Tag Archives: anxiety

Motorcycle Repair Shop

IMG_1943 IMG_1944

After watching in horror as my driver dragged his feet on the ground to stop his motorcycle, I’ve learned to check that the brakes work before getting on a motorbike taxi. Luckily the average speed on local roads is 30 miles per hour or less.

Small motorcycles, dirt bikes and mopeds vastly outnumber cars on Benin’s roads. Roadside mechanics like this keep the bikes running long after they’d be thrown in the junk heap in the US. Safety norms aren’t up to American standards and a vehicle inspection process, if it exists, is not enforced.


What I Do

I’m like many Peace Corps Volunteers in that my roles and responsibilities at work are constantly evolving. It’s normal, but unfortunately keeps me from sharing work updates on this blog because it’s hard to know what to write. I’d be hard-pressed to describe a typical workday, but if any single day could capture my work here in Benin, a certain Wednesday in late February would serve pretty well. Let me tell you about it.

I’m part of the Community Economic Development program, whose broad goals are business development and personal money management. I work with market gardening and food processing collectives through a local office of the national agricultural extension service. Beginning in September when Adam and I moved to our site, I started building relationships with the collectives, including one that processes palm oil.

Collectives are common here, but they vary in format. Some are for women only (although men often hold the leadership roles), some are mixed. Some focus on gardening, some on processing, some on services (like musical performance) and some lack focus at all. In some groups, members work together closely and pool profits; in others, the members work more independently. There is a strong tendency to form collectives, particularly among women, but many of them don’t reap the full potential benefits.

The collective that this story is about owns land, a building and equipment, which are rare assets. The women are all concerned primarily with other home-based businesses, but they benefit greatly from the collective during the palm harvest season, when they use the giant boiling vats and settling tanks to extract oil.

Through the course of our initial meetings with the group, when we were trying to assess their needs and plan our intervention, my counterpart and I learned that the women had participated in a loan association in the past with good results. Loan associations can be really useful for people who don’t qualify for formal loans or can’t afford the risk (even of microcredit). The way they work is that a group manages a fund that each member is entitled to borrow from in turn, with fees and penalties that go back to the pool of capital. They are self-regulated based on trust, mutual interest and personal reputation.

The collective’s prior loan association had long since paid out its dividends and wrapped up, and the women were interested in starting anew. I was excited to help them, but wondered what obstacles were preventing the group from doing this on its own. If they’d had success in the past, why wouldn’t they just replicate the process? Turns out their first association had received start-up money to fund its loans.

It was a clever arrangement that had enabled all the collective’s members to benefit individually from a grant made to the group. Now the women were waiting for another donor to start again, but that’s not something I am able or willing to arrange for them. First of all, Peace Corps Benin does not provide seed funds for loan associations. But more importantly, I know that the women could self-fund their loans and that doing so would be a more empowering, sustainable and capacity-building exercise than accepting external funding.

At any rate, I had agreed to help the women form a loan association, and my counterpart and I had scheduled a small meeting with the group’s leaders to talk about the methods. I got hold of a good village savings and loan association training program from a fellow volunteer and talked it over with my counterpart, who was really enthusiastic about the program. Since he is also working with the president of the collective on a separate project, he combined errands and scheduled the two meetings back-to-back. Thus began my Wednesday.

We arrived at the association president’s home, shook hands and exchanged greetings. Meeting times here are more like guidelines than rigid plans. “We’ll meet at 10am” means, “Show up at 10am and I’ll most likely be there, or at least be willing to head over pretty soon after you show up.” Now that we’d arrived, the president put on some music, sent a kid to go buy sodas and started calling participants on his phone to tell them to head over. Every five minutes or so, another participant arrived, the greetings were repeated and someone pulled up another chair.

I sat on the sidelines and observed while the group made small talk in Fon (the de facto common language of this group.) Once everyone had arrived, my counterpart and his colleague went through their business. I kept busy by rereading and refining my notes in preparation for our part of the meeting because I don’t speak Fon and couldn’t follow their conversation.

Official meetings always require me to carefully plan what I’m going to say. I come equipped with a vocabulary list of key French words and phrases in case I draw a blank—in this instance cotiser (“to pay dues or contributions”), dispositive (“system”), parts (“shares”) and prêter (“to loan”). If I’m going to be explaining a detailed concept I bullet it out so that I can maintain a clear logical flow and don’t skip over important information.

The first piece of business wrapped up an hour or so later, and we took a break for orange sodas. Since my piece of business was unrelated to the previous stuff, the president had to call several leaders of the women’s group and tell them to come. Again, we shot the breeze for a half hour or so while everyone assembled. The CD started over from track one for the third (maybe the fourth) time. I decided I should buy a copy.

Once the women arrived my counterpart and I presented our training proposal. The program we proposed is simple, self-driven and has room for growth. Under this system, a group of about 20 people meets weekly to make mandatory deposits. They decide what the minimum and maximum payments are at the outset, based on what they know they can pay. Once some capital is accrued—a couple of months—the group starts making loans, and it continues to make new loans as often as money is available. The members decide whether to approve loans based on the quality of the borrower’s plan, with the amount based on how much that person has paid in already. All told, the association functions for about one year, after which the savings, plus profits from service fees, late fees and penalties are divvied out to the members in proportion to their inputs.

These systems have a track record of helping people who don’t have the resources and connections to establish formal savings accounts or qualify for formal loans. It’s a good fit for the women in this collective, who normally save money by hiding it at home, where it’s vulnerable and doesn’t collect interest. I thought the women would see what I saw: a low-risk, low-effort, affordable system that would benefit them all for a long time. I expected a strong positive reaction.

Instead, there was silence.

And discontent. Palpable discontent.

Nobody made eye contact. People slouched in their chairs. Tooth-sucking noises and disgruntled sighs were the only things that broke the silence. Those and the flies buzzing audibly around my orange soda.

I surreptitiously checked my vocab list to boost my confidence and broke the impasse by stating the obvious: “You don’t like the loan system.” The group spoke enough French that this meaning was clear.

No, they informed me, they did not. The women had believed I was going to deliver a grant to serve as the loan capital; otherwise they would not have been interested. I had been expected to come to this meeting with a checkbook (or better yet, cash). Instead I proposed that they invest time and money in an untested system that would offer much smaller loans (at least at first).

I was embarrassed about my clumsy misunderstanding and disappointed that I had let the group down. But before those two feelings, I was just mad.

My counterpart and I had explained in great detail—more than once—that I had not come to this community to disburse funds or to implement top-down projects. Peace Corps volunteers are meant to develop projects in cooperation with community partners, and any grants we obtain require a substantial local contribution. However, most people here are used to being targeted for more passive development programs, where they are offered training and equipment as part of projects designed from far away. These programs can be beneficial, but they have also instilled a certain degree of inertia by spending on readymade solutions that don’t stimulate local innovation.

I had been confident that we were all on the same page, and that I was about to begin a really constructive project with this group, but in fact they had heard what they wanted to. I might draw strong distinctions between myself and other development workers here, but it turns out that the people I work with don’t see a big difference.

I did feel bad about the misunderstanding, but I was frustrated and lost my patience. I responded, too harshly, that I believe it’s better to start where you can rather than waiting for external aid. The group should pool its resources, I explained, and build them up. The vocabulary fairies blessed me even though I had not prepared a list for this contingency. Adrenaline is magic. I finished what was probably the longest and least stuttering—and certainly most forthcoming and opinionated—flow of speech these people had ever heard out of me. I cringed and held by breath as my counterpart translated, although my tone and body language said it all. I was pretty sure I’d overstepped.

To my surprise, the president threw up his arms and exclaimed, “We’ll do it. We’ll start! Jennifer is right!”

A murmur of general agreement emerged, but the vice president remained silent, clearly unconvinced. I turned to him and asked what he thought, and he brought up a salient point: all the members of the collective had believed I was coming with money, and they would not be convinced otherwise. The leaders could say whatever they wanted, but nothing could prove they weren’t hiding the money. “Look at all these soda bottles!” he said. “These women will think we partied.”

The ice-cold reception we’d received now made much more sense. It dawned on me that we were all in a pickle. Not only was there a disappointing absence of money, but we now had the task of repudiating blind faith. In light of this, I felt bad for lashing out, and I apologized.

And how did they respond this time?

“Jennifer,” they said, “we know you never said you had money. We know you said you don’t have money for us. It’s just what we believe. We always believe that yovos are going to bring us stuff.”

And then, after a pause, “Don’t people ask you for money all the time?”

As if maybe I’d been living on another planet.

I told them their jobs are more difficult than mine, and we had another round of sodas.

The Yovo Song Post

To prepare for coming to Benin, I read a lot of volunteer blogs. A recurring theme in them was The Yovo Song; almost all the blogs included some kind of diatribe against it. ‘Yovo’ is the term that southern Beninese use to refer to white people. The Yovo Song (really a chant) goes a few steps further:

         Yovo, yovo, bonsoir!

         Ça va bien?


         {BONUS LINE (rarely heard) : Et chez vous?}

         Yovo, yovo, good evening!

         Is it going well?

         Thank you!

         {BONUS LINE (rarely heard) : And with you?}

Urban legend has it that kids invented the song decades ago to greet white visitors who came to Benin with gifts. As the story goes, it continues to be passed on through generations. Although the blogging volunteers said this song drove them crazy, I had trouble envisioning myself being tormented by singing children. Lo and behold, the Yovo Song phenomenon hit me like a ton of bricks from day one in our town.

I hear ‘yovo’ hundreds, sometimes thousands, of times each day. Every time I leave the house, the bombardment begins. Adults often say ‘yovo’ kind of as a synonym for ‘hello.’ Equally often, they shout it reflexively when I pass by. If I respond, that might be the end of it. But they also might shout ‘Yovo!’ at me again, just for good measure.

          Neighbor: Yovo!

         Me: Bonjour!

         Neighbor: YO-vo!

         Me: Ça va?

         Neighbor: Yo-VO!

         Me: Et la famille?

         Neighbor: YOVOOO!

(I’m tempted to chalk it up to a language barrier, but even people who don’t speak French usually know basic greetings.)

But children love to sing the song. Repeatedly. They are excited because I’m unusual and they want to be acknowledged. Often when I respond with eye contact and a wave or a quick salutation, they dissolve into shy giggles, hide behind each other, or run away. But if it’s a really excited group of the littlest kids—and they can get really excited—they scream at the top of their lungs and jump up and down dance. It’s hysterical, and they keep shouting until I’m out of earshot. The littlest kids don’t know all the words, but that doesn’t stop them. ‘Yovo, yovo, bonsoir! Sa buuuuh nuuuuh? Mmmmmm-mmmmmeh!’

‘Yovo’ isn’t an unfriendly term. Name-calling like this isn’t unique to white people; there’s a tendency here to use titles in place of names for everyone. Many adult women go by ‘mama [their kid’s name],’ or simply ‘mama.’ My coworkers refer to each other by an alphabet soup of job title acronyms. (Since five of them are ‘CPV’ I often haven’t the slightest clue who we’re talking about.) The older men at my job are called ‘doyen,’ a word that respectfully acknowledges their status as senior colleagues. (Except for the light-skinned one, who is ‘yovo.’) The Togolese woman who sells deconstructed tamales at Adam’s workplace is, logically, ‘Togo.’

‘Yovo’ is inclusive. Beninese don’t differentiate much among non-black races: we’re all outsiders together. Access to foreign media and internet are the exception, not the norm, even here in our large town close to the capital. There’s no internet café here; you can’t even buy a newspaper. Our town’s schools have extremely limited resources, so there are no maps of Benin, Africa, other continents, or the world. ‘Yovo’ can refer to anyone with relatively pale skin, just as ‘chinois’ can refer to me, Adam, or any of the three Japanese volunteers who live in our town. Never mind that none of us are Chinese.

Even if ‘yovo’ isn’t derogatory, it is complicated. It goes hand-in-hand with a few other vexing behaviors. In place of greetings, we’re often hit with demands for our money, helmets, bicycles, or pants. In addition, teenagers frequently greet us in falsetto. They talk to each other that way, too, but it can seem really mocking anyway. Responding in a deep bass will get you a blank stare, but high-voicing back sometimes starts a conversation.

There are times when ‘yovo’ is followed by laughter of the ‘at you,’ not the ‘with you,’ variety, and those times are upsetting, but the incessant garden-variety yovo-ing is what really bothers me. It’s dehumanizing to be always called a name. I feel hurt that people call me by a catch-all label even after we become acquainted. I feel offended that the chant never changes from ‘bonsoir,’ even when I’m out running at pre-dawn. I feel disheartened when I say ‘kaalo’ (‘good morning’ in Gun) and only get back ‘yovo.’ It saddens me to always elicit a knee-jerk epithet, rather than a genuine interaction.

At the end of the day, I understand that ‘yovo’ is just the way that people here relate to people like me. It’s what I’m called because it’s what I am. Sure, I live in a concession with Beninese neighbors, shop at the local market, and wear Beninese-style outfits. But I am so conspicuously different it’s laughable: I have a new mountain bike, top-of-the-line helmets for motorcycle and bike, well-made shoes, band-aids, an e-reader.

It’s not only my white skin and possessions that make me a yovo, it’s my behavior, too. Take the way I schedule my time for example. When making plans I prefer to set a specific hour. Beninese people are more comfortable saying ‘in the afternoon.’ Let’s say I make an appointment with the carpenter, and he’s an hour late by my clock. Maybe it’s because he went to do a job in Cotonou for a respected customer, and the old man offers him a beer and wants to talk afterward. I call the carpenter to ask when he’ll arrive. ‘Right now’ is his answer, even though he is a two-hour drive away in Cotonou, because he intends to stop what he’s doing as soon as he politely can and come to my house. I should have taken ‘in the afternoon’ for an answer!

I’m also comparatively uptight about privacy and personal information. If I’m biking through town on my way to a meeting, it’s acceptable for a complete stranger to shout ‘Stop!’ and ask who I am, where I live, where I’m from, where I’m going, what I’ll do there, if I have kids, and more. I’m taken aback that a stranger feels entitled to hold me up and ask all these questions, but I have to remember that I’m the stranger here. If I worry that this will make me late, I shouldn’t, because chance encounters like these cause everyone to show up late from time to time, and it’s acceptable.

One of my biggest reasons for joining the Peace Corps was to experience life in another culture, a process that sounds marvelous but in practice is sometimes rough. I come from a culture that prizes individuality, but that’s not Benin. To accept being called ‘yovo’ feels like a loss of individuality, but it’s a part of Beninese culture and there’s no stopping it. Not every ‘Yovo!’ is an invitation to chat, but it’s not a slur either. So I’m learning to hear ‘yovo’ with Beninese ears.

The Ants: A Horror Story

I have a very high tolerance for insects. One of Adam’s favorite stories involves me hoarding dead roaches in a Ziploc bag under our sink in Brooklyn. Normally, my reactions to bugs are proportionate to their size, and my philosophy is to calmly and quickly get rid of them. Minimal drama. I’m squeamish about crushing the big ones, but it’s no big deal: I just trap them under a glass and toss them out a window. I kept those roaches only just long enough to show Adam, because they were really huge.

In terms of insects, our Peace Corps service got off to an ominous start. The first night of our Cape Verdean homestay, Adam shut the bedroom door to go to bed and came face to face with an enormous spider. He ran to our host parents to ask—in sign language—if the spiders were poisonous. The family laughed uproariously. They just ignored the spiders completely. Adam came back into the room and ordered me to kill the spider, or he wouldn’t get any sleep.

We quickly learned the ropes. Spiders will sense you coming, so you have to attack quickly. You’re really in trouble if they happen to be carrying an egg sack, because then thousands of baby spiders explode from the impact. (Hasn’t happened to me, knock on wood.) You must promptly dispose of any insect carcass, or else undertaker ants will swarm and disassemble it piecemeal. Infestations of little kitchen ants are inevitable; it’s a game of cat and mouse. Double bagging helps. Sort your dried beans carefully before storing them, because whether gifted from friends or purchased at the market, they have pests which will tunnel out after a few days.

The ants taking away the stinkbugs. Which is the lesser of two evils?

The ants taking away the stinkbugs. Which is the lesser of two evils?

We’ve had no respite from the insects here in Benin. Our homestay was a mosquito hotspot. Beninese homes don’t usually have screened doors and windows. As soon as dusk fell, the living room was thick with mosquitoes, a large portion of them attached to Adam’s feet and ankles. This was especially disconcerting because malaria is rampant here.

We’re on our own now, and we live with a lot of bugs, in terms of both quantity and diversity. Adam mentioned the gargantuan latrine roaches on this blog before. These are the least of my worries, especially now that the cat has mastered the art of catching them. I also ignore the orchestra of crickets in our living room and the swarm of tiny flies in the latrine and shower. But then there are the ants. The total body mass of ants in our home is possibly equal to that of another human being—it certainly outweighs the cat.

But the cat is growing, thankfully.

But the cat is growing, thankfully.

The most common ants in our house are the teeny reddish-brown ones in the kitchen. Any time I see one of these ants, I know that writing mass of them lies in waiting underneath a foodstuff nearby. I pick up the bottles of oil and vinegar, the unopened olives, the nori sheets sent from home, each in turn, and eventually reach the jackpot. These ants are slow and weak. Disposing of them is simple: you can just wipe up the whole horde in one swipe of a damp cloth. Inevitably, a few will crawl up your arms, but they don’t bite so it’s all good.

These are the same ants that love bread. One of the greatest things about our town is that it has a bakery. Women come right to our door all day long selling fresh baguettes from baskets balanced on their heads. I used to buy bread to keep on hand for lunch, and that’s how I learned bread is essentially an ant magnet. When they get into a baguette, you have been defeated. And I mean into. A few ants on top hints at a swarm when you tear open the loaf. I tried hanging the bread in a bag from a nail on our shelf—basically dangling in thin air. Adam came home to a line of ants from the floor, up the wall, along the nail, and into the bag.

These same ants—adaptable little buggers!—hang out on the water filters. Open the nozzle and you might just shoot a few into your water bottle. We learned the hard way to take a good look into our drinks before chugging.

Just a little someone I found in my glass of wine one evening.

Just a little someone I found in my glass of wine one evening.

Recently, some slightly larger black ants have colonized the kitchen habitat. These ones gather in a diffuse cloud all over the workspace. They scamper around erratically, but with a particular affinity for the knives. I try to squash them with the old wet-cloth trick, but they disperse, only to regroup as soon as I walk away—it’s like they sense that I’m watching for them. This trick annoys me, but it’s small potatoes compared to the ants that form columns.

The column-forming ants are my Achilles heel—if anything will push me to quit Peace Corps, they are it. They are large, shiny and black. They form up thick hairy lines outdoors at random times and places. The lines are easily two inches thick. The combined foot traffic of thousands of ants digs a furrow into the dirt trail. The ants don’t carry anything. Who knows what they’re up to? And who knows where the lines begin or end… A nest? A food source? A pot of gold? Our Beninese neighbors douse these lines with gasoline to disperse them and then sweep away the trail.

These ants have always creeped me out. They just seem ominous. Then, one day a few weeks ago, I came home and made a beeline for the latrine because I had to pee really badly. After, as I was washing my hands, I noticed movement out of the corner of my eye. Something—a line of ants—was climbing down the wall behind the water barrel. The procession continued down the corner of the stall, across the floor, up the opposite corner, over the top of the wall (it doesn’t reach the ceiling), down the other side, along the floor on the other side, and back up the next wall where our house—mercifully—ends. I don’t know or care where the line went after that. I shuddered mightily as if I had just received an electric shock, grabbed our highly toxic bug spray (probably a close relative of gasoline in an aerosol can), fumigated the back of the house, grabbed the cat, and ran.

These ants bite, and it hurts. I know this because a straggler from the invasion chomped on my hand later that day when I tried to flick him off the soap. I howled so loudly the neighbor responded with alarm. (The back walls between apartments don’t reach to the ceiling either.) My spirit was as injured as my hand was.

I slept fitfully for the next few days, afraid the ants would find us sleeping in our bed at night. Luckily, all that happened was a roach crawled across my face.

Love At First Site

Sometimes we fall in love at first sight, and then there are some things we grow to love. For instance, I loved rugby from day one, but it took me a while—too long—to appreciate cheese. Cape Verde, I loved from day one. Benin is a work in progress.

From the very start of our Peace Corps application process, I envisioned myself loving whatever country I ended up in, regardless of where it was. When I pictured the whole trajectory of my experience, I relished the thought of returning home after two years and having reverse homesickness for an otherwise random and obscure country. But the Peace Corps application process is long and mysterious and, at times, frustrating, so by the time we packed up to head to Cape Verde, I was just happy to be going anywhere. Even so, I earnestly put all of my energy and effort into getting off to a good start. Adrenaline and novelty both helped tip the scales in Cape Verde’s favor, but regardless, the country outshone my expectations. Adam and I consider ourselves immensely lucky that we had the chance to live there (and to share the experience with you through this blog!).

I had equally high hopes entering Benin, and my anxieties were diminished because I’d been through this once before. I was optimistic and confident that I would love Benin from the get-go. Still, my energy was a little sapped. Living in a foreign culture is mentally exhausting, particularly during the initial learning curve. A lot of the time, I feel out of place, a step behind, a little childish, or just plain confused. I am more than willing to laugh at myself, and sometimes it’s the perfect icebreaker, but at other times it’s just not enough (or even appropriate). Cultural adjustment is especially difficult when you add language barriers to the mix. (Yes, that’s plural—although French is the official language here, half the population speaks other languages.) In any culture, it’s tricky to get a straight answer to a straight question about manners. In the Peace Corps, even when I do get such advice, I don’t always catch on right away because of my limited vocabulary.

Benin started off rough. There is no escaping the facts: Porto Novo (our training site) is loud and stinky. The roads are owned by motorbikes that produce clouds of noise and exhaust and practically run people over. After the sun goes down, the action picks up, and this can be fun, but it’s inevitably loud. Roving drum circles occasionally wander through the night, stopping at each door for donations. When that’s finally over, it’s pre-dawn and the call to prayer is coming over the loudspeaker. In our host family’s neighborhood, the call was done by an adolescent boy who, to put it bluntly, had a terrible voice.

Another characteristic of Porto Novo that had a strong impact on me was that the homes and business are all built up behind walls. Over the past year, I had gotten accustomed to Cape Verdean neighborhoods where narrow footpaths literally cross people’s thresholds, and where you inevitably receive an invitation to txiga (stop by) as you pass. (Not always genuine, but I had learned when to politely say no… see above about being a fish out of water.) In contrast, Porto Novo is a land of gated compounds. All the household action goes on in interior courtyards that are surrounded by tall walls. It felt closed and unwelcoming to me at first, and that feeling resurfaced in my personal interactions.

Lucien, my French teacher (technically, Language and Culture Facilitator), was a great help, knowledge source and morale booster. This is us on swear-in day.

I was apprehensive as we approached swearing-in day and our move to site (the big day was September 14th). I knew that Pre-Service Training was a bubble, a melange of American and Host Country culture and not an accurate indicator of real life. Still, Adam and I were assigned to live in a suburb of Porto Novo, and based on the week-long visit we had done during training, it looked like more of the same. I didn’t see when or how I would really get to know Benin, never mind grow to love it.

Our taxi, dropping us off at home on moving-in day.

But here we are, a month into life at our site, and it’s grown on me. Was the first day awesome? No. The second? No. And for that matter, nor were the third or fourth. Yet sometime during the first week I turned a corner. We live in between Benin’s capital city and a Nigerian border crossing, so the center of our town is kind of trafficky and blech. However, a block or so from the road, the landscape quickly transitions to cool, green palm groves with small market gardens in the understory. Here, outside of the town center, households are widely spaced and oftentimes are walled in only partially, and with trees or thatched palms instead of cinderblock and cement. The motos are still present, but there are also ancient one-speed bicycles pedaled by old men in bumbas (the traditional pant and tunic outfit), or women with babies slung on their backs, with a heap of manioc stalks or a sack of seed on the back wheel rack.

This is essentially what our backyard looks like.

Speaking of bikes, one of the great parts of being in Benin is that we have bikes!!! Adam and I have begun to explore our surroundings, and we’re planning some longer rides to visit neighboring volunteers. We’ve also been taking walks around our community, and stopping and talking with our neighbors, who are changing my mind about the warmth, humor, and friendliness of Beninese culture.

Adam and I live in an apartment that is one of eight households in a concession (walled compound). Our apartment has a living room in front, a bedroom in back, and a narrow, half-covered space behind the house where the pit toilet and bathing space are located. It’s a pretty common set-up here. Normally, the kitchen would also be situated in the back alley. For us, that is a little cramped, a little isolated from the living area (Adam likes to talk and hang out while he cooks), and a little close for comfort to the latrine, so we have set up a cooking area in our living room. Home is already feeling really comfortable: we’ve bought some furniture, started an herb garden, gotten a grill… it’s practically Jersey City.

This is our porch. We get direct, brutal sun in the mornings, but in the afternoons and evenings it’s great.


A little over a week ago, the Peace Corps Regional Director for Africa and Country Director for Cape Verde called the Santiago-based volunteers to Praia to make an announcement: after 24 years, Peace Corps is closing its program in Cape Verde. (Volunteers on the other islands were consolidated as well and notified by telephone.) The official US government term for the transition is “graduation.” The decision was made after a worldwide programmatic review; Cape Verde is one of six graduating host countries. The decision is based partly on the fact that Cape Verde is not one of the world’s Least Developed Countries and on the funding available to Peace Corps worldwide. The agency wishes to focus resources on the poorest of the poor. Our program will close in September 2012.

Peace Corps Cape Verde’s last intake group (us!) arriving at the airport.

On a personal level, the upshot of the news is that Adam and I won’t serve a second year in Cape Verde. We have several options, though I won’t bore you with the details. We have decided to pursue a transfer within Peace Corps. Our Program Director, Country Director and Regional Director will work to locate another country that can use our skills and experience, and we will join an incoming group of volunteers for a new Pre-Service Training.

Me getting ready to see our site placement information—the names of our sites were written on little papers inside of balloons.

If our transfer happens (not a given), we will be committing to one more year of service, rather than a full two years in the new place. It is bittersweet to think that I won’t serve two years in one place as a PCV—something I had held as a given. If Cape Verde has graduated beyond the need for Peace Corps, that is a good sign for the country. But I boarded the plane fully expecting to be here for two years, and since arriving I haven’t once wished it would be shorter.

Adam and I often get invited to watch practices and performances of Batuku, a traditional style of music that has a strong presence on Santiago island. Invariably, I am asked to dance, and it’s a great source of entertainment.

I’m sad that I won’t have the opportunity to master Kriolu and Portuguese; that I won’t have another Corn-Eating Day or fixon kongu season; that I’ll have only half the time to explore this and the other islands; that I won’t see some of the neighborhood kids graduate into high school uniforms. Santiago is a beautiful place to live. I’m already feeling sodadi (a sense of homesickness and longing, well known to Cape Verdeans, who have a long history of emigration).

One of the distinctive mountain ranges that circles our valley.

On top of that, graduation means another first year in another new country, with no guarantee of a second year anywhere. Adam and I could apply to extend our service after our second first year, but it’s a competitive process that depends on our performance and the programs’ budget—and we’d be competing with volunteers who will have spent two full years there. Plus, we’d be committing to a third year away from home.

In addition to the fact that I really like Cape Verde, I was looking forward to my second year here for professional reasons. The adaptation and integration process is a long one, and by many accounts, payoffs are big in a volunteer’s second year. I have gotten used to the paradigm that the first year is largely for becoming established, and the second is for action. It’s been a mental saftey blanket for me during the long and winding learning curve of the past six months, helping me stay positive and be patient.

Like integration, the road to our house is a long, winding, and uphill… only with American care packages at the end!

Nonetheless, there are two sides to every coin, aren’t there? If the transfer goes through (and our Regional Director has promised to work his hardest—that transfers are being considered is already an exception), I’ll have the very unique opportunity to meet another country and experience another way of life. I might only scratch the surface when it comes to project work, but one year is a lot of time to learn about life in a foreign place. The experience of doing that twice in two years, with all the support and training of Peace Corps behind me, is not something to scoff at. Plus, cultural exchange is 2/3 of the purpose of Peace Corps, so I’ll have a boost in that department.

Clothes shopping in the open markets here is like a transplanted New England Goodwill. Awesome, except for all the Pats gear.

At this point, it’s hard impossible to tell where we’ll end up and when we’ll go there, which makes it hard impossible to plan very far ahead. Luckily, Cape Verdeans are not too hung up on planning ahead—a whole lot of things here happen at the last minute and nobody bats an eyelash. It’s just how they roll. So I think Adam and I can pull off some neat projects if we make proposals very soon. And I am sure things will only get clearer once the staff has the chance to begin working out the kinks. Right now, they have just learned that their jobs have disappeared.

After the graduation plans were announced to us in Praia, we had a short Q&A session with our Regional Director. Someone asked for advice on how volunteers can explain to our host communities that Peace Corps is over, with the fact in mind that some of these places have hosted multiple generations of volunteers uninterrupted for a decade or more. His advice was “Finish Strong.” He asked us to realize that it is a privilege that our program is graduating, rather than closing abruptly. Peace Corps more often leaves countries under emergency conditions, or with programs’ futures in limbo—as with the recent situation in Honduras—and volunteers in those cases face a much tougher situation than us. We, on the other hand, are leaving Cape Verde partly because it is stable and strong.

Checking out the tide pools at Tarrafal. This site has had volunteers uninterrupted for a long time. Lucky volunteers, huh?!

I appreciate the advice, and I also appreciate how hard the Peace Corps staff is working on our behalf. We’ll see what happens. I’ll keep you posted!


Ess Pais, by Cesária Évora

Ali não existe riqueza

Não há ouro, nem diamantes

Mas temos esse paz de Deus

Que no Mundo não há igual

E este clima maravilhoso

Que Deus nos deu

Vem conhecer este país


Here there aren’t riches

There are no gold or diamonds

But we have this peace of God

That has no equal in the World

And this wonderful climate

God has given us

Come and meet this country

[Please excuse the poor translation of this song; see above about mastering Portuguese. Also, I am conveniently leaving out the first verse, which says that if you don’t know Mindelo, you don’t know Cape Verde.]

My Adventures in Kriolu, Lingua Materna de Kabuverde

We’ve now been at site for two months: our duration at site has now grown longer than the time we spent in training. This feels like a milestone. Despite not having started any projects in earnest, I feel more and more like a veteran volunteer rather than a trainee. At this time I am still focusing on building relationships with neighbors and organizations in our town. As we become more integrated here in our semi-permanent home, I find that people are treating us more like neighbors and less like guests. We get lots of visitors to our house, lots of food (corn and beans, left on our doorstep if we’re not at home), and lots of invitations. This has got me thinking a lot recently about language and communication. During the process of applying to Peace Corps and preparing to come to Cape Verde, I was worried about language. This is the first time I have needed to use a second language to function in life or in work, so I didn’t know what to expect. I was anxious that my limited language ability would lead to misunderstandings that would spin out of control and negatively affect my relationships and my service. I had a mental picture of myself perpetually confused, in need, and with my sloppy attempts at communication only making me hostile enemies. I feared that language would isolate me.

I am pleased to report that language has not been the frightening obstacle that I feared. In fact, it’s been really fun to dive in and learn Kriolu. The process has been formidable, no doubt, and at times it has been exhausting, but for the most part it has been enjoyable. This is in no small part due to the fact that I’ve met a lot of extremely patient, gracious, and humorous Cape Verdeans who have not only tolerated my clumsy attempts at conversation but have repeated—and repeated, and repeated—their thoughts slowly and clearly to help me understand. Since day one, I have had fantastic language teachers, both formal and informal.

Pre-Service Training was super for language learning. Homestay gave me a lot of opportunity to practice speaking and a comfortable space to approach more nuanced, sometimes culturally sensitive, issues. Even coming home tired after a full day in the classroom, homestay forced me to function in Kriolu for several more hours. Sometimes it was hard just to follow the dinner making, house cleaning, news watching, or whatever else was going on. But it was often fun, thanks to our wonderful host family. My day-to-day experiences (all of them novel in some way at that time), language classes, and training sessions all provided me with lots of burning questions for my family. Our host mom, Guta, was a fantastic teacher. She spoke slowly, she told stories, she had no qualms holding one-sided conversations, she narrated mundane activities, and she was really good at devising alternate explanations of concepts I wasn’t catching.

Our host mom, Guta, pointing at me and making a "no" sign with her hand as she evaluates my attempts at pounding corn.

Our Language and Culture Facilitator, Vanda, was also spectacular. Three days a week, we had an eight-hour day of language instruction in a group of three to five trainees with an LCF. We rotated through several LCFs over the course of training, but Vanda lived in our part of town so Adam and I relied on her especially and we became friends. Language classes usually started with admin and logistics, moved on to new vocabulary, and finished with going out in the community and asking some pretty random and socially awkward questions. For example, “During what time of year do you have the most illness? What kinds of sicknesses are common right now?” “What are your traditions when a new baby is born?” (Thankfully I ran into a pregnant person that day!!!) Or, “Tell me about the seasons of the year.” Fortunately, it was usually possible to stop and just shoot the breeze with a friendly person until the conversation veered somewhat near the assigned topic. Part of the LCF’s job was to walk us trainees through the day-to-day tasks of living in Cape Verde—how to take public transportation, how to shop and haggle at the market, how to make social visits. Vanda ruled. She put in a lot of time to help me and Adam with our community project, was open to all kinds of field trip requests, and had (has!) a great sense of humor. As I got more comfortable at language, we both got a kick out of her speaking at a rapid-fire pace just to see what I could understand.

Vanda teaching Anwar, another trainee.

My comfort with the language is largely thanks to the fact that Kriolu bears heavy relation to Spanish, which I took for much of elementary through high school. Much of the basic Kriolu vocabulary is very similar to Spanish and therefore was easy for me to remember. For instance, the verb know is konxi (“con-shee”) or sabe (“sah-bee”). These are used in the same sense as the Spanish verbs conocer (to know or meet a person or place) and saber (to know a concept, or be familiar with a person or place). Likewise, Kriolu has ten/teni (have), ten ki (need to), gosta (like, want), sta (am/are), ser (to be), and usa (use). We have sempre (always), nunka (none), algen (someone), and ningen (no one). Free ride! In Kriolu, you don’t conjugate verbs depending on subject and you don’t have a subjunctive tense. You also use context a great deal—the words this/that (keli/kela), here (li), there (la), other (otu) and thing (kuza) are very flexible. For me, this all meant I could verbalize many ideas early on, albeit crudely.

Also very early on, and probably most importantly, I learned that practicing language was my best tool for overcoming the inevitable cultural barriers, rather than a threat. This is where the kindness of strangers—and the ability to laugh at myself along with them—came in very handy. We learned on Day One of language training to always greet everyone with a “good morning” (bon dia), “good afternoon” (bo tarde), “how are you” (modi ki bu sta), or similar phrase. One option: Tudu kool? Fun! These greetings are hugely important in rural Santiago culture, and particularly for us as outsiders in a community where everyone else knows each other. Most of our neighbors seem to assume that foreigners won’t say hello. Once I do stop to say hello and shake hands, people are pleased and often want to chat about where I am from, how long I have been here, how long I am staying, whether I have any kids, their family who live in America, etc. And then we are friends. It’s an instant way of communicating that I am not a tourist, but a neighbor.

We also learned in training that when we see older people, we should ask for a bensu (blessing) by reaching out our hand, palm facing upwards, and saying, Nhu/Nha da-m bensu (Nhu for men, Nha for women). I can’t even describe how this act has opened doors for me! If you ask for a bensu, people smile, laugh, physically pull you towards them to talk, ask where you learned good manners, comment about your manners/appearance/language ability to whomever they are sitting with, and then spread the word that you are mansu (basically, a good egg). It’s due to this openness and friendliness that learning language and other aspects of Cape Verdean culture has been a joy.

Nonetheless, as we prepared to leave PST and head to our permanent site (two months ago now!!), my language-learning nerves bubbled up again. PST was, deliberately, very much a cocoon. Our host family provided for us, protected us, explained the most obvious of obvious things to us, forgave our bad manners and ignorance, and demonstrated an enormous amount of Santiago culture to us. It was fine that they laughed at us (a lot)… because it usually happened when they included us in some aspect of family life, such as gardening, visiting, cooking, pounding corn, or carrying water. As Adam and I got ready to head out on our own, I was worried that I would no longer have a Cape Verdean family to hang around. On evenings when the lights were out, there would be no family to sit with and tell jokes with. (More accurately: no family telling jokes to each other, then ask us after each one, “Did you get that?”… and laugh hysterically at us when we of course said, “No.”) Also, I was going to be thrown in to a Cape Verdean workplace for the first time. Up until swearing in, our interactions in Kriolu were heavily weighted towards the “Where is the bathroom” (Undi sta kaza de banho?), “This food is good” (Komida sta sabe), and “Right now I am washing clothes” (N sa ta bati ropa) side of life. Just when I felt I was getting the hang of it, I was nervous about having nobody to hold my hand.

At site, I’ve been lucky to find new language teachers. There is Kini, who is a biology stajiariu (intern) at INIDA. She is outgoing, talkative, and very motivated. She is not shy about using complicated language, but is also able to simplify things when I don’t understand. She is also not shy about correcting me. Most people ignore my mistakes or worse, pretend to understand; it’s really valuable to have a friend who corrects errors. Another person who does this is Elena, the shopkeeper at our loja (market). The shelves are all behind the counter, so we have to ask for items by name, or find some way to identify the items we don’t know the words for (pointing is really ineffective). Now that I realize she’s willing to teach me, I always make a point of asking for new words when I go to the shop.

All this said, some days are just bad language days. It’s like my brain works in slow motion and my tongue has been overdosed with Novocain. Literally, syllables get mixed up between thinking and speaking them. Sometimes, I can tell that people I am talking to don’t have the time or will to spell everything out for me, or are annoyed at my delayed comprehension. On top of that, I have identified some major communication hurdles that can pop up any time.

The first is that Cape Verdeans often revert to Portuguese when talking to foreigners. Oftentimes, I will greet someone and get back a very friendly—and very long—response in Portuguese. For about the first month here, this left me really stumped and kind of sad, because people obviously wanted to talk, but I just had to shake my head and say, N ka intendi (I don’t understand). I assumed that there were some people who I just could not comprehend. Then this happened while we were out with Vanda and she explained to the person that I did not speak Portuguese, only Kriolu. Since then, I’ve learned to expect Portuguese, and I now respond by saying, N ka ta papia Portugues. Por favor fala na Kriolu. (I do not speak Portuguese. Please speak in Kriolu.) The catch: this only works sometimes. Some people just don’t believe that a person who looks like me will speak Kriolu but not Portuguese or French (the second-most common foreign language here, I think). I’m now getting to the point where I can follow the line of the conversation enough to keep responding, sensibly, in Kriolu, in the hopes that the person will switch. Otherwise, I just politely end the conversation and remind myself to line up Portuguese tutoring soon.

The second reason why conversation is sometimes difficult is that my co-workers are highly educated, and Portuguese is the language of official business and academia. Therefore people are accustomed to using a lot of Portuguese words mixed into their Kriolu. Krioluguese, if you will. A third reason for the difficulty is that Cape Verdean Kriolu varies among several subgroups of islands. My workplace draws experts from all over the country, so I end up trying to communicate in Badiu (the dialect of Santiago) with a person who speaks San Padjudu (the dialect of the northern islands) or who speaks Kriolu from Fogo. This, too, is getting better, thankfully.

Above and beyond this inter-island diversity in language, there is astonishing diversity in language within Santiago. Santiago is pretty small: it is possible to travel end-to-end for a day trip to the beach. This is despite the mountainous terrain and sometimes poor-quality roads. Nonetheless, people living in communities only an hour or so apart from each other will use different vocabulary, different pronunciations, and different mannerisms in their speech. While sometimes frustrating, the diversity of language has been interesting. I get a lot of impromptu language lessons about the different words and pronunciations in various pockets of Santiago.

So day by day I am picking up new words and phrases, improving my comprehension, and smoothing out my accent. I am beginning to take for granted that I can understand what’s going on the majority of the time, even if I miss details and isolated words. There are still bad moments. As we get more integrated, people expect more of us. Sometimes I find myself awkwardly lost, clearly not grasping a joke, or worse, a subtlety. But all in all I have fewer frustrating language days. I talked to Vanda on the phone the other day and she joked that my Kriolu is better than hers. The best of compliments!