Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A Top Ten List for Incoming Benin PCVs

I've recently been perusing some of the Blogs launched by incoming Benin PC volunteers, actually called stagiaires their first two months. This spawned my own thoughts about the preparations I made for Benin a year ago, and how over the last year many of my original assumptions about Benin have been surprised and recanted. Here's my contribution to the corpus of PCV "wisdom" being floated out there for incoming Benin stagiaires.

1. You will not live in a grass hut. No volunteer here in Benin does, due to the housing standards set by the Peace Corps program here (cement floor, at least two rooms, at least a metal ceiling, etc.) and due to the more developed towns in which most volunteers are placed. I think about half volunteers have electricity, and some even have indoor plumbing. Truth is, these standards, combined with your living allowance, certain reimbursements, and health coverage will place you squarely in the upper-middle class echelons of Beninese society.

2. You will not learn (fluently) a local language. Volunteers at most learn to small talk very well. While we're on languages, don't set too high of expectations regarding the French. If you come in with little or nothing, you will obviously gain a lot, and will more or less become "fluent" for West African purposes, but not in the Frenchy-French sense. Most don't really care much about attaining to the latter goal anyhow.

3. At the end of the day (and two years), you are not here to do development work. Peace Corps is a great way to be exposed to the realities of development work, but thinking of yourself as a development agent will set you up for disappointment. Better to think of yourself as an very active student in a cross cultural program, than as part of an important development agency. That said, many volunteers do in fact do good "development" work, but this reality is often a function of several key factors: personal motivation and technical skill on part of the Volunteer, good work partners, motivated community, and perhaps also the ability and resources to raise your own project funds. In any case, maintaining a student's posture--patience and humility--will always serve you well.

4. You won't like the food, but then you will. The food here is not fantastic, but you get used to it, and many (especially guys, as it is) come to like it. I started out really not liking the food. When I got to post I cooked for myself almost all the time, but at this point I buy most of my meals off the street. In my opinion the North has more to offer than the South (especially fresh cheese, soy cheese, a dish made from pounded yams, and a rice and beans,), but if you know your town well you can eat well. Expect lots of carbs and spice, and not a whole lot of easy protein or produce.

5. You will never be perfectly accepted or integrated. Bien intégré is a mantra among many volunteers. But no matter how well you may speak French, "saluate" in the local language, dress in local garb, stay at post, consume local food and drink, and adopt Beninese mannerisms, at the end of the day you're still a "white person" ("yovo," "weebo," "bature," "anasara," depending on where you are). This is not necessarily bad, it just is, and is worth swallowing from the get-go, because then you are free to understand and empathize with the Beninese people and culture in a way that's honest and real.

6. You will be sick a lot, at least at first. The physical adjustment that your body goes through in Benin is probably more significant than any cultural shock. You will learn that there are lots of interesting ways to be sick, and probably spend several late nights under your mosquito net reading the PCV Health Manual in a futile attempt to diagnose the noises and sensations that are coming from your belly. De Courage...eventually you and your stomach learn how to adjust, and bowel movements cease from being the main topic of conversation when you call home.

7. You will be bored a lot. While any given volunteer has an ostensible work partner and work mandate, you will have lots of time on your hand. Think of it as like being in perpetual summer vacation when you were 10. Volunteers have different ways of coping with having excessive time on their hands. Some travel a lot, others sleep a lot, some cook a lot, most read a lot, and many spend a lot of time writing up lists. I generally suggest cultivating a curiosity for and desire for exploration of your local area. There's a lot to learn, and most things around you are not what they seem. So develop the habit of asking yourself good questions about what's going on around you. Then go explore.

8. Peace Corps "policy" might be a significant part of life, but doesn't have to be. The Peace Corps is essentially a lot of young people living by themselves, with a lot of freedom and in conditions that can't always be understood let alone controlled. While we may indeed be an "asset" to our local communities, to the folks in Benin who are responsible for us to Washington and to the Beninese people we are to some degrees walking liabilities, even though this concern really doesn't apply to the vast majority of volunteers. Nevertheless, a natural consequence of this is that there will be certain in-country rules on how to conduct yourself. Sometimes you may feel micro-managed, but my honest opinion is that the policy here is sensible and non-suffocating. Some volunteers like to make Peace Corps policy a staple topic of conversation and a big deal in their lives, but I think its boring for the most part.

9. Voodoo really isn't that big a deal. First, to clarify: Voodoo is the word for the particular variety of African spirituality (known widely as Gris-Gris) that was born and bred in Southern Benin. It's an important element to the South (as is other types of Gris-Gris to other parts of Benin). But so is Christianity and Islam, and other cultural factors. I feel that it's unfortunate that tour guides and tourism profiles of Benin feature Voodoo as the country's main claim to fame. This is first of all deceptive because, even over your 2 years of service, any manifestation of voodoo you're likely to see is in certain places in the South, and probably will be something inauthentic and hyped up for tourists. This claim to fame is also unfortunate, because Benin's traditions and culture have so many more flavors and nuances than what is captured in the typical Westerner's idea of "Voodoo." All that to say, it might serve you better to read up more on Islam, Christianity or traditional West African spiritualism than investing much in Voodoo research.

10. You won't need most things you think you do need now. Many of the blogs out there feature exhaustive packing lists, and I myself remember spending countless hours in logistical planning, purchasing and packing. Give yourself a break and just don't think about it that much. I'm not going to add any more specific advice to the countless--and probably contradictory--recommended packing lists that are out there. As a general rule pack the bare essentials--even if you think you need it now, keep in mind that you become materially lower-maintenance as time goes on. And anyways, you really can find a way to get further items later on as you decide you need them. The lighter you pack the better-- you will save time headache, and in the long term have a more meaningful experience in Benin knowing you haven't been dependent on all the material comforts of home.