I’m Dreaming of a Dust Filled Christmas

Published by Brian on

The holiday’s are over and I’m at about the 25 percent mark of my Peace Corps service (but who’s counting). Anyways, with December come and gone, I’ve learned one more thing about this country; December showers bring December dust and sand. Not catchy but I think you see where I’m going with it.

The rainy season ended in mid-ish October, and for two months there wasn’t even a trace of moisture in the air. Then, one fateful Friday evening in early December the skies opened up. I remember this because I as soon as I heard raindrops falling on my roof I ran outside (with my keys this time) to put out my rain buckets.

Of course now I know that you should not collect rainwater if it hasn’t rained for more than a few days you shouldn’t collect water, instead you should let that first rain wash away all the grime and dirt, and then collect water once things have gotten a little cleaner.

Anyways, not long after what I assumed was a freak rainstorm, I realized what this meant. The winds shifted, and the sky was now filled with sand blowing in from the Sahara. They call it harmattan, and the locals had been dreading its arrival. All the dust and sand in the sky means that there is a lot less sunlight, lowering the temperature. For a couple of hours every morning, it was cold enough to wear a light jacket. Yeah, that’s right, we’re talking October in America cold.

Of course, October in America translates here into March on Pluto. Everyone here acted like they were stranded in the Antarctic, bringing out the puffy jackets, the knitted hats, and the long series of excuses into why they can’t do anything. As soon as it came, harmattan was out the door. After about two weeks of cold mornings things went back to what was more or less the usual, although the sky still has a lot of particles in it. During the day you could even look at the sun without hurting your eyes.

Had to savor it while it lasted, because after harmattan comes the chaleur, the hot, dry season. Here’s looking at months of being a mile from the sun.


This time of year can only mean one thing, holiday season. Much like stateside people here go big for Christmas and New Year’s, although strangely not a lot of menorahs. Before Christmas I got asked a lot of questions like “when do they celebrate Christmas in America? And New Year’s?” and “will you be celebrating here or are you going back to your village?”

Of course going to church is a big thing on Christmas, which brought around another round of questions about my faith (I’m not going back to a protestant church here). On Christmas I celebrated with my neighbors by throwing a dance party with the kids, Michael Jackson mostly, cooking a dish, and throwing around the old pigskin. Sharing food is a real big thing around the holidays, so I decided to make rice pudding, more on that later but they were a little taken aback by the dish.

Later in the day I went into town and visited my school director, where I was served a lot of food, specifically chicken. That was probably the most meat I’ve eaten in one day here, which means it was about a normal day of meat eating for me back in America.

But Christmas is just the little celebration, for weeks I’ve been told that New Year’s is the big one. That’s the one people go all out for. In my experience New Year’s was bigger only in the sense that more people asked me to give them things, a lot of “hey, I go to the school where you work, what are you giving me?” type stuff. Otherwise there was a lot of dancing in the streets, and motorcycle stuff. I believe at one point they were doing drag races through the main street in the village, and at any given time people would pop wheelies or do burn outs, a lot of burn outs actually, and also a lot of burnouts mixed with donuts. All told the celebrations lasted through the rest of the week, dying down on day four or so.

Smorgasbord Nouveaux

So as I’ve gotten settled in post I’ve started to get a little more adventurous with my cooking. Trading off between rice and pasta every other night can only last so long. Unfortunately I’m still kind of limited by my ingredients. Market day is only once a week, and there are no preservatives in any of the stuff I can buy.

Coupled with no refrigeration, this means some things just don’t last. You also just can’t find things a lot of the time too, for instance my choices when it comes to vegetables are tomatoes, onions, yams, okra, and whatever random leaves they are selling. Fruits are limited to either bananas or oranges, but usually not both at the same time.

Anyways, if it can be boiled or fried, this guy will give it a go. Baking is still not in the repertoire, neither is anything that requires baking powder. So far my specialties with gas burner include rice pudding (and it’s cousin, peanut butter rice pudding), French toast, and chili. I have made all of these dishes for my neighbors, and so far they like the French toast, claim to like the chili, and won’t try the rice pudding.

On Christmas I enlisted a couple of kids as sous chefs for my rice pudding preparation, and they were all thoroughly confused the entire time I made it. I had them up until when I added the sweetened condensed milk to the rice. Also I made one of the kids eat some cinnamon, which was fun. Now, I think the rice pudding is actually pretty good, but it seems it was too new for most of my neighbors, because everyone over the age of ten had a convenient list of excuses for why they wouldn’t eat any.

The chili went better; I again had the kids help me out. I found out kind of late that I would have to go into the market town to get any beef or goat meat, so I decided to make a chicken chili instead.

We went down to the poissonerie (a place where they sell frozen fish, sometimes they sell chicken too), and got myself a frozen chicken. Got the kids to help me gut it and cut into smaller pieces, and then let them talk me into boiling it. In hindsight I should have fried it first, then boiled (which I did with the beef the next I made chili just for myself).

The next controversy came when it came time to add vegetables to the chili. I wanted to put some okra in there so it wasn’t just tomatoes, everyone else was against it. I won that argument though, and later many of them agreed it was a good idea.

When it was all done I served some up for everybody, and they were concerned that I didn’t put any
piment in it. Now, I could spend an entire post talking about piment (it would be called ‘Cooking with Piment, the subtlety of taste’). Anyways, it’s the local hot/spicy pepper, people here add it to everything.

So, I dished up a bowl for one of the teenage girls that lives next door, and she was all like “I’m so good at cooking, this isn’t going to be hot enough, I’m gonna add some piment,” and I went ahead and letter do it. She grabbed a bag of crushed up pepper and dumped way too much on, convincing some other critics to do the same. Long story short, they added way too much piment, and everyone who ate it the way I prepared it claims to have really liked it.

The other specialty I’ve been working on is French toast. I’m getting pretty good at it. A lot of my early tries were too sweet, but I’m starting to get the ratio right. I gave some to one of the neighbor boys, he really liked it, but then again he doesn’t speak much French so he claims to like and agrees to everything.

It’s Hook or Me This Time

I got a dog. Or I’m getting one. I was talking to a parent of one of my students and he mentioned that their dog in the fields just gave birth to puppies, three boys and three girls, and asked if I wanted to buy one. Puppies are cute, I assume it will eat bugs, lizards and whatever other varmint is running around my house, and I can use it as a garbage disposal with my failed meals.

For these reasons I said yes, I’ll take a boy puppy (usually I’d say I want a female puppy since I think they’re less aggressive, but I don’t want no baby puppies of my own). There’s a vet in the market town that can hook me up with some vaccinations and medications for worms and stuff, so this puppy train’s pulling out of the station. Now puppy’s should stay with their mother’s for at while after birth, so I’m letting him stay in the fields for now, but in the next week or so I’ll be bringing him home.

Of course when it comes to getting a pet one of the big questions is what are you going to name it. Admittedly I thought long and hard about this. My gut reaction was to name it dog. I’ve since changed my mind, and after further reflection think that Peter Pan is really a good name for a young boy puppy.

Peter Pan is an orphan boy who caused trouble; I assume my puppy will be much the same. Peter Pan is cocksure and a braggart; if I do my job right then my puppy will be the same. Peter is incredibly forgetful, doesn’t understand how to behave, and a bit of a heartbreaker (the whole Tinkerbell thing); sounds like a puppy to me. And, finally, who was it that first introduced the idea of Peter Pan to Wendy and the boys? Uhhhhhhhhhh, their dog, Nana. Also Peter Pan is the name of a brand of peanut butter and I like peanut butter.


One of my big projects this upcoming semester is going to be starting a girl’s soccer team at the school. This should go well since I know so much about soccer, coaching, and teenage girls. There’s a boy’s team though, and anything that can be done with girl’s empowerment is sorely needed in this country.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. I could just find a female teacher and have them help me out, coach the team with me. Unfortunately the school only has two women teachers and neither of them are interested in athletics. So instead I just asked the gym teacher to help me out, he thinks it’s such a good idea that we should also have a volleyball team.

Quick side note, I would be in favor of the volleyball team because no one here knows how to play volleyball, so even though I’m terrible at it I should still be better than everyone else. This is going to be my new philosophy on playing sports; I will only do it if I am the only one who knows how to play whatever sport it is.

Back to the team, I mentioned it in a couple of my classes and the girls were very excited at the idea of actually being allowed to play soccer, so the enthusiasm there. I just need to work on my moustache, track down some aviators, some sweat pants (preferably tearaways), a light weight zip-up jacket, maybe a headband, and then we’ll have all the makings for an 80’s sports movie. Our warm-up music will be Styx’s greatest hits. As this hopefully gets going I’ll have more updates, but I see this working itself out a lot like that movie the Big Green.

A Good Tailor’s Hard to Find

I’m sure most of my more regular readers remember my warm relationship with my Porto-Novo tailor. And while I’m close with my carpenter in village, and in general find the craftsmen (masons, carpenters, etc.) to be some of the more interesting people to talk to, I’m having trouble finding that love connection with a tailor at post.

So I started going to one tailor, and I’ve had a couple of things made there, and while it’s good stuff, can’t complain about the craftsmanship, I can complain about the delays. Simply put it takes him exponentially longer than it should, and whenever I drop subtle hints I get the run around. Problem is people here generally just try to tell you what you want to hear.

Tried going to another tailor, same deal. So we’ll see if I can my guy for clothes, I’ve got one more promising lead. This week my friend Sylvester and I are going to go the market and get the same tissue and head over to his tailor to get some twinsies made up. He was wearing like pancho/sweatshirt combo and I wanted one too.

It’s a Small World After All

Everyone here assumes that whenever another white person comes to town I either know him or her personally or that I would be very interested in knowing them. Unfortunately since most of the westerners outside of the south are somehow Peace Corps related, there’s a lot “hey, why would you assume I know every white person? But I do know him, that’s Hank” kind of conversations with Beninese people.

So a couple of weeks ago I was heading to the market and stopped in at a sort of hardware shop whose owner I sort of know when another Caucasian comes up out of nowhere to say hi. Turns out she is a former Peace Corps volunteer who worked in town here a few years back. The kicker, though, is when we play the whole where are you from game.

Now, I always start out this game with the generic Minnesota response, and then just say Twin Cities area if people ask for any more specificity. And this works out well whenever I’m talking to someone not from Minnesota, but sometimes you run into another Gopher stater, and then this whole dance gets a lot more awkward pretty fast.

Anyways, so it turns out this former volunteer was from Minnetonka, so only a couple of towns away, and played on my school’s softball team.

These sorts of things happen more frequently than I thought they would. For example, the Eckanckar Church, based in suburban Minnesota, actually has a noticeable following in Benin, which means that a number of people actually know where Minnesota is and sometimes, such as with the President of my school’s parents association, have family members who have visited Minnesota.

So that should just about bring everyone up to date on my last month or so. With classes back in session after the winter break I’ll be hitting that now for a while.

Also I’m going to try and put up some photos.

1 Comment

mj engelsma · January 10, 2014 at 7:24 pm

Great post Brian! I’ll look forward to my first grand-puppy photos. You obviously get your cooking “genius” from your mom! Love you

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