Monday, October 28, 2013

Perception of Calm

Almost any PC Benin Volunteer is PROBABLY going to think I am crazy when I say this – but I love going to the bank. It is like a sea of calm in the middle of a whole lot of crazy. Now, I am going to add that the branch I go to in Porto is probably the best branch in all of Benin – and none of the branches in Cotonou (or any other city I have been to) fall even close to sea of calm. However, the small branch that I go to in Porto is an exception.

I love going to the bank because they keep a real line.. with chairs.. that the security guard takes very seriously. This branch is small so you rarely wait more than 30 minutes, unless you are silly enough to go during lunch break. The guard also takes very seriously a “no talking on cell phones” rule – which is completely unheard of in Benin. AND he will kick you out if you answer your phone. Which happens often.

For about 30 minutes every month I get to experience a quiet, air conditioned, and organized. AND that isn't even the main reason why I love going to the bank.

Once again I am going to say that this is speaking for the specific branch that I go to – but the reason I love going to the bank is that for this super western 30 minutes a month I find myself in a bubble where everyone is treated the same as everyone else.

Foreigner, Rich Woman, Poor Woman, Poor Man, Village Chief, everyone gets in the same line and follows the same rules. In most banks (or similar establishments) the line is only semi existent. Mostly because whenever someone important walks in they get automatically bumped to the front of the line. Not here in Porto, here you get in your chair and wait like everyone else. In most banks the foreigner (and the poorer women) would constantly get pushed to the back because everyone else thinks we won't notice. Generally this will only work for so long for volunteers before said volunteer would start making a scene and then we too get pushed to the front of the line, this act does not work for locals. At my bank in Porto the whole act of how to get to the front is completely obsolete. Because there is a line. An air conditioned, everyone is equal, and no one is shouting into their cell phone, not hectic, completely peaceful, no pushing, look at how efficient this is, line.

I know it is the westerner in me who finds so much solace in the line, but it is the human in me who finds the joy in the changes this same line has brought about for the customers who go to this bank.


When not sitting in my favorite bank day dreaming about how things work in America – I have been preparing (aka stressing) for my upcoming vacation. It's been a little bumpy. Maybe because I spent all of last week wasting away in the medical unit instead of preparing for vacation.. maybe it is just because I live in a tiny country in West Africa and things just kind of are that way.

I am stressing because:

1. I am not finished acquiring souvenirs for friends and family - blame the shutdown.
2. Dresses that I am having made for home (that should have been done last week) are not ready.
3. I keep having dreams that I forgot to get on the airplane.
4. I'm worried about people in my community thinking I left for good.
5. Trying to finish up Grad School apps from Benin is harder than I thought it would be (even with my parents helping with little tasks from home) – Dear UCSC your transcript ordering system is HORRIBLE. Horrible. Horrible!!!
6. AND OF COURSE – Papaya is currently out of food and so is the grocery store :-/

A friend recently said to me.. when on his way home after a long vacation “I'm clicking my heels!” That is where I am right now... clicking as fast as I can.

Click Click.

Monday, October 21, 2013

My Favorite Place

This week we had our “Mid-Service Conference” – which was mostly meant to be a discussion on monitoring and evaluation – and our new reporting processes (someday they will get it all figured out..). Normally, I wouldn't be super thrilled about a week of “Monitoring and Evaluation” discussions – but we got to go to my favorite place ever!!! Grand Popo.

No Lion Bar for me this week :( We stayed at a fancier place on the other side of the Island called Bel Azur. Very fancy fancy. Air conditioning, WIFI (that didn't really work), one of the cleanest pools in Benin, and the rooms we stayed in were all beach front!! facing the ocean!!!

When I wasn't spending my lunch breaks basking in the sun, breathing in the salt air, and getting sand in my hair (three of my top favorite past times) I actually learned quite a bit this week! (and yes I was spending those lunch breaks on the beach – I was sick and couldn't eat the glorious 3 meals a day we were being fed for free :( – such is life).

I honestly think that this was the best Peace Corps held workshop that I have been too. The purpose was to discuss monitoring and evaluation and the new reporting system. Due to the government shutdown, the new reporting system has not yet arrived here in Benin to be discussed. The workshop was already set up and paid for – so we used the time focus in on monitoring and evaluation procedures, we were able to have really great sector discussions on old and new reporting indicators.. and we did some hands on tool building exercises to help with future monitoring. On the final day we did an activity called “Open Space” – which allowed us to speak with our administration and program managers, and to each other about LITERALLY any issues we thought should be brought up in a bigger group. Everything from specific project issues, to working with admin, to increasing work partner accountability. I think everyone got a lot out of the open space, it was useful to hear each others stories and some great ideas came out of the session. I think that Peace Corps should hold more of their workshops the way the one this week was held.

After leaving the beach and heading home – I am now back in Cotonou.
A little sick, but I will be better soon. If I am going to be sick at least I got a chance to spend some time at the beach first :) -- so if this post is a little rambling I blame it on the fact that I am sick.

Can't wait for vacation.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Village Envy

I sometimes joke with other volunteers that I have “village envy.” Of course by the standards of anyone reading this in the USA - I live in a village.. but compared to where the majority of the other volunteers live, I don't live in a “real” village at all. I have running water, transient neighbors, electricity, other yovos. and most importantly I live on a paved road.

Misserete can be a great place, and I have learned to make it my home. That doesn't change the fact that whenever I visit a friend who lives in a village – I get that twinge of jealously. The small tight nit community, the village fetes (that the volunteer is actually invited to), a concession full of people who are also part of the community and can therefore help you integrate... women and children who speak the local language with you and help you learn!! When I see the small villages that other volunteers have I can't help thinking to my self “Zoe, this is the experience you expected to have!” Then of course I have to remind myself that every volunteer experience is different, and I am having the one that I was meant to have, whether it was the one I really wanted or not – well that's not really important anymore. At the end of the day (or most days at least) I am happy with the experience I am having and the lessons that I am learning from it.

What brings this up? Well this week I have been traveling the Oueme-Plateau doing “PSN site visits” which means... visiting villages!!! I am not going to go into the whole who and were, because I don't want to interfere with anyone’s security. I share my village on here but that is my choice. I will say, that the places the new volunteers live are beautiful AND PEACEFUL! So peaceful. I wish I could have taken pictures to show you on the blog (have no fear I will be getting a new camera soon!)

My favorite part of going to visit other peoples villages is seeing the personality that the village has. Some villages are big like mine (yet still further away from the big cities and major roads) – some are small – some literally feel like they are just one road! Not everyone has a daily market like I do (or even regular access to fresh veggies – unless of course they work on a farm or grow them themselves).I don't always love eating the village food (I am spoiled city folk) but I love seeing what is available. It is really an eye opener to me. . Some people don't even have bubbly water!!

I love seeing the vodun and statues that are visible in the different villages. Here in Misserete there are small statues, and there are “spirit scarecrows” that go up during the corn season. One of the villages I went to the other day actually had a small shed like “house” for the zangbetos!!! A lot of villages have guardian houses (where spirit protect the entrance to the village) and most villages have statues like the ones found near me. Sometimes small business will have statues, or there will be memorials to something from the past (in Ketou a larger town, up near some of the volunteers that I visited this week, there is actually a sacred trash pile!!) My favorite statue in Misserete is a statue of of Africa with lions located in front of the Maison de Jeunes. Why is it my favorite? Well.. because the artist felt the need to give the statue real whiskers, obviously.

When you live north of well.. almost everything is north of me.. so just when you live north. You always have reasons to come south and many people have passed through my village and slept at my house. I am on the way to Cotonou – where we have to go to see administration, have medical exams, and to get on an airplane. In the reverse direction, from Cotonou, I am on the way back to village. There is also a lot of training done in Porto Novo (which is the city that I live in a “suburb” of), so people come through here a lot. Which is awesome in many ways but it also means I rarely have a reason to go North, and because of where I live, I think I get a very skewed view of the rest of the country. I mean, I know the rest of the country isn't like the cities, and there is less money, and less available.. but it is hard to really understand that without seeing it.

Loving Life.

PS – I found a (small) pumpkin at a veggie stand in Cotonou, got excited and brought it home.. and have no idea what to do with it!! I can't really roast it on my stove, it would take too much gas. Any suggestions? I know all you brilliant people can come up with something.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Been Raining A Lot..

This past week was fairly low key.. except for the government shutting down.
Really guys.. what are you doing over there?

Monday started off with my mid-service medical exam. After a year in Benin we are all required to go in to the office to make sure everything is working correctly and to have all of our bodily fluids analyzed. More or less I am freakishly healthy (maybe for a PCV or maybe just in general). Basically peeing in a cup was the highlight of the week. Unless you count last Sunday when I got a chance to take some much needed beach time but I'm not entirely sure that that counts as this week.


Just because I know people are wondering. The government shutdown isn't “really” effecting us here yet. There are a few bumps (such as the volunteer shuttle that brings mail up north isn't going to run this month) but we are all still working – and at least as of now we still have money to eat. It is really hard to explain to people here what exactly is going on la bas. So the quicker we fix this the better ok guys?


No real updates or things to say this week. Misserete is fine. Friends are fine. Papaya is getting freakishly bigger every day and is terribly cute when he isn't trying to claw my face off. I even had to take off his little kitten collar and give him a bigger one! -- In village I have been busy with some smaller projects and have been trying to find a new big project to work on for my final year as my current big project is wrapping up. (Last week USAID came to my post to check out some of the work I am doing since I am so close to Cotonou and was an easy post for them to get to – that was exciting!) It is the rainy season right now – which means lots of being stuck inside cause de rain. At least there haven't been any floods this year!!!

This coming week is going to be more interesting! Going to go on a few regional day trips to visit some of the new volunteers at site and make sure they are settling in well. One of the big perks of being on PSN!

<3 Z