Monday, April 27, 2009

Decisions

I have made the very difficult decision to end my service in Benin. It's been a hell of a year. After experiencing difficulties with a homologue who was doing black magic on me in my village and moving to the capital and coming up on empty with my ONG and housing situation, I am really exhausted. The constant harassment I have faced has really worn me down here. It is difficult for me to walk down the street alone, go to the marche, the bank, etc. I have Zem's who are impolite, and am approached by strange men all the time. At first, it was just Yovo, or cherie, or I want to marry you. Then it was being followed and phone calls and being pulled off the side of the road by my wrists when I refused to respond to their advances. I've had people pull up next to me on motos, grab my wrists and say "I'm going to kiss you". I've had very inappropriate comments yelled at me from across the street. After a while it gets difficult to go places alone, and you start to lose your sense of security and freedom. While there are things I love about Benin and will miss dearly, my experience here has been at times heartbreaking. I spent a wonderful Easter weekend with my Beninese host family and friends. I never thought it would be possible to integrate into this society where I am actually considered a part of the family and not an outsider or even a guest. The conversations I've had with people have been eye opening and amazing and I am so lucky to have been able to make friends in Porto Novo where the French level is high enough that I can actually communicate with people on a real level. Peace Corps, they say has your highest highs and lowest lows. Easter weekend was definitely a high. But Easter Monday was definitely the lowest of my lows. Unfortunately, I am no longer willing to wait for the next high. I went to the beach with my host family and group of friends. There were about 3 families with us, several young people and older people. We had a pic nic and listened to music and we waded into the water together. The beach was crowded and we were all holding hands to try to stay together as we went into the water. (Note we were not swimming, we were just wading in about waist deep- the waves can be dangerous here and no one wanted to go out very far) There were two guys from the family who came with us, four teenage girls, my college aged sister, myself, my 22 year old cousin and 2 of his friends from the gendarme school, and my two host brothers, 15 and 20. We were in a group together and all the sudden I was being grabbed by the wrists and yanked away, being pulled by this group of guys we didn't know who wanted to take photos with me and were pulling me into the water with them. I managed to free myself, but they pursued. There were perhaps 10 of them. I was shoved in the middle of this circle that my host family and friends formed around me, along with 2 other girls. All the sudden these other guys were pushing their way into the circle and grabbing me, and touching me in sexual and inappropriate ways. Fighting started breaking out between my friends and the guys harassing me, my host mama was screaming, and some of the papas came down to break things up. It was completely awful. I had been grabbed, pinched, fondled and groped by 5 or 6 guys in broad daylight in front of hundreds of people including my host family. I felt completely violated, angry, and scared. I never would have thought people could act that way, especially when I was with a large group of Beninese people. This incident is not pleasant to write about, but I want to accurately depict my time in Benin, the good along with the bad- and why I have decided to go home. It was difficult enough dealing with the comments and harassment every day but now I know what can actually happen- despite the presence of Beninese people. It is still unfathomable to me- how could that have happened? It was a very difficult week for me after I made the decision to go home. I will miss my fellow volunteers, my host family and Beninese friends, and all the cultural exchanges I make on a daily basis with people here. I will miss certain aspects of Beninese culture, though the attitudes about women and the way I've been treated here is something I cannot tolerate. I will miss the music and dancing and the palm trees and igname pile with sauce d'arrachide and wagashi. I will miss bissap and phrases like "donne moi ca" "doucement" and " ah bon" I will miss the fetes and the crazy, loud tissu and how they think the most tacky things here are "tres jolie". When I think about the past year it is completely exhausting. I've had really tough times and really great times. I've learned so much in the past year and I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to travel and live in another country and try to understand the way people live and think here. My memories of Benin will be bittersweet. I am still trying to comprehend how a day like Easter can be so perfect, and the following day a trip to the beach could be so completely awful.

The meeting

Though annoyed by the Director's constant unavailability, I was optimistic about this meeting. PC had set up a meeting with me for the following week to discuss our plan of action as far as work goes- with my boss from PC present. It looked as though things were about to get moving on my housing situation. The director called in the director of the kid's library and I immediately realized that this was not going to be a conversation about my house. To summarize the meeting, I was told that I was not integrating well into the ONG, that I didn't have any friends within the ONG, that the director was not going to let me do health related activities, that they wanted to teach English and play with the kids at the library and they expected me to understand their local language, Goun. I was not to work with any other outside partners, I was only to work with them, and I was getting the house next door to my host family whether or not there were any problems- that was the house I was getting and there were no other options. There was no discussion, I was cut off each time I tried to talk, and it was clear that the director did not' want any conversation- it was a lecture, a "this is what you are going to do because I say so" and that's just the way it was going to be. He then said I had to move all my furniture out of my old house and give him the key by Friday because he had a stagiare coming in and he wanted to put them in my old house. I didn't have a new house yet, so I had no idea what I was supposed to do with my belongings, but it was clear that he did not really care. I realized that what this ONG expected me to do was not what I came here to do. They were not willing to compromise or negotiate on my role within their organization and they had the power of renting my house to hold over my head. They had not been looking for a house for me as they said they were, they were not taking my security concerns seriously, and I was being kicked out of my house with nowhere to put my stuff. I knew that there was no way to work with this ONG. I just hit a brick wall as far as housing and work go.

the buildup

So that morning I went to go see the director. I walked to the office- it was about a 40 minute walk in the hot sun. They said he wasn't there, he was at the pharmacy. I went to the pharmacy, snuck in and quietly sat down because it looked like they were about to start a meeting of some sort. It was the first time I had been to the pharmacy( though I had asked numerous times to be taken there) and I had not been told anything about a meeting. I looked around for my director and didnt' see him anywhere. PC called me and said they had just spoken to the director, he was at the main office and he was waiting for me there to talk about my house. So I went all the way back over to the main bureau. He wasn't there. The office was closed and the doors were locked. I called and he didn't answer. PC called and he didn't answer. I waited and waited. Finally, I gave up and went home. I was sunburt, frustrated and angry. I had been searching frantically for this man who was the only person who knew anything about my housing, never answered my calls, emails or showed up for our scheduled meetings. I walked all the way back home, ate lunch and then PC called me and said he was in his office now, so go back over there. Why couldn't he just call me directly? I thought this was absurd. I walked back over there. He was with a client. I waited and waited. He finally called me in.

Easter

My host brother came home for Easter. I was so excited to see him. He is probably one of my closest friends here. Easter weekend we went to several fetes. There was midnight mass at the church, and then it was party time. We saw local dancers and singers and had drinks until 5 in the morning. It was a really fun night. My host sister came with me and her cousin and a friend of hers. I had secretly been hoping my host sister would date this friend of hers, because he is one of the nicest, most respectful men I have met in Benin and he totally adores her. We rolled in around 5 and slept for a few hours... at 8 they were up and cooking for Easter. We had pate rouge (the most tolerable of the pates) and chicken with jus (tomatoes, onions) and my host Maman even bought me a soda. That evening we went to a friend's house where we were recieved with more food, and then headed over to a buvette where he was performing with his local hip hop band. Afterwards, my host brother, sister, cousin and I went into town and watched dancing at an outdoor concert. They were still feting Easter weekend.

Later in the week I went to see my sister at Calavi- the largest university in Benin. She is studying to be a vet and I got to tour the campus as well as the laboratory where she has biology classes. It was very interesting to see college life in Benin.

I was called by PC and rushed back to Porto Novo because I was told the Director of my ONG and I were going to see the inside of the potential house near my host family. I got to Porto and called the director- no response. I walked over to the house- the proprietor wasn't there. I was confused. I finally saw the proprietor on Sunday. He told me the director had tried to put down an advance for the house- and he had refused. He wasn't going to let us see the house or talk about money until May 5. That put us back another two and a half weeks. I was starting to get discouraged. I hadn't had a house in over a month. The director was never available. This house was promising, but if we couldn't even see the inside until May 5, and there happened to be a problem, that would mean repairs could take weeks longer. I wasn't comfortable agreeing to a house that had not been inspected. My boss at PC agreed that it wasn't a good idea to commit to a house that could have major problems. This was really dragging on and she wanted the ONG to let us know what other options they had come up with, in case it was possible to move into a house within the next week or so instead of waiting just to see this other house. I was told to go see the director the next morning.

What now?

So I went to my ONG to try to figure out what was going on with my housing situation. PC had let them know of the options we had found and to see if they had come up with any- which is their responsibility, it is in the contract to provide housing for the volunteer. I was planning on going home for vacation in June and got my vacation form signed. I talked to my supervisor about doing sensibilizations and the malaria training we had coming up with Peace Corps. I wanted to invite someone to the session and was explaining to her the role of the homologue, and who did she think would be a good work partner for me. She wasn't very happy about the malaria training. She said she didn't realize I wanted to do sensibilizations and that she didn't want me to work with them in the community. I was confused- but that's what I came here for... She said she didnt' know what to do with me because I don't speak Goun. But I learned French to work here... It didn't matter, she said they speak Goun in the community. No health stuff for me- go back to the kids library and do English there.


So I scheduled a meeting with PC to find out if they had any advice on how I could work with my ONG and still do health-related activities- not teach English. I came back with a plan, and a whole lot of books and resources. I was going to try to do a little bit of English, and health related sensibilizations with the kids at the library. In addition, I was going to look for outside partners in the community. Maybe the Mayor's office, local CEG (schools), and the ONG that had let me stay in their room who had invited me out in the villages to work with them. I was not just a volunteer for my ONG but for the city of Porto Novo. Just keep the lines of communication open with the ONG and we thought that would be fine.

Dogbo- scout is the devil

So I had heard about all these cooking sessions in Dogbo and how this volunteer named Dennis was just like a chef-God and was making stuff like meatloaf and homemade pasta. I am hopelessly cooking-challenged and was very jealous of Catherine, who in addition to her own cooking abilities had this guy Dennis in her region. So when I was invited to hamburger night I was very excited. I got in a taxi and thought I was in luck when the driver said he was going all the way to Kome and I didn't have to switch taxi's in Cotonou. Well, as it goes in Benin, I was not in luck at all. There were two men who asked me for my phone numbers and addresses in the car- old, discusting men, who said they wanted to marry me. Then the taxi driver pulled over just outside of Kome and left us in the car for about 40 minutes while he went off somewhere. Finally we were on our way again- except we were going the wrong way. Instead of heading towards Dogbo on the paved road we were heading straight into the bush. Some guy jumped on top of our car and said he was our guide. He "guided" us straight into the jungle. There wasn't even a path where villagers had walked or cows had trodded. It was just straight up palm trees slapping us in the face though the windows. But there were villagers present- lots of them with machetes. They had created a road block with a tree trunk and were demanding 100 cfa from us. The driver paid. We continued.... another road block, and another and another.... There was a grandpa, a group of guys, a group of school girls waving their machetes while sporting their khaki school uniforms, and then there was a group of men with iron jaws laid out across the road and their leader was swinging a hoe dangerously close to the windshield which I happened to be sitting right behind, as I was in the middle seat in the front, basically sitting on top of the gear shifter. Finally, after all our fees had been paid the guide asked for 500 CFA as payment and we were allowed to exit the jungle and head back onto the paved road. It turns out the driver didn't have all his paperwork in order for the taxi and had to take a detour to avoid going through the police. He dropped me off on the side of the road and I found my second taxi to Dogbo. The driver was once again- a jerk. He talked all about how he was going to marry me the entire time while the other two women in the car laughed at me hysterically when I told them I didn't understand Aja. They then decided that screaming Aja at me would be even funnier and proceeded to do that for the hour long trip. The chauffer dropped me off in Dogbo- stole 300 francs from me and then tried to kiss me. I was not amused. Finally I found a Zem- thank God, I thought. I'm here. Well not quite. The zem got lost- even though he said he knew where Catherine's house was. Then his moto broke down on the side of the road. He called me another Zem who also got lost and then when he finally arrived at Catherine's house, stole 50 CFA from me. I spent the night with Catherine and everything was fine until I was jarred from my sleep by her demon cat which was chewing on my foot. No matter what I did, she kept coming back, jumping on my bed and digging her little claws into my leg while nibbling on my toes.

So the next day was hamburger night. Was it worth the machete weilding villagers, the abnoxious taxi driver, and the demon cat? Yes, it was. It was delicious. We had hamburgers- will real ketchup, coleslaw, potato salad. Devils food cake, recees peices dessert and jello. It was diviiiine.

Kristen was our hostess and she was so kind to share her Easter goodies with us. Her dog, Jasper was sick, and we were really worried about him, but I think that he's okay now. Apparently, he had a problem with his bladder and the vet said it was because he wasn't getting enough sex. Its just like men, he said, they have to release the sperm somehow otherwise they get sick. Apparently this is also a justification for men cheating on their wives. Anyway, it was a great weekend- until Monday morning when I was awaken by the aroma of vomit and the sound of Catherine retching into a bucket. She had gotten really sick during the night. The doctors asked her to come in, so I went with her- she didn't think she could make the trip in the taxi. We made it without incident. I stopped in to talk to PC about my housing situation. I was getting put in a temporary room for the time being. It was a fellow volunteer's ONG, and the people there were so great and helfpul and accomodating. The room, however, wasn't the greatest. It was really small, you had to stand on top of the toilet to take a shower, and there was a huge hole in the wall which left me open to invasion by mosquitos and ants. The ants ate all my food. The mosquitos ate me. There was no way to hang up my bugnet. I lasted about a week, and then went back to the host family's. I worked it out with my host maman that she wasn't going to be buying food for me or doing anything to put her out, she could just give me a place to sleep and it was fine. So I waited and waited to hear back on the house. Then I found a possibility on my own. PC came down to look at the options and let the ONG know we needed to get moving on this. I found a house next to my host family for an affordable price. The only problem was the proprietor was refusing to let us see the inside- which made me think there was probably some kind of problem. He said we could look at it after the current resident had moved out- at the end of the month. That would be a few more weeks.

problems in the neighborhood

So I had been having some difficulties with people in my neighborhood that had resulted in me asking my ONG to move my house at the end of February. I had not heard back from the director and had not been able to catch him at the office- he was either not there or too busy. My problems consisted of men following me to work, showing up at work, following me home, following me, sometimes in pairs on their motos, and trying to cut me off en route to work in order to talk to me. Talking meant saying things like, they were going to marry me, they were coming to my house tonight, they wanted to sleep with me, they know where I live and where I work and they are coming over to see me, they wanted to give me rides on their motos, they wanted to have mixed children with me, or other blatantly rude or vulgar comments about they way I walked or looked. I was getting very stressed out and worn down by the constant struggle to leave my house every day when I knew what awaited me on my way to work. Riding my bike didn't change anything because they still followed me with their motos. Sometimes they cut me off, or waited for me at my gate when I arrived from work. I tried to avoid them, ignore them, yell at them, tell them to go away, to leave me alone, tell them I was married, etc. Nothing was working. Then some of them started coming up and grabbing me by the wrists and trying to pull me over to "talk" to them off the side of the road. I started feeling very threatened when people started to touch me. Then I started getting creepy phone calls from someone who was watching me when he called. I left for work in the morning and he would say "Where are you going? I'll give you a ride, I'm coming with my moto". I would refuse, tell him I didn't know him, never call me again. He continued to call for about 4 weeks. He called when I got home from work as well, and he said he knew me, that I didn't know him, but he knew my house and where I worked. There were a few men who tried to pick me up on their motos as well- though I don't know if these men were related to the man calling me. I began to get really creeped out, and that's when I asked the director to move my house. When Kate was murdered Peace Corps jumped on my situation and told me I was moving. I requested to be in the neighborhood with my host family as I thought it would be safer to have friends and family around and be in an area where I knew my way around and people knew me. I also thought I would benefit from being located far away from work so people wouldn't be able to follow me. Just being able to tell people I lived with a family (although I wouldn't actually be living in the same house, just close by) was somewhat of a deterrant for people who said they would be dropping by during the night to visit me. Peace Corps thought this was a good idea, though my ONG didn't seem to eager to find new housing for me. I had waited for a few weeks and had been staying with my host family, which was getting to be a bit of a strain on them. I started looking for houses on my own since I could never get in touch with the director of my ONG. In the meantime I was invited to Dogbo to attend a "cooking session." The theme was American Food night.