Saturday, August 24, 2013

Money Dropping

There is a quarterly magazine published by The National Peace Corps Association, called WorldView. The National Peace Corps Association is a separate entity from the Peace Corps. The association is an NGO that works to bring current and returned Peace Corps Volunteers from all around the world to the same stage, to discuss global issues, and to build a network (kind of like an alumni association). As Peace Corps Volunteers we receive a copy of the WorldView Magazine in our mailbox every few months.. I believe for others it is part of NPCA membership (or maybe you just have to subscribe).

I would like to talk about an article that was in the Summer 2013 issue. The article was titled “Come to Africa for Business, Not Handouts” (Buckler and Jackson) and I think that it addresses some very real and very important issues. Issues that I see everyday here in Benin, but that I also believe very few Americans understand.

Before I start I would like to say that what I am about to write is  MY opinion based on my experience here in Benin. – I do make some blanket statements – but they are meant to be pertaining to my experience.

They put it more eloquently than I could ever hope to – but basically the article was written to point out the problems with newer American “Africa-Focused” business models such as TOMs and Goods for Good. The problem being the drop mentality. You buy from us and we are going to drop a bunch of free goods somewhere for the suffering children of Africa. The problem, according to Buckler and Jackson... and to Peace Corps Volunteers everywhere... is that this not only inhibits growth of business in the countries that are receiving “free gifts” (no one is going to buy something if they think that a westerner is going to come by and give it to them for free later) – it also perpetuates the idea that Africa is incapable of helping itself (therefore reducing the desire to invest in Africa). I am not going to talk about these exact same issues verbatim.. but the article is what inspired this weekends discussion, and if anyone gets their hands on a copy they should read it.

As Peace Corps Volunteers this is a topic constantly on our minds. Peace Corps is “not a financial institution” we are not here to give handouts, and we work towards projects that are sustainable and will continue to be sustainable after we leave. For example, instead of buying a food producer fancy western style ovens (that will be useless once they break anyway) we teach them how to make cost-efficient and energy efficient mud stoves, which cost nothing to build and can be built over and over again. We then watch as the people who have learned  go out on their own into the community and teach others how to build these same stoves. Teaching a new skill is sustainable. Giving handouts is not.

As current Peace Corps volunteers in Benin, there are two topics (I think) that come up the most.. pertaining to the “give away mentality” of most of the worlds volunteer force. Firstly, especially in the south, I have (and others have as well) run into issues where not only do the people we are trying to work with expect free handouts, they are almost unwilling to do work that would assume free handouts won't come in the future. Occasionally, people will not want to work with you once they realize you actually want to do work. Many  want the easy way of getting things done, and the easy way has become western handouts. Not only has the Western world become convinced of Africa’s need for assistance (and don't get me wrong there is some assistance – especially medical –  is in fact very important)– Africa in some ways has also become complacent to the idea. Not only do people expect free hand outs – they feel entitled. This is a problem. It perpetuates a laziness so to speak – a lack of desire to work towards a goal for yourself – to start at the bottom and build something on your own is such an American mentality. It is hard as an American, wishing that kind of happiness on to others, to see that not everyone wants to do it on their own. Some people really are happy just sitting around and letting someone else do it for them. Some people just don't think they can. If Africa is every going to reach sustainable development. It is that mentality that needs to be addressed first.

I am a volunteer. Requested by my host organization to come and work with them in my community. I cost them nothing. I work for free. – This hasn't stopped people in my own office from telling me that I should be paying them because they are letting me work there. I did not choose my location – they asked Peace Corps for me.  Still, because  I am a westerner even many educated host county nationals believe I was sent here to give them gifts. I know that some of this is cultural.. but it is disheartening to say the least. From my experience, there is a serious case of the gim-mes going on. Are HCNs requesting western volunteers only because they think that means free gifts and financial gain?

The second issue comes from Peace Corps itself. It is an issue that a lot of Peace Corps volunteers face, is one that effects us in reporting, and one that will also effect us when we get home (assuming anyone actually bothers to read our description of service reports) – it is the idea that TO BE A SUCCESSFUL VOLUNTEER – you have to be spending aid money. Although, as I said before, Peace Corps is not a financial institution we do receive grant money from outside sources.. and there is a big push to spend that money. Peace Corps is great about the idea that the community HAS TO be involved. They need to provide a certain percentage of the monetary value of the project themselves  (this can be obtained by the community through land donations, equipment donations, monetary donations and also from the actual labor costs) – this is what sets us apart form other volunteer programs. – We want the community to take ownership of the projects. Don't get me wrong – a lot of these projects are great – often they are for school buildings, latrine projects, irrigation systems – I plan on doing a latrine project myself, I am not against using grant money. What I am against is the idea that to be a “good volunteer” you should be using grant money. What about the projects that cost nothing – in my opinion these projects will be the most sustainable in the end. A volunteer's service should not be judged by the amount of money they were able to hand out. It should be judged by the success of a volunteer in addressing the issues that the volunteers community has brought to the table (no matter how aligned they really are with the project framework). If DC thinks this small village needs an Art Club (for example) in their school, that is all well and good, but the volunteer shouldn't be left feeling like a failure because the community perhaps really just does not want one and so the volunteer but their energy into a school funded garden club instead. On the other hand building a beautiful library that the community will never use shouldn't lead to accolades just because grant money was spent.

A farmer might want an irrigation system because it is expensive and having it is a status symbol – but will he actually use it? Will he pay for the up keep when it breaks? No. Not if he thinks that someone is going to come along and pay for a new one for him again in a few years.

We are on the ground helping the communities and serving as ambassadors. We see everyday what the past policies of free hand-outs has done to the countries where we work. We see many very capable and wonderful people who with the right motivation could be (and should be) great. Africa is worth investing in and as volunteers here in Benin we hope to teach them that, while we are here to help, it is only to give a push and get the ball rolling. They don't “need” us.. but I think they need to believe that almost as much as we do.

So what is the solution? I don't really know... the problem hasn't changed yet since the authors of the WorldView article were serving. I think it is going to take a long time to change. For starters though, I think we should stop looking at Africa as a charity and start looking at it as a place with potential.


Come to Africa for Business, Not Handouts was written by Micheal Buckler (Malawi 06-08) and Beau Jackson (Cape Verde 03-05) for the Summer 2013 issue of WorldView Magazine. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

Kick-Offs and Kittens

Today was my kick-off ceremony for Amour et Vie. I am not going to get into what it is again.. since I already posted about it HERE but feel free to go back and check it out.

Our ceremony fete was a success. We invited 80 people including the two groups of couturier apprentices we will be working over the next few months, and something close to 40 village chiefs as well as the mayor just to name a few. Less than 50 people showed up which was expected. Normally the presentations my team gives would be for groups between 10-20 people.. and during our practice run it was more like 5, so I think the number might have been a bit overwhelming. Especially since was their first time out in the community.

For the ceremony, my team did a demonstration on HIV/AIDS prevention including a condom demonstration.

There are of course a few things that we still need to work on (as is with most things in life) but I think that my team really did a great job at their kick off ceremony and I really look forward to working with them the during the rest of my service. I am proud of them!


In other news: 
This is my new roommate. 
His name is Papaya.
His pastimes include chasing ants and sleeping in cute places. 
He wanted to write his own blog post..
But he is too little and still speaks kitten. 

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Trying Something New

Here is what we've been up to in  Gome Sota:

Crop Diversification Garden Beds
Green Beans
Building A Cucumber Trellis

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Loving Hut Benin

I can't believe it took me 6 months of looking at signs for “Loving Hut Vegetalien 100%”  (vegetalien is french for vegan) before I actually had the chance to go and eat here myself. I finally went over the weekend, and it is now my new favorite place to eat in all of Benin.

For those of you who know Loving Hut, I want to start by saying that I believe Loving Hut Benin IS related (at least in theory) to the Loving Hut family of restaurants. Our lunch was accompanied by a small television screen showing Supreme Master videos and there were vegan advocacy posters and booklets available to those who chose to read them. I was a little uncertain going in – since generally Loving Hut (as a  chain) serves fast food and Asian food... and this is West Africa.

I don't know how to express how amazing Loving Hut Benin is. I don't know how to describe how ecstatic we all were at finding this gem tucked away in Porto Novo.. it is really just that amazing. Kind of unreal.

This little restaurant completely embraces the idea of Vegan dining and seamlessly translates it into Beninese cuisine. At first glance, this beautiful hidden away maquis could be any other Beninese restaurant. The prices are comparable, the menu is (visibly) the same, and while a little cleaner and perhaps even a little fancier, the atmosphere can compare to most higher class local eateries (thankfully minus the blasting loud music and drunk men). I admire the way that Sumason (the brains behind the operation) really made his vision happen.

They serve spaghetti, cous cous, Beninese sauces (with pate), salads, french fries, brochettes, legumes.. all of the standard Beninese fare. They produce their own gluten based proteins as a meat substitute, and they have used it to veganize all of the ethnic cuisine. When I ate here with my friends the other day, we were not sure what to expect. Two of us ordered the cous cous dish, and another one of my friends ordered the salad with protein. We ordered a plate of brochettes (normally street-meat kebabs) as an appetizer and split a large pineapple for desert. Now that we know how amazing all of the food is, we are ALL looking forward to going back and trying their vegan take on some of the more classic Beninese dishes.

Sumason, the owner of this restaurant, is a vegan advocate in his own right. He has a small book that he has published (in french) on eating a vegan diet and why it is important – he cites many famous vegan sources and calls it “Le sêcret de la bonne santè et de longue vie toute la verite de la science à la spiritualité” He is a firm believer in the health benefits of eating a vegan diet and has traveled and studied to learn more about this way of life which he strongly believes in. He told us that he really hopes to help bring the vegan culture to Benin and educate the people of his country on the great health benefits that can be found in the vegan diet.

Some will say that perhaps I have a slightly slanted view in saying that this is the best meal that I have had in Benin – but it really was the best meal I have had in Benin. The food was spectacular, the prices were more than fair, the atmosphere was relaxing, and the staff was friendly and informed. I will definitely eat here many more times while I am living in Benin and I really hope that this restaurant succeeds.

Its not every day that I am so impressed by something in this country.

It is also not every day that I can say I have eaten so well.

Here's to good food.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

VAC & Other Things

It doesn't always feel like it – but I am up to lots of different things over here in Benin.

This week I was in Cotonou – the land of the bonne choses – for my first VAC meeting. VAC stands for Volunteer Advisory Committee, which is a committee made up of one volunteer from each region (I am the representative for the Oueme-Plateau) and we meet every three months with the PC administration to discuss ideas and concerns on both the volunteer side and the admin side. This gives everyone a chance to hear the concerns from the “other side” which we are often, as volunteers out in the field, very disconnected from. After the meeting we were invited to eat a really great dinner at the PC Benin Directors house – I didn't know about this perk before hand but I'm not complaining.

It is really great to get to meet with and hear the concerns of the volunteers from other regions in the country. It always amazes me how different every region is – especially considering the small size of Benin. Every region has a different terrain, different languages, different access to foods, of course the volunteers in the north also have a much different relationship with admin... and so on and so forth. Everyone has their own Peace Corps experience.

Being situated so close to the major cities I often forget that not all volunteers have fruits and vegetables.. or even beans!!! available to them year round. There are some parts of the country where water is scarce. There are other places where it isn't completely abnormal for an elephant to wander into the village. Even though the south is “humid and crowded” a year into being here I am definitely glad to be living in the South. I am able to eat well and have made wonderful friends who I wouldn't have gotten to know if I had been living elsewhere.


Also this week, In an attempt to prepare ourselves for the inevitable departure of some of our favorite volunteers who will be leaving over the next month... we threw a Oueme-Plateau get together during the day on Saturday. Normally we just make “taco beans” because that is quick and easy. We were feeling adventurous however – so we had a lentil burger party and someone even made pasta salad!!

Lentil Burger's
(partially adapted from a recipe I found somewhere on the Internet)

1 cup uncooked red lentils
1 cup uncooked rice
1 cup carrots, grated
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 ½ cup uncooked oatmeal
1 Tbsp lemon & herb old bay
1 tsp salt

1. Cook lentils and rice in 4 cups of water, simmering over low heat until well cooked and all water is absorbed. Let the mixture cool.
2. Add remaining ingredients (in order listed) and mix well (you will probably need your hands for this!).
3. Shape into patties (you will definitely need your hands for this).
4. Cook in a frying pan over med-heat (using a small amount of oil) until both sides are nicely browned.

Here in Benin we served ate the patties on baguettes with ketchup.. feel free to eat yours on a burger bun.

Wash down with sodabe.


News of the week? Thanks to my wonderful friends (who I can't believe are leaving me) I finally have a dinning table and a couch with cushions!! Not to mention a stacked spice cabinet. Love You All we will miss you terribly! Don't forget that if you decide you don't like America you can always come back to us here <3


Thursday, August 1, 2013

August 1

Today was Independence day -- we spent the day at this really awesome beach called El Dorado. 
It was a little rainy but wonderful none the less. 
Hope you enjoy the pictures of the scenery!

Bonne Fête