Camp Bouca

Published by Brian on

Back in village now after the Easter break. The schools here have a week and a half long break for Easter (I suspect that it is that long in part because it typically coincides with the start of the rainy season so that students can help their families plant crops in the fields).

I spent a good part of the break visiting some other volunteers about five hours north of me and helping out at a girl’s camp, more on that later.

We’re in the final stretch for school now, not that much time left. Unfortunately I actually have no idea when the school year will be over. The school year typically runs into June officially, but at least in villages (like mine) students sort of stop showing up after the second series of tests in May since they’re expected to help out with tending the fields during the rainy season.

Everyone around the school, however, insists that this year is totally different. Why? Because of the strike. In Benin there are two types of teachers, there are full-time teachers (permanents) and part-time teachers (vacatiers). Full-time teachers get paid more and teach full-time (hence the name) at a single school. Part-time teachers traditionally are less qualified and only teach a class or two a school. Part-time teachers also usually teach at multiple schools, so overall they may be teaching as much as a full-time teacher, but they are not formally attached to any specific school the way a full-time teacher is.

The full-time teachers (which is what I technically am) are all part of a union, the part-time teachers are not. Full-time teachers are more common in larger cities and in the south of the country. I’m currently the only full-time teacher at my school, and I’d be willing to wager any sum that I will be the only full-time teacher next year too.

Full-time teachers have been striking since January, which has caused a number of schools in the south to basically shut down. Because of this the government is going to be extending the school year into the summer to try and make up some of that lost time. The strike has had absolutely no effect on my school, but the school calendar is a national one, so if the government extends the calendar it will be extending it for every school in the country.

It hasn’t been decided how long the calendar will be extended though. I’ve heard rumors of it going into July but I have no idea. My guess is that at my school they’ll extend the school year maybe two weeks more than they normally would to sort of comply with any new calendar, but either way I don’t anticipate students showing up after a certain point.


Camp Bouca

As I mentioned I spent a good chunk of my Easter vacation helping out with a girls’ camp. The camp was in the town of Bouca in the Borgou, just a little bit north of Nikki (which was a surprisingly nice city).

To get to Bouca you have to take some sort of transportation (so bush taxi or the Baobab Express) to Nikki, and then you find a zemi (motorcycle taxi) to take you the 45 kilometers or so into the bush where Bouca is.

Luckily for me it started raining as soon as we got out of Nikki. I was making the trip with two other volunteers, their zemi drivers decided to stop at a random farmers house for the rains to pass. My zemi driver decided to just power through it. An hour later after riding through the rain on washed out dirt roads I finally got there.

Aside from generally supervising and helping out during some group activities, my main responsibility was to run an elective session everyday. One volunteer did self-defense, another did arts and crafts, and for some reason I thought it would be a good idea to do modern dance.

They were not ready for modern dance. In my mind we would do a lot of interpretive dance type stuff (which for the record I know nothing about and am totally unqualified to teach to anyone in English, let alone French), but after the first day it was clear that would be a struggle. The highlight from our foray into interpretive dance was when I played Enya for them, and then told them all to just close their eyes and imagine. To let their mind wander, to let it gravitate to any abstract thoughts or movements they might have.

Unfortunately I just don’t think they were ready to open up their minds in that way. So after that I changed gears and taught them various popular dances like the sprinkler, the foxtrot, the hustle, and the Macarena (aka the macaroni).

All in all it was a good experience though. The girls got to learn a lot about malaria, the environment, nutrition, family planning, women’s health, etc. (those last two I don’t actually know what they learned because all the boys where banished from the room for those sessions).


The Rains

As previously mentioned, the rainy season is here. When you think rainy season, you may think that it is just raining all the time, and that there is a permanent fog resting over the land. Unfortunately the rainy season does NOT mean that this place turns into a West African Seattle.

What typically happens is that it rains for an hour or so every night (it happens at night because it is cooler, thus making it easier for the moisture in the air to condense and fall as rain), and then during the day it is hot and humid and sort of like D.C. in the summer. I’m fine with this though so long as it rains, because it makes my water issues significantly easier.

Because of the rain, I haven’t had to go to the pump in a week. As soon as I hear the pitter patter of rain on my tin roof, I set out my buckets, and boom I got my bathing/laundry/cleaning/everything that isn’t drinking water. No more trying to find children to help me go to the pump, failing to find them, and then going to the pump and acting like a lost puppy until someone takes pity and helps me.

The best part, though, is taking showers in the rain. Totally revolutionized how I view bathing. If it is raining decently strong the runoff from my roof creates what can approximately be called a real shower. The water pressure on this shower is stronger than water pressure I’ve had in a Beninese city. Sure, the water is freezing, but after a sweaty AC-less day, a glacial shower hits a lot of the right spots.

Another great part of the rainy season is that the electricity is a lot more reliable. I think I’ve mentioned before that Benin has no real power generating ability beyond a generator. We haven’t got any of your fancy pants power plants and we don’t need them. Instead, we just import all of our energy from Ghana and Nigeria, as I’m sure most prosperous nations do.

Most of Ghana’s electricity, in turn, is generated through dams. Nigeria also relies on hydroelectricity, although not to the extent that Ghana does. The rain means that there is a more stable flow of water, which in turn helps in generating electricity. Or so I’ve been told.

People don’t seem to be as excited about the coming rains as I am, however. Whenever I bring it up people just sort of grumble about how the rainy season is a couple weeks early this year, and about how little rain they got last year. This, in turn, has led to me claiming to be a rainmaker. I’ve decided that this is the reputation I would like to have in village, and that if I can sufficiently take responsibility for the rain I can cement my patron status.

What’s been really surprising is how quickly the environment changed. For starters, everything is green. I really didn’t think I was going to get that springtime feeling given that I live in a francophone country where people don’t know the French word for spring. To my surprise, however, there is still that sensation of all the plants and whatnot coming back to life. Instead of wide expanses of dust, dirt and burned grass there are now small shrubs and grasses growing.

The other big change, however, is the complete makeover of the village. Virtually every part of the village that used to just be empty space has been re-appropriated into fields for growing something. As I understand it, I believe that people usually grow cash crops like cotton on the small plots by their houses in village, with maybe a small vegetable garden thrown in for good measure.

The staple crops, though, are grown in the “fields” outside of village. That’s where the corn, peanuts, sorghum, cassava, yams, etc. are grown.

Worst part of the rainy season, the bugs have gotten noticeably worse. But if that is the worst part, then I can live with it.




Here’s a bonus pic of our school garden. Right now we’ve planted tomatoes, gboma leaves, and piment. This week we’re going to plant some carrots, which is great because those aren’t available in any market around here. With the rains finally coming, we no longer have to worry about watering the plants too, so that is a big plus.

As I’m sure you can tell, that fence isn’t going to keep anybody out. If someone wanted to steal all of our plants, there would be nothing stopping them (so long as they aren’t a total idiot about it). Nonetheless, the fence points out that it isn’t intended for collective use and (maybe) promotes the idea of enclosing land used for cultivation.

Even though the fence won’t keep out people, it will keep out goats and other animals, which is actually a fairly serious benefit. Packs of goats roam the streets here, establishing their authority through overwhelming numbers. I probably see as many goats as people in any given day, and they are entirely left to just wander around and do whatever they want.

Now that the rains have started, and that every square inch of the village has been turned into cultivated fields, goats are a legitimate threat; they will eat your plants with no reservations. Goats feel nothing, they have no shame, no guilt. They’re the frat boys of the animal kingdom, they’re here to consume and have a good boy. I have noticed some families tying up their goats, which is nice in that it stops them from eating everything they come across. It’s also kind of sad when it rains though and the goats have nowhere to go.

1 Comment

Douglas Williams · May 16, 2014 at 4:17 am

Nice April post Brian! Anxious to read May’s blog. Cool, gray and typical in Minnesota. Doug

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