Thursday, August 29, 2013

Back at it!

 First and foremost, my apologies for dropping the ball on this blog in my second year of Peace Corps service; year two turned out to be extremely busy with girls’ camps, latrine construction, hand-washing station implementation, Dogon country exploration, advisory committees, getting caught in Malian coup d’états, microfinance womens’ group profit development and a moringa plantation; the blog took a backseat, and eventually was left alongside the road somewhere

Guinagourou Girls at             
Camp GLOW 2012   
Handwashing station implementation    

     Latrine Construction


Girls doing yoga at Camp GLOW
Guinagourou Girls' Soccer Team

A healthy baby
 My Beninese family 


However, after many subtle suggestions from my mother, I have decided to return to this blog, only this time on a new adventure.  My Peace Corps service in Benin ended after 29 months of service in September 2012.  After a bit of exploring and WWOOFing through Europe for 2 months, I returned to the States just in time for the warmth of Thanksgiving.  I remained in the States, job searching to no avail, until March, when I took an internship with a private foundation working to eliminate malaria in Namibia via a cross-border initiative involving Namibia’s northern neighbor, Angola. 

I spent the first month in Namibia observing the intricacies 
of the program and how it all worked efficiently. The second month was spent working on the program in Angola, where program efficiency was not its’ strong point.  I worked to increase efficiency via program structure revision and communication.  Following this second month was a one-week, malaria elimination themed conference in Zimbabwe, with an emphasis upon cross-border initiatives.  After the conference, I spent a brief, but exciting, weekend in Livingstone, Zambia at Victoria Falls; I canoed on the Zambezi River amidst hippos and crocodiles, explored both the Zambian and Zimbabwean sides of the falls, then bungee jumped off the historic Victoria Falls Bridge, precisely between Zimbabwe and Zambia.  It was a fatuous pursuit, but I knew I would regret not doing it, much to my mother’s chagrin.

I returned to the United States on May 15, then started my long-time dream job: working on a tall ship.  I boarded the beautiful Windjammer Angelique out of Camden, Maine on May 18 as the assistant chef. I originally applied to be a deck hand, but without experience, it is a hard position to fill. Captain Mike McHenry took a leap of faith in hiring me as an assistant chef, whose primary responsibility is making desserts.  It is easy to romanticize the idea of working and sailing upon a windjammer, especially one as bewitching as the Angelique, painted an elegant green with evocative red sails, but the work was as real as the sting from a barnacle cut.  Learning to bake lemon squares in a lunge while heeling at 9 degrees to the horizontal then acting as if it was your true and original intention to give people the option of lemon squares or lemon crisps was one of many lessons quickly learned.  And amidst the limited space, green faces and baking blunders, there were still the star-saturated night skies, the fantastically craggy Maine coast, first-class crewmates and the unbelievable satisfaction and sense of harmony in harnessing nature, the absolute epitome of the great wild, to your advantage; an enchanting experience.  

After the second week aboard, I received an offer from the foundation that sponsored my internship, for a permanent position stationed on the border in Northern Namibia, coordinating the Angolan program and crossing as frequently as possible.  It was an offer I could not refuse and involves many long-term potential opportunities.  Sadly, I told Lynne (the Angelique Admiral) and Mike of the offer, to which they could not have responded in a more positive, supportive manner.  On July 15, I left the Angelique.  My experience aboard the Angelique, no matter how fleeting, was invaluable, in large part due to the genuine and sincere couple that ran the ship.  If you are looking for a truly extraordinary experience and an incomparable adventure, I can promise you will find it aboard the Angelique.

Our salty crew.

Captain Mike performing one of his sundry talents, marrying two passengers on the shore of Babson Island
Following a hectic 2 weeks involving a speedy trip to NYC to charm the Angolan consulate employees into giving me a visa, a perfect camping trip with my favorite people on Mooselookmegunitc Lake, and emergency q-tip and fruit snack runs, I boarded a plane to Namibia and arrived July 31 in Windhoek.  I am currently in Angola working to improve program efficiency and helping with a study being conducted by Harvard researching cost-effectiveness of cross border malaria initiatives compared to efforts conducted from one side of the border.

I hope this provides a general update and overview of things as they stand now.  More information will soon be on its’ way.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

GLOWing it up.

In Romania, 1995, three Peace Corps volunteers and four Romanian teachers took 80 young women to a mountain campsite for a weeklong leadership camp. The intentions for this camp were to encourage the young women to become active, contributing citizens by boosting their self-esteem and confidence, augmenting their self-awareness and expanding their life-skills overall. The camp was created because of the observed needs and trends within Romanian culture such as the ongoing divide in traditional gender roles, the acceptance among youth of this division, the fact that there were very few female role models in any position of power and a lack of leadership skills among students as a whole. This weeklong camp met these goals and Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) was born.

Since that first camp in Romania, the project has been adapted in various other Peace Corps countries, Benin being among them. In addi

tion to girls’ camps, there are also boys camps as change needs to happen on both ends. Female empowerment in Benin

is critical to its’ development. Women rarely work outside the home in a professional capacity, but are often responsible for procuring funds for their children’s education and medical care because men often squander what little money they do make on alcohol or motorcycle parts, or simply refuse to contribute, or have no income themselves. While these circumstances certainly are unfortunate, they do contribute to the reasons studies have found women to make better political leaders, especially in the developing world (Wudunn and Kristof. Half the Sky). According to this study, women are less likely to become corrupt and more likely to prioritize education and healthcare and cut back on frivolous spending. For these reasons and the hope for change, I have chosen to be an active participant in Camp GLOW.

Over the course of the past month and a half, I helped organize and operate two Camp GLOWs. One was a day camp in the city of Bohicon (pronounced boy-con) and the other, a different animal entirely, was an overnight camp in Parakou (pair-a-koo), which I will be co-directing next year.

Bohicon is a fairly large city in Benin 150,000 with two Peace Corps volunteers, a married couple (Craig & Heather), posted there. Craig & Heather organized the camp and invited 50 of the top girls from surrounding schools. The girls were from what would be middle school in the U.S. The Parakou camp structure is quite different: 50 girls are invited in total, with each participating Peace Corps Volunteer getting two to four places to fill. Girls typically range in age from 12-17. How each volunteer chooses their girls is up to them, but they are usually the top ranking girls in their schools. Girls then travel with their volunteer to Parakou and spend the week at camp.

On August 7, three girls and I piled into a navy blue, bare-minimum Peugeot driven by a man named Ali, and drove, or tumbled I believe more aptly describes the voyage, towards Parakou. I felt as though I was inside a mad scientist’s laboratory the way the car beeped and whistled at random in addition to somewhat violent jostling as a result of terrible dirt roads and what felt like the absence of shocks. Fifteen minutes before we got to Parakou, we had to pull over so one girl could relieve her car sickness. However, none of the passenger doors in Ali’s car open from the inside, so, with a bang here, a lift there and a pull at the very sensitive angle of 17 degrees above the horizontal. She made it. Phew.

At both camps, we (volunteers) taught various sessions that the girls wouldn’t find in their traditional Beninese education system. These sessions included reproductive and female health, good hygiene practices, nutrition, legal rights of a girl/woman against rape and sexual assault and places they can go for help. We also led sessions to encourage the girls to work to realize their dreams; this included actually telling them it can happen, teaching goal planning,

decision-making and recognizing self and individuality. This last bit often proves the most challenging. Creativity and individualism are discouraged at an early age by social pressures of the culture and students are taught to conform and that there is a right and a wrong way to think – the right way being a very literal, limited manner.

Cultural pressures largely contribute to this as cited in an ethnology entitled “African Friends and Money Matter” by David Maranz:

Not only does family loyalty gum up African governments, it can hobble the careers and limit the achievements of individual Africans…A continent-wide survey of family studies has found that kinship squabbles thwart the individual’s initiative and creativity and interfere with his efficiency. (Harden, B. 1990. Africa: Dispatched from a fragile continent. New York, NY; W.W. Norton.

All of this lends itself to the challenge of development in third-world Africa.

We also played sports with the girls, which was like watching people play handball with hooves. Girls are not used to playing sports here because while their brothers go play soccer, girls are bound by household chores and the rearing of younger siblings. The girls had fun, though and were more concerned with having a good time and winning than silly rules like having to dribble in basketball. A competitive game of red-light green-light left me trying to catch cheaters as I was being charged by 50 teenage girls. And they hated being caught. Hilarious and mildly chaotic, sports were a highlight of this Camp GLOW.

At each camp, we also had an ongoing question box or “boîte des questions” so that girls could ask any questions that came up throughout the week and various sessions. Each day we would read the questions out loud and respond to them in an open-dialogue form. Some questions were comical – i.e. “Are Rich and Patrick married? If yes, do they have kids already?” (Rich and Patrick are two very cute Peace Corps volunteers who many girls developed crushes on). And some were more upsetting: “Is it ok for my brother to have sex with me?” The anonymity of the question box allowed girls to get answers to questions they might otherwise be too shy to ask. And it is questions like the latter that remind me that what we’re doing is important.

The overnight camp in Parakou was hosted at the University of Parakou and gave the girls the opportunity to have a computer session. For many of the girls, it was the first time they had ever been in the city, the dormitories were the first two-story building they’d ever seen and we had to have a little lesson on how to use a toilet, primarily the flushing part. Thus, you can imagine their bewilderment when face to face with a 17-inch Hewlett-Packard monitor. It was a fun session as we watched them scan and poke at the keyboard as they typed their names in Word. It sounded like a flock of chickens came in and began searching for grain in the keyboards. Or, like my dad was in the room working on a word document. It made me think of how fortunate we are as Americans: at 9 years old, I had computer lab with keyboard tests (which we all cheated on by slouching in our plastic chairs) and the Oregon Trail. At their age, when they are trying to find the space bar, I was typing 10-page reports likely researched in part on the Internet. The differences are hard to wrap your head around sometimes.

One of the best parts of playing a role in these two Camp GLOWs was watching the girls grow and evolve, even over the short period of time we were together. The girl who started out shy and soft-spoken became an active participant in sessions and spoke with confidence. All of them had a Rosie-the-Riveter “We Can Do It” sass by the time we left. All of this gave me confidence that these girls were going to go out and do something; that despite all the challenges that being a Beninese girl brings, they will overcome.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Moving Forward

These first five weeks of the New Year have been an interesting trial in attempting to get the ball rolling on different projects. Over the course of the initial three-month integration period, I believed that I had a fairly firm grasp on the cultural differences concerning time, work, and the general flow of things here. With this “firm grasp” of understanding, I thought I could handle anything with ease and sans frustration. I thought wrong.

As it turns out, having an understanding based solely on observation is not having an understanding at all. As I have been working to achieve objectives that are neatly and logically arranged in my navy blue moleskin work journal, I have learned at an even quicker pace that, as with all community work, there is nothing neat about it. Conceptions about how something should be done or how an outcome should appear are bound to mutate as they always do with collaborative work. Knowing this, however, does not make it any less vexing.

After three weeks of feeling as though I was tethered to a pole, left only to run in circles, the beginning of one of my most exciting and nerve-racking projects was on deck: a high school girls group. For starters, high schoolers are terrifying. On top of that, I wanted so badly for this to work, that I felt sure, after the previous three weeks, it was doomed. I walked the mile and a half to the high school thinking of all the things that could go wrong; maybe a herd of white, emaciated cows would come out of nowhere (as they frequently do) and trample me, maybe the king of England would want to visit Benin and use the high school as his helipad, or worse: the girls would have no interest.

My interest in starting a girls group is a result of the large gap in equality and opportunity for women and girls in Benin, as it is in many third world countries. Especially in rural villages, like my own, which comprise most of Benin, girls’ education is not a priority; house chores, working in the fields, having children – these are seen as the priorities for a girl as decided by a severely patriarchal society. But Benin has recently named girls’ education as one of its’ priorities and has created an incentive program for girls to receive an education. There is a large difference, however, between creating a policy and implementation. In a third world country such as this, organization to apply and regulate are seriously lacking and with that comes corruption. Female empowerment is unheard of. Women work nonstop preparing meals, keeping tabs on who-knows-how-many kids, doing the family laundry, going to the well to get water, going to the jungle to get wood, harvesting the fields, the list goes on. And yet they are regarded as lesser beings than men. For these reasons, I wanted to start a girls group. I want the girls to know about opportunities beyond the kitchen, to know the importance of education, to know that they have the right to make choices for themselves, and most of all, that they deserve all of this.

I arrived at the school ten minutes early (shocking, I know, Mum) and classes were still going on and I didn’t see any girls. I had just come from talking to my partner on this project who forgot about the meeting and thus couldn’t come. I looked up to make sure the sky was still overhead and not making a descent. Two professors sitting under a tree signaled me over. I sat and spoke with them as they assured me that the girls hadn’t finished with classes yet, so I might still have hope. We went on chatting about mathematics and English when another professor tapped me on the shoulder and said, “If you want to have your meeting, you should go before the girls leave.” I turned around to see a troupe of teenage girls staring at me with curious, yet cautious eyes. I took a deep breath, and walked over. Thirty-three girls came, and thirty-eight at the next meeting. I was thrilled. They are enthusiastic, spunky characters that have a genuine interest in learning and patience with my strange French. And that’s all they need for right now.

As is true anywhere, everything doesn’t always go as planned. Things fall through, people regard deadlines as mere-suggestion-lines, and plans change. What seems to matter though, is how one is able to regard unanticipated change as a new opportunity and keep moving forward.

Thank you!

To my McAuley girls and Sister – thank you a million times over for the thoughtful cards and I’m sorry for my blog irregularity!

Saturday, November 20, 2010

100 Beads

This past Tuesday, November 16, was the beginning of the three-day Muslim holiday Tabaski, also known as Eid ul-Adha. . It is a holiday celebrated to recognize Abraham’s (Ibrahim’s) submission to the command of Allah in sacrificing his only son, Ishmael. The Koran describes Abraham in the following passage:

"Surely Abraham was an example, obedient to Allah, by nature upright, and he was not of the polytheists. He was grateful for Our bounties. We chose him and guided him unto a right path. We gave him good in this world, and in the next he will most surely be among the righteous." (Koran 16:120-121)

Before Abraham was able to sacrifice Ishmael, Allah intervened and communicated that his devotion was evident through his willingness to obey the word of Allah, thus his sacrifice fulfilled. Allah gave Abraham a ram to sacrifice instead.

On the first morning of Tabaski, the Muslim people attend morning prayers at their mosque. I was invited to morning prayers by my landlord. Naturally, I accepted. He told me to wear a long skirt, or pagne, which is a piece of material 2 meters long that you wrap around your body, and a long sleeved tunic. I scrounged around through my clothes and managed to find something. I was told to meet my landlord’s sister in the morning, who lives in my concession. I went to the house of his sister Tuesday morning and told her I had nothing to cover my head. She quickly remedied the situation by covering me with a beautiful white head scarf. She nodded with approval, while the little girls giggled. We then walked about 2 miles to Mosque. The Mosque we attended for morning prayers was outside and consisted of rows divided by narrow piles of dirt, covered with mats that individuals brought themselves. We arrived early and sat with a group of elderly women who excitedly waved me over and gestured for me to sit directly in the middle, sharing with me the mats they had brought. I sat down and they started chattering away and we learned a little about each other, then one woman handed me a circular strand of beads, known as prayer beads. There are 100 beads per strand and as you pray, you move the beads along one at a time with your thumb and forefinger of your right hand. I found this strangely calming. As more people arrived, I felt something like a fly on the wall, for people did not immediately recognize me or my white skin, because my body was almost entirely covered. As soon as kids did recognize me, word traveled very quickly and most of them were no longer facing East, but instead facing me. But, I just kept moving my prayer beads between my fingers and wasn’t distracted at all. (The woman pictured lives near the outdoor mosque and requested a picture be taken).

A woman who frequents the health center saw me and hurriedly came over and squeezed between myself and the elderly woman to my left. She served as my Muslim prayer guru, elbowing me if I didn’t bow on time, put my head flat enough on the ground, or pay close enough attention, and swatting at my hands if they were incorrectly placed.

After morning prayers, goats began to be sacrificed. One of the walls of my house serves as wall of a goat pen and for the last 4 weeks, 3 fairly large goats have been kept there and have have successfully woken me up at all hours with the ruckus they frequently made. Tuesday night, I slept soundly. Those 3 goats seem to have been the prize goats. I saw goats darting throughout the village all day, never casually strolling as they often do. I offered them best wishes and promised not to tell anyone about their whereabouts. (The last photo is of another Mosque within my village).

Music was playing, drums being beaten and the sound of people talking and laughing together was mixed in with the smoke.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Marché Monday

The local market is held on Mondays in my village. Marché Monday. The Franglais alliteration helps me when trying to keep the days straight. There are also more linguistically congruent days: Malnutrition Mardi, Vaccination Vendredi, Sinner’s Sunday, etc. But, Mondays are also easy to remember because it’s my favorite day of the week. Imagine that: a traditionally dreadful day representing the end of the mystery, adventure and freedom the weekend brings; now the day I look forward to most. (The photograph is of huts that house market vendors.)

In the big picture, it’s a scale by which I can gauge my progress within the community. My first Marché Monday, I walked around with a less-than-enthusiastic guide who had been ordered by one of my protective work partners to help me find what I needed and not get swindled in the process. So, to the marché we went. It felt like the first day of seventh grade and having your mom walk you to the front door of the school, then demand both a kiss and an audible I-love-you. My guide might as well have held my hand and hung a placard from my neck that read “I have no idea what I’m doing and am considered incompetent by my peers.” The message, however, was conveyed sans placard, with brilliant clarity.

The next week, I decided not to tell anyone when I was going for the sake of my self-respect and that of a helpless teenage girl standing nearby who may have had the needy foreigner thrust upon her. So there I went, trying to feign an air of confidence, but soon realizing the vanity, abandoned that. I relaxed my arms, letting them swing without cadence, and meandered through the market. I talked to French-speaking vendors, mimed and nodded continually to those who rattled off Bariba. I wandered and weaved through the different huts, trying to avoid outstretched legs and cooking pots over hot coals. Women were sending children on different errands, who would run to perform the chore, only to begin walking unhurriedly once out of sight. Old women presented their wares of different powders atop blankets on the ground. Field workers sat by their metal buckets of yams. Young women carefully arranged piles of tomatoes and onions to ease the task of sale. Food was being prepared. Soy cheese removed from steaming pots. Then there were the sundry items unidentifiable to me. The mystery of the piles of thin, lucid meat aptly referred to as mystery street meat. The jars of pastel-colored almond-shaped somethings. The bell-shaped whatchamacallits that may come from a tree. Then there are the sounds – the honking of motos who mistakenly would try to drive through; the sizzling of oil and the blending of voices. I was enchanted by the marché and all of its’ strange charms.

Each week thereafter came further familiarity with both the marché and the faces of the marché. I have loyalties to both an onion vendor and a mobile bread vendor. I am more familiar with Bariba and can exchange a basic Beninese greeting which includes asking about how their morning was, how their kids are doing, and their mothers, and their fathers, the state of their bodily functions, and how business is going. It’s an energizing experience that provides a fascinating portal into Beninese culture and the soul of my village.

Friday, October 8, 2010


I moved to my post on September 19. The past three weeks have involved cleaning a house and making it my own, observing the health center I will be working with, holding babies, sweating profusely, and learning the dynamics of a Bariban greeting. The people of my village are very welcoming and kind. I live in a concrete house with a tin roof in a compound of other homes. My neighbors are a family, though I’m not entirely sure how they are all related. The photo to the right is of the road to my post.

One of my greatest challenges as of right now is communication. After nine weeks of slowly acquiring French skills and feeling moderately confident in my abilities, the realities of working in Africa again came swooping down with my ego firmly in its grasp. Bariba is the local language in my village and also the most widely spoken. The patterns and grammar rules of modern languages do not apply. It is a language learned through practice and careful listening. No books. No verb conjugation charts. Just humbling interactions that predictably end with laughter at both my surely-telling-confused expression, and my attempt to correctly place emphasis on sounds that are entirely foreign. I would say that 97.3% of my conversations solely in Bariban more closely resemble a serious, very animated, game of cross-cultural charades. The difference doesn’t stop with the spoken word, however, and transcends into gestures as well; meaning that as they try to explain what they’re saying via gesture, their inexhaustibly flailing arms are putting forth a vain effort.

Language preference seems to differ among the varying age groups. Little kids tend to know roughly two phrases in French: “Bonjour!” and “Ça va? Ça va.” After repeating this and echoing one another for about 11 minutes, they break out in giggles and nonsensical ramblings. The older kids, about 8-14 years old tend to speak French to me. They learn French at school and are eager to practice. The older teens and into the mid-twenties group usually attempts English. They start learning English in school at about 13. These conversations usually make it to “how are you?” Those in their late twenties to mid-thirties will speak French, as will the more educated elders. A majority of females over 15 and people over 40 can usually only speak Bariba. This is largely due to the fact that the education of females has not been among top priorities in Benin and older people have been out of school so long they forget their French skills. Then there are the Nigerian immigrants who speak English, well, Nigerian English. This means that on any given 10-minute walk, I am likely to have spoken three languages. Transitions between them vary, but by the time I get home, I am simply trying to establish which way is up.

I have found a tutor to work with me on my Bariba and try to listen to Bariba conversations and figure out what is being said. In order for me to be the least bit effective, I need to be able to communicate with people. I want to communicate with people. I want to know their favorite foods, what their father did for work, and how they live their lives and why. This last one is especially important for working to better the health of the community. When trying to counter malnutrition, prevent malaria, and stop the proliferation of HIV/AIDS, it is critical to know how they live their lives and what needs modification.

In the past week, I have learned three useful phrases in Bariba. Next week I will learn at least three more. And with time, persistence, and a sense of humor, I’ll be talking philosophy with the elders. Hopefully.