Friday, February 1, 2013

Community Library

By now most of you who read my blog or follow me on other social
networks know that I am currently trying to help establish a library
and study center in my west African village in Benin, Tobre.

Right now, I am working with the chief of my community, who is
equivalent to the mayor in the states, to create a budget, answer all
the necessary questions for the grant, and track down the people who
will help us with installing the materials.

What we hope to creat is a public space where community members,
specifically local students, can come to study and do outside research
necessary to supplement their in-class learning. Students in my
vollage, like most students in Africa, do not have books of their own
that they can study from. Teachers, as well do not have books that
they can teach from and in my opinion their is no privacy or a space
students have of their own to work in because of the communal society
they live in. In my village, there is no electricity so most students
work by flashlight or by cell phone light late at night. The cheif and
I have taken that into consideration and decided we would like to
install solar panels, which will make the library and study center the
only buildings with light in my village.

In African culture, the children do most of the house work along with
the mothers. Boys usually do house work until they are teenagers and
after aren't expected, like the girls, to help out but focus on school
work. This project will be beneficial especially to girls in that most
students come back from school around six or seven at night and are
expected to do household chores, prepare meals, bath their younger
sibilings and themselves, and then work on their school work. It
becomes difficult in that there might be only a couple hours left in
the day and if you live in a house with many children you can hardly
focus. It is also our hopes to provide a condusive study enviornment
where students are encourage, especially girls, to study.

If our grant is funded we will buy a computer and printer, which will
be the first of its kind in my village. We also would like to buy a
photocopy machine, we will have the solar panels installed, which are
being provided by the community, along with a blackboard. We will buy
books for the library and have tables, chairs, and bookcases maded. We
want to also supply pens, paper, and pencils.

If you are at all interested or would like to know more please contact
me by email at, of course allowing a few
days to weeks for a response or mail me at:

Alexandra Keenan
B.P. 359

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Moving On

I recently just read "The Alchemist" by Paulo Coelho during one of the many rainy days stuck inside my three tiny roomed house. As the rain beat down on cement sack roof I was enthralled into the journey a shepherd who was trying to realize his dream and discover his treasure. 

Realizing your dream, or trying to realize your dream is something we can all relate to. For me what comes to mind is my Peace Corps service in that just being accepted in the institution of development work was a dream in itself. A quote from the book has particularly captivated me, 

"The secret of life, though, is to fall seven times and get up eight"

This quote truly resonates with me right now. It is a quote that has pushed me through the last, give or take, seven months of my service. It is the secret of success and survival inside and out of the Peace Corps. And I guess at this point in my life, it is me.

 I guess this is the point where I lay down my cards, where I divulge what really has been going on for the last few months, where I explain the silence. It isn't a pretty story but a beautiful lesson of strength, endurance, trust, perseverance, and oddly enough faith. So, here goes....

...It it all started the weekend after I came back to village after my successful Women's Day Event. Dropped off at my door by my trusty motorcycle driver I noticed my jar was ajar and was soon told my neighbor that she noticed my door was open. I might just add that if I was in the United States and my neighbor told me that my door was open I would freak out and call the police and demand a full on investigation before even taking a step in, however I live in Benin, West Africa where animals are constantly breaking into my house and I don't have a police station in my village so I brushed it off and chalked it up to the animals. I called the carpenter and asked him to come the next morning to fix the door and the lock which is happily agreed to do. Exhausted from African travel I passed out extremely early only to be awoken by the worst thing you can possibly imagine hearing, someone breaking down your door. Literally frozen in the dark without any weapon, without neighbors home, lying in my bed while someone defiled the place I called "home". Frozen with fear I heard someone take my months salary, and walk from one room to the next. That next room happened to be my bedroom where lying under a mosquito net, heart pounding, thoughts of death flashed through my mind. Thank Allah,  my neighbor came home at just the right time that it scared the person from my house. Still paralyzed with fear even after the intruder left my house I contemplated leaving the house and searching for help. Visions of me running to my directors house were running through my mind like a movie but I just wasn't able to move. Saying a prayer, I summoned the courage, put my flip-flops on that lied next to my bed grabbed my cell phone, and sprinted out the door. 

This is a story I have repeated numerous and numerous of times. I have told the doctors, my parents, my friends in Peace Corps, and embarrassingly, or courageously, a psychologist. I have replayed that night like a nightmare, I have put a face to the stranger, I have taken sleeping pills, I have filled out a depression questionnaire, I have been depressed, I have cried, I have been afraid of the dark, I have not slept, and I have been scared. I have fallen, truly have fallen, but got back up only to fall again until the big question came, should I stay in Peace Corps. I can't really say what made me stay, I like to think it was courage. The courage to accept I could not change, the courage to admit when I needed help, the courage to cry, the courage to tell Peace Corps that I could not stay in my village and wanted , no demanded, another. 

So, few months later and I am now in a new village. Tobre, which is located up north in the department called the Atakora. I lived in a gated in area with a family, and not just any family, I live in the Queen of Tobre's concession. Yup, friends and family..I am a princess. The language is Bariba and my Bariba name is "Yangui Bouillion" which means Fourth Princess. I adore my family and have started learning the language. I also attend mosque five times a day which makes everyone in my small village very happy, and I'm happy to report makes me extremely happy as well. 

It's pretty wonderful how good it feels to be stronger, to feel happier, to be thankful I got up that eigth time.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

"The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others"- Gandhi

I recently just read a testimonial of a service trip to the Dominican Republic that an old friend and I went on last year. It was an amazing experience that feels so far away right now as I sit in my tiny cement house in the middle of the bush in West Africa. It's truly interesting how fast memories can escape us, yet we are always able to hold on to tastes and smells, or the slightest touch of something that can conjure up nostalgic flashbacks, and words that become that voyage we went on and have left behind years and years ago.

This old friend used a quote by the great philosopher Gandhi, "The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others", to describe how she was able to unearth this passion of service that was suppressed by "real world hustle and bustle". It is amazing how close my experience and this old friend feels right now just by hearing these simplistic yet pure words.  I recently just found out what this quote truly means. I recently just lost myself. 

Women's Day 2011 was the first annual celebration of women in my village.  For about two months I had planned for thirty women in my community, and twenty girls who go to the local high school to gather at our "Maison Des Jeunes", which is French for youth center. I planned an open panel discussion in which there were four professionals who are the experts on the topic they were presenting. The open panel discussion started with the Sage Femme and  Assistant to the Doctor who collaborated nicely. I was half expecting the Sage Femme, which is French for midwife, to sort of take the lead and run the show because of two reason. One, she is a great resource and asset in my community. She is motivated and also does discussions at the health center about a number of issues and is truly invested in the health of the people of Aklampa. Two, because men in high positions, in my village, tend to be really slack and the people under them do most of the grunt work while they take all the glory. However, it was a beautiful "melange", meaning mix in French of the two personalities. I even had four girls who are in the equivalent of 11th grade ask me in the middle of the presentation if they could share an HIV/AIDS song they learned at a Peace Corps camp they attended the year before which was the icing on the cake for me.

During the presentation we also talked about the environment and the importance of a girls education. Finding a speaker for this topic was at first difficult since I am one of two female professors now in my community. I, obviously, couldn't do it because the whole open panel discussion was in Mahi, which is our local language. The other female professor who is married to another professor and has children was very difficult to wrangle into the presentation. It's interesting because even women who have a high position in society are nervous about stepping up and speaking their mind. However, her husband ,who is my friend and strong supporter of women's rights, asked if he could help and gave an amazing speech. He spoke of not only the importance of a girls education but also, how we as a community and women need to support the girls. Obviously, this issue sits heavy on my heart as I am a professor in my community. I see girls who drop out left and right and to be honest my heart swelled with pride as the young girls stood up and clapped as their male professor demanded a change in all homes and schools, not only in Aklampa but all over Benin. It was my first event in my village and although the women showed up about an hour and a half late, which is normal in African cultures but had me biting off my nails and pacing like a mad women, it was a fabulous event in which we the facilitators weren't just throwing loads of new information at the girls and women but at time of discussion and reflection. After the open panel discussion we reflected over soda and cookies which I purchased in the town about an hour away from me. This is a big deal in my village, no one but the men go to the "buvettes" and that is only if they can afford it. Buvette is a West African French term for a bar. So, to have a soda was a big deal and I can say they weren't the only ones happy at that time to crack open a cold Coke!

I can't say that I found myself that day, or even today I know who I really am. But I can say I am on the road to self-discovery and I can't wait to lose myself again.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Projects and Plans

The main objective of Peace Corps is to help or aid in the development process of the host country you are serving in. After my challenging three month integration period in which I formed in relationships in my American and Beninese community, developed both a girls and boys club, and attempted (still attempting) to learn the local language of Aklampa. I am at a point in my service in which I can start small and large projects in my village.
The three projects that I have decided to undertake are a Women's Day Event on March 8th which happen to be the International Day for Women, a community garden, and a World AIDS event at my local secondary school. The Women's Day event in March will be a great chance to speak directly to the women of the community who are unfortunately affected the most from the poverty, diseases, and the lack of pertinent information and resources. I will address four topics during the event: Health, Education, Environment, and Family Planning. A local health worker will speak about HIV/AIDS, Malaria, domestic violence, and malaria. The midwife who also works at the health center will address how to, as well as, when to use condoms, alternatives to sex, and the problems in the school system with teachers sexually harassing female students. It truly is a serious problem and not only in my community but in every school within Benin. Education, I decided I wanted the only other female teacher in Aklampa to talk about the importance of a girls education and the pertinence of going to university to be self-sufficient and financially independent. And lastly we will talk about the environment, like the importance of using latrines and not using the bush as your private toilet because it could possibly affect the cleanliness of your water. The man who I chose to present the environmental information runs a one man environmental NGO in my village and although he can be very flaky at times he is very motivated and has been a pleasure to work alongside with. This summer I will work with him to start the community garden in garden which I hope to help Aklampa become food security and self-sufficient. (We have to travel an hour for fruits and vegetables) The community garden honestly started out of self reason but I have soon come to find out people in my community are just as excited.
Well, wish me good luck on project planning and I hope to update you all on my success ( or not) of my new endeavors.

Monday, October 24, 2011

When one doors closes, a church door opens??

Animals. Interesting and exquisite creatures. We, as humans, have animal instincts that tell us when we have needs such as food, water, and companionship. Or when we are upset, angry, or happy. At times we aren't governed by our mind but instead our instinctual inner beings. I have learned to not only to listen to my instincts but also rely on them as a way of survival. For example, there is an older man who lives in my village who speaks a little English and some French as well. The volunteer who I replaced was best friends with him and he quickly became attached to me, helping me with little things and more importantly making me feel less alone during my first few days. As soon as I moved into my house I needed to get new screens put on my windows and also I wanted some pieces of furniture made to make my house more cozy and inviting.

The carpenter in my village does not speak French so the older man insisted on being the liaison between us.
Mistake number one.
I also paid up from to the carpenter after giving him a list of all the things I wanted.
Mistake number two.
After receiving doors for my bookshelf "because my books might get dirty" to quote the older man who placed the order for me when I in no way hinted that I wanted doors for my bookshelf, which I deem to be the most ludicrous thing to ask for when you are living in Africa, I didn't say anything.
Mistake number three.

What is that old saying, "Three strikes and you're out".
What made me snap? Oh yes, yes I snapped. The straw that broke the camels back came in the form of two chairs. But they weren't just any two chairs.They are two chairs in which I specifically had asked the old man to tell the carpenter that I did not want. So one day he came by and we had a Beninese argument. A Beninese argument is as fast as lighting a match. He thought I had accused him of cheating me, I expressed my unhappiness. We eventually just said ca va, ca va (at that point it translated to okay, its fine) and it ended with him asking me for a gift and me crying at my kitchen table. Since that experience I see the old man around the village but we both keep are distance. My instincts tell me now, if you want something done you got to do it yourself. What a blessing in disguise because that lesson has been. From that experience I have learned that I can trust other people within my village and I can trust myself.

So, what else is left to do then to go out and make some friends. That of course is the best medicine to cure loneliness. Everyday I ventured out and sat with people and tried to engage them in a little French and the little Mahi that I know or we would just sit and stare at each other.One day just venturing around the village I found two women sitting together making a traditional dish called "pot". Clearly, they are a little older than me body and spirit. They didn't speak much French however we shared smiles and laughs.  I realized although we mostly have silence, it is a comfortable silence that keeps me coming back at the same time every evening right before I buy dinner at a local stand. I have a found an interesting place among these women who are older then my parents but younger then my grandmother. They don't ask anything of me yet would offer up the shirt off their backs in a second if I asked. It is hard to explain but I feel a sense of "home" when I am with them and it is the best feeling one can ask for when so far from it.

One of the women whom I have become such good friends has a son who attends the CEG( high school) where I work. He has been helping me a lot with local language and listens patiently to my constant questions and poor French. One Sunday I went to church with him and his mom which was quite an interesting experience. I believe we went to an Evangelical Church which was delivered all in my local language for a total of three hours. I was slightly scared of the Pastor, couldn't understand any of the service, and felt nothing of the spirit of God unless you want to count a severe thirst and perspiration. But I had a moment, I looked around the dark, cramped room in which I saw people of all ages praying for something, clearly not perfect people but yet asking for something from someone. I decided that  not only would I do my best to talk to God ,or whoever I was supposed to be talking to, and ask him/her for not only courage, strength, and patience with my new and old African friends.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Welcome to Aklampa

Dear Friends,

I am sorry that I have seriously neglected my only portal of communication to everyone outside of Benin, West Africa. Ever since my last post life in Porto-Novo not only got more routine and regular but also more intense. As I became more of a family member instead of a guest within my host family structure more was expected of me like doing my own washing, pulling my own water, sweeping my room, and going to church. These activities on top of continuing to learn French and balancing time with out trainees doesn't leave much time to yourself. Currently, the training period of my service is finished and as I look back on it now I am very grateful for the this time I have had in Porto-Novo. Not only did I  grow a lot closer to the other trainees especially the one's  in my sector-TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language), but also I felt connected to my family, home, and community. It was such a weird sense of excitement and anxiety when I drove off in my bush taxi for my new home in Aklampa.

Aklampa, my home for the next two years is rural farming  village in the mid region of Benin. Located in the Collines area, which is arguably the most beautiful area of Benin, is for sure all bush area. I'm about an hour off the main road and will live without electricity and running water. I live in a cement house with about three rooms and an outside area which my latrine is and a room where I can cook and take a bucket shower. Aklampa, like my house is simple but beautiful. The people of Aklampa are very warm and are all about greetings. A few greetings in my local language which is called Mahi (It is a dialect off of Fon which is one of three dominate languages in Benin): Good morning- A-fongangeeya, Good afternoon- Kudo Weme, Good evening- Kudo Bada. I am looking forward to learning more of this language as well as improving on the French that I learned as well.

Peace Corps regulation for housing now states that all volunteers if able to should live in a concession due to the tragic death of a volunteer in Benin who did not live in a concession. From what I know she lived way outside of village, unlike me who does not live in a concession but I do live in the middle of village. Living in a concession obviously is a good thing for safety reasons but also if you are sick like I was all this week there is always someone who will come and check up on you, as well as for cultural integration it is much easier. Although I do feel safe in my village I think these are just challenges I have to overcome but I have also realized that I am lucky in that I have privacy, I won't always have people watching me, and for the first time in my life I am living on my own. I will however take all the precaustionary measures, don't worry Mom and Dad I lock my doors and do not sleep outside no matter how hot it gets! Actually for me the biggest concern isn't someone breaking into my house but voodun. Voodoo is really big in my village, almost everyone practices and is part of a secret society. It isn't something I am worried about but Aklampa has a distinct precense. Once you enter inside the village the air just changes, it's very eery yet comforting all at the same time. If I have any crazy experiences I will definitely make sure to write them down and share them!

Well, thats it for now. In a couple of weeks I will go to my workstation with my friend Lauren to do banking and hopefully I will be able to update this thing again.

Until then, peace and love.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

C'est Bon!

I am going to start this blog entry off by listing a couple of facts that I have learned from living in Benin for a little over a month now.

1.    Sorry mom and dad but you were wrong, you can not put tea tree oil everywhere
2.    Going with out clothes in Africa at times is a choice
3.    Yelling doesn’t always mean someone is angry
4.    Opposite sexes definitely can’t be friends here
5.    Having diarrhea in Benin is officially renamed as the Big D by yours truly
6.    Getting diarrhea, constipation, or any type of sickness according to our Peace Corps Doctors is a choice
7.    Half the African kids that play soccer are better than the professional soccer players
8.    You can MacGyver the mess out of things around the house, for example a flat tire and a stick is a pretty fun game
9.    Washing clothes by hand is a great workout
10. Just when you think you seen the most flies or gotten the most mosquito bites you are seriously surprised

Okay so as I said previously I am in Porto-Novo living with a family, and I recently just finished French Immersion which was incredibly rough. We had French for about seven to eight hours a day with only two half hour breaks and an hour and half lunch break. Now my day consists of French class and technical training. French has been really hard and at times really demoralizing. Right now I am at Novice High and by the time I swear in (September 15th) I have to be at Intermediate High. It is really hard trying to balance studying and spending time with my large family but it is nice that French is one of the many languages spoken at my house so I do get to practice. However, sometimes it really is a struggle and not only just to say, for instance, “I need you to boil my water longer or I will get sick”, but also because some things like eating with a fork, using a napkin/tissue/toilet paper is a total foreign concept.
Some other difficulties that arise from living in Benin would include the HUGE taboo of showing your knees. It is pretty scandalous, although I have seen plenty of Beninese girls show their knees but it is a definitely a big no for us. The lack of small bills/coins would be another difficulty. The Peace Corps pays us every two weeks (which I might add amounts to the whopping total of 3 dollars a day) and usually in big bills. The exchange rate is 500 CFA to 1 dollar. 500 CFA here can buy you a couple days lunch here no problem. In Benin, the CFA currency is just called Francs and since everyone is poor small change like 500 Francs and lower are used more. However if you a 1000 CFA and you need change you will probably have four to five people tell you they don’t have the change when they really do. Thank God there are fifty-some volunteers that I see pretty regularly that I can bum change off of them if need be and vice versa.
The last difficulty I would say would be sickness. Everyone, I believe, has been sick at one time or another. I won’t really go into detail because I know it is culturally taboo in the states to talk about diarrhea. Here, it is very common for people to openly talk about especially among us volunteers. It is usually the lunch topic of the day especially those who live in houses with latrines (outside concrete toilet or room with a whole) and their parents lock their latrines. Just like in most developing countries the left hand is very taboo and is considered the “dirty” hand so you have to beware of little kids who tend to forget, like one of my little brothers.
So those are just a few of the difficulties, however, as I said before I do enjoy my family and sometimes I do think I lucked out. This weekend was a little hard because my Mom’s son came with his girlfriend and their two children to visit his two kids that live at my house. (His wife and him and are divorced and he is also in the military so he doesn’t even live with his two other children).  So on top of the six children we have two more which has been really hard in terms of privacy and quiet time to study and read. My family takes very good care of me but they definitely treat me like I have never lived on my own and I can’t do anything. My sister only allowed me to wash three shirts after taking over and bringing out a chair for me to sit down. After I insisted that I wash my underwear myself and they reluctantly agreed my one brother kept popping in to check on my which was pretty patronizing. Another brother instructed me that I need to sweep my room because it was Ce n’est pas bon a popular Beninese phrase meaning: that’s not good/well. He and my other two brothers proceeded to watch me sweep my room giving me instructions as if I never swept a room in my life to the point in which I snapped. I told the kids that I was 22 and didn’t need them to watch me like a circus animal every time I did something.  I consider myself very lucky because like I said before I have fifty-three other volunteers going through the same thing as me and am able to totally get what I am going through.
Okay, so for the next blog I will talk about where I will be posted for the next two years, the attempt of riding a bike in Africa, hopefully a nice break from my host family, my many many marriage proposals as well as the guessing game of my ethnicity, and the Peace Corps version of a Friday night.