Friday, June 22, 2012

Live fence

A few months ago, I applied for a small grant through Peace Corps to construct a live fence, or fence made of trees.  The grant covered about 1,000 tree seedlings, 5 grafted mango trees, 5 large shade trees (Terminalia), and tools and totaled a modest few hundred US dollars.  My original plan was to plant the trees in Pehunco to fence off the grounds of a woman’s center to render it safe for gardening (hungry goats had eaten their previous attempts at gardening).  However, as often happens here, my plan was foiled by a messy misunderstanding that resulted in the women refusing the project and telling me to return the money once they realized they couldn’t profit off the situation and make some money themselves.  I was confused and a little discouraged, since the women had originally requested the project and agreed to plant and maintain the trees, but after several discussions it became clear it just wasn’t going to work.  So I took it to my old village Tonri, where I lived my first year.  I have a good relationship with the director of the high school there and go there from time to time to visit or do small projects, and being as it’s a school I knew there’d be a ready supply of workers to help plant and water all those trees.  I talked to the director and he was more than happy to have 1,000+ trees donated to his school (as, ahem, you would think anyone would be…).

We used a moto-tricycle (a motorcycle with a small flat bed trailer attached at the back) to transport the trees from Pehunco to Tonri, and the next day started planting.  The kids cleared an area with good water access designated as a future garden site and dug two trenches in which to plant the trees.  To make a solid, impenetrable fence, you plant two staggered rows of trees 40 cm apart, leaving 40 cm between the two rows.  Gender roles in Benin are crystal clear and very rarely defied, and I saw just how set they are in doing this project.  Girls, and girls only, were charged with getting water and terreau (rich soil) and bringing it to the garden site.  Boys dug holes and planted the trees.  I used this to my advantage to embarrass a cocky, taunting boy by handing him a bucket and telling him to go fill it with water.  Everyone burst out laughing - I mean getting water is for girls after all. 

There were about 40 kids and once they got going the whole thing was done pretty quickly.  We alternated Campecher and Pourgais trees, two local species, which are supposed to be bushy, thorny, and good for live fences.  We continued in the afternoon planting a long row of trees on either side of the path leading up to the school.  The boys built makeshift fences by stacking sticks and branches to protect the mango and terminalia trees, which we planted in the schoolyard.  At about 5:30 pm, with the heat finally abating, the sun working its way down, and close to 1,000 trees planted, I made my way home.      

Friday, May 18, 2012

Camp Success 2012!

Hi everyone,

This July, I'm holding a 4-day summer camp for girls in my region of northwestern Benin.  The camp is called Camp Success and is targeted at girls in the first year of secondary school (6th grade).  Me and other local volunteers and community members will work with 25 girls to improve their confidence, enthusiasm, and optimism about their future.  We'll talk about malaria and AIDS prevention, healthy relationships, study skills, and good nutrition; play games and do team building activities; visit a computer center to learn typing skills; and last but not least most definitely have fun!  I am financing this project through the Peace Corps Partnership Program which allows a volunteer to solicit donations from family and friends to fund their project.  For those of you who have already donated, I sincerely appreciate your contribution and generosity.  If this is your first time hearing about Camp Success, please consider donating!  Any amount is helpful, and yes your donation is tax deductible.  The website listed below has more information and is also where you can donate.



Sunday, April 8, 2012

Vacation, part II

I don’t remember much about the bus ride from Segou to Mopti, the starting point for our hike in Dogon country, other than it was hot and long and I was overjoyed when we finally reached our destination.  The hotel in Mopti, called Y’a pas de problème (There’s no problem), was an oasis.  We had one big room with several twin beds, all covered in clean bright yellow sheets, and ceiling fans. The hotel also had a small pool and a restaurant on the top floor.  We met our guide Oumar that night at the hotel and he explained logistics while we scarfed down dinner and guzzled cold water.  A gutted van, retrofitted with wooden benches, picked us up the next morning and brought us into Dogon country.  Dogon country is a region of Mali dominated by steep rocky mountains, flat plains, and sand dunes that is populated by the Dogon people.  The legend is that this area was originally inhabited by the Tellum people, who built stone houses and structures in the hills to protect themselves from wild animals and attacks from enemies.  Seeing West Africa as it is today, it’s difficult to remember that not too long ago there really were lions, elephants, antelope, etc running around.  The Dogon people left their homeland because of war and migrated to the area occupied by the Tellum.  The Tellum, avoiding confrontation at all costs and preferring to remain solitary, fled the area when the Dogon people arrived.  The Dogon originally occupied the houses built into the hills by the Tellum, but eventually moved onto the flat valley below, as it proved easier to farm, build, and live here.  Our guide told us that his father’s generation lived in the hills, while he was raised in the valley.
            For being as remote and isolated as it is, tourism is fairly developed in Dogon country.  Several houses along the route have been made over into tourist stops, meaning they are equipped to feed and house groups of tourists trekking through Dogon country.  Accommodations would definitely be described as modest, but the food was good and the mattresses were clean.  Each stop had thin mattresses you could spread out in a room or on the roof, depending on your tolerance of the wind and cold (“cold”, it was probably in the 50s or 60s).  Breakfast was laughing cow cheese, nutella, and jam with bread and coffee or tea.  For lunch we had our choice of a carb (couscous, pasta, or rice) with a vegetable sauce, with the same deal for dinner plus meat.  At the end of every lunch and dinner we also got several little shot glasses of tea.  The tea was made from loose leaves in a small pot cooked over a charcoal fire and was sweetened with sugar.  Going around in a circle, everyone is served a shot’s worth until the tea is finished.  It was perfect – a little shot of caffeine and warmth during a tiring, and for my standards chilly, hike. 
    We hiked for four days but I never saw a trail.  We were mostly going up and down rocky cliffs and Oumar never seemed lost.  We hiked to the top of the cliffs a few times and were greeted with amazing views.  At a few points we had to cross over deep crevices by shimmying across an old wood ladder.  Oumar assured us they were stable but in the same breath advised us not to put our feet on certain less stable parts.  We moved at a pretty good clip but still had time to take lots of pictures.  At one point we stopped in a small village and were made to drink their version of chouk (millet beer) before we got to walk around the market.  The beer tasted and looked like cloudy water but when you're thirsty you'll try just about anything.  We saw sand dunes behind the market and went to explore, only to stop short of climbing the dunes to marvel at a camel we saw tied to a tree.  A camel!  It made the desert feel pretty close.  We continued on for 3 more days, and then after another night in Y'a pas de probleme (where we found delicious sweet potato fries being sold on the street) we were headed back to Benin.  When I finally got home, checked that my cat was still alive and my house still standing, I pretty much slept and unpacked for the better part of a week.  A tough but amazing, unpredictable but beautiful vacation. 


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Vacation part I

I recently returned from a two-week, overland, always exciting vacation to Mali.  The trip has been many months in the making and was organized around the Festival sur le Niger, a four-day West African music festival on the Niger River, and hiking in the Dogon country of Mali.  As is always the case, and west Africa is no exception, getting there was half the adventure. A group of nine of us met in Tanguieta, a pretty town in the mountains in northwestern Benin where two married volunteers live, the night before the trip was to start.  A van came to pick us up at 3:00am the next morning, and after a few stops and one memorable two hour long wait for the Benin-Burkina Faso border office to open, we made it to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, by around noon.  I was surprised to notice such a difference once we crossed into Burkina, since in reality most of the borders delineating African countries are arbitrary in terms of ethnic and language groups.  For one, the roads in Burkina are much, much better than in Benin.  It reminded me of driving north from North Carolina to Virginia and suddenly feeling the bump bump bump of uneven pavement give way to a smooth ride.  Second, there were donkeys everywhere.  Hooked up to carts, carrying people, tied to trees, and just grazing.  Donkeys are used in place of human labor in Burkina, while for whatever reason this has yet to really catch on in Benin.  Third, and most exciting to us, there were new street snacks!  Street snacks being what is thrust into the windows of the taxi for you to buy every time the car stops.  We sampled sesame cookies, yogurt, and sheep jerky covered with peanut butter (tastes better than it sounds). 
Arriving in Ouagadougou with a lot of daylight left, we decided to continue on to Bobo and spend the night there.  We found a bus and headed out, after waiting the necessary 3 hours or so.  A note about buses in Burkina Faso and Mali.  Unbeknownst to me, I’ve been pampered this last year and a half with air conditioned buses in Benin that stop only at designated spots and are generally punctual.  Our bus from Ouaga to Bobo, and every other bus we took on the trip, not only did not have air conditioning, but did not have windows that opened, leaving circulation to come from one opening in the top of the bus.  We got into Bobo at around 11 pm and checked into our cheap but nice (there were showers, even if they were shared) hotel. The next morning we walked around the main market area in Bobo, bought and thoroughly enjoyed fresh strawberries, and had good beer unavailable in Benin called Pelforth.  We had the whole day in Bobo to marvel at evenly paved roads, gas stations with actual convenience stores, and the calm and quiet of the city.  I quietly appreciated the lack of annoying car horns, blaring indecipherable music, and constant harassment that is found in our biggest city, Cotonou. 
The next morning we continued on to Segou, a town on the Niger River that hosts the music festival.  We got in at nightfall and checked into our room aboard an aging but fairly clean riverboat.  Yep, all nine of us slept in a bunk bed-filled room aboard a boat for the duration of the festival.  The performances were mainly after sunset, so during the day we explored Segou.  We took a pirogue (wooden canoe) ride across the Niger River, ate grilled capitaine (river fish), and haggled over souvenirs.  At night we watched performances on the main stage, which was set on a barge docked a few feet from shore.  Most of the musicians were Malian and there were even some famous names, although all were new to me.  Lots of drums, instruments I’d never seen before and can’t remember the name of, and powerful singing in languages I couldn’t understand.  We also saw performances by a Swedish woman and a Senegalese man, a woman who was a previous Malian Peace Corps volunteer, and an acrobatics group.  The majority of the crowd was African, and it was heartening to see how into the performances they were.  Art and music don’t play a central role in Beninese culture and I was surprised at first to see how established the arts are in Mali. 
I was excited about the music festival, but in all honesty I was on this trip for the four-day Dogon hike, which was coming up next. 

Music festival in Segou, Mali

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Atacora Bike Tour


Back from bike tour as of this morning.  We all took a taxi from Kouandé to Pehunco, then people split off to go back to their posts.  Since there were 13 of us, we rented out the whole car and squished in for the hour long ride with 13 bikes strapped onto the roof of the car.  I was home by 10 or so, swept my very dusty house, pet Roe (my kitten) who looks like she survived 4 days living outside pretty well, made lunch, and then took an extended, multi-hour nap.  Four days of biking 30-40 k, doing sensibilisations (trainings), dealing with hoards of swarming kids, and sleeping outside on concrete caught up to me.  It was a great bike tour though - fun, challenging, effective, and meaningful.  The group of volunteers was great and everyone was positive, flexible, and enthusiastic the whole time.  We had two Beninese high school boys with us to translate and they really made the tour.  One of them started every sensibilisation with a song about eating well (the theme of the tour) and they were both animated and eager to help. 

Here is the basic plan of each sensibilisation.  We arrive in the village and stop in the market area, generally in the center of town and a place where people gather to eat, buy, and sell things.  Generally we had a pretty good crowd together by the time everyone got to the village (we didn’t enforce a same pace policy, so it was go as fast as you like) by the sheer power of our white-ness.  We’d hang up our banner which said ‘Roulons pour la bonne santé et le Moringa, Corps de la Paix’ (we ride for good health and moringa, Peace Corps) and find a good place to do the session.  Like I said, one of the translators, Jacob, would start a song and get the crowd to join in.  Then we’d start things off with a skit.  First, we had the healthy family.  I was the mom and another volunteer was the dad, and we pulled kids from the crowd to act as our children.  One of the translators would walk up and ask how the family was, and I’d respond oh we’re all in very good health, everyone is happy and has a lot of energy, the kids are all in school and papa works hard in the fields all day.  The translator would then ask what we ate.  The volunteer playing the dad would say we ate bouillie with peanuts this morning, pate with soy cheese, and then igname pilée with meat for dinner.  Then we had the sick family, again with volunteers as the mom and dad and kids from the crowd (there were always plenty) as the children.  The mom and dad were coughing and bent over or sitting on the ground, and when the translator asked how they were doing they replied that the whole family is sick and doesn’t have energy, and that the kids can’t go to school and papa can’t work because they don’t have any energy.  When asked what they ate the mom said pate (corn flour cooked in water, a staple here) morning, noon, and night.  Then I’d get up in front of the group and ask which family is in good health and why, looking for the answer that the first family is because they ate a balanced and varied diet.  We got a correct answer in every village.  Next we’d go through the three major food groups as they are here – energy foods (carbs), constructor foods (proteins), and protector foods (fruits and vegetables).  Following that we would introduce the moringa tree, which someone could identify in every village, though generally by its Bariba name, lagalagagandi (and yes it is fun to say).  We explained that the leaves are protein and vitamin rich and that they can be used fresh or powdered and then added to sauce or bouillie.  Because some people have the habit of boiling the leaves and then throwing out the water or adding the leaves at the beginning of the sauce preparation, both practices that essentially zap all the vitamins, we explained not to do either of these.  Finally, volunteers explained how to plant a moringa seed in a plastic bag and transplant it, pulling two adults from the crowd to act as volunteers and demonstrate how to do this.  In conclusion, we answered questions and then I asked questions on topics covered in the presentation and gave out little baggies of moringa powder for correct answers.  The whole thing took about 45 minutes. 

There were, as always, interesting cultural exchanges.  In one village, someone made a fuss when I started handing out powder at the end and the translator told me it was because they were upset that I hadn’t tasted it before I gave it to them.  In Benin, it is taboo to pour someone a drink or open their drink out of their sight because by doing so the opportunity exists for you to poison it.  Same goes with food, apparently.  The crowd wanted me to taste the moringa powder in front of them to prove it wasn’t poison, which of course I did.  Now I’ve added moringa powder to food and you generally can’t taste it very much at all.  Turns out though, eating it straight is very honestly disgusting.  It tastes like alfalfa, but it’s powder so its very dry and, well, I was trying very hard to not make a face less they take it as a sign that the powder was indeed poisoned.  I unintentionally offended the king or chief of another village by not asking his permission before we started our session.  He was having none of our intrusiveness so he just walked in front of us after we’d already started and demanded he be asked for permission.  I did, he was happy, and we continued on with it.  We slept, in order, in a hospital, Catholic mission, elementary school, and another Catholic mission.  The night in the elementary school was probably my favorite.  It was in a small village and was therefore pretty much our only option.  One of the teachers opened his classroom to let us sleep in, but most of us just put our mats outside.  There were little thatch shower stalls outside, a pump, and latrines so we were all set.  When we pulled up to this village, Dambouti, I went to see the délégué (political representative, like a lesser version of a mayor) to let him know we’d arrived.   He told me he wanted to see the whole group so I dutifully brought back the rest of the volunteers a few minutes later.  Someone pulled out chairs and we sat in a circle just kind of staring at him.  I assumed he called the whole group over because he wanted to greet us, welcome us, or give some kind of little speech or something.  I was wrong.  We sat there for probably 10 minutes, him never saying a word, and then abruptly he says ok, you can start your sensibilisation now.  Us just sitting there showed him honor I guess.

Before the tour I wondered if it would be one of those all to frequent well-intentioned but not really influential or productive activities.  As in, it is really going to be worth all this effort and will we actually help anyone?  But I think it was, and I think we did.  It felt so good to be able to tell some maman who throws away the water she boils moringa in to stop doing it because she’s throwing out all the vitamins, and to have her nod in comprehension and say she won’t do that anymore.  To tell people they can add moringa powder to their morning bouillie and have them applaud in excitement and appreciation at learning this.  Atacora bike tour 2012 – success.  

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Christmas presents

Happy holidays!  I am writing this in Parakou, the first stop on my trip down to Cotonou to pick up Casey and Matt (my sister and brother in law).  I am so excited to see them and show them around my African home.  We have a circuit of Benin planned, with visits to my village, Pehunco, Parakou, Natitingou, and finally Parc Pendjari to see elephants and lions.  I can't wait to introduce them to Beninese food, tissu clothes, crazy taxis, Bariba, and my Beninese friends.  For them and for me, I know this will be a Christmas to remember. 

I have been keeping busy and enjoying the cool season (harmattan).  It is now COLD (well ok, maybe in the high 60s?) at night, and comfortable during the day.  A few weeks ago my postmate Dave and I did a trial run of the route we will use for our bike tour at the end of January.  We checked out the route, stopped in all of the villages we'll stop in, and found places to stay and people who will cook for us.  During the four day tour, a group of volunteers will bike from village to village giving sensibilisations (training sessions) at each stop on proper nutrition and Moringa, a drought tolerant tree with nutrient rich leaves that can be used in sauces.  We're really excited about it and had a ton of volunteers sign up, so many that we had to turn a few people down.  Outside of that, I have been getting an English club started, applying for Peace Corps funding for a shower-water drainage project, and watching Lost (having electricity has made TV shows and movies a bigger part of my life).    

I am primarily writing this because I have a few BIG thank yous to send out.  I recently got some early Christmas packages (even if they were sent in August and just got here, I’m counting them as Christmas presents) and was thrilled!  Unfortunately my lack of self-control led me to open them before Christmas day, but I think it’s fair to be a little lax on that rule while I’m in Benin.  Thank you so much, merci beaucoup, and na siara to my Aunt Kathy in Kentucky, my friends Mary and Charlie in Florida, and the HPAG/NCEA team in North Carolina! Also to all of my friends and family for the letters and emails that I love reading.  It was so exciting to get a text saying ‘you have a package in Parakou’ and then coming into three!  Your packages and letters are more than appreciated and I am so grateful for the support you have all continued to give me.  Peace Corps has been and continues to be a crazy adventure and one that I can confidently say I could not survive without all of you.  It's amazing how much a letter or a soup mix can do to fix a bad day.  I know it's difficult, not to mention expensive, to send packages all the way out here, and I wanted to make sure you know how much it means to me that you do.  I am now chock full of American goodies and couldn't be happier.  Thank you!!  I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas full of hot chocolate, cookies, family, and friends. 

With Peuhl girls at a whipping fete near Gnemasson

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Magic School Bus

A few days ago I met with two women at the CPF (Center for the Promotion of Women) to discuss the living fence we (ok, I) want to build around their property.  A living fence is constructed by planting two parallel lines of trees in a staggered pattern, leaving 40 cm between each tree and 40 cm between the two rows.  The idea is to plant trees that are thorny, bushy, and unappetizing to goats so that the trees aren’t eaten before a permanent barrier is formed (after a year and a half or so).  The women planted sesame last year but had problems with goats eating a lot of it so they were looking for a solution.  I’m really excited about this project because it’s going to be relatively cheap and, in theory at least, sustainable, because after I buy the trees and they’re planted the only maintenance needed is in the form of human labor.  They won’t need to buy special tools or machinery and there isn’t really anything that can break and need to be fixed. Read – they should have no excuse for not doing the upkeep on the fence (trimming and watering).  The plan is to plant in May just before the rainy season so that the trees only need to be watered for a few weeks before the rain starts and takes care of the watering for them.  I told the women we could plant now but that that would mean someone would have to water every single day, and since we’re talking about more than 1,000 trees they were understandable hesitant.  I had researched some possible tree species to use and made a list that I showed to my supervisor who has a tree nursery.  Yeah, sounds cool, but his “tree nursery” currently only has one type of tree in it.  Anyway he told me which trees he would be able to order and we decided on Campecher and Acacia which both work well for living fences.  By the way, in French a living fence is called a haie vive.  So I brought my tree selection to the women and got a kind of lukewarm response.  Turns out they want to use this other tree that they heard one time might be used in the future to make biofuel or jet fuel.  Mm hmm, ok.  Quoi?!  I explained that while I’ve never heard of that it could very well be true, but in that case they would need fields and fields of it to actually make any, uh, jet fuel.  Their response? Well, whatever, but we still want to use that tree. I left it at that.  I’m filling out the funding application now in hopes that by May everything will be taken care of and we can start planting.
            After our biofuel discussion, we started talking about my family’s visit in December.  I told them when they were getting in, where we were going, and we laughed about how they will have to try to speak English because not everyone in my family speaks French.  One of the women then wanted to know how long it would take for my family to get here from là-bas.  I started explaining the seven-hour flight to Paris, which prompted the question “Paris…that’s where? In France?” (to be fair I was once asked the same question by a woman about to draw my blood for donation).  I told her it’s another six or seven-hour flight to get to Cotonou, plus buses and taxis to get up to Pehunco.  She looked surprised and a little confounded by this mention of 10+ hours in a plane and seemed to be working it all out in her head.  After a minute she turns to me and says, wow, you couldn’t even do that trip in a bus could you?  I mean it would just take too long, days. Confort Lines (a bus company here) wouldn’t even do that trip.  I started to say something about the whole Atlantic Ocean issue but stopped myself and replied as solemnly as possible, oui c’est vrai.