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Peace Corps Benin: Community Economic Development

PC Benin CED

With only about four months left in our Peace Corps service, our cohort gathered to discuss wrapping up and next steps. Peace Corps Benin is divided into four project areas: Rural Health, Environmental Action, Teaching English as a Foreign Language, and Community Economic Development. Here is our group of CED volunteers at the recent meeting.


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.

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.

Speaking In Public, Dancing In Public

Batuku has been a consistent presence in me and Adam’s Peace Corps experience from the start. Batuku is thought to be the oldest Cape Verdean musical genre. It is performed by women seated in a semicircle, with homemade drums on their laps, and a dancer or two standing before the group. (Sometimes men participate as well.) The singing is in a call and response format. For most of the song, the dancer stands in place and shuffles her feet in time with the music. Toward the end of the song, she starts shaking her butt, while holding her upper and lower body rigidly in place. Batuku started with drumming and dance brought to the islands by continental Africans. The Portuguese government and the Catholic church tried to suppress it because it was seen as “African.” Nowadays, it’s extremely popular—most towns have a group, which is usually formed as an arm of a community association. I had heard about Batuku before I came to Cape Verde and I was very curious. I didn’t have to wait long to see it; only a couple weeks into PST I caught a performance in the Assomada town square. But truth be told, I was underwhelmed at first.

I started to gain appreciation for Batuku during homestay. Our Pre-service training required Small Enterprise Development volunteers to develop a small community project. Through a community meeting, Adam and I learned that the Batuku group wanted help improving its organizational management, with the ultimate goal of making money through performances and CD sales. Through the project, we developed friendships with the batukaderas and I saw the social significance of Batuku groups. The women invited us to their practices and to a baby shower, where I saw the music performed with passion and joy.

At the baby shower. For celebrations, people often dance to Batuku with a bottle of wine on their head… I don’t know what it means.

The group played at our dispidida (going-away party), and I very quickly learned that there is no way I can escape being ‘invited’ to da kutornu (dance). Which is fine, because Batuku is way more fun when you’re a participant, rather than a mere spectator.

This was in front of my largest audience yet, at Parents’ Day.

Don’t be mistaken. They are laughing at me, not with me. It’s a constant.

After Adam and I got to site we became acquainted with a local community association that is focused, among other areas, on growing tourism-related business in town. Adam and I had already seen that many tourists—domestic and foreign—pass through our town, but that local residents don’t benefit much from the traffic. Cape Verdeans come here to relax in the waterfalls during the rainy season, and they stop to eat and drink. The vast majority of international visitors, however, drive through town in buses to visit the National Botanic Garden as part of volta di ilha (‘round the island) tours that rapidly pass through a handful of major attractions. To me and Adam, it seemed that the tours lacked opportunities for the tourists to interact with and learn about the local culture and people. We started to think about ways that we could work with the community association.

Then we had a visit from the Batuku group from our homestay town, and a project idea fell into our laps. The group came to our town to celebrate their second anniversary. Their visit is a story unto itself, in which forty women—from schoolchildren to grandmothers—arrived in an open bed truck with all the makings of a feast, right down to the napkins and birthday cake.

Singing Happy Birthday to the group.

After eating, we walked to the botanic garden, where the women were going to see the sights and play a few songs. As we entered the garden, we saw a tourist bus loading up to depart. The tourists were intrigued by our drumming, singing, reveling parade. Their guide got excited as she realized this opportunity to explain and demonstrate the musical form of Batuku. That evening, Adam and I talked about how cool it would be if our town’s Batuku groups could earn a little money by performing at the Botanic Garden, as part of the group tour packages.

Walking to the botanic garden.

Pretty soon, we learned that Peace Corps Cape Verde would be closing, and we decided to advance the Batuku project as a secondary project. We pitched the idea to the community association president, and he linked us up with the Batuku group. We had hoped that the group members would have a central role in negotiating the project, but in the end time constraints and formalities meant that Adam and I did much of the groundwork. Adam and I consulted with them continually as the project advanced. We located an interested tourism agency, and the next step is for the association president to negotiate details.

The project got some attention recently at a tourism forum hosted by our local camara (county government). The theme of the forum was “Partnerships and Synergies for Touristic Development of [Our Town].” In the midst of feeling nostalgic about leaving, I was happy for the chance to present my and Adam’s community project publicly. Naively, I formatted a few snapshots to act as a backdrop while I spoke, and outlined important points in my notebook. As the forum opened, I realized that I was to present at the end of a program that included the National Minister of Tourism, the Director of Tourism for Santiago Island, two Master’s candidates in Tourism, and the conselho’s (county’s) head of tourism. Yikes!

In the end, it went fine. I followed my notes and stuck to simple vocabulary. There were a lot of familiar faces in the room, and despite being at the end of the program, people were smiling and engaged. In Cape Verde, questions do not follow each presentation. Instead, the speakers form a panel after all the talks are over, and audience members take turns commenting. The panelists take notes and reply with short speeches that address individual comments and synthesize themes. It’s a type of public speaking that I have no practice in doing, but… Surely you can guess where this goes? Yup, I was expected to participate in the panel, too.

My mind betrayed me during the comment period, wandering back to the first formal meetings Adam and I attended during our service. My palms used to sweat just from the pressure of introducing ourselves! I would list vocabulary words to look up later and scribble furiously to note their context, including who said what and their tone. But mostly I paid attention, recorded who said what, and how I could respond. There were a number of really interesting discussion points, but I kept it basic and stuck to a few generic sentences, considering that I was surrounded by more qualified experts.

During the lanxi (snack) after the forum, a few people congratulated me on a presentation well done, and complimented our project. I hope that the association is able to reach an agreement with the tour agencies, and that the story I presented planted an idea in someone’s mind!

Dedu Verde de Kabu Verde

(That’s “Cape Verde’s Green Thumb”)

With the news of Peace Corps Cape Verde’s graduation and our transfer to Benin, February, March, and April were tumultous months. Adam and I were just beginning to feel at home in our community when the news hit that our term of service in Cape Verde would be cut short. We had learned the lay of the land, established work routines, made friends, sorted out the logistics of living in our town, and connected with community groups.

The steps of the chapel are the stopping point for transportation that comes to our town, and they are positioned at a crossroads across from the seasonal soccer field that the Camara builds in the riverbed. So they are a good place to sit and socialize in the afternoons.

Adam at the barber, which is a social event and not a quick outing.

In mid-January, the Grupo Recreativo e Cultural de Riberon Galinha (GRC-RG)—a youth group based in our  neighborhood—invited us to hike to the top of Pico d’Antonia. Unbeknownst to us, the day also included a ceremony to invite new members, including us.

Following our Regional Director Dick Day’s advice to “Finish Strong,” Adam and I wanted to make the most of the connections we had built before leaving for Benin. As a result, these past few months have been incredibly busy—the busiest yet for me in Cape Verde. We each redoubled our efforts in our primary work assignments and also decided to launch a few secondary projects that we had been mulling over between ourselves. So what have we been up to?

Big events around here always start with chopping vegetables, and culminate in giant metal cauldrons full of lunch. This is me at Parents’ Day at our elementary school.

Adam helping cook for a GRC-RG event.

Peace Corps assigns each Volunteer to a host organization whose needs dovetail with program goals of the Peace Corps (in our case, the Small Enterprise Development program) and the Volunteer’s skills. This is the Volunteer’s “primary project.” In addition, Volunteers usually get involved with other organizations in their communities to conduct secondary projects. These tend to follow Volunteer’s personal interests or global themes like women’s or youth development and HIV/AIDS prevention.

Adam and I were both assigned to the same primary project, but working at different host organizations. The project is a Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) initiative to improve food security by working in the school lunch program. The program has four main goals: ensure that primary school lunches provide balanced nutrition, develop the agricultural business sector by buying for school kitchens directly from local producers, enhance students’ nutrition and environmental science knowledge through garden-based learning, and reinforce good food hygiene practices among staff and students. We were sent to a community whose elementary school garden is a pilot in the FAO project, to help implement the program.One of the most interesting things about this project is that it addresses a diverse group of targets—children, farmers, cooks, teachers—where they all intersect: the elementary school lunch program. It’s exciting to work on such an innovative program, particularly because of how well the assignment complements both my and Adam’s interests, skills, and experience. Though Adam and I work in different organizations, our job descriptions are flexible, so we have been working together on our primary project a lot.

For lanxi (the school meal, or a free meal one gets at many types of events), some schools have lunchrooms, but at our schools the meal is served by the teacher and eaten in the classroom. Many kids bring placemats from home.

Until 2007, the World Food Programme ran Cape Verde’s school feeding program. WFP introduced school lunch to Cape Verde in 1979. The free lunches are largely credited with improving the attendance rate in Cape Verde’s elementary schools, to above 90% when WFP left in 2007. However, as part of Cape Verde’s transition to “developing country” status, the country has assumed management of the school lunch program. Now a national government agency supplies the school canteens with rice, beans, dry milk, oil, pasta, fuel, dishes, and stoves. This agency also distributes menu guidance to the schools. The menu calls for fruits, vegetables and meat, but there is no national system for supplying schools with these fresh ingredients, and schools have difficulty procuring (many communities have no produce market) and paying for them.

Rice at the school food storehouse. We visited in October when it’s relatively empty, having just supplied all the schools for the first trimester.

School gardens are pretty common here on Santiago (almost 40% of schools have them) and they help many schools augment their lunch program (donations from parents are also a major source). People usually think of the school gardens as sources of food and income for the school (much of the harvest is sold), but not as alternative classrooms. Schools face serious problems paying for the water and labor needed to operate the gardens. In addition, there is no national management program, so the school leadership has to create these systems from scratch. Until recently our school garden was managed by a local farmer who received a portion of the harvests as compensation. Unfortunately, he passed away, and when we arrived a new arrangement hadn’t been worked out.

As part of kicking off the school garden project, FAO provided our school with a gota gota (drip irrigation) system.

Adam and I helped form (and now we work with) a committee that is developing a management plan for the garden and putting it into action. (We used FAO’s “Setting Up And Running A School Garden” guide, which is an excellent resource.) The school was already thinking about a new management system for the garden, and with the introduction of the FAO project, that thinking coalesced around how to involve the school community in the garden, and how to schedule planting and harvesting to meet the national menu guidelines. The committee identified the school’s objectives and priorities for use of the garden (in line with the FAO program but specific to the school), created management tools (such as a budget and planting calendar), and decided how to involve families in the garden.

Adam and Nelitu, a sixth-grade teacher, at one of our planning meetings.

One of the things the committee is most enthusiastic about is having classes each take responsibility for specific parcels in the garden. The kids will do light garden work, monitor the progress of plants, and look out for problems. (Heavy work and pesticide/fertilizer application will be left to paid laborers.) During one of our meetings, Adam led a discussion of management and educational practices used in other school gardens around the world. One of the group’s favorite ideas was to hold contests (e.g., largest cabbage, best-looking spinach) to motivate the classes and their parents to volunteer time in the garden.

I’ve already seen this work well, when I ran a garden work session for the sixth graders, who already come after school once a week to attend English class with Adam. The kids came and weeded the tomato patch either before or after their class with Adam. I had worried beforehand that the students would be uninterested and reluctant to work, so I made a contest to see how much area each group could weed. The kids were extremely enthusiastic and worked like maniacs!

The kids jumped right in and did an awesome job in the garden… I hope they remember this when they eat the tomatoes.

I already knew some of the sixth graders from a play we had put on for Parents’ Day. I had suggested to the principal and a teacher on the garden committee that maybe we could use Parents’ Day to drum up awareness about the changes going on at the school garden. I ended up working with the music teacher, another teacher who had theater teaching experience, and about ten sixth-graders to create and perform a skit. Our theme was the roda alimentar (food wheel)… in other words, “Eat Lots of Vegetables!”. It was the first time any of the kids had done theater, but they jumped in without fear (well, until showtime when they were super nervous!) and they did great. Nobody forgot any lines, and the audience laughed at the right times. After the show, the music teacher led a group in a song about plants and their produce, which the kids sang using fresh vegetable props.

As Adam and I wind down our service in Cape Verde, the school year is winding down as well. I would be lying if I said I’m content with leaving at this point. Given our progress so far, the relationships we’ve made, and other work Adam has done with the cooks and teachers at the school, I think the summer break and fall re-start could be very productive.

Adam has been working with the cooks to increase the quantity of vegetables in the food and to try some different cooking techniques (such as pureeing soup) to get the kids to eat more of them.

I’ve learned that behavior in Cape Verde has changed rapidly in the past few decades. People here are very open to outside ideas. A few of the staff at our school have become very enthusiastic about this project, and the school has seen some benefits, which should keep the momentum going. As much as I’d love to stay and be a part of whatever happens next, it’s almost time to go. I’m eager to hear how things develop after Adam and I leave.