Part of why I want to keep this blog is to give people an idea of what my life is like here in Benin. As I mentioned before the first three months of service are mainly focused on integrating and getting settled into life at site. Peace Corps really advises against starting any projects and instead getting to know people, identify good work partners, learn our local language, and in general just figure out how to “do life” here. So January to March consisted of lots of local language lessons, trips to the market, hanging out with people, and turning my house into my home!
After the first 3 months at site, my training cohort came back together in Lokossa (the town we were in for pre-service training) for two weeks of technical training. I couldn’t tell you what the health volunteers did, but the agriculture volunteers did trainings on how to create village savings and loans associations (VSLAs), where groups of 15-30 people meet regularly for a year to save money together and collect it at the end of each year. Well run VSLAs are also able to use the fund to give small loans to the members and have an emergency fund in case someone gets sick or needs to pay school fees. We also learned about small animal raising, especially for poultry and rabbits, which is definitely something my host organization is interested in doing in the future. I’ll have to read through my notes because my attention was 100% devoted to this baby bunny. We also discussed project design and management, and how to implement projects that meet our communities’ needs and can be sustained after we leave.
During this training I was able to see friends I haven’t seen since we swore in 3 months ago, as I live in the South and we were discouraged from taking trips to different regions of the country during this period. In sessions and throughout a lot of catching up, we discussed our own experiences and I think it really made us realize how different all of our sites are. Even though we are all serving in the same country, a site like Dogbo, a large town in the South, is entirely different from my friend Brittany’s site, a tiny village in the North called Tchawassaga. Peace Corps Benin volunteers frequently identify themselves as “southerners” and “northerners” based on their sites; often you’ll hear the northerners talk about how Northern Benin is like a completely different country. Some volunteers have to rely almost entirely on local language because no one speaks French in their village. On the other hand some volunteers barely need local language because everyone speaks French (French levels are pretty connected to the education levels in most places in Benin). Some volunteers have to travel upwards of 30 minutes to find tomatoes and onions, and even farther for any variety in produce. I have one of the biggest markets in the region and can find a wide array of fruits and vegetables.
So while I go on to describe life in Dogbo in this post and continuously in this blog, it should be understood that this is not necessarily representative of life everywhere in the country.
On Living Alone
Life here feels like it’s constantly full of contradictions. This is the first time I’ve ever lived “alone,” where all of the space within one living unit is entirely mine. There are no more passive aggressive roommate group chats and I can play music as loud I want (or as loud as my computer will let me). I’m the only one who’s going to sweep my floors, do my dishes, and make sure my house isn’t a total mess. Here’s the contradiction: even though I live alone, Beninese society is way more communal than American society. In practice, this means that my neighbor can feel a lot like a roommate. We let each other know where we’re going, we share food, and go into each other’s houses freely. And better than passive aggressive messages in the group chat, she honestly communicates to me when I do something that could be seen negatively in Beninese culture. That part doesn’t happen often but I really appreciated the few times that she’s checked me since being here.
Living on my own is definitely not something I want to do in the future. I think I’m too much of an extravert to do it. I miss movie nights and spontaneous vent sessions and platonic cuddling. But life here kind of necessitates living on our own. Peace Corps is 1) the weirdest job ever, and 2) one where you’re technically on-the-clock 24/7. You’re never not a Peace Corps Volunteer, representing the United States and accountable for your actions blah blah blah… so the only space I can really exist as just Carly, is my house.
Not only is this the first time living on my own after 4 years of roommates, this is also the first time I have ever been considered an adult. Honestly I’m laughing at myself as I write this. In the States, there’s a concept of young adulthood where you’re clearly not a teenager anymore, but you’re still on your parent’s health insurance (thanks, Obama). There’s very much a time dedicated to figuring out how to “adult.” In Benin, adulting pretty much starts around 18. I’m 23 and people constantly ask me why I’m not yet married or why I don’t have kids yet. So much so that sometimes it’s just easier to tell people my husband and kids exist and they’re fine, so that I don’t have to get into a longer conversation. Even the people I’m closest with in Dogbo don’t quite understand why I have no interest in marriage for the foreseeable future. For a lot of people, there’s no buffer age to figure out life on your own before making long-term committments.
So am I an adult yet? Absolutely not. But at least I can make sure I don’t starve, keep my living room swept, listen to jazz unironically, and I can notice when my iron intake is low. So I feel like I’m at least practicing. A few months ago, a second year volunteer mentioned one of the weirdest parts of this experience is that a lot of us are figuring out how to “adult” for the first time IN WEST AFRICA. And I think that might become one of the most rewarding parts of service. Even if no one ever feels like an adult, one of the most adult-y parts of being here is that my challenges and problems are mine to take on. That, and I can’t leave my dishes out for more than a day without developing a shocking amount of mold.