Tag Archives: DIY projects

Building an Herb Garden (Merry Christmas!)

Building a Garden

Jen planted our Christmas moringa tree the day we moved into our house but it hasn’t reached Charlie Brown size yet. Her green thumb can only be held back for so long, however. In the photo above, Jen paused to pose for a picture in front of the new garden with our neighbor. He was a big help.

Garden before shot

Above – the before shot.

Below – breaking up the ground before adding in the garden border of broken cinder blocks we found in the corner of the yard.

breaking ground in garden

Below – Jen planting the basil seedlings that she’d started soon after we moved in.



Time and Books

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.

Just a hint of the zaniness to be found at the market.

Our local market, which is a little one.

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.)

After a bike ride. The top tan, er… sunburn, line is from my shirt. The bottom line is from the hankie that I tied to my wrist and used to mop sweat off my face.

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.

This yellow cake recipe ended up with the consistency of cookie dough, which was fine because I was planning on adding chips anyway. I just called it cookie cake. I made it for a fellow volunteer’s mom’s 70th birthday, which she celebrated while visiting him here.

I classed up our snapshots with phony photo frames made from watercolor paper and electrical tape, both collected from ex-volunteer’s discarded belongings at the Peace Corps office.

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.

The Best Tuber You’ve Never Eaten

This post is dedicated to Jimithy Hauswirth, in gratitude for his enthusiasm about this blog, and in the hope that he will brew up a manioc beer that will be waiting for us when we get home.

Mandioka (or manioc, cassava, or one of several other names) very well may be the world’s most widely eaten food that Americans have never heard of. I recollect seeing manioc every once in a while in American supermarkets, but I never saw it prepared—or even heard about it. It certainly wasn’t in the Berkeley Bowl top 100. I consider this a cultural loss for America.

Mandioka, in Kriolu, but it also goes by many other names.

In Cape Verde, the manioc plant is grown for its tubers. The leaves are edible and nutritious, though not terribly tasty, and they are usually tossed. Manioc tubers have a tough barky peel and are poisonous if not prepared properly. When cooked they have a mouthfeel like gummy potatoes. Their flavor is mild and they are very filling. Ringing endorsement? Well, no, but I love this stuff! Cape Verdeans are very fond of raw manioc (they don’t eat the poisonous core, so don’t panic) and as a result they sometimes undercook it by my taste.

Mandioka above ground parts.

Mandioka below ground parts.

By all accounts I’ve heard, manioc has been in Cape Verde for many years, but in the 1980s African Mosaic Virus appeared on the island of Santiago and all but wiped out the crop, as the local varieties turned out to be highly susceptible to the disease. Plants affected by the virus don’t produce tubers, making them useless as a food source. The virus is transmitted through infected stakis (stalks), which are used for propagation. Export of stakis from Santiago was prohibited, and the virus was contained. Through the 1990s, the National Institute of Agricultural Investigation and Development field-tested imported varities and identifed resistant strains that would produce well here. And manioc culture was salvaged.

I feverishly hope to find manioc in the pot whenever I’m offered Cape Verdean food. If it’s there, I abandon any semblance of grace, fish out the stringy hunks, form mountains of it on my plate, and overeat. One time I accidentally ended up with a potato instead, and I kind of felt like the meal was a wash. I decided to learn from this personal failure, and I’m more careful about my scouting efforts now.

Dish of pork, handmade dumplings, and mandioka at our host nephew’s baptism.

If mandioka is a cultural victory for Cape Verde, beer is an area for growth. There is a Cape Verdean beer brand, Strela, which has a couple of good varieties. I give Strela an enthusiastic thumbs up. But I spent the last several years before Peace Corps enjoying Six Point on tap and choosing between CaskazillaSmuttynose IPA, and Prima Pils in the aisles of BuyRite. (Those links are in case anyone wants to send a care package… wink wink.)

So try to imagine how the wheels started turning when I read that a manioc beer was launching in southern Africa. I looked into this concept and learned of a traditional manioc (or corn) beverage that uses saliva to promote fermentation. To make it you chew up cooked manioc (or corn), spit it out, cook it some more, wait, and then fla “serveja” (say “beer”). Awesome! Gross!

Manioc beer offered me a project to sink my teeth into… literally. It offered a change of pace in the beer department. It offered an exotic homemade refreshment. It offered an entertaining DIY project. Once I saw that Dogfish Head was in on this chew-your-beer thing, I pretty much started thinking—foolishly, of course—that I would be making manioc IPA. With no special equipment except for my pearly whites! Enterprising Peace Corps Volunteer that I am, I set out to try my hand at making manioc beer.

Step 1—I bought a ridiculous amount of manioc (4 kg), peeled it, cored it, chopped it up, and boiled it.

My mandioka for beer-making. Just kidding. This is the harvest from the experimental fields in our town, on sale at the vending post. This harvest occurred just before Ash Wednesday, when mandioka is in great demand for the traditional menu.

Step 2—I chewed up the cooked manioc and spit it out. I felt awe at how tiring this was! But I convinced Adam it was fun and he agreed to help.

Chopped boiled manioc two ways.

Step 3—I covered the pulp in water and cooked it again. Then I covered the pot, set it in a quiet place, and waited.

The manioc beer should have been ready in about five days, but I ran into trouble. Not surprisingly, the turbo ants that live in our house quickly colonized the tub of brewy goodness.

Ant invasion!

So I repeated Steps 1 through 3 (but this time with slightly less manioc) and positioned the tub of beer/ant chow in a moat. Ha!

You can see one sad, dead ant—probably a scout—floating in the water here. Victory!

Step 4—Taste Test! After four days, I opened the pot to check on things and caught a waft of buttered popcorn odor. Unexpected and somewhat puzzling, but definitely encouraging. (Who can argue with buttered popcorn?!) A day or two later, my beer was ready. In anticipation of my triumph, I spent the day envisioning myself in our hammock, peacefully sipping my tasty brew, listening to the wind in the papaya and banana trees. That afternoon I got home, kicked off my shoes, put on my hammock outfit, and opened the pan… disgusting! Something had gone wrong with my buttered popcorn ambrosia. I took a sip. The beer tasted virtually flavorless, yet somehow powerfully repulsive. I gagged. I tried a bit more, just to be sure. No. No chance.

This was an epic fail. The Peace Corps and its volunteers will tell you, in official and unofficial press, that a major part of being a Peace Corps Volunteer is facing setbacks and trying again. I believe this is true, and it’s a painful but valuable part of this experience. I’ve lived this message in large and small ways since submitting my application, and I apply it unhesitatingly to my manioc beer adventure. The aftertaste of raunchy tuber puree fades away, but fresh manioc arrives in the market daily.