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.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Benin is Bombtastic

So I am finally in Benin and at computer that I cant say I can totally work. So yeah I am alive and in Benin living with a host family. I have crazy younger brothers and three older sisters and a mom. It is really hard to describe my digs but I will try to upload pictures soon. Benin is pretty different in the states but has been pretty awesome so far. I live in the crazy busy city of Porto-Novo in which the primary form of transportqtion are motorcycles. Thank God I havent fallen off one although another volunteer was thrown from one. I eat a lot of carbs like pasta, rice, and beans for like every meql. They also love fried food here which is really tasty and will do wonders for my health. I have had french everyday ALL DAY and yet it is still a struggle. This week I am stqrting teacher training which will be pretty awesome. Well I only have a couple minutes left and still need to walk home so I will try to write more later on. oh and my number is 22966787912 i love phone calls, letters, and granola bars

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Packing is the hangover without going to the awesome party..

I think this title captures my sentiments towards packing. I absolutely loathe packing. I have never been good at it, and I never will be because it sucks. I always try to be that person that is packed well in advanced with every shirt and pair of pants tucked nicely away. I obviously was delusional that this would ever work out because here I am now, a day before I have to go to orientation in Philly still not fully packed.

I believe this is the essence of me.

When it comes to leaving, I can't say I'm good at any of it. I hate saying bye, I usually forget something, I leave important things till the last minute and I'm usually grouchy and irritable. Up until a couple days ago I had no explanation for my erratic behavior, I didn't even realize the extent of how airy of person I tend to be when it comes to leaving. I recently missed a trip to DC to visit one of my closest friends. I put off buying my train ticket and mistakenly made appointments and dates with people during the time I said I would be in DC. I missed her phone calls and text messages due to my forgetfulness with my cellular device. I guess it is safe to say that I'm not a person that can balance to many things at once. This said friend is back in California and I probably won't see her until we visit each other in our respected countries (she will be living in Morocco for a year doing research on a Fulbright Fellowship). So to sum up my feelings, I feel like a really bad friend. (I'm dreadfully sorry Armaan, I love you sooooooo much)

Amy Poheler wrote an article about her "aha moment" and the value in saying goodbye. She, like I, always gets anxious and frustrated when major changes are thrown her way. "Instead of facing changes, I always wanted to skip over them", Amy said. She recalls a book she read five years ago, When Things Fall Apart by the Buddhist monk Pema Chodron who explains that the only thing in life we can really count on is change. Chodron reflects on change in saying that to be fully alive is to be repeatedly "thrown out of the nest"; if we really experience the end of something, that thing will never actually end. Amy Poheler sums up her article with saying that good memories and relationships will always stay with you. I know Amy Poheler, to my dismay, doesn't know me but I really believe I was meant to read this article. On my last evening in the states as I am preparing to be thrown out of the nest, I plan to savor all my good memories and relationships that I have made not only over these last couple of weeks but over the past years while in Woodbury and Charleston.

So as I enthrall myself back into the dizzying experience of trying to fit my whole life into two suit cases I won't be upset or angry, but happy that I am taking the time out to have those sobering goodbye conversations. And to those who I wasn't afforded the time to say farewell....I guess it really isn't goodbye at all but rather, I will see you soon.
Much love,

Monday, May 16, 2011

Graduation & Things. No Big Deal.

I can't believe it,'s over. What an amazing four years it's been at the College of Charleston. I have made so many amazing friends and had unforgettable experiences. Freshman year I came in nervous and apprehensive. Needless to say I was scared to death that I wouldn't know anyone in my classes, I was afraid of failure, and the possibility of having no friends. Thank God I am sooooooo pretty and popular! (Inside joke--big ups to my Spring Break group to the DR!)

Although I am truly going to miss living minutes from all my classes, never being bored in the beautiful city of Charleston, and having my best friends all live above me I am ready for a new badass experience. I also can't forget the rejuvenating breaks in Woodbury, New Jersey filled with laughs, and lots of love.

So here is my public declaration: June 29th is the day I embark on my two year journey to Benin, Africa in the Peace Corps! Everyone keeps asking me, "Ally, are you excited" or "Ally are you nervous?". I am definitely both nervous and excited. I absolutely hate having to say goodbye to people and believe me completely terrible at it. But anyone who knows me knows that this Peace Corps has been a dream. When I found out I was invited to become a trainee I broke down in tears. Two years of tests, applications, emails, interviews, and waiting came in a half-hour conversation.  I am  so blessed to be given this experience and will definitely make the best out of it. Thank you to everyone who has helped me get to this point in my life, I am truly indebted to each and everyone of you.

So here are some pictures from an amazing four years in Woodbury, New Jersey all the way to Monte Cristi Dominican Republic.

Graduation Morning!
God blessed me with two amazing friends
We're the three best friends that anyone could have, hahahah 

Julie D. (Pookes) & I coming home from Philly

About to graduate with a few friends and fellow seniors
In the Sahara Desert. IES Fall  '09

Oh Jennifer, my fav in NYC.

Sistah from anotha Mistah

Valuable Life Lesson Learned in the DR

Monte Cristi, DR

WE DID IT!!!!!!

Nina Deese and I at Charleston Affair :)