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.