me married within the next two years. Sometimes this can be overwhelming: during training I was always desperate for alone time as my siblings were always in my room. Now that I live on my own, I’m often grateful to have people regularly checking in on me, even if it’s the lady across the street coming in to tell me she’s finally found the perfect guy I can marry.

Swear In + I’m Nervous

Peace Corps training was hard and reporting from about a month in, Peace Corps service is hard. Normal life is part of the job, so we’re on the clock 24/7. December 13, 2018 we finally reached the end of training and were officially sworn in as Peace Corps Volunteers. About 10 hours after that I got taken out by a bout of bacterial diarrhea that sent me to the Peace Corps medical office in Cotonou for the weekend. It ended up being the perfect metaphor for being here. Just when I was ready to party all night with my friends, I ended up sicker than I’ve ever been, since I was also dehydrated and running a 104 fever. But I also realized that I have a huge group of people who I can depend on and who showed up for me when I really needed it. After being cleared by the doctor I was finally able to move to my site and now I’m here!

The first three months of being at site are all about integrating: learning Adja, meeting people, forming relationships. It’s very different from a traditional work environment where I could jump in and start projects immediately. I’m only a few weeks in and I’m excited, but nervous at the same time. I’m nervous that I won’t meet expectations when so much time and tax-payer money has been invested into my being here. I’m nervous I won’t make friends, which is an anxiety my mom has heard from me every time I start somewhere new. I’m nervous that I’ll start projects and fail, that I won’t have a good understanding of Dogbo and what projects or trainings would be interesting to people here. I’m worried I’ll be seen as another Yovo (“white person” or “foreigner”) passing through rather than someone who’s committed to living here for the next two years. I’m constantly worried about the ethics of international volunteerism and avoiding causing any unintended harm. But for now I’m treading through, looking for work I can do in this in-between, forcing myself to greet people in Adja even though French would involve less mistakes. I call my friends and family all the time, if not because I miss them immensely then because I miss speaking English almost as immensely. I miss Trader Joe’s. I miss access to cheese. I miss happy hours and good coffee. But at this point in my life, I couldn’t imagine myself being anywhere else than Dogbo, Benin.

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