Hello from month 2 in Dogbo and month 5 in Benin!
I have lots of ideas for this blog—I want to write about Beninese culture and history and food, I want to write about what it’s like to be Peace Corps Volunteer, I want to write about projects and how I’m slowly learning to make myself useful here. But quite frankly, I’m still very in the in-between.
The first three months at site are dedicated to integrating into the community, learning the local language, and starting some smaller projects. I spent most of January having Adja (my local language) classes 3 times a week and for the rest of the month just trying to get settled. When my language tutor asked me what else I do on a weekly basis other than classes, I really didn’t have an answer for him, which made me panic for a minute. Peace Corps service, especially as an agriculture volunteer, is the complete opposite of a 9-to-5 job. But as Americans, we’re used to constantly working and spending the rest of the time thinking about working. Luckily things started happening once February came!
If I’ve ever talked to you about life here, I have definitely mentioned my host mom, Mama Véronique! We visited our future sites for 2 weeks when we were mere trainees and lived with host families during the visit. I stayed with Mama Véronique and her two daughters, Harmonie (13) and Anaëlle (10). Now that I’m here permanently, I live in my own house but I see my host family at least twice a week and with each visit I’m fed accordingly—until I want to explode. Véronique is my favorite person in the entire country: she’s hosted many volunteers in the past, both from Peace Corps and from other countries, so she relates easily to foreigners and has been a great resource for adjusting to life here. She works full-time at the Mayor’s office and has about 100 other side jobs, but still finds time to lay outside and drink a beer with me. Honestly, there will probably be a blog post all about her in the future because she’s just the best.
This all leads up to the best memory I have of being in Benin so far: our birthday! Mama Véronique and I are convinced that sharing the same birthday is what caused us to click instantly. We found out around Christmas and immediately went into party planning mode. Everyone knows I love a good fête (party) and we went all out. Mama Véronique made about 7 different dishes, there was plenty of beer, whiskey, and bissap (a hibiscus juice) to put everyone in a good mood, my friend Madison made an amazing cake, and I found party hats that say “Joyeux Anniversaire.” Some of my closest volunteer friends came through and Mama Véronique invited some of her friends and family, too. We ate, we drank, we danced, and my heart was full.
Starting an English club is one of the most popular activities for PCVs across sectors. There’s a high school right across the street from my host organization and after some meetings with the principal, the English teachers, and a planning meeting with some students, the club is up and running! We’ve only had two official meeting so far but I’ve really enjoyed working with the students and teachers, and the administration of the school has been really supportive. The goal of the club is to help the students improve their English speaking skills, which are harder to develop during formal English classes. This is something I can relate to because after 8 years of studying French, I was never able to form a sentence out loud until I came here.
There are plenty aspects of life here that make me feel lucky for the life I have and the opportunities I’ve been given. Of all the things we take for granted in the States, I don’t think we realize how an American passport and speaking English opens us up to the world without any effort on our part. A lot of people here dream of going to the U.S. and I can see how some of the students are determined to learn English with the goal of working or studying in the U.S. or other English-speaking countries. As Americans in Benin, we’re here on visas that were processed in a few days. For Beninese people, it’s really difficult to get a visa to the U.S., even if they have family or friends to sponsor them. As mentioned in my last post, I think about the different parts of my identity a lot here, but I’ve never thought this much about my identity as a native English speaker.
Peace Corps is filled with buzzwords that can have a whole lot of meaning or sometimes seem like a whole lot of nothing. If you read some of our Peace Corps guidebooks (or my application statement) you’ll see words like “community,” “integration,” “sustainable,” and “impact” thrown around pretty gratuitously. It feels like I’ve “been in” Benin for a long time and in my down time I can become frustrated with myself. There are still days when I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing, or my French won’t come out like it did the day before, or I have absolutely nothing to do for the whole day. Looking back, it seems like January was about trying to figure out how to get from place to place without getting lost. February was much more charged with getting the English club started, making plans for gardens, and working on some smaller things here and there. My goal is to dedicate March to learning more about Dogbo and prepare to take on some bigger projects after our next, smaller round of Peace Corps training in April.
This word vomit above is to say I’m working on it. But whenever I get into a mood about whether I’m doing the integration thing right, I feel a lot of comfort in the relationships I’ve formed so far. From my host family, to my language tutor Cyrille, to my neighbors who drive me absolutely crazy (the good kind), and of course my fellow PCVs, there are a lot of people here to help me get out of my own head. They make me think from new perspectives and help give context for how things work here, teach me how to turn down marriage proposals in French AND Adja, and occasionally call me out for not eating enough Beninese food. So while I’m nervous that service will be 22 more months of the in-between, I’m even more excited and hopeful for growing friendships and drinking warm beer and having good conversations and celebrating language improvements and secretly eating French toast alone in my bed, but only occasionally.