Happy belated Women’s Day (internationally celebrated March 8)! In honor of the celebration, below is a description of one our gender and development summer camps from Maeghan, one of my fellow volunteers and the coordinator of this year’s program. I promise I’m working on another entry with an update on my life, but for now, please read and consider donating.
What is Camp GLOW???
As the title suggests, it’s a camp for Girls Leading Our World (hence GLOW). Each year Peace Corps Benin, as well as various other Peace Corps countries, organize a series of week-long girls’ empowerment camp. The first camp GLOW was organized in 2003 and due to its success, the camp continues to this day.
Why is GLOW important??
The camp brings together Beninese girls, roughly ages 12-15 from different ethnic groups, influential women within their respective communities, and Peace Corps volunteers. Throughout the week, the girls learn a variety of life skills to help them become better leaders and students in their communities. Topics covered include personal financial planning, sexual health and hygiene, computer and internet literacy, goal-setting, HIV/AIDS awareness, study and leadership skills, malaria prevention techniques, arts and crafts, and sports and games to build camaraderie and to encourage cooperation among the young girls. Girls also take excursions to national government institutions and museums, in addition to meeting successful Beninese women in various professional roles. The primary objective of the camp is to encourage girls to stay in school. The Beninese culture remains a male dominant one. As such, females take the place of second class citizens. The education of girls is not viewed as especially important. Camp GLOW works with young girls and attempts to instill within them the importance of an education in hopes they can internalize this and share it with their friends and families in their
Why is donating important?
Camp GLOW is a part of the Peace Corps Partnership Program. This means, it is a larger scale project and the funding requires two contributors: the community (the participating villages of Camp GLOW) and the partnership (which is where the general public comes in). It is up to us Peace Corps volunteers to find the funding for our projects via friends, family, etc.
If you are interested in donating, or know of anyone who might be, please follow and pass along the following link: https://donate.peacecorps.gov/index.cfm?shell=donate.contribute.projDetail&projdesc=680-247
Any female Benin Peace Corps volunteer will tell you that dealing with the men of his country is one of the most frustrating things about being here. As always, though, humor remains one of the greatest coping mechanisms. So, in honor of Valentine’s Day and without further ado, here’s a collection of some of my best encounters and stories.
Ok I lied – one last caveat that it’s important to note: I’ve never feel threatened in any of these situations– irritated perhaps, but never fearing for my safety. Likewise, these stories and stereotypes by no means represent all Beninese men. I’ve met a lot of upstanding guys who have never been creepy or disrespected me as a person. It’s just that after a few of these experiences, it gets harder not to write them all off.
• Sexism is ugly. And I’ve grown tired of the constant question, “C’est Madame ou bien Mademoiselle?” It’s a question posed even before any attempt to learn my name and often before any greeting of any kind. The worst is when it’s accompanied by the command of, “Cherie, wa” (come dear) – as if to call over a dog – or when it’s uttered in the mocking high voice Beninese think mimics the way French people talk. My standard response is to keep walking: I will not respond to catcalls of dear or sweetheart or any such endearment, and I certainly refuse to give the time of day to people who are impolite and who do not respect me. After all, just as I am more than my skin color, I am also more than my marital status.
• A fellow northern volunteer (who crucially was not as familiar with the city) and I were on zems headed back to the Cotonou workstation. The drivers stopped, half in an attempt to clarify directions and half in a ploy to raise the price mid ride (a jerk move of an entirely different kind). As I tried to interject, my driver stopped me with the command, “Be quiet, cheri-coco (sweetheart), the men are talking.” I swear I almost jumped off the motorcycle to walk the rest of the way home.
• On my way to visit another volunteer’s village, a twelve year old boy sprinted after my zem for about 50 feet yelling, “Tu es belle, Madame, tu es belle” (You are beautiful, you are beautiful). Quite flattering, even if my helmet and the speed of transit meant he was really only commenting on my skin tone.
• Another day, I met another young boy on a walk exploring my own village:
Boy: Hello madame. Do you like eating pate?
Me: Yes. Especially with sauce legume.
Boy: Ok. Well do you want to marry me?
Kudos for trying to think of my long term comfort staying in Benin, but a better question may have been, “Can you prepare pate?” To which I hope I would have had the wit to laugh and reply, “Why no. That’s what a husband is for!”
• That’s one approach volunteers use – agree to become a wife, but only if the man is willing to do the work and become a lower tier third or fourth husband. We’ve jokingly decided that 4 is a good number: the first you actually like, the second for cooking, the third for cleaning, the fourth for laundry, and I suppose eventually a fifth for child care. The real payoff comes from the flabbergasted look on the man’s face as he tries to compute the idea of men doing those tasks or the even wilder idea of allowing polygamy to go both ways.
• My own strategy, one again suggested and used by other volunteers, is to claim a preexisting boyfriend back in the states. I had not originally thought to use this ruse, but after answering truthfully my host family’s inquiry about my relationship status and receiving an exhaustive list of all of their available male relatives (complete with promises to introduce me), I quickly changed my mind for the sake of simplicity. Since then, the scheme has served me well although the questions do always seem to follow the same trajectory. After bringing up my fictional man, my conversational partner quickly moves to ascertain 1. His location – the US; 2. His occupation – student; and 3. We immediately skip any other details about names or such to begin a concerned conversation and line of questioning regarding his fidelity. For example, a conversation with my directrice’s daughter:
Her: So do you have a boyfriend?
Me: Oh yes. He’s in the state’s finishing his studies.
Her: But when you’re over here, how do you know he won’t find someone else?
Me: He won’t. He’ll be faithful.
Her: Michelle, (giving me a look) how can you be sure?
Me: I’m sure.
Her: Michelle, (continuing to give me concerned looks and switching to a more serious tone) are you sure?
Me: (still semi smiling) Yes.
Her: (again – this time in English to make sure I understand) Are you sure?
Me: (trying vainly to remain polite) Yes.
Her: (pause as she processes) Well do you have any boyfriends in Yevie?
• I met my exotic fruit lady on a walk one morning. She insisted I accompany her to see a house her family was building. I saw the floor plans and returned home…only to receive a visit an hour or two later as my fruit lady had arrived with a zem to ferry me to meet her older sister who had come in from Cotonou bringing cement. I again complied, thinking it was a saluering thing. Instead, I got my first proposition of the day as they wanted to set me up….aka get me engaged…to a son currently living in Canada. Granted, it would make the geography easier, but never the less, I apologized by bringing up my fictional boy. Another win for my imaginary love life. Then their own apologies started, “Oh we’re sorry – we didn’t mean to disrupt your schedule. We thought you were single. You can go now.” So you wouldn’t have wanted to meet me if I were married? To top it off, on my walk back home (no zem for the return trip) an older man (60s maybe) provided the second proposal by greeting me, shaking my hand, keeping my hand, and dictating – we need to get married. Again, quick excuse that I’m already taken, retrieval of my hand, and a remaining walk of suppressed laughter. After all, what else can you do? I’m going to take it as a compliment that so many people want to see me as a bride.
I restarted my girls’ club last week, expanding to include the 4eme girls from last year as well as a new batch of 5eme students (which roughly translates to 8th and 7th grades respectively – in the French system, schooling counts down until you reach your premier and then terminal (i.e. BAC) year). After last week’s introduction (rules, expectations, review, etc.), we continued this week with a focus on gender roles and a game to tease out their ideas and definitions of such: each girl received a word or phrase that they had to immediately categorize as masculine, feminine, or both. I’m impressed with them for classifying things like going to school or playing sports or writing a novel or being a TV spokesperson as the purview of both sexes. However, it’s interesting to see them place tasks like cleaning the house, getting water, sweeping, taking care of children, etc. as exclusively things women do. Meanwhile, the single masculine prerogative: decision making for the entire family.
That same attitude bled a little into my health club lesson for the week. With the help of Christine, the directrice at the clinic, we (key here to remember the audience is a mixed gender group of high school students) learned about the importance and variety of family planning methods. (My contribution remained with introductory games and writing everything on the board leaving the much harder task of actual explanations to Mama Christine). At the very end, Mama Christine had brought condoms to distribute to the kids. A few of the boys piped up, “Wait – those are just for the guys right? The girls cannot have them.” I’m proud of myself for the quick comeback, “Of course they can! They are the ones who would actually have the baby and do all the work!”
As always, it seems I’m leaning towards a gender rant – to balance it out, here’s a cultural observation from the other end of life’s spectrum. The father of one of the clinic apprentices passed away sometime this past month and today was the burial. Hence, I spent my morning semi awkwardly standing in a field with the clinic staff and people from the village as Beninese men heaped dirt into a burial hut. I never got an explanation for why he was buried on a plot of the family’s land instead of a ceremony, but apparently it isn’t that uncommon. Sometimes, I’m informed, the relative even gets buried beneath the floor of the family’s home.
The rest of the process was likewise a bit foreign as the family is expected to host a party (i.e. like all parties here – a meal to feed everyone) following the funeral for all of the friends and neighbors. Those guests will give money to offset the cost, but the brunt of the work still falls on the grieving family. I tried to explain that that was the opposite of the states: people would look at you strangely for trying to pass off money, but everyone would show up with a casserole dish of some sort. Furthermore, the older the deceased, the larger the party – I guess to reflect a celebration of their life as opposed to the unfortunate harsh realities of infant mortalities (children would not receive the same treatment or ceremony).
The differences, good or bad as they may be, still left me a bit perplexed as I had no idea of what was expected of me. Regardless, I survived (as the writing attests) and now only have to worry about preparing dinner.
My electricity was out the majority of last week in a village wide power cut that left me with a dead phone and both laptop batteries (including my backup) almost depleted. My escapist tendency to watch TV shows in the evening as a means to ignore the dark and the encroaching humidity may have quickened the depletion, but it did make me realize how much I 1. love my fan (absence does make the heart grow fonder); 2. take somewhat functioning electricity (i.e. at least a few hours every day) for granted even in Africa; and 3. rely on my phone for a sense of time.
I knew when it was morning and afternoon and had a more focused sense of when it hit 7 in the evening (the sun started setting), but beyond that it became harder to gauge my schedule, which was especially challenging as I’m trying to start clubs up again at the school. I understand a little bit now how Beninese can have such a different, more fluid relationship with time. And it’s interesting to imagine how much the arrival of cell phones changed and will even continue to change those societal norms, not just with the communication aspects but with the unexpected things – like always knowing the time.
Phones here also come equipped with similar perks in the standard of a built in flash light and a radio feature. I find the flashlight one of the best inventions ever and have spent minutes wondering why the states does not pick up on this trend….only to belatedly realize that illumination probably does not pose the same problem in the US.
Beninese phones, like those in Europe, run based on the sim card system where you purchase your phone and a pay as you go plan separately. To recharge, you simply buy more credit (scratch lottery style slips of paper with numeric codes) to enter into your phone. It’s also cool (or more cost effective or a guarantee of more complete coverage) to have multiple sim cards from different networks at the same time – whether in several different phones or in a dual sim version.
I digress. Regardless, the one upside of no electricity came in spending a little more time on my front porch with my neighbors. We shared a story session wherein I learned: 1. Aesop and Mother Goose make for much better gender neutral/empowerment (and easily translatable) stories than Disney; 2.Polygamy adds a whole other level of nuance to the idea of an evil stepmother; and 3. Culture plays quite a large role in shaping those stories. I’m just happy that we had the chance to exchange a few.
“I think your identity should come from something you take pride in. It shouldn’t be something that just sets you apart from other people, it should be one of those things that people generally understand is a good thing, something we all share, rather than what separates us. I mean, the things that make up our identity are deeper things than skin color…Things…like character or our faith or how we treat other people. And if we talked instead about that stuff, I’m sure we could agree on what was good or, at least, on the way we ought to be.” - A Hope in the Unseen: Ron Suskind
I strongly believe that race is a human construct and that the color of one’s skin does no implicitly dictate or limit one’s ability and potential. However, society somewhere along the way started to use skin tone as a measuring stick, and I think that legacy has heavy ramifications despite our desire to deny it. I understand the whole in group / out group dynamic, the comfort of sticking with people who look like you and who grew up like you. I can even imagine how fear of the outsider, the other, is born. Yet, living in Benin as a clear minority and outsider has given me a glimmer of perspective for how it feels to be on the other side.
It’s a heady thing to be instantly recognized – and judged – for your skin color. I am literally called white girl (yovo) once if not multiple times a day. Often, it’s just a way of getting my attention, my identifiable feature in a culture that names people by profession or physical characteristics: at the clinic, the nurse is always called infirmiere; in the market, you call people with the cry of coconu, bissapnu – literally the person who sells that object. Other times, the times more likely to irritate, it’s more of a repetitive chant that stems from an urge to amuse or the childlike excitement for the new exotic animal at the zoo. And even then, sometimes it’s in a nice way while others it’s much more mocking. You can always tell the difference, although my tolerance does vary depending on my mood. On my worst days, I refuse to answer to Yovo. Instead, I feel a sudden urge to start yelling blue or orange or purple or some other arbitrary color at people, labels that have little to do with who we are or what we want to become.
Yet, the fact that I am a white continues to create expectations even before the start of a conversation or relationship. For me, those restrictions remain mostly benign, at worst an assumption that I have heaps of money and both an endless supply and desire to hand out gifts and / or visas. I can only imagine what it must be like to start with more sinister parameters, when everyone sees you only to immediately edge away thinking illegal immigrant or gang member or terrorist or thug. What in the world would that do to your psyche? Especially if you’re still trying to figure out for yourself who you are.
I think it gets even more complicated when you factor in historical discrepancies in the distribution of resources and capital. The world, unfortunately, is not an equal place, and many people must face a consistent limitation in the opportunities available to them. What happens when faced with those constraints? When it seems more difficult – if not impossible – to take a different path and prove all of the prejudices wrong? Would you eventually resign yourself to living in the box constructed by someone else’s designation of the lines? To unconsciously accepting those stereotypes as the realities of your world?
I’m probably getting a little too philosophical – a result of my latest string of books (The Immortal Life of Herietta Lacks, Tattoos on the Heart, and An Unseen Hope). I guess my end point is that we should strive to make skin color only part of our visual palate and less a part of our identity or how we judge. So with that, happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
There’s something ignoble about suffering a sinus infection in Africa. Regardless, I picked one up last weekend that lingered throughout the week, tingeing everything with a very down the rabbit hole type feeling. And I guess when it comes down to it, some of our Peace Corps exploits would fit right in with a children’s adventure plot.
For example, this past Sunday, I spent a portion of my day watching teeth being pulled, the process aided only by surface anesthetics. Mama Christine, the directrice of the clinic, had sweet talked a dentist into giving free consultations at the NGO headquarters and second clinic located in the much larger, nearby city of Calavi. After an obligatory bit of watching, I politely bowed out to mingle with waiting patients and catch up with the headquarter staff. They laughed at me, as usual, for being scared at the sight of blood –a slightly false impression but somehow I cannot convince them that it’s just a dislike of seeing people in pain while knowing that my voyeurism can do nothing to help.
I used the excuse of that weekend working and the lingering cold to take it slow Monday, that is until the biking crew showed up. A group of my fellow volunteers are in the process of biking across Benin – from the North down the west of the country and then turning around to do the other side back up. I know Benin is a small country, but I’m still impressed especially as I think they are clocking somewhere between 80 and 120 kilometers per day. When they arrived, we had our own style of Mad Hatter Tea – bean tacos with various salsas and a pineapple upside down cake courtesy of the 13 pineapples they were gifted along the way: what can I say – I live in pineapple country and Beninese tend to take hospitality seriously.
I joined in their trek for a bit on Tuesday, helping them cross my nearby river by canoe and biking partially across the peninsula. They continued the rest of the day, finally reaching the other side and taking another canoe to arrive north of Porto Novo. It was not the smoothest ride – the lack of anything other than foot traffic ensured only single file paths through the fields, while the area’s seasonal flooding ruined any of those existing routes. Nonetheless, it was a gorgeous stretch – fields without interruption, no buildings and only the occasional famer passing through. Our string of white bikers, needless to say, created quite a sensation for the few people we did pass. I’m just happy that my Fon stretches enough to explain and to ask for directions as we had definitely entered a territory where very few of the villagers spoke French. A wonderland indeed.
Last but not least, this pas Thursday was Voodoo Day – an official holiday in Benin to celebrate indigenous religions. I did not do much to celebrate as our ceremonies started late, slipping into evening hours when I’m usually already tucked in my house. Still, in my mind, I like to think of those fetishes as the Beninese versions of the chesire cat. After all, with all that, Lewis Carroll himself would be well pleased.
I’m getting slightly tired of playing catch up…..so forgive the bulleted Christmas list as a means of launching more quickly into the New Year.
• In the weeks leading up to Christmas, I did my best to get in the holiday mood ( a somewhat difficult task given the heat and lack of immediate family…..Benin also just seems to celebrate the week of rather than for the entire month) with a carol playlist, a red and white candy cane striped pedicure, felt gingerbread men construction (courtesy of a package and kit from Mom), and a workstation weekend dedicated to the baking of Christmas cookies (which with the gingerbread men ornaments made perfect gifts for all of my friends in village).
• Little Christmas Eve (aka December 23) saw me traveling to Anna’s post to help her with her Christmas event the following day. Her CPS (I guess the best translation would be a social services center) was running a Christmas party for orphans of the area, a celebration complete with lunch, presents, and Santa. Originally scheduled for noon, the event – like any good Beninese occasion – did not really start until around 4. Fortunately, that gave us time to organize the present so we could be ready when Santa finally arrived (in creepy mask and surgical gloves as apparently Papa Noel must be white despite the Halloween aspects that entails).
• This isn’t especially relevant but I have to note our delicious string of pasta dishes chex Anna…all covered with parmesan cheese (!!!) thanks to her generosity and American mail.
• For Christmas itself, a group of 12 volunteers plus assorted visiting family members got together in Nora and Lorelie’s village. Lots of good food and laughter – and for moments a truly Christmas atmosphere. We even got Brendan to dress as Santa and lead us in a walk around the neighborhood, alternating between terrifying children (we were after all a posse of white people) and caroling.
• My New Year likewise had its own Beninese twist, but again one involving one of my substitute families as I spent New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day visiting with my neighbor Celine and her relatives in a nearby village. It makes me feel blessed to know that I have so many people with whom I can spend the holidays –after all, that’s what they are all about.
So in closing, and in true Beninese fashion (they really seem to like the endless rounds of saluering), I wish you heureuse année and a long list of health, happiness, love, friendships, good fortune, wisdom, riches – basically toutes les bonnes choses dans la vie!