Monday, August 18, 2008

Leaving Post

My last week in Kouandé was spent packing making sure that my main project (working with the women’s gardening groups) would be taken care of after my departure. My NGO and the Mayor’s office threw me a going away party. My contribution was two goats. Since I knew how the typical Beninese fetes go, I took at a nap at 7pm had a light dinner at 9pm, read till about 11pm and then took a shower at it was about time they picked me up to go. Upon arriving I counted 2 cars and 12 motorcycles. I was seated with ‘les importants’ and we were served various types of hard alcohol and cookies. Once more or less everyone was there, the speeches started with the local radio personality as the MC. The interim Director of the NGO spoke first followed by the old director who was interrupted by the MC to give the following words to the Mayor, who are the same person. At this point I was glad that I had already written a speech anticipating them asking me to say something. This was the speech I gave:

Je voudrai remercie tout le monde chi a acceptée d’être ici pour la manifestation de mon départ. Sur tout les agents de PELCA et la marie d’avoir l’organise. Pendent mon séjour de deux ans ici au Bénin, particulerment dans la ville historique de Kouandé. J’ai fiat beaucoup de connesence et j’ai aussi appris beaucoup de chose. J’ai appris comment vivre sans curent et réseau, mais plus important j’ai pouvais regarde et l’apricie la tradition traditionnel Batonou. Je suis très content de mon séjour que nous avons passe ensemble. La population de Kouandé m’a réserve une très bonne hospitalité. Quand je serai aux Payée Bas et je commencerai a réfléchi de mon séjour ici, je serai un peu triste, mai je sait que la population de Kouandé vont continue a develope et si Dieu veut je retournerai a voir cette transformation.

Na be siara, becca kiru. Becca tonu. Giussunu son gbinna sia. Tonbakka ton werra.

After my speech the mayor presented me with traditional Bariba clothing and everyone was served beers and Akassa with goat. When the importants had finished their meal they were informed that it was time for the presentation of the prizes at the ‘Podium Vacances’ or talent show. They invited me to come along and present some myself. We were driven to the Maison des Jeunes which was absolutely packed, with mainly children. It should also be noted that this was around 2am. Once the prizes were distributed we continued back to the party to dance and drink. I made it home just about the time the Muezzin started the call to prayer (5:30am).

A couple days later I invited the pétanque club to my house for some tan pica (local hard alcohol a.k.a. sodabe) fish and Akassa.

On my last day I had just about finished packing and started finding myself thinking that this was the last time that I would do many of the things that had become routine in my life in Kouandé. It really hit home when my best friend Chabi was at my house and asked me if he could get me some dinner, and I replied ‘yes, for the last time’ and we both became sad and choked up. In the morning my taxi came and I said goodbye to my neighbors, Chabi, Kabirou and Mora the people that I would really miss the most… Of course the taxi broke down in the short leg to Natitingou and it was my leatherman that saved the say with a Philips head screwdriver. I did however learn a lot watching the driver take apart the car engine.

I spent two days in Natitingou from where I was able to go to Perma to visit my host family one last time. It was really nice to see them and just spent some time sitting in the place where I adjusted to Benin.

I rented a taxi on Sunday to take me down to Cotonou with my bags and the Peace Corps items (gas bottles, mattress, bicycle, lockbox, and books)

As of right now I am about a third way though the COS checkout procedure. I have seen the doctors a last time, returned my books and Peace Corps equipment, and closed my bank account (half of today was spend waiting in line at two different banks). The biggest things that are left are to have exit interviews with my APCD and CD… The next 3 days will be spent running around getting ready for my departure from Benin.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Wrapping up and reflections on my service

The end of my service is well within sight. Whether it is the steady deletion of numbers from my phonebook of COSing (Closing of Service) volunteers, the two year mark (July 21st) or the penultimate trip to the capital for the first part of the medical clearance I am reminded of how close the end of my time here is. Here they say: ‘time flies when you have your health’ and I would agree.

I have fairly mixed feeling about leaving. I mean I am ready to go but I will definitely miss some aspects of my life here. Riding on Zemidjans in the city, spending time with the friends in Kouandé, listening to crazy stories about gris-gris, drinking tchouck (millet beer), amazing people with my Bariba phrases (asking the pantless children: “Where are your pants?”), wearing même tissue (clothing), eating Ignam pile with my hands, eating mangos right off the tree, finally understanding how to make a joke in French with Beninese people, avocado sandwiches at the Boicon bus stop, wearing ‘joli’ clothing, freshly cut pineapple in Cotonou, the amazing waterfalls…

The questions arise of exactly what did I do for two years and what will I do after. The latter is easier to answer for me since I have already been accepted by Wageningen University in the Netherlands for a Masters program in Environmental Science. I decided to start the program Jan ‘09 to give myself time to visit friends and readjust. This leaves me with the harder question of what did I do here in Benin. The official version can be read in my DOS (Description of Service) and with 4 pages I can see (as much as it felt like it sometimes) I did do something. I have seen progress in Kouandé (not just because of me) the town went from having 5 hours of electricity to none, to 24 hours, back to none, then to 10. This last development is due to the rationing of diesel. The increased availability of salad and vegetables and over a longer period of time (I take some credit for this), and from having no cell phone coverage to have 3! The rest of my ‘activities’ can be found in the DOS, Girls Camps, World maps, Moringa promotion etc. Where I think volunteers do the most work is with the second and third goals of Peace Corps. In particular the interaction you have with people on a daily basis, exchanging ideas and information, specifically with regard to my culture and how things are ‘chez moi’. These are the things that are hard to put into words and write down. These are the things I will miss the most. I also feel that what they have given me far outweighs what I have given them.

p.s. The new weight is 144 lbs. (65kg for our European fans)

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Putting a Map on Kouande

So this might have been the longest and most productive week of my service in Benin, with the least amount of sleep. We had our second annual girls camp in Ouassa, then worked for 3 days on putting up a world map at the CEG in Kouande. (I painted the red and purple countries) pictures from for mentioned events can be found HERE. In local political news; the director of my NGO became the Mayor of Kouande, so now it is yet harder to get a hold of him. Also I am on my 90th book, trying to make it to that 100 mark with only have 2 months left. Still waiting on getting cement, however the director should have some more pull being the mayor and all. In local weather it looks like the the rainy season is just about to start with mangoes all over the place.
Hope everything is going well on that side of the ocean/sea. Also et me know your plans to welcome me when i travel near to (insert your town/village/city)

Niasara bani (reply is: Ami)

Sunday, May 25, 2008


This week we had our COS (Close of Service) Conference. We spend 3 days on the beach in Ouidah. It looks like the final day i will be a Peace Corps Volunteer will be August 21st!

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


Its funny how when people come into my house the first thing they do is look around with puzzlement. At first I thought they were just looking at how I had chosen to decorate my house, but their following question points to the heart of the perplexity: ‘Don’t you like television?’ Since anyone with enough money should have a television. I do like television but the only channel that you can pick up without a satellite dish is ORTB, the public Beninese one. This is a station that for an hour each night displays photographs of dead people with their names and the number of years that they have been dead for. The first thirty minutes is for Christians then the following half hour for Muslims. People pay a hundred dollars to commemorate the anniversary of a dead family member for decades. This is one reason I do not have a television set. However I wouldn’t be surprised is you start seeing this show in the new fall lineup. Writers not needed.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Mali Babi!

I have been putting off taking notes and writing this entry for far too long and have decided that the only way to do it is just to start. (obvious I know.)

When we were in Ouagadougou I managed to write a quick post about Banfora and our elephant sighting. This side trip was not really planned but was recommended by a Canadian we met on our way up to Ouagadougou, it was also needed to pass the three days it would take to get Lizzy the Niger visa. To Banfora we had the best bus ride in West Africa; it was air conditioned, on time, and they even sold sodas. There were only two downsides. One was that a bucket of paint spilled onto a bag. So I was called off the bus to examine it. The only distinguishable feature about it, now being covered in white paint, was that it was a Jansport. By asking my fellow travel mates which one of them had a Jansport is how I found out that Lizzy was the lucky one to have her bag whitewashed. It should be mentioned that in Ouagadougou you can buy strawberries off the street. There are also people selling various magazines including the current weeks Economist.

From Ouagadougou we headed north to the Dogon region of Mali. We met up with our guide Omar in Koporo-Kenie-Na. Finding Omar turned out to be much easier than we thought it would be, first off he was waiting at the bus stop asking for Tara, and secondly he was wearing a shirt that said: “Omar: Dogon Guide Mali. Peace Corps Approved” He took us to get something to eat and drink. He warned us that beer was expensive in Mali (1,000cfa, twice the price of that in Benin). After eating and getting the vague plan for the next 4 days he put us in a van heading back from the market to Bankass where our trek would start the next day. It has to be said that Omar knows Peace Corps very well. He has been touring them around Dogon for 5 years. He speaks English well with a British accent with American slang, curse words included). After meeting Omar we were pumped and couldn’t believe that we got to spend 4 days with this guy!

The next morning we headed off towards the town of Teli with the first escarpments by horse cart. After visiting the cliffs where once the Dogon people lived to escape from animals and invading tribes we continued on foot to the next town, Enndé (Omar’s hometown) where we benefited from more expensive beer and a shower.

We spent the next three days walking in the morning, having lunch in a small town and continuing on to sleep in the next. We would spend the night in mud houses or just sleep up on the roof.

When we were hiking from Gimini to Dourou we had to decent from the top of the cliffs to the bottom where the next town was. Being with full packs and not wanting to sustain any injuries we were taking out time this also let us soak up the amazing views. Suddenly one by one then a dozen kids started bounding down the bounders asking us for candy and saying hello to us in French. The speed and agility they were moving was astounding. We just had to move aside and watch them, and then it occurred to us that they were heading to school. This ‘hike’ we were doing was their daily walk to school in the neighboring town. We just continued walking down and used the little Dogon we picked up on the way.

Uwanna – Good afternoon

Omarsayou – Hows your family

And the applicable: Dege dede – Carefully!

After Dogon we headed north to Mopti a city on the convergence of the Bani and Niger rivers. This is where we found out that there had been some civil unrest in the town of Bobo-Dioulasso in Burkina just days after we had passed though. People there were generally ‘unhappy with life’ as the Peace Corps safety and security officer put it. People were unhappy with the increase in taxes and they rioted, looted and burned shops. “The town hall has no memory now. All our archives have been destroyed, from births and marriages to property records.” Mayor Moustapha Tinto told Reuters. Peace Corps Burkina was put on stand fast. Our plans to travel back through Burkina to go to Niger would not hold. After sending a couple of relaxing days in Mopti and taking a day trip to Djenné; home of the worlds largest mud building which happens to be a mosque, we took a night bus to the sleepy town of Gao at the entrance of the desert. This bus ride was a whole story in itself. We left 3 hours late due to repairs being made to the bus (not unusual) however when I asked what was going on I got the cryptic reply: “We are waiting for a part but its not important”. The bus was the most packed I have ever seen a bus. Luggage was covering the entire isleway and the spaces Lizzy managed to find for us was in the back above the motor next to a family who had placed some of their belongings where our feet would normally go. The man whose family this was refused to move next to his family with their luggage for some unknown reason. Arguing with him and explaining that he should sit with his family and let Lizzy and I sit together just did not work. We ended up sitting in the seats that turned would have easily been converted into a kiln. As soon as some other seats in the front opened up we moved. Just as we were enjoying the migration to a cooler climate Tara was telling us how hot is was in the front and that you can barely get a breeze. We gave her a look and then tried to get some sleep.

Driving though the night was somewhat surreal. Glimpses of desert and the slowing of the bus to let a camel cross really emphasized how far we were from Benin. There also was an armed gendarme on the bus. When Lizzy and I spoke about him later she was surprised to find out that he was for our security and was not just another passenger going to Gao. Maybe it was better she thought that.

In Gao we were able to stay with some Peace Corps volunteers and it was interesting to see how different Peace Corps can be from country to country. For example a majority of Mali volunteers learn one of the few local languages and hardly speak French. We also found out that they do not use toilet paper but rather the water tea pot as locals do. The one main attraction in Gao is the sand dune you can take a river boat to and walk up. Since northern Niger is closed to Peace Corps volunteers this was our taste of the desert.

After two days we continued the next morning to Niamey the capital of Niger. Again we had a long bus ride. To cover a distance of 460km it took us about 13 hours. Niamey is a very cool city. It is very vast and open with large streets and has many things you just can’t find in Benin.

In Niamey we met our country directors husband who is the Minister for Restoration of Peace in Niger. He took us out for dinner and he answered our questions about the Tuareg rebellion in the north. He was very nice and welcoming and helped get us a car so we could go see the giraffes on the way south back to Benin. In the town of Koro you have to stop and pick up a guide who will take you though these dirt roads where you just stumble upon herds of giraffes. We

Little stories that don’t belong anywhere

On the way to Natitingou from Kouandé as we were passing the town of Oroukayou I saw a very pregnant goat standing in front of the maternity ward. I wonder what she was thinking.

On the road from Natitingou to Ouagadougou when we stopped to see the roadside elephant the driver of the car put two big pieces of elephant shit in the trunk of the car. When asked why he said he wanted to show the kids how big the elephant’s ass was.

4 countries (Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger)

A dozen camels

30 giraffes (They have really long necks)

A few intestinal parasite hitchhikers

8 hippos (best guess)

1 roadside elephant

Some of the most amazing sights in West Africa

The world largest mud building

A special 30th birthday (Tara’s)

Travel in the form of walking, horse cart, bush taxi, private car, bus (both old and new), truck, van, 18 wheeler, bicycle, and pirogue.

and finally to explain the title of this entry:

Tara: "Mali Babi"
Lizzy: "Write it with an i"
Tara: "Why?"
Lizzy: "I don't know, I just pictured it that way"

Friday, February 15, 2008

Elephants, Hippos in Burkina. Oh My!

Hello everyone,
Right now we are in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (Lizzy,Tara and Taras friend Jen) . We just got back from Banfora (south western Burkina) where we spent 2 nights. On the 7 hour bus ride to Banfora we made a friend who decided to hang out with us the whole next day and take us to the amazing waterfalls and the lake where we went hippo watching. We also had lunch at a McDonalds. Funny enough they were out of ketchup. Tomorrow we will get back on a bus to take us north to the Dogon region of Mali where we will go on a four day trek.

p.s. On the road to Ouaga from Benin we saw an elephant on the side of the road and got to stop and take pictures. pretty cool.

more as it develops.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Return to the North – New and Improved with Monkeys!

The title pretty much sums it up. Today I took the 8.5 hour bus ride back up to Natitingou in the Atacora/Donga region (read: home). It seems that the heat from the south followed me; however I did manage to lose the humidity in transit. The VAC meeting went well and now I just need to check up on the gardening groups and try to hurry along the construction of a well for the school, since a garden with no water, well won’t produce much of anything. On the 11th Feb. begins my second vacation in as many months. Four of us are traveling via Burkina Faso as a means to get to Mali (and to get visas) where we will take a four day trek in the Dogon region. We will then travel via Niamey (Niger) to get back to Benin on the 26th of February. So that’s pretty much it. Oh yeah the title; four monkeys ran in front of the bus on the way up here. It was a real Africa moment; they come less and less frequently. So there you go.

N’kua sosi


p.s. For those of you that are keeping score out there my weight it at 152 lbs. (69kg for our European fans)

also... I think it should be noted that i just posted this email from a field in Natitangou. Yes a field. There is a NGO that has a unsecured wireless connection. I wonder what the guard was thinking.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Janvier/Février 2008

January 30th 8:00 I get a phone call from my homologue telling me that he got a call from the director of my NGO and that I need to write up the invitations for the importants. Being half asleep I agree and wait for him to pick me up. The absurdity of this occurs to me as my brain boots up. The invitations are for a ceremony in an hour. The ceremony is for la remise or presentation of materials for the women’s groups and high school group. Not only this but I have the lowest level of French among the members of my NGO, so why I need to write the invitations is beyond my comprehension. In any case the invitations get written after hunting around the French keyboard for the correct characters (to get to a period you have to shift). The invitations were delivered sometime after 9:30. This however was not a problem because no one had arrived yet. This gave me time to set up the materials (machetes, wheelbarrows, treatment tools, boots, hoes, rakes, watering cans, seeds, shovels, and chicken wire) in some kind of order. At around 10:30 the women’s and importants showed up and the ceremony could begin. This involved everyone thanking everyone one by one and saying a few kind words. Each respective president from each group came up and signed a document of the received materials. Then came the fun part where we got the groups to stand in front of their newly acquired swag and pose for some pictures. We then told them that they were free to take the stuff back with them, this is when they started singing and dancing. I posted some pictures from this event on my flickr account.
So the good news is that most of the needed materials are finally in the hands of the groups and this will require me to help and check up on them regularly (i.e. keep my busy).
My NGO – PELCA had a soirée for the members of the NGO. This event which I was told would involve dancing, food and drink did not start until 12:30pm. The food was not brought out till at least 1am. After which the dancing started. This continued till the call to prayer at 5am. I have to say I still have not found a great appreciation for the Beninese style fête or party. I think it is worth noting the picture of the DJ booth.

Currently I am in Cotonou for the National VAC meeting. (We bring complaints from our region to the attention of the Peace Corps administration) I will be using my time here to get a visa for Niger. Mid February we have a trip planned to go to Mali traveling through Burkina Faso and returning through Niger. I am excited for the trip and especially for our trek through the Dogon country part of Mali.
On a sadder note Benin preformed terribly in the Africa Cup losing to Mali, Ivory Coast and Nigeria; scoring only 1 goal total. It is pretty fun to watch the games on random television sets throughout Kouandé though. With Benin being out I will be looking forward watching the Ivory Coast play the host country Ghana in a thrilling final ending with an Ivorian victory 3-1 to take the Cup.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Back in Benin

After a fairly uneventful but very long trip I finally made it back to Benin with mixed feelings I have to say. The temperature in the south is fantastic right now, since it’s the cold season or l’harmattan. When I was taking a Zemidjan around Cotonou getting some errands done I felt very much back at home and comfortable. The traffic even seemed somewhat subdued in comparison to the chaos that is Roman traffic. I spend 2 days in Cotonou (always a good idea before the harsh transition to village life) where Lizzy surprised me at the airport, what a great birthday present! I also was cornered into getting the flu shot at the bureau and managed to turn in my next vacation form a trip to Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger. After the 8 hour bus ride (leaving at 7am) I finally arrived in the North, Natitingou to be exact. From here is just the little, if not cramped bush taxi ride to Kouandé. Overall I am happy to be back, however on the down side I found out that there has been no work done on the gardening project. That is 3 weeks where absolutely nothing has been done. I wasn’t expecting very much but at least something would have been nice to come back to. Oh well.

n'kua sosi

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Rome Again

I have been home for 8 days already. I have to say I have gotten used and started taking for granted most things fairly fast, such as having a bathroom only feet from your bedroom, or being able to enjoy a cold glass of milk. One thing however that is just as amazing at the first time is a hot shower. Checking email from my bedroom on my laptop with the wireless is pretty awesome too. Lest not forget how crazy the drivers are here, it’s a shock every time.

The weather has been ranging from close to 0 ºC to 17ºC. So it’s hard to tell if I’m getting used to that too, or it just has been warmer than the day I arrived. I did go shopping with my mom for new clothes on the second day here. Since I only had one pair of jeans and no jacket. We made several tactical strikes on an outlet mall. Mission Accomplished … and I’m looking good.

When I start speaking Itlaian I have to consciously battle to keep French suppressed. If I don’t think before I speak my Italian will turn into French. The first couple of days were bad but slowing its coming back. This is the longest since we moved to Rome in 1990 that I have been away from the Eternal City.

In closing; happy holidays to everyone. I hope that you are able to spend time with your family and the people closest to you.


Friday, December 21, 2007

Rome again...

The exciting new news is that I am going to be home for the holidays! 3 weeks in Rome with my family. Being there for my sisters birthday, Christmas, New years and my birthday.

Currently I am sitting in the airport in Paris, waiting for my connecting flight to Rome. Being here is not only amazing but it also is a different world from the one I came from. There (Benin) is a land of heat, colorful clothing and bad French. Here (France) is a land of -3 degree weather (26ºF), black clothing and mean French. I am the only person that I can see with a short sleeved shirt, not only a short sleeve shirt but also a lighter color than charcoal. I feel very dirty and unstylish here. More as it develops.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Soyez dans le Moov!

As of 18:27 November 20th 2007 Kouande now has cell phone reception!
my number is +229 (Benin Country Code)
people are really excited and calling each other left and right.
happy thanksgiving everyone.


Happy thanksgiving everyone!

I will be spending the holiday in Natitingou with about 30 other volunteers. There will be pit roasted turkey (locally grown) some much needed time at the pool and the best local beers Benin, Togo and Ghana has to offer. I hope everyone is doing well.


Sunday, November 18, 2007

Even the Spirits don't know...

Update, update. Well not too much new in the world of this Peace Corps volunteer. Work as usual is progressing slowly. Lesson to anyone working in development, things will not always go as smoothly and as according to plan as you might want them to. Specifically I am running into bureaucratic blockage with getting the money from Cotonou up here to Kouandé. My English club is on its way to asking permission and picking the students to at least start with. I have some other things on my plate that require more research but are possible projects for the future. These include; water filtering and packaging, photocopier installation, and working with the local informatique (computers you can use for money).

I'm not sure if I have already said this before but Benin is considered the home of Voodoo. The practice of animism, spells and charms is alive and well not only in Benin but many parts of Africa. People believe various things for example to cure certain diseases they will do scarification on a certain part of the body and this should cure it. Another conmen type of gris-gris (read: charms or magic) are special herbs you eat for certain effects, for example there is one that if someone shoots you with a gun you will disappear and after the bullet passes you will reappear. I have talked to people who swear by this and said that they have seen it happen. It is really interesting and very much a part of the culture here. There are also things called fetishes, these are spirits that are usually in a large rock or old tree. People will come to ask for things with a ceremony wherein they will pour sodabe (moonshine), palm oil, and chicken blood on the fetish after sacrificing a cock. My friend went to a woman who is supposedly can channel demons and will answer any question for you (for a price of course). He asked her what he should do after Peace Corps, if he should go back to school or travel etcetera. She went into a room where he heard what he said sounded like Beaker from the Muppets talking; this was the spirits talking to her. When she reemerged she told him that the sprits had no idea. That since he was from so far away, they had no idea. Haha so even the spirits have no clue as to what we should do after Peace Corps.

Oh yeah and the pictures I have most recently added are of a artisan and agricultural fair they had in Kouandé a couple days ago. It was interesting to see what is actually locally produced. We all wore the same tshirts and has a parade through the town. It was a real socal event and really excited the town for a couple days.

Sunday, October 28, 2007


I don’t remember if I had already said that the Telefood funding had been approved for my women’s groups in Kouandé. In any case it has been, and we have been getting them ready for it. In domestic news my neighbor died. He had a fatal motorcycle accident. He is survived by his wife, two children and a baby. They moved back south before I returned from working stage. Dead here is so matter of fact. It really reminds you that you can go at any time; there is no guarantee, not for anyone. I did however get a new neighbor, the CBA (The second in charge at the Gendarmes) He is very nice and so is his very large family. They have only been there for a week and have already made me food. It doesn’t take much to win me over. I left post for the regional VAC (Volunteer Advisory Committee) meeting and on the way south for the national VAC meeting I stopped in Parakou for Annie’s going away party. This involved a hired covered truck to take us to the auberge, where there was a pool table, beer on tap, dancing and beer pong (with real solo cups) it was a good time. We also took a zemidjan ride through little villages to see the Oueme river, the largest river in Benin (it runs 310 miles or 500km). Another surprise was that in Cotonou we found an exhibition of Jean-Michel Basquiat which was amazing. The art center itself was air conditioned, modern, clean and free! It was nice to do something that you would be able to do back home. Overall it has been a good week and I look forward to getting the money from Telefood to actually start buying things. Hope all is well with you and yours.

-Michael the Dutchman Deep in Bariba Territory

ps- enjoy the new pictures.

Monday, October 08, 2007

My Peugeot 405

You try and remember especially terrible taxis by color or a particular sticker. Usually something like ‘God willing’ or ‘Lazy Man Is a Hungry Man’ or the inexplicable ‘Stop, Don’t Kiss Me’. Sometimes these cars actually have names; names such as ‘Never late’ and ‘God Will Provide II’. The actualization you make is that all the taxis are in all such terrible disrepair that they simply become indistinguishable from one another. These factors could include having a blue car with most of the paint scraped off; or the inside door panel missing with the door handle replaced by a coat hanger like piece of metal. These things simply are not rare enough to be able to tell them apart, and only once on the road and the car breaks down or the driver makes forty stops do you realize why you marked this car for the ‘never ride in again’ one.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Mid Service Medical Checkup and the 52 new volunteers

My check up with the doctors went relatively well. The information learned can and will be summarized in bullet point form:

  • I have lost 10 pounds (4.5kg)
  • I have a low resting heart rate
  • I have giardia

I have the medication to treat giardia and will take it when I get back to post. The med unit is nice mainly by having unlimited access to internet and hot showers. There is a 8:00pm curfew though. I have also had some time to think about what makes hot showers so great and it comes down to one word… solubility.

Big News! The cell providers have finally reached agreements with the government and have resumed service. This means my phone is now working I can be reached at

+229 (Benin country code) 95 29 07 95 (Télécel now called Moov)
+229 (Benin country code) 97 01 62 95 (was called areeba but now bought by MTN)

depending on is I am within coverage. I am not sure if the two towers have been turned on in Kouandé as of yet. One way to find out…

Tara met me in Cotonou and together we took the shuttle up to Aplahoue to work the final two weeks of stage (stage is French for training or internship). It was good to be back in Aplahoue and see the EA crew. They are all doing well. The biggest surprise was that 2 more PCTs (Peace Corps Trainees) had decided that Peace Corps Benin was not for them. The other surprise was the level of French achieved for the people coming in with very low French. It is amazing to think that only 6 weeks ago some people spoke very little to no French and now are able to communicate all by themselves. I think the group as a whole is ready and pumped to go to post and graduate from Peace Corps High. The other thing I noticed was how much more mellow the group is now. I had said in an earlier post how it was really tiring working because they all had so many questions and need a lot of hand holding. That is completely normal and I chose to work because of those reasons. It is great to see that now they are more confident and comfortable (I think they are also tired). The last two weeks are programmed based on specific needs; since they already found out where they will be posted and have made a 2 day visit. We also had a trip to Grand Popo which is a beach about 2 hours away. All the sectors met there and spend a very nice sunny day at the beach.
Swearing in will be held at the American ambassadors house the 21st of Sept.

I will now leave you with an interesting fact:
“The seed of the Mediterranean Carob tree (ceratonia siliqua) is so regular in size it was originally used as the measurement for gold, the carat.”
Trees: Their Natural History – Peter Tomas


Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Being at Post for 2 weeks, My Garden and a Road Trip

After working with the new volunteers for a week in the south I decided to make my way back up north stopping in a town called Ouéssé; Lizzy a TEFL volunteers post. It always is nice to see what other people’s towns and houses are like. Ouéssé is nice and Lizzy’s house is very nice. They are replacing an old volunteer so we went to look at the new house and the CEG (High School) where Lizzy teaches. The classrooms are wood and thatch and at the beginning of each rainy season they fall down and have to be remade for the new school year. The paillote as they are called does not provide much in the way of protection from the elements. The teachers also have to use a propped up chalkboards, which some students can’t see because they are behind the wood poles. It goes without saying that there is no lighting in these paillote. So Lizzy has started a PCPP (yes, I know more Peace Corps acronyms. PCPP = Peace Corps Partnership Program) they are projects in which the funding comes from anyone that wants to donate. You could for example visit the Peace Corps website and find her project and donate some money for the construction of new classrooms.


I’ll wait till you are done donating to continue…

Ok. So after my visit I went back to post and spent a good two weeks there. The rains have started and this means not too much leaving the house. The Beninese don’t like being out in the rain and meetings are not a good enough reason to leave the house. I guess I don’t blame them and at least everyone knows that’s how it works so no one leaves the house. This is a good time for gardening. I had started a garden before I left for stage but upon my arrival found it to be a garden of weeds. I decided to give the garden another go. I planted basil, tomatoes, ruggetta salad, carrots, parsley, corn and both green and dark beans. So far the tomatoes, ruggetta, corn and beans have been showing some progress. I have some pictures posted of my garden and will continue do post them showing the progress.

Off topic I thought I would share a funny story. I was at home when a man and woman came to my door asking me if they knew what these were, handing me $6 dollars. (A $5 and a single) I said yes that they were American dollars. They asked me how much they were worth and I told them that about $1 = 500CFA. They asked me if I could exchange them, I decided that eventually I could use those dollars and these people could use the money. I asked them where they got them from, they said that they found the money in a pair of pants they bought at the market. Don’t you love it when you find money in your pants?

Later I realized that the rate is $1=480CFA and I had lost money on this deal. I had to laugh like hell.

The Moringa, Terminalia and Gmelina tree nursery is doing well; we even reseeded some of the sacks that didn’t grow, with the rains they should be able to grow in time for the planting.

I also took a day motorcycle trip with my friend Chabi (see Gallivant). We had been planning to visit his hometown of Birni and since he is on summer vacation we decided it would be a good time to do it. We took the moto from Kouandé to Birni on a more direct dirt road with not one but two broken bridges. The first was passable with getting a little wet, the second as my pictures show is passable by a 30cm strip. You pay someone 200CFA (40 cents) to walk the moto across the river. The ride was quite pleasant through millet, sorghum, corn and cotton fields. We also were lucky with the weather and didn’t get rained on. Just as we arrive at Chabi’s concession in Birni his sister starts screaming and crying hysterically and collapses into her family’s arms. Chabi pulls out two chairs for us and his aunt and other sister are talking to him he also explains that his sister has some kind of mental illness and will have these episodes from time to time. Before I can yell at him for not giving me some kind of warming beforehand he starts crying and says to me; look at my situation. I ask what situation and that just his sister is sick. He said that his cousin also has the same illness. It’s very sad because there really is no mental healthcare in Benin. They think that these things are caused by voodoo and that the treatment can be done by sending them to a traditional healer. Chabi was very quite and I got the feeling he wasn’t very happy to be home, maybe he was embarrassed. He did cheer up when he saw a high school friend and we chatted a while, including a heated soccer debate. (Will Benin make it in the Africa Cup in Ghana this wear, and will they win? Not to mention that the Dutch national teach is the best team not to have won a World Cup)

The next stop on our little trip was Perma to visit my host family. This is where Environmental Education sector had training for 9 weeks. It was really great to see my family, they all happen to be there because the kids come home during summer vacation. (Three of them go to school in Natitingou) I got to see Tara’s family as well. Everyone was doing well and they were genuinely happy to see me. I brought them wagashi. (Fulani cheese) Also my little brother doesn’t want to be a bandit anymore he wants to be an actor. So hopefully there will be more than just one famous Beninese Actor

Then we make the trip back to Kouandé. As I am typing this I am in Cotonou for my Mid-service (can you believe I have been here a year, because I can’t) medical check-up.

Stay tuned for my next adventure – Stool samples and getting a physical. What a cliffhanger that is…

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

James Bond Drinking Game!

James Bond Drinking Game

Drink every time:

  • James Bond orders a martini
  • James says something now considered to be sexist or racist
  • He wins at a card game
    • Double for anything other than Baccarat
  • He goes SCUBA diving
  • He goes sky diving
  • He goes skiing
  • He makes love to a woman
    • Double when he does so forcefully
  • He loses or someone takes away his PPK (gun)
  • You see James topless
  • A woman says: “Oh James”
  • The villain reveals his plans to James prematurely
Note: I write this after watching the first 17 James Bonds...

Friday, August 17, 2007

And I can't wait to get on the road again...

Another update you say? Crazy I know. I have been traveling lot in the last week. My first trip was by accident. After playing bocce ball one of the men said the king wanted me to come with them to the ceremony in Firou. He elaborated that the ceremony was cleanse the bad will left there by the Bariba people. That a long time ago the Bariba killed a lot of Houssa (an ethnic group from Niger) and just put them in a mass grave and this is one reason why Kouandé had stopped developing. They decided it was time to go to the site and pray and make animal sacrifices. I said I would go and they said they would come by the house at 7am. I thought that they would forget but at 6:30 they started tapping on my door. I got ready and we went out in front of the king’s concession. There were a lot of cars starting to fill up including a large 18 wheeler type vehicle for people.

I ended up in the extended cab of a Helux truck. In the truck bed was a cow, a goat and a chicken for sacrifice and a number of human passengers.

The king had his own covered truck and sat shotgun. In the back he had people playing drums and horns every time we passed through a village.

After about 3 hours we started to come close to the town of Kerou (where there are two Peace Corps volunteers) at this time a sage femme started handing out beers. I was given a Guinness and started looking for Ben and Chanti only to find some French girl scouts… yeah. After stopping in Kerou to have a beer and say hi to the king we continued the 25km to Firou.

We arrived in Firou and were met by half the village they were all excited to see us. Of course we continued to give our respect to the king then made our way a km away where the mass grave was. This was a mound covered in rocks. Just as the prayers started it started to rain. Then it started to rain heavily. People ran under trees and back into the trucks. I was glad I brought my rain jacket and must have been a sorry sight, standing under a tree getting rained on. Once the rains stopped the animals were sacrificed and we were able to leave. We ate with the nurse at the hospital then stopped at a buvette for a beer. This beer turned into 4 because various people kept buying us rounds. The part that makes this interesting is that everyone else was drinking small beers and the beer I requested they only had large ones which is no big deal for one of two beers but for 4 it becomes a different story. At this point its starting to get dark and we drop off people in Kerou and I decide to try and find the other volunteers. As I was asking the zemidjan if he knew where Chanti lived he said yes but she is standing right there and sure enough she was across the street. She was on her way to meet Ben for a drink. It was a nice coincidence. We finally left Kerou and made the 3 hour trip back to Kouandé, the beers helped me sleep on the terrible muddy road. We arrived after 1am. What a long day.

Later that week I decided to visit Lizzy, a TEFL volunteer in Ouéssé. This took 4 taxies and all day. She has a really nice house and a fun village. I enjoy seeing other people’s posts. I saw the school where she teaches and met some of her friends. There also happen to be a death in the family next door and this as we all know means that very loud traditional music needs to be played for one and half days. Literally all night this music played, well no actually it stopped from 5am to 6am. Then started again and lasted well after I left. Right now I’m in Parakou workstation hanging out with the TEFL kids on their way back from post visits. Heading back to Natitingou today. Still no word on when the cell phone situation will be resolved but everyone has heard something from someone saying that it will be turned on this week… then next week… and so on.

Let me leave you with some Allman Brothers song lyrics:

Lord, I was born a ramblin' man
Trying to make a living and doing the best I can
When it's time for leaving, I hope you'll understand
That I was born a rambling man

Monday, August 06, 2007

Ghana, Girls Camp, PSL20 and Adja Land

It has been a while since I have updated and this was written over a couple months so bear with me.

I did end up going to Ghana and it was just what I needed. Some R&R is a somewhat English speaking country. I had to rush back up north to Ouassa-Pehunco since my postmates and I held a 3 day girls camp. We had 20 girls from Ouassa and the neighboring village of Tobre. We had talks on women’s health, the importance of education, nutrition, money management and Moringa. We also had a basketball lesson and field trip to the local cotton factory. The camp went really well and I think they really enjoyed having a couple days that were just for them.

Over the last two months we had two training sessions. ToT (Training of Trainers) and TDW (Training Design Workshop) in preparation of the new volunteers. (stagiers) The training was held in Cotonou and this kept me busy traveling from the north to the south. They finally arrived on the 20th of July. Even though I was not scheduled to work till the 2nd week I had to be in Cotonou for the VAC meeting (Volunteer Advisory Committee) representing the Atacora-Donga region. Since I didn’t want to make the 7 hour trip back up north only to return in a week I decided to stay and help out with the new volunteers. I was able to get on the bus to the airport and was part of the group of old volunteers that waited for the plane to arrive and clap as they exited the airport. There were a total of 59 of them. They all were tired and little bewildered to have finally arrived. The first couple of days were spent shuttling them to and from the office for medical interviews, meeting the staff, bike fitting and zemidjan training. They seem like a good group and have a lot of energy; they now start the long process of stage in various towns in the south for 9 weeks.

After I work the second week (week 2), I return to post for 6 weeks then work again the final two weeks (8 and 9).

With regard to work I am still waiting on the funding from Telefood to be approved. The Environmental club has been created and held its first meeting in Guilmaro. They will help installing and taking care of the botanical garden near the newly built high school. The woman’s group in Kouandé has been neglecting the tree nursery so I had to weed and replant some of the Moringa seeds. I hope that they are able to self manage better. I will try and develop some accountability system between the different woman’s groups. The woman’s group near the high school works better. There also have been some changes with my ONG (read: NGO), for starters the director has accepted another job and will not be able to keep running the ONG. The second change is that my homologue, Moura also got a new job working as the tractor driver for the Community of Kouandé. This also means he will be around less.

The big news these days in Benin would have to be that the big cell phone service providers, Moov (formerly Bell Benin) and MTN (formerly Areeba) have been having some issues with the government. The whole story is a little confusing but the result is that they cut service. Of course these are the two providers that 95% of the volunteers use and to which the Peace Corps office switched to. This leaves the volunteers even more out of touch with each other.

I just returned from the first week of staging for the new volunteers in Aplahoue. Aplahoue is in Adja land. Where the dominant language is Adja. The people are very loud and aggressive when compared to the people in the north. This had been my first real exposure to this different kind of life. It takes a little getting used to. For example the Zemidjans (moto taxis) will run over to you and grab your bags and fight with one another to determine who wins the faire. I found that it’s really fun to call them from a distance and watch the scramble to get to you. The new EA stagiers are doing well. We lost one already the first week. She had a boyfriend back home and decided this was just not for her. Better that she make that realization now than in two months. We also had one girls have to change host families since her ‘papa’ was never around and the only person who spoke French thus defeating the purpose of a host family. We moved her to a new family and everything seems to be fine.

I took the stagier out for a cultural lesson after class one day to discover the local drink Sodabe (read: distilled palm wine). We each had a shot and toasted to a great next two years. This cost me just over 60 cents.

We celebrated Benin’s Independence Day on August 1st. There was a big parade in Aplahoue. Of course we were told to be there at 9am, but it didn’t start until after 12. There was choreographed dancing, Zemidjans rode by and some doing tricks. The tailors made a dress; the taxi drivers drove by and almost killed us, singing women’s groups, the Bocce ball group had a demonstration as well.

There also was a voodoo ceremony taking place in the neighboring village that we were invited to. Since this was only the first day of the ceremony we just saw the chief Fetishiers arrive, one on a hammock being carried by people and the other on a person drawn cart. We saw people carrying Fetishes (spirits in various objected used in ceremonies) usually covered in Sodabe, palm wine and blood. The highlight was that the man in the cart had the head of a pigeon in his mouth with the body dangling from it. Slightly strange.

Overall working stage has been more exhausting that I thought it would be. Always having to be there to answer questions, work out problems, translate and help run technical sessions has really kept us busy. I only worked one week and can’t imagine how working two in a row would be and I will find out in 6 weeks when I work 2 in a row. I did enjoy feeling useful and having a lot of answers since I was just like them a year ago. They are a great group and will enjoy working with them in the future.

Monday, May 28, 2007


This week was TDW (Training Design Workshop) for all the volunteers that are going to work stage (French word for vocational training) for the incoming volunteers. The whole purpose of this workshop was to plan the 9 week training and decide who was working what weeks. There were 7 of us for EA (Environmental Action). The sessions took a long time and thanks to Peace Corps Washington were made more difficult than they should have been. We stayed at St. Jean Eudes, this was the same place we stayed when we arrived in country, now exactly 10 months ago. It is a good 20 min form the center of Cotonou which is about a 500cfa ($1) zem (moto-taxi) ride. Of course this didn’t stop us from going into town to enjoy European and other ethnic foods. I also got to see a Reggae show at the French Cultural Center. It was good, all Bob Marley covers. The traffic and pollution is really quite astonishing, especially when you are coming from a small village in the north. The other thing that not only I noticed but other volunteers was our perception of the road to St. Jean Eudes. When we first arrived we saw it lined with run down shacks of shops, but now it was alive with commerce and we could tell what kind shops they were. Its funny how that has changed that at first glance you don’t see anything of importance then now we can tell that this shop is a bar, this one where they sell foam to make cushions etc.

In work related news the Moringa plants are doing well and will be transplanted with in about a week. Our Telefood proposal has been written and I am going to meet with the FAO representative to work out some of the details. The project will help 3 groups of vegetable gardeners in Kouandé, 2 women’s groups and 1 garden club at the CEG (High school). The funding is for about $6,000 and will cover seeds, hand tools, closure for the gardens, 1 well, irrigation systems. It will really help these groups to continue producing vegetables for Kouandé. The goal is they will continue to invest to keep up this process and increase the availability of vegetables and lower malnutrition.

I also decided that since my parents are going on a vacation to the Netherlands I myself could use one. I am in the process of getting Togo and Ghana visas. The problem is that Monday is a holiday and this gives me one more day of hanging around in Cotonou. More as it develops.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Becca Weru. (Welcome)

24 hour electricity has arrived to Kouandé! After a month with nothing (the SBEE took our generator to repair it but never gave it back) the connection to Natitingou has been completed. This took me by surprise on May 8th at approximately 9:10pm as my lights suddenly turned on. The other good news is that the tree nursery with the womens group went well, after the date had to me moved three times because of holidays, a death in the family (therefore visitors from other villages were visiting) and scheduling conflicts with the local gardener. The nursery consist of the 80 Moringa trees, 50 Gmelina and 50 terminalia. In about a month the Moringa should be ready to be transplanted to the field. We also opened an account at the local post office for the group to be able to save money.

I found out that I will be working training for the new Peace Corps Trainees (PCT); a week this month and then again a week next month. The new volunteers (PSL 20) will be arriving in July. It is hard to believe that I have already been here almost 10 months.

I also was voted in as the VAC representative for the Atacora Donga region. (This corresponds basically to the Natitingou workstation area) This is a system for volunteers to air their grievances and problems locally to the VAC rep and then have their issues brought up to Peace Corps Administration.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

All Vol

This week was the all volunteer conference in Cotonou. This meant that all 96 volunteers were to meet in a nice hotel in the capital for meetings. Overall it was a great success. For most of us just having running water, electricity is enough to justify the up to 12 hour trip. Having a pool, AC and hot running water with Peace Corps pick up the tab is something no volunteer can pass up, it also was mandatory. We had sessions for two days with topics varying from post office announcements to specific projects that were regarded as successful. For example one volunteer had a contest for her town, where it was divided into sections and after 3 months each section would be judged and prizes awarded. She said that people spent a lot of time cleaning up and the results were evident. Here there is no waste collection (for the most part) so everyone throws their garbage everywhere and anywhere. The American ambassador spoke as well. There also was a male date action to raise money for GAD (Gender and Development) since the male to female ratio is such most of the guys were bought up. Something about decreasing the supply to increase the demand…I don’t know. I did feel like a piece of meat but it was for a good cause. My date included a bottle of Italian red wine and NPR. The bidding got pretty ridiculous the more alcohol was consumed. Following the auction there was the first annual peace corps Benin talent show. For only being announced a day earlier I was impressed with the 10 or so acts. The highlights would have to be Gina’s interpretive dance with James Fisher on guitar. Paul Oxbows version of “Take me home sweet goudron.” The acapella theme song of Fresh Prince. The synchronized diving. A dance inspired by a Lairum dream and MIF kits. And the Operetta about being a Peace Corps Benin Volunteer. If I had more time I would have tried a spoken word jazz thing but alas, there is always next year. The next night was the catered GAD dinner. This gave everyone a chance to dress up a little and enjoy a fabulous meal where a silent auction was taking place to again raise money for GAD. Some of the items for auction were digital cameras, a thermarest mat, a jar of peanut butter (I bid on and lost), local artwork, razors, gift certificates to restaurants, a box of tampons (that a guy almost won), a basket of cereal and milk and so on. It was a very nice evening. At this point I am trying to leave Cotonou but it is hard to leave, the one factor that does make it easier is that you start to run out of money fairly quickly.

I was asked to write and add pictures of what food I eat here. If you have any suggestions on other topics you want to know about let me know.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

JMU 14th for Peace Corps Volunteers

Peace Corps Book List

Peace Corps Book list (Started July 22nd 2006)

  1. Diary – Chuck Palahniuck
  2. Starship Galactic – Terry Jones
  3. Fight Club - Chuck Palahniuck
  4. Mountains Beyond Mountains – Tracy Kidder
  5. The Little Price – Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
  6. The Life of Pi – Yann Martel
  7. The Viceroy of Ouidah – Bruce Chatwin
  8. Island of the Sequenced Love Nun – Christopher Moore
  9. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting – Milan Kundera
  10. Narcissus and Goldmund – Hermann Hesse
  11. Bringing Down the House – Ben Mezrich
  12. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
  13. Jarhead – Anthony Swofford
  14. Into the Wild – Jon Krakauer
  15. The Greatest Nation Speaks – Tom Brokaw
  16. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind – Chuck Barris
  17. Nine Hills to Nambonkaha – Sarah Erdman
  18. Ishmael – Daniel Quinn
  19. A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
  20. Welcome to the Monkey House – Kurt Vonnegut
  21. The Hobbit – JRR Tolkein
  22. Cats Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut
  23. Money Secrets – Dave Barry
  24. The World at Night – Alan Furst
  25. Red Gold – Alan Furst
  26. Skinny Dip – Carl Hiaasen
  27. PIMP – Iceberg Slip (Robert Beck)
  28. Don’t lets go to the Dogs Tonight – Alexandra Fuller
  29. Timequake – Kurt Vonnegut
  30. One the Road – Jack Kerouac
  31. Girl with the Pearl Earring –Tracy Chevalier
  32. Animal Farm – George Orwell
  33. Stiff – Mary Roach
  34. Slapstick – Kurt Vonnegut
  35. King Lear – Shakespeare
  36. The Rules of Attraction – Bret Easton Ellis
  37. Show Me the Magic – Annie Caulfield_
  38. Little Angles – Phra Peter Pannapadipo
  39. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time – Mark Haddon
  40. Nickel and Dimed – Barbara Ehrenreich
  41. Pictor’s Metamorphoses and Other Fantasies – Hermann Hesse
  42. The Time Traveler’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
  43. Beasts – Joyce Carol Oats
  44. The Celestine Prophecy - James Redfield_
  45. Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
  46. Waiting for Gordot – Samuel Becket
  47. Siddhartha – Herman Hesse
  48. Naked Pictures of Famous People – Jon Stewart
  49. Galapagos – Kurt Vonnegut
  50. Its not easy being Green – Jim Henson
  51. Screw it, Lets Do It – Richard Branson
  52. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S. Thompson
  53. Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
  54. Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl – Anne Frank
  55. Bobby Fisher Teaches Chess – Bobby Fisher
  56. What am I Doing Here – Bruce Chatwin
  57. The Old Patagonia Express – Paul Theroux
  58. The Tao of Pooh – Benjamin Hoff
  59. The Island of Dr Moreou – H.G. Wells

Feel free to comment on books i should read or books you are going to send me...


So about the time that I posted last, right after my parents left I became extremely sick. I was lucky that I was in Natitingou at the workstation since I couldn’t move. I was sunburned, dehydrated had a fever and some kind of stomach sickness my guess would be amoebas. It was a week of being sick all day and not being able to keep anything in me. It was probably the sickest I’ve ever been. After talking to the doctor I took ciprofloxacin (Cipro), a miracle drug for severe stomach problems. I’m told that it is pretty intense and you shouldn’t take it more than twice in your life. So after wanting to die for a couple days the medicine kicked in and killed all the bacteria in my body (or at least felt like it) and I started feeling better. I spent the next week regaining my strength and eating very carefully (and very little). It was good to return to post after being away. But now I am feeling better and that is the important thing. Not too much has changed in Kouandé, they are putting in electricity poles along the road with the intention of one day having 24hour electricity. I don’t see this happening for quite a while. I met yesterday with the director of my ONG (NGO in English) and we are working on the creation of two environmental clubs one in Kouandé and one in a neighboring village for the CEG (High school). The clubs will hopefully run the botanical and vegetable gardens and help with the reforestation efforts in the commune of Kouandé.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Et la famille?

Hey, so its been a while since my last update. The biggest news since my last post would have to be that my family visited (mom, dad and my sister). They were delayed in Paris and missed the connection and had to spend 2 days in Paris, one of which was spent sightseeing. During this time I was already in the capital Cotonou and stayed in the hotel waiting for them to arrive. I did get a chance to meet the new FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) representative to Benin. He is a great guy and not only in a position to be able to do good things but very knowledgeable in Agroforestry. I hope to collaborate with FAO and possibly work on a TeleFood funded project in the future. It was a great shock for me to travel from the north to the south. On the 7 hour bus ride you could see the countryside change from very dry and dusty to very green and lush. It also is very humid, and as my dad can testify to dry heat is bearable its the humidity that kills you. Since this was my first time being in Cotonou since I arrived in country 7 months ago, it was a bigger shock to be in a real city. Things like showers with hot water, AC, and TV. Restaurants are also strange to be in after eating street food for so long. The problem with spending time in the city is that everything is so much more expensive than at village. You can easily spend 10 times more on just about everything. When my family finally did arrive we spent a week in the south where we went on day trips to Genvie (A town that is built on stilts in the lagoon) and Ouidah (where the slave route is and the port of no return). We rented a car then drove up north. We spent a night in Kouande then headed up to the Penjari national park. We stayed a night in the park and saw lots of animals. Elephants, antelopes (there are at least 6 different variations), baboons, rese monkeys, crocodiles, hippos, all kinds of birds, warthogs, and water buffalo. It was very cool to see the elephants in their natural habitat. We saw a heard of elephants that were going to get a drink at the lake and one of the guides was bothering the elephants and getting one of them to charge him. I caught it with my camera, hopefully you will be able to see it on uTube soon. After the park we went to visit my post again and had a party for the 'importants' and to give my parents a chance to meet some of the people I work and socialize with. It went well even with all the uninvited people. I said goodbye to my family yesterday evening and left them in Nati, they continued on to Cotonou and will fly home tomorrow.
In more work related news some of volunteers closest to me and I are planning a girls camp in Ouassa Pheunco. We are getting some assistance with a local womans group to try and give the camp some sustainability. The camp will be for girls about 13 years old and for a week. It will focus on womens empowerment, health, choices, team building and there should be some fun in there too. I have been working with a local gardener and have been planing to run some Moringa education sessions in time for the rainy season so they can plant and cultivate the leaves for better nutrition. Thats been it for now. There should be some new pictures up check out:
my parents put up some pictures too.
Take care,

Saturday, January 06, 2007

You know your bien integre when…

You know your bien integre when…

• You answer your phone during meetings no matter how important
• You have a cell phone but no rezo (coverage)
• You feel the sun and run for shade
• You cannot confront someone directly, you need a third party
• Tchuck is not a nonsense word, it’s a way of life
• You greet every person in the room
• You have slept on a concrete floor
• Mixing spaghetti and rice seems normal
• You are marring a Beninese
• You smack around little children in your village just for fun
• Mixing spaghetti and lettuce seems normal
• Tissue is not something you blow your nose in
• You know how to identify good tissue
• You stopped trying to understand why the taxi stops, turns around and turns around again
• You understand the ‘doucement’
• You are more late for a meeting than the Benineese
• You don’t do your own laundry
• You have a petit assigned to every task in the house
• You think that you look good in a full outfit in the same print of gaudy fabric
• You start clicking and doing the ‘Eeh-Heeehh’ thing
• You can eat and actually like the snot sauce
• You can sleep on a marché mama in a bush taxi on terre rouge
• You spend more time greeting one person than it takes to brush your teeth (or chew your stick)
• You have local names that are not Yovo, Batouri, Blanc or Opeie
• You keep your money tied up in the corner of your pangna

Monday, November 27, 2006

Petite Chaleur

Hello Friends.
It has been a while since I have posted. First of all I would like to bring attention to Lucian Reynolds who is now an official Peace Corps volunteer too! You can keep up with him and his shenanigans on his blog here:
One reason is that I have done a little of traveling. I went down to Badjoudai and Wache which is right near Togo for a Whipping Festival. Which is a coming of age ritual where boys of about 15-17 years old really do whip eachother with nylon whips. There are also a lot of men dressed in drag. It was interesting, again I have pictures but they will have to wait till I get more time on a computer and lots of internet time. After the Fete which was around Halloween (I have some good pictures of my Halloween costume too) we had our Early Service Check In conference in Parakou for 5 days of Air Conditioning and Per Diem, it was also good to see some of the volunteers that are posted pretty far from the Nati area. Parakou is a pretty big city, very heavy with air pollution. From there I extended my trip to Djougou where I stayed with another volunteer for a couple days and was able to get some money. My word of advice to anyone with the Bank of Africa is to count your money twice. I learned this the hard way and got screwed out of about 20,000CFA = 40 USD. I do like Djougou it is a good sized city where good food is easy to find. I had the best omelet of my life there. After my voyaging I spent a good two weeks at post in Kouande. I met with the director of the high school and a local gardener and both show promise with being good work partners. The ONG i should be working with has no work and money. The radio director has been hard to find but I think a radio show could be in my future. My post title: petite chaleur (The little heat) has started. This is when all things green turn brown. People burn the grass fields. The temperature has also dropped especially in the evening and mornings. There is a constant wind that keeps your lips chapped. The cold-ish weather reminds me of how cold it must be in the States right now. This weekend we celebrated thanksgiving in Nati at the workstation, there was turkey and something like 10 pies. The turkey was cooked in a pit with banana leaves and coals, it came out really well. The only food left are pieces of pie.
In other house related news I had the mason come and redo my shower, it now drains!
I would also like to update on my health, I am still healthy and have not been sick other that the food poisoning event. I drink the tap water and eat the street food. That's more that I can say for some other volunteers, I think the record for weight loss is 45lbs. He is still sick.

Future posts will include 'You Know Your Bien Integré When...' list.
Stories from a BushTaxi - How does one travel in Africa

Ive said it before and I will say it again, when i have time i will try and post pictures. Hope everyone is well and has sent me a playstation 3 by now.

Once again my address is:

Michael Portegies-Zwart
Corps de la Paix
B.P. 971
Cotonou, Benin
Afrique de l'Ouest

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Some Pictures


Natitingou, Benin
10/21/2006 2:39 AM

New important news is that I have finally moved into the new house! I wouldn’t even begin to explain the complications of the move to the new house even if I could myself understand them. The important part is that I am moved in. It is part of a two-house concession with a salon (large room) and two bedrooms with an outside shower area. It has electricity from 7pm to midnight and a faucet for water not very far away. This is common for most Peace Corps volunteers, with plus or minus some comforts. I.e. running water, 24-hour electricity, a real toilet, tilled bathrooms.

I was able to escape my post of Kouandé and take a bush taxi the hour and fifteen minutes on a mostly tere rouge dirt road to the workstation of Natitingou.
The workstation is a house where usually a third year volunteer lives and is somewhere that volunteers can stay while in transit or just need to stay the night to take care of business in the big city of Natitingou. Big city is pretty relative. Here you can buy (for a price) the luxury items that I’m sure you all take for granted; this would include such things like apples, canned goods, yogurt, cheese, cookies (even spekulaas), bread (yes bread is a luxury), toothpaste, or any electronic devices. In Kouandé the marché is every 4 days, why they picked this system I will never know since it makes figuring out when the market is difficult if you missed the last one. My marché is not a very good one and the produce is pretty limited to the basics. I have been cooking a little with the help of Chabi and Kabirou, this consist of spaghetti, Wache (beans and rice), Abobo (Gari and beans) or some sort of Ignams (they are called Yams but are a starchy tuber and can be fried, boiled or pilléed) The food along the road is mostly the same and has given me food poisoning at least once. The “restaurants” have a little more selections and beverages for sale but both are fairly expensive to frequent regularly. So what exactly do I do all day I hear you asking yourself? I usually will wake up sometime around 8am, if not earlier due to the call to prayer. I will walk or ride my Peace Corps issued bicycle to the gare (taxi area) and buy a bowl of Bou-ee for 25CFA and head back home. I will read and wait for visitors to stop by the house, saluating is a very big part of the culture and can take several minutes. As seen in the bellow:

ME: akpunando
Bariba: oo
ME: a bwado?
Bariba: oo a bwado
ME: anna yenu?
Bariba: alafia
ME: anna wasi?
Bariba: alafia
ME: anna bibu?
Bariba: alafia
ME: tarré

I will try to hide from the sun during the hot times, which happens to be most of it either under a mango tree or in my house. I will try to find reasons to leave my house and talk to people however they usually are able to find me, especially the young kids. I shower during the hottest part of the day to cool off. As far as real work goes, besides the fact that Peace Corps wants us not to start real work till after 3 months at post AND the ONG that I’m working with has not very much work at the moment it looks like I will be somewhat on my own in finding work. This is the curse of the Environmental volunteer and it will take time to suss out projects that are worthwhile to start.

So upon arrival at the workstation I was greeted with a message from Peace Corps administration telling us that Timbuktu is off limits for all Peace Corps volunteers because of security reasons and if we had travel plans to go there to change them and that there are plenty of other great travel destinations. If you don’t know where Timbuktu is, I wont tell you.

On a side note this keyboard is American and I have started to get accustomed to the French keyboards that they use in all the Internet cafes here (I’m sure you could tell from the weird characters in my past emails)

Michael Portegies-Zwart

Monday, September 25, 2006

Earlier Than I Thought

So im writing you all much earlier than i expected to have. Well I left Perma with all my stuff in a Bush Taxi (a full and a single matteras and bicycle on top) this morning. After a delay of 1 day because the driver wasn't ready. We left at 7:30AM a full 30 min earlier that he said we would leave, not very Beninoise at all. Had to say bye to my family and the other PCVs. My family was sad and wanted me to stay; i had to tell them i would try and come visit them during Christmas. So we left and got to Kouande only to find that the house was not ready and someone was living there still. I tried to find my supervisor but he wasn't there. Ended up coming back to Nati to get in touch with him. Turns out that the house will be ready on October 1st. So for the next week i will be living in the old peace corps volunteer house (which looks like it has been abandoned for years) till the new house is ready. Will spend the night here in Nati at the workstation then head back to the rundown house tomorrow. Its been a long day.
On the plus i did have some awesome beans with wagasi (cheese) and gari for 200CFA (1dollar = 500 CFA)
-Dutch Out

Sunday, September 03, 2006


Hello Everyone.
I am confused with what information i have emailed and what i have posted on my blog. Once i have some more time i will figure out which one to use and stick with it. I had my post visit to Kouande last week. It is a really beautiful town east of Natitangou. It is at the bottom of a hill, and reminds me very much of the Shenandoah valley. There are also goats everywhere! I met with the ONG=NGO that i will be working with called PELCA. They are working with waste management and the creation of botanical gardens. They also want to promote agroforestry. There should be a lot of work. I am interested in some secondary projects such as Women empowerment and there is even a local radio that i might have a show on. Kouande is about to get some Coltrane. My house is nice; a large salon with two bedrooms. a shower *term used very lightly*. and a cooking area out back. water is from a tap not far from the house and a latrine not far either. They speak Bariba in Kouande where i will be living for 2 years and they speak Ditamari in Perma where i will be for another 2 weeks. I hope to bust out the camera the last week in Perma to take pictures of the house; area and my family. Thought i would give everyone a quick update. Swearing in should be in about 2 and a half weeks. After that time my address should change. I sill will receive mail sent to the first address. Hope everyone is doing well. i miss you all.

Monday, July 24, 2006

In Afrika

I am writing you from the lovely county of Benin in West Africa. I met up with the other Benin Peace Corps volunteers (PCV acronyms are very Peace Corp (PC) in Philadelphia. We spent 2 days in meetings going over expectations, policies, and methods of integration. Overall it was very academic and abstract. We were given $180 for our meals and incidentals over those 2 days, This involved getting to know the other peace corps volunteers over lunch, dinner and drinks. In total there are 59 PVC's. They are mostly very nice and interesting people coming from all over the country. We traveled out of Philadelphia airport via Paris to Cotonou, this took about 24 hours. Once we arrived (delayed of course) we were greeted with a humid climate in a place that felt very far away from the western world. The people wearing local tissue fabrics speaking in either French or a indecipherable language. The dress can be made locally for about 8000 CFA. We made it to the compound in Cotonou where we are staying and they had some of the current PCVs waiting cheering us on and help us with our bags to our rooms. We has a quick bite to eat and were left to sleep (under mosquito netting). In the morning I was woken up by a small boy peering into the room, I realized that I was defiantly in Africa. This feeling was enforced by seeing the country in daylight. We spent the day getting to know some of the leaders, administration, policies, medical details, and even the American ambassador showed up for a few minutes and spoke. He was leaving the next day, finishing his posting in Benin. The rest of the day we were bussed into the city again on one of the 5 paved roads to the Peace Corps building. Driving down the road was amazing, stands all down the road, people selling things everywhere. Although it appeared that no one was buying anything, all wearing colorful local fabrics. The road filled with mopeds and French cars. I keep thinking of infernetto as we were driving in the city. At the office we were tested in French, had our next round of shots, and were fitted for a brand new bicycle, bicycle helmet, and motorcycle helmet. It really is amazing to be here, a couple times a day something really grips you and reminds you that you are in a very different place from where you grew up. The next couple days will be spent here in Cotonou, soon I will be leaving with the other EA (environment) people to Parma located about 15km north of Nititengou. Where we will spend the next 9 months training and living with a host family. Internet access might be difficult and speratic. I will be able to receive packages, padded envelopes are the best. Hint hint. I hope everything is going well with all of you and I will try to keep you updated with my adventure here in Africa.

Much Love,


Monday, July 17, 2006


nerv·ous Pronunciation (nûrvs)adj.
anxious: causing or fraught with or showing anxiety
aflutter: excited in anticipation

Leaving Harrisonburg today for a night in Haymarket, Va only to catch a train at Union Station at 9am the next day Philly bound. Three days in Philly for pre stage then the trip via Paris to Cotonou, Benin. Too many goodbyes too many things to pack. I will miss you all and will try to keep you updated via Blog, email or snail mail.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

First Post Ever!

First Post.

I have set up an email list to keep friends and family posted on my peace corps adventure. This was the email i sent out May 22nd. If you would like to be on this list please let me know. I will however try and update this blog with the emails. It will be a uncoordinated effort between my email, blog and handwritten journal, im not really sure who will win but i am taking bets. (You can comment with your predictions)

Hi Everyone,
As the title suggests I finally received my Peace Corps invitation. I was nominated to Francophone West Africa more specifically the country of Benin.
My job title would be Community Natural resource Advisor and i could be "focusing on projects related to agroforestry, wildlife protection, or a more general assessment involving environmental education."
The orientation training starts July 18-20th, then off for in-country training. The last day of service would be Sept 21st 2008. Looks like this thing is really happening. Depending on my post I might have more or less access to Internet (not to mention electricity and or running water). I will send out my mailing address as soon as I get it.

If you would like to read more about the country of Benin these are two good sites to check out:
CIA Factbook:

Take Care,