I have a lot of free time on my hands these days. Peace Corps Volunteer jobs in my program—Community Economic Development—are part-time in Benin. This gives volunteers the freedom to get involved in community life and pursue secondary projects. Since I’m still getting acquainted with my job and laying the groundwork for secondary projects, I have relatively few demands on my time right now.
I also have limited ways to spend this time, compared to my life in the States. My craft supplies are buried 4,000 miles away amidst the skyscrapers of boxes stored in my Mom’s attic. There aren’t many cultural institutions or events in our town, never mind movie theaters or bars showing American sports. The thrift shopping possibilities are limited to two women who sell salvaged plastic containers at the market. Besides, shopping here is exhausting and aggressive–the Benin market experience has completely redefined my notion of ‘sensory overload.’ Moving through the market, I get jostled constantly by women (there are few men at the market) pushing through the narrow aisles, whose centers double as gutters and toilets for small children. The aisles aren’t only for pedestrians: motos zip through carrying passengers and precarious loads of cargo. Sellers call out to me from every angle: “Yooooovooooo! What do you want to buy?” “Yovo, come buy this.” “YOVO! Oranges! Oranges! Oranges!” “Yovo! Look at this!” If I let my gaze linger too long on a table full of goods, I may get physically dragged over and pulled into a discussion about why I should buy something. When I come home, I might go hang out at Walmart just for the thrill of being ignored by salespeople. But I digress.
I’d be crazy to complain about free time, of course, and I’m making the most of it. Adam and I have been exploring town and going for a lot of long bike rides. But you can only do these things for so long before the sun, the rutted roads, or the yovo song burns you out. (The yovo song is really a chant. It goes: “Yovo, yovo. Bonsoir. Ça va bien? Merci.” Kids sing it at white people. It’s friendly, but tiresome. Actually, everyone, of any age, calls white people yovo. They call light-skinned Beninese people yovo, too; my office mate is nicknamed yovo. I wonder if placing my desk in that room was an inside joke? The whole phenomenon is definitely worth its own post… stay tuned.)
There are several Volunteers living in our area, and we hang out with them from time to time. And there are also home improvement projects (most recently we built a raised garden bed on the front edge of our patio), learning to bake in a dutch oven, and half-marathon training.
On the work front, I’ve been keeping busy by researching potential projects. I work at the local arm of the agricultural extension service, helping collectives of market gardeners and food processors improve their business practices. There are several new employees at my workplace, so in this first month I’ve been tagging along as my colleagues visit the collectives we regularly work with and establish points of contact. The visits have got me thinking about solar-powered drip irrigation and potential markets for manioc products (exciting!). I’ve also started the ball rolling to provide a scholarship to a high school girl in our town (through a nationwide Peace Corps program established several years ago in Benin).
Still, after the dust settled from moving in and I developed something of a routine here at site, I realized that I have time to read like crazy. I started keeping a record of books read and realized I’m averaging less than a week per book. This reminded me of my friend Drew’s project to read 52 books per year, and I officially decided to do the same during my second year of Peace Corps service. My book year began September 14th—Benin Swearing-In Day—and I’ll be documenting it here as I go.