Voila here is my first mass email! So I’ve had a hard time writing this email, only because it is so hard to describe Benin adequately and to give you a good description and accurate account of my time here. I first want to apologize that there have not been pictures posted yet, I can’t find the plug between my computer and camera so it might take a bit longer that I thought to get all of you photos! I guess I’ll start from the very beginning, Philadelphia. I got in to Philly after a pretty long flight (longer than I thought it would be) and was able to meet a few people at the airport, by chance entirely. It’s so easy to find a PCT (Peace Corps Trainee) we’re in brand new Chacos with humongous backpacks and a scared look in our eyes. So we all took the shuttle to the hotel, got settled in and walked around town. Sadly I didn’t have much time but I did pass by Independence Hall and eat some pretty darn good falafels from a roach coach near UPENN. UPENN is such a nice campus! So old and ivy-league-y! That’s pretty much all I did in Philly. The rest of my time was spent in the hotel in staging listening to people talk about Peace Corps and meeting everyone in my stage, PSL 21!! There were 64 people starting out; all split out pretty evenly among the 4 sectors (Environmental Action, Health, Education (me!) and Small Enterprise Development). I also got vaccinated for Yellow Fever which was just the first of what was to become, and is still occurring, a plethora of different shots. I also got my Malaria medicine (bring on the trippy dreams!).
Ok, fast forward about 36 hours later. I’ve arrived in Cotonou! The plane ride was long but it was nice to be with other people who I could talk with. So we arrived in Cotonou at night so it gave us a little bit of a respite from the humidity. There were about 20 volunteers and admins to cheer us on as we walked through the gates. (yay!) We loaded up all our stuff into big trucks, crammed into some buses and headed to the compound. It was actually an old monastery but I call it the compound because we weren’t allowed to leave it without being accompanied by an adult (i.e. a volunteer) so it was creepily like being in a cult. Already our first day someone dropped out. She got here said a quick ‘hell no’ turned around and hopped back on the plane. Well not exactly like that but pretty similar. On the bus to the compound it was so weird looking out into the streets. My eyes were just glued to my window. There were people everywhere, at buvettes, on the street corners, selling oranges, mangos, pineapples, tissues, whatever they can find. The poverty was real, there was no trash system, and everyone just throws their trash on the ground, it was dirty and dusty and humid and I can go on. I can see how someone could look at that and just not want to even start to try. But, luckily, I was not the same way. I’ve been here for more than 2 weeks now and I love it more and more everyday. It’s amazing the fluctuation of emotions I have within a day. I can be really sad and missing home and I can be amazingly happy with my new life and totally excited to become a volunteer and move to post. But I’m getting ahead of myself; let me talk more about Cotonou.
Ok, to be honest I didn’t really like Cotonou. It’s the largest city in Benin but its dirty and overcrowded. We were only there for a few days however, because we moved to the capital of Benin, Porto Novo, to move in with our host families. Porto Novo is much nicer: smaller, more tropical and less dirty. When I say dirty I mostly mean free from exhaust. The exhaust that comes from the zemijohns (motorcycle taxi drivers) is toxic. The actual ‘dirt’ part, meaning the sand, is not too bad and easy to get used to. So Porto Novo has less people than Cotonou and I like it a lot better. When I arrived in Porto Novo the first thing I did was meet my host family. I met Papan and Maman and two of my host sisters and my host brother. They seemed really nice and happy to meet me. So we hopped into the shuttle to go back to their place. They live pretty far out in the outskirts of the city where city starts to become farmland. In fact we have a pretty sizeable farm with cows and goats and chickens. There is electricity (thank God!) but no running water. So squat toilets! And bucket showers! Yay! It was pretty hard getting used to squat toilets but now I consider myself intermediate low, I still haven’t mastered the squatting without leaning on something. Bucket showers suck in the morning when the water is ice cold, but it wakes me up in the morning better than coffee ever did so I guess there’s a bright side to everything! I also have to haul all my water from the well, hand wash my own laundry, and always, always boil my water before drinking.
So this is the second half of my letter written about a week later. Two days ago we found out our post assignment which is the place we will be living for two years as volunteers. We move there after swear-in. So I got……Tobre! It’s a small town/large village. I really don’t know much about it except I’m replacing a volunteer that COS’d (Close of Service) a couple weeks ago. From what I hear from the volunteers she really liked it there. My workstation is Natitingou if you want to look it up on a map. That’s the closest ‘major’ city. It’s in the north Atakora region of the country, right by the Pendjari National Park (safari!!). I’m so excited for people to come visit and we can all go on a safari! One drawback is I don’t believe there is electricity which I’m really bummed about, I’m one of the few volunteers without electricity. It’s just like Peace Corps of the 60s! I’m actually pretty bummed about it. Now I have to go into the workstation to charge my cell phone, computer, etc. But that’s the only thing I’m concerned about so I guess I’m pretty lucky!
Yesterday we had an excursion to Ouidah. It’s about 2 hours west of Porto Novo and it’s where the Portuguese used to ship off slaves to the New World. The whole trip was interesting and the ride there and back was an adventure. They shove us all in 3 vans (about 70 people!), vans that would sit about 18 people comfortably in the 70s when they were made. Now they’re falling apart and with about 10 people extra in them, their not very comfortable. But I got to know my neighbors a lot better, and I’m just glad it wasn’t livestock that was sitting next to me (which will happen eventually). Anyways, when we got there it was cloudy but the water was so warm and it was relaxing to have everyone together.
I’ve been getting used to school which is all day and mostly Language Classes. I tested Advanced-Mid for French and I was really excited. I’ll soon start learning Bariba which is the native language in the North. It’s pretty similar to Yoruba which is spoken in Nigeria. I can’t wait to be able to whip out some sentences in Bariba. I can speak a little Fon already, mostly just greetings that my host Maman taught me.
Going around anywhere in this country is an adventure all its own. Wherever I walk/bike/moto children follow me shouting YOVO!! (whitey) They’re so amazed and so excited to see me. It definitely takes getting used to; always being watched, every move followed. I haven’t really been out at night time yet. It’s a little scary. Not that I’m afraid of being attacked or robbed but because I can’t see two feet in front of my face at night time! I rode my bike home the other night at around 9h30 and it was the scariest day of my life! I could only see about a foot in front of my bike with my headlight pointed directly at the ground. Speaking of biking, I’ve been pretty much biking everywhere in town. The other day it was pouring rain, and I mean pouring, the road down from my house was a river and I had to pretty much carry my bike through this torrent to get to school. THAT was an adventure. But I was prepared; I had my giant poncho, my Chacos quick-dry sandals and a will to survive. I made it to school in one piece although soaking wet.
Well I cant think of anything else to write right now although I’d really like to hear from all of you. Again I’m sorry for no pictures but I’ll get some up as soon as possible. I miss you all! Oh please write to me! It’s the easiest way for me to get info from back home! Tell me how you are!
Monica Stam, PCT
Corps de la Paix
O1 B.P. 971
Afrique de l’Ouest
Can’t wait to hear from all of you!!!