Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Successful Week

I normally find just “summarizing” my week.. really boring. Maybe that's just me... that being said THIS week was just one of those weeks where I kept thinking “Why isn't every week this awesome?!”

Then again, if every week was this successful then I really wouldn't appreciate it nearly as much. :)

This week: I ate, I danced, I greeted, I rested, I worked.

A few weeks back I received sample seeds from Songhai for my gardening groups to try out and give feedback on. We decided to use these seeds to make an educational plot in each groups field were we can grow new vegetables and test out natural insecticides and what not. That way the women can see how things work before they do them in their own garden plots. (aka if anything fails on the first try it won't really affect their livelihood)

This week I worked with the two farming groups in Blewan and we started planting three different varieties of tomatoes, some radishes, a couple types of carrots, cucumbers and okra. In two weeks I am going to do the same with the groups who work at the next farm over (and by end of April we will be transplanting seedlings and building trellises). There is even discussion of field tripping some of the women farmers over to the other fields so they can see what is and isn't working for each other. After months of doing what felt like nothing – I am really excited to see that some of the preliminary work is starting to pay off. There was even an intern with us who took some pictures!! I am going to have to try and get them.

Of course in Africa its a give or take.. because while all of these great things were happening with the farming groups in Blewan.. things were dieing in my school garden. The tomato and peppers seem to be sprouting well, but we had to re-start a whole seed bed of African greens (it is possible they weren't watered over the weekend – sigh) and we are also having some fungus problems.. (ew.)

The BEST part of my week however fell into the cultural aspect of the work that I do here (and did not contribute quite as much to my constant sunburn).. I went fete-ing with Mama!!

This month is Women Awareness Month. Mama is an important political woman in the Porto Novo area, and she was hosting the “Fete de Femmes” for the women who are in her region of Porto. There were lots of really important people there. She had an awesome dress made for me (in the same fancy tissue that all of the women in the group and all of the special guests were wearing). It started with important people getting up and giving speeches (and me just sitting there looking lost) everything was in local language so I just smiled an clapped when other people clapped. My Mama gave a speech too. They had a doctor come and give a talk on how to self examine for breast cancer, which I thought was interesting because that is something that, in the US, would always be part of a “Jour de Femme”.. but it is not something I have seen talked about a lot here. Some skits were also preformed (that is really popular here).

Once everyone was finished talking it was time to eat and dance! My Mama had prepared a vegetarian dish for me and one of her friends brought out the dish to me shortly before everyone else was given the go ahead to get up and get their food from the buffet tables (they were serving fish). I (of course) felt super awkward that I was the only one eating and that I was being served special food... but I really appreciated it, and when I tried to wait, I was told to start eating while it was still hot. I really am lucky to have such a caring and understanding family here in Porto Novo, I feel like some families in America wouldn't go out of their way like that. We finished with some dancing and then pictures.. at that point I was exhausted but it was great to spend the day with my host family, eat some good food and have a great cultural experience.

Some of the important people in the area overlap with my commune as well and I know I have seen them at multiple events. I really need to start learning who they are.

Lots of Love

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Reporting & A Story of a Gecko

Reflections: The First Report

Just this past week our first volunteer reporting form was due. This also means I am almost at 9 months in Benin (6 months at post!).

The report includes a list of your project activities (and their descriptions) – indicators are assigned to show what goals we are meeting and we report the numbers of people we were working with on all projects. As well as if the project is finished/ongoing/failed etc.

My report didn't have quite as much as I had hoped to be able to report at this time.. but after some time of feeling guilty about this I realized that the beginning of March (when I started my report) marked only 2 months since the integration and settling in period had ended.. so while my projects are taking some time to get started.. the progress I have made with languages (all 3 of them!) getting to know my community and starting up projects is not as shabby as I sometimes feel... I have done quite a bit in the last 2 and a half months.

The best part of the reporting form however is where you get to tell stories.. stories about successes and future plans for projects... you get to talk about the work you are doing for Peace Corps 2nd and 3rd goals (this is really important because it is two thirds of our work and it isn't really that visible to the Administrators that work with us).. things such as this blog.. writing letters home.. and talking to and teaching my neighbors about America. The hardest part of this specific report was writing a success story.. for most of my training group our projects are not far enough along to deem any of them a “Success” and so... one of my new goals.. is that by the time I am done with the Peace Corps I will have a success story worth reporting for you to read here on the blog :) The experience that I used for this reports “Success Story” – although a somewhat lame excuse for one – was my experience of teaching men how to build mud stoves which I wrote about back in November.

These reports go to Washington where they are able to keep track (in some way) of how many people Peace Corps is reaching globally and on what projects.. and the stories are the stories that are found both in Peace Corps advertising and of course when Congress needs reading material to take up time – but I think that I previously wrote about all that.

SO I will try my best not to be repetitive :)


Fabulous Questions That HCNs Have Asked Me

Do you import water from Europe to keep your skin white?

If there are no sorcerers in America then how does America protect itself from sorcerers?

If you don't eat meat, where does your blood come from?

Is James Bond still alive?


A Bad Day for a Gecko.

Gecko: an animal that is as common as squirrels are at home. When they aren't suspected of being a spying sorcerer in disguise.. they are generally treated as rodents. Personally I find no reason to hate on these little animals.. the worse thing they do is poop everywhere and eat insects. So I had to take a good look at my life the other day when I had a slightly traumatic run in with a gecko..

Early one morning this week I had noticed that one of my decorations had fallen off the wall and I picked it up and carried it with me into the bathroom, planning to re-affix the duct tape to the wall as soon as my teeth were brushed and my vision was corrected. Then I forgot..

Hours later I return home from work to find a gecko stuck to the duct tape.. staring at me helplessly with it's little gecko eyes as I prepared to take my afternoon shower.

Anyone who knows me knows that this was about to be a damper on my day. What was I to do? The only real option at this point was to try my hand at slowly and carefully removing the poor little guy from his fly-tape-esque situation.

I spent the next hour of my life (what I can only assume was the most traumatic hour of Mr. Gecko's life) painstakingly removing him from this situation. First the duct tape from the cardboard and then little by little cutting away at the tape. Once I discovered that his tail wasn't all that stuck (with my strength not his) I removed the duct tape around his tail.. and then his feet.. etc. etc. I'm sure this was incredibly painful for him but he seemed to handle it quite fine.

Eventually I realized that there was no way I could remove the tape stuck to his stomach with out causing serious damage... so I did what I could to better the lizards now assumingly shorter life. Once I felt confident that the movement of his tail feet and head were no longer hindered.. and that there was no tape dangling in what would later be dangerous to him.. I let him wander off. Unfortunately, he now has some duct tape permanently attached to his belly but I suppose that is better than shriveling up and dying stuck to a piece of cardboard – and much better (for both of us) than me accidentally ripping open the belly.

I live in a country where people find it strange that I pet dogs. People find it amusing that volunteers keep cats and dogs as pets (often feeding the animal better than many people eat). In this country animals - cat dog mouse rat goat pig etc - are all considered food. The ones that aren't food are pests... and that about covers it.

So luckily for me my neighbors don't speak English or else they would all think I am crazy. That being said.. I am sure they were wondering why I spent an hour “talking to myself” or perhaps talking to my imaginary friend “Mr. Gecko”

As of now... he is living in my bathroom and eating insects. 

Moral: Careful where you put your duct tape.

Or did you think maybe I would learn from this and try to deal with the lizard problem?.. yea.. no.


PS New "Things I Miss" Update

Friday, March 15, 2013


I spent this week staying at the Songhai hotel (a whole 15 minutes from my house) with about 13 other volunteers and our selected counterparts for what we all thought was going to be a training on how to add nutritional information/aspects to our current projects. While it is obvious that there are ways to include nutrition when talking about say... a vegetable garden. Sometimes it is really hard for us as volunteers to combat language and cultural barriers especially when something is as culturally loaded as the topic of food can be.

To all of our surprise.. this “Nutrition Training” that we had been invited to was actually focused on how to give formations and negotiate with women pertaining to to the health of new born babies. The idea behind this being (and for good reason) that the most important step in combating global issues with malnutrition is to teach mothers how to properly feed their babies for the first two years of their lives. During early development nutritional deficiencies can end up being life long irreversible problems if they are not dealt with properly. This is lots of really great information.. but we have four sectors here in Benin and the only volunteer sector that ever works one on one with babies is the Health Sector.

So you can imagine all of our surprise when we showed up at this nutrition training expecting to talk about our gardens and food pyramids only to find that we were going to spend our entire first day and most of the second learning the in and outs of breast feeding. - -

A major part of what it means to be a Peace Corps Volunteer is that you need to be flexible and make the most of any situation even if it doesn't meet up with your original expectations. Unfortunately, this week I felt that the group of us – myself included – took a little longer than normal to remember this. By the end of the first day I think that most (if not all) of us were agitated and felt as though we were wasting our time. By the end of the second day we were completely checked out. It wasn't until the third day of our three day training that we (as a whole) remembered what we were doing here.

This specific maternal nutrition mini-training was a trial run for Benin Peace Corps and is one of the newer Peace Corps world wide standardized training – still in its early stages. Since this was a “trial run” of a standardized training (I'm not going to get into whether standardizing PC training world wide is a great idea or not) we were lucky enough to have some observers at the training from Peace Corps Washington.

After a long talk with our Washington buddy in the evening after day 2 of the training where he was able to better explain to us the reasoning/goal behind the training.. and we aired some grievances.. we all showed up Wednesday morning feeling refreshed. Even if we weren't exactly ecstatic with the training we had a better understanding of the situation.. and we had gotten some of the negative feelings that were keeping us from being the best volunteers we can be off our chest.

I think that on day 3 of our training we really pulled together to show what Peace Corps is all about. We went to a village and did some practice runs of working with women to negotiate/discuss better feeding practices for their infants. Showing that even the volunteers who may never do exactly this activity at post got something really important out of this training – culturally sensitive negotiating techniques. AND later in the day – because they heard what we wanted – we were given a session on how to tie nutrition into the projects we are already doing.

Sometimes it is no fun being the "guinea pig" for a new training were no one really knows what to expect. However, as Peace Corps volunteers there are some expectations. Peace Corps expects volunteers to be flexible and to provide thought and feedback. The volunteers expect that Peace Corps will take their feedback into consideration and not take advantage of the position of the volunteer. 

In my opinion.. even if the training itself didn't meet expectations (and was kind of bizarre) I think that the facilitators and the volunteers did a really great job of wrapping up the training and meeting each others expectations. We were all able to show that we were listening and that we are capable of making good out of an otherwise painful situation. 


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Parc Pendjari: A Safari

Last weekend I traveled up to the north of Benin to a town called Tanguieta to go on a mini-safari in Parc Pendjari and to see the Tanangou waterfall with a small group of my friends!

We saw MANY animals most notably Lions, Hyenas, Hippos and an insane number of Elephants... but I won't bore you since I know you really just want pictures - - 

Love Z

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Snack Break

You are probably sick of hearing me talk about food.
I am a food person – you know this – don't act surprised.

After a whole month of talking about “Food Security” related projects. I would like to this week talk about “Personal Food Happiness” aka a what's happening in Zoe's kitchen update. - Also I am currently on Safari – So I set this post up ahead of time for today (and it's an easy subject).

Before leaving Benin I joked about how long it would take me to change this into a food blog – I am doing my best here.. talking about food makes me happy. I promise no more food posts for at least a month :D

At home – as we all know – cooking and baking and decorating said items was one of my biggest hobbies (thank god exercising is the other one).. and an American kitchen was and still is the hardest thing for me to not have here.. but harder than not having a kitchen (I can make due) is not having people to cook for. The reason I love to cook is that I love watching other people enjoy the results.

When I first settled into my house – I had a lot of trouble cooking (and by trouble I mean zero motivation). Not because of the supplies, and not because my kitchen is smaller than most American closets.. but because I truly don't enjoy cooking for myself. I was perfectly capable of cooking, I just didn't feel like doing it. During college I would cook one or two meals for the week on Sunday – and that was that. I would only really cook a good meal if Erik was visiting or Laura and I were eating together. So while I already knew I didn't like cooking for myself, I never considered what this would really mean when I lived in a place with no refrigerator.

What this means is I HAVE to cook for myself everyday – even if it makes me sad. It also means I had to learn to cook in single portions. I spent my first few months eating pasta, lentils, beans, rice.. really boring stuff. Somewhere earlier on in this blog I even provided you with one of my incredibly boring (although rather tasty) lentil recipes – in case for some unknown reason you wanted to try eating what I was eating. 


Here are some better recipes for things I have since come up with!

Homesick Potato and Carrot Hash

¼ kilo potatoes, chopped small
¼ kilo sweet potatoes, chopped small
3-4 carrots, chopped small (carrots are very tiny here)
as many cloves of garlic as you want, sliced
handful of green beans (if available), chopped small
peanut oil
red pepper, cumin, salt and black pepper to taste

Chop up all of the veggies. In a large frying pan add peanut oil and spices. Add potatoes and carrots and cook.. stirring fairly constantly. Once the potatoes and carrots look well cooked add the onions and garlic and some more oil if needed. Add the green Beans Last. Cook Until everything looks ready to eat. [You can add any veggies you want to this recipe just add them where you see fit based on cooking time] Eat with ketchup.

Peanut and Pineapple "Kinda Fried" Rice

2 cups water and citrus juice mixed (maybe 1/12cup h2o and the rest juice)
1 cups white rice
peanuts (as many as you like)
left over pineapple (from eating pineapple for lunch) diced
*all pineapples are different so you will really just have to guesstimate
peanut oil
1-2 tablespoons soy sauce
1-2 onions, thinly sliced
diced carrots

Use citrus water to cook rice (like normal). Once rice is done cooking -- or almost done cooking. In a heated frying pan cook peanuts until they are warmed and slightly browned. Add oil and soy sauce. Saute onions and carrots with the peanuts. RIGHT BEFORE adding the rice add the pineapple to the frying pan just long enough to get it warm and allow some of the pineapple juice to mix with the soy sauce and oil. Add Cooked Rice. Stir and Heat until everything is cooked and well melanged.

Benin Style Tofu Scram aka Zoe's Happy Belly Nosh
*In Benin we have “soy fromage” which is similar to really really firm tofu

As much “soy fromage” as you think you can eat in one meal, crumbled
1/2-1 teaspoon Tumeric
Olive Oil as needed
1 cup of quick oats
ginger powder and red pepper and black pepper to taste
dried basil to taste
Garlic, sliced
Onion, chopped
3-4 tomatoes (probably less in the states)
Your choice of leafy green – 3 or 4 handfulls

This is a tofu scram.. so it is pretty basic. First you need to crumble or chop the “tofu” into the size that you prefer. In a frying pan heat oil and tumeric (this is really just for color) add “tofu” and saute until well colored and heated through. Add oats, spices, and basil. Add Garlic and Onion. Once everything appears to be well cooked add the tomatoes. Once the tomatoes and leafy greens. You want to tomatoes warm and the greens wilted into the mixture. At this point adjust any spices as you see fit.

Zoe's Chickpea Smash

1 tbsp olive oil
Juice of 1 citron (this is like a lemon-lime) (probably a little less than 2 tbsp)
* In the US I would say use a VERY small lime and add a small amount of lemon
1-2 teaspoons dried thyme
pinch or red pepper powder
1-2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 small onion (onions are very small here), diced
1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
sesame oil
black pepper to taste

In a bowl (big enough for the can of chickpeas) mix together olive oil and citron. Stir in spices, garlic, and onion. Add Chickpeas and stir until well coated. Drizzle in a small amount of sesame oil and smash chickpeas with a fork (for those of you who have had it this similar to when I make chickpea of the sea). You want the mixture to be mashed but chunky.. there should still be some recognizable chickpeas. Eat mixture on a fresh baguette, season with black pepper if you so choose. *Note: if you are not hungry enough to eat a whole can of chickpeas then this is not a one serving meal.


I still frequently make fried plantains because they are delicious.. I eat them as a snack or with rice and beans for dinner. My french fries have evolved to garlic fries on most days (the day I realized that I had been gifted some red vinegar was a happy one for my french fries – and it only went up hill from there). I wish I ate more eggplant, but I always end up wasting most of the eggplant due to its size – so I don't buy them all that often. I don't eat nearly as much pasta as I did when I first moved it – mostly because the woman I buy it from started picking up only spaghetti for me – not macaronis – and I really don't like spaghetti. However I have learned to make a decent enough tomato sauce out of a small can of tomato paste when my kitchen is feeling empty.

I hope you enjoy the recipes!