Magical Mystery Tour

Published by Brian on

It’s hard to believe that I’ve already been here for about a year and a half. Time is starting to go bye a lot faster, mostly since my schedule has been getting a lot busier since the school year started up.

Got my haircut again yesterday, trimmed down to the skull. It’s been getting kind of hot, and the short hair really does make a difference. I went to a new barber this time, and was pleased to learn that this guy had some understanding of French, a service that I’ve come to appreciate. It still was a bit of a struggle to get him to leave my eyebrows alone (he was rather persistent in his efforts).

Compared to this time last year, it seems like it is hotter, and that the weather is a couple of weeks behind. I remember that by this time last year they had already started burning all the grasses, which hasn’t started yet this year. Also, by the first week of school last year students were showing up to class in winter coats because of harmattan, that also hasn’t started happening yet this year.

The hot village gossip right now is about the upcoming local elections. Benin was supposed to have local elections for council members/mayors back in 2013, but for a variety of reasons they haven’t happened yet. The official reason given is delays in getting the new electronic voter registration system up and running.

At the end of October the national government made a new push to try and have the system up and elections held by the end of the year (strangely enough the end of October was when Benin was trying to get a waiver for the next round of Millennium Challenge Corporation funding, what a total coincidence, right?!?). Last March/April they had preliminary registration, so the last couple of weeks they’ve posted the provisional list of registered voters in a village square for people to check and make sure they’re registered to vote. It’s looking like they’ll miss the goal of having local elections before the end of the year, but if everything goes right then January would still be possible. The hope is to use this as a trial run of the new system before the legislative elections next year, and the planned presidential election in 2016.

Please Mister Postman

Just about any tourist coming to Benin will quickly learn one thing; customer service doesn’t really exist here. It just isn’t a priority. If you go to a bar or restaurant oftentimes the waitress will be sleeping or resting, and it’s up to you to make sure you get any service you want.

In my experience, however, service is not universally bad. Rather, the quality of service you receive is commensurate to your relationship with the person providing the service. If you have a stronger relationship with the person, the quality will be noticeably better. If it is someone who you’ve never met before, your service will likely not be good.

I’ve noticed this in village with a couple of different people. First, there is the post office in my market town. At our local post office there is just one guy working there. When I first got to village I had heard horror stories about how he overcharges you, and how he never has any change available (meaning he pockets the change) and that there generally wasn’t a lot of trust in him.

At first my experience was similar, he often overcharged me and I had to make sure to bring exact change with me, because he wasn’t going to offer any. I’ve noticed the last few times I’ve gone to visit him though he’s gotten a lot better. I think this is in part because every time I go, I go through the standard 5-10 minutes of chitchat before hand, and if I see him at the market or something I always make a point of greeting him. Now, he typically charges me less than what I get charged when I go to the large post office in the regional capital, and last time I went he even licked my stamps for me.

Another place I’ve noticed relationships influencing service is with zems, or the motorcycle taxis. Zem drivers can be pretty fickle, mostly when it comes to prices. Whenever you get together with volunteers it is pretty common to hear grumbling about zem drivers. And when I’m in Parakou or Cotonou, where I don’t know any of the drivers and have no relationship with them, it can be pretty hit or miss.

In village and in my market town, however, it is a different story. I’ve come to know some of the drivers, whether from repeated use, or because they live nearby, or because they have younger brothers/sisters who are my students. In village I no longer negotiate prices with zem drivers, they take whatever I consider to be fair (which works so long as you don’t try to gouge them).

In village all roads are made of dirt. They deteriorate pretty quickly though, and the government doesn’t have any money to really keep them up. What winds up happening is that when a road gets too bad somebody will set up roadblock, take a toll, and repair the road. This can be kind of a hassle though since many drivers don’t want to pay, and it’s not like there is a posted toll, it’s negotiated individually as people try to pass.

I generally don’t have a problem paying some kind of toll (unless I’m walking on foot, then I refuse to pay a toll), but at the same time I don’t want to get gouged. This can be a problem sometimes since people see me, see that I’m white, assume I have a lot of money burning holes in my pocket, and will sometimes make large and unreasonable demands. Lately I’ve noticed, however, that zem drivers, who know where these tolls are set up, have been going out of there way to avoid them whenever they’re giving me a ride. Point being, if you treat them well and develop a relationship, they’ll look out for you. I don’t expect I’d get that same level of service if they didn’t know me beforehand.

All Together Now

School is in full swing now. We are going to have our first tests of the year next week, and I’m feeling cautiously optimistic so far. This year I’m teaching 4e, which is roughly equivalent to 8th grade, and 5e, which is roughly 7th grade. I’m pretty happy with how my older students are doing, but the younger ones have been a little back and forth.

The good news is that the class sizes are smaller than last year. Between my three classes I teach a little over 150 students, last year between three classes I taught over 200. I had two classes last year with more than 70 students; this year my largest class is about 55. It really does make a difference having fewer students. For example, when I wrote tests last year I couldn’t have them do a lot of producing their own sentences and paragraphs, because I just didn’t have the time to do that much grading. This year it’s possible to have them do some more production.

I’ve also been very successful giving out nicknames to my students. Appolinaire loves his new nickname, Ebolinaire. Same with Flavien, who loves his new nickname, Flavor Flav-ien.

Get Back

Two weeks ago we started up our girls soccer team. Last year I started a team with a gym teacher at the school, and even though we had twice-weekly practices I was never really satisfied with how it went. So far this year things are going a lot better.

We’ve been able to recruit a French teacher at the school to help us out. So far we’ve been having around 30 girls show up to each practice, which is great because that gives us enough to do 11 on 11 scrimmages with a few reserves. They still need to do some work on conditioning and learning the importance of positions and staying in theirs, but there has been clear progress.

The big thing we’ve added this year, however, is that we are doing more things outside of playing sports. Part of the appeal of having a girl’s soccer team is that it lets us work on gender equality issues, without it being so clear. If I had tried to start a girls club, where we would talk about female empowerment, I doubt it would’ve worked. The soccer team gives us an opportunity to work on building their confidence and self-esteem.

Additionally, the French teacher who is now helping us, Charles, has been doing weekly sessions on topics unrelated to sports. So last week, for instance, we took an hour before practice to talk about the importance of going to school, and good study habits. We also plan on doing sessions about nutrition, health, family planning, and eventually sexual harassment and assault, as these are pretty serious issues in Beninese society that are often ignored.

You Never Give Me Your Money

Our classroom project is moving right along. To raise money the school has charged a ten-dollar building fee to every student, and as of now somewhere between 80-90% of students have paid in full. The mason and his team have been at the school everyday. The foundations have been dug, and the walls are going up now. The building is basically a concrete shell, there’s no wiring or plumbing or anything, so it is not too complicated to build. Having said that, the work site is definitely not OSHA approved (more flip flops than I’d like to see), but so far things are going well.

If everything goes right we should have the building finished by the end of the first semester (February) which will be a big help since we are short four classrooms right now. Through juggling class schedules, and having classes start at 7 in the morning and run to 7 at night, we’ve been able to mostly find enough space to hold all classes, although it’s been far from perfect (for instance, the sun sets at about 6:30, so evening classes which are scheduled to run until 7 never actually run that long).

Good Morning Good Morning

The last few months I’ve been putting more of an effort into learning local language, since many people only speak local language, and learning it is a good way to build relationships and integrate into the community. In my village they speak Mahi, which is either a dialect of Fon, the largest language in Benin, or a separate language depending on who you ask. The distinction between language and dialect is actually rather political, as some Mahi (the people) don’t like being associated with the Fon (the people), who historically raided Mahi villages for slaves to sell to the west. Linguistically Mahi and Fon are largely mutually intelligible, with the major differences between the two being mostly in pronunciation and pragmatics.

So here are some of the major greetings in local language. If it’s the morning and you want to greet someone for the first time, you say “o fon ganjia” which something like “how did you sleep.” The normal response is “un fon ganji”, or “I slept well.” After this, if you want, you can say something like “vi le lo” or “xwegbe lo,” which means “and the children” or “and the house (meaning those living at the house), to which you respond “yi fon ganji” or “edo ganji,” which means that everyone is doing well. One thing I like to do is greet young kids and then ask them how their children are doing, they get really confused.

Around noon the standard greeting is “kudo hweme,” which can be used until 4 or 5 in the afternoon, at which point you switch to “kudo bada,” which means something like “good night.” It’s also pretty standard to ask either “a blo kpedea,” which means “have you done a lot (as in work),” or “a do kpedea,” which means “are you currently doing a lot.” The normal response is “un blo kpede” or “un do kpede,” meaning I have done, or am doing a lot. That’s about enough for one lesson I think, so I’ll leave you with “edabo,” or good-bye.

1 Comment

Susan · December 7, 2014 at 8:07 pm

So fun to get your news. Keep it up….and a photo of your fresh ‘do would be fun. I’m glad they left your eyebrows intact.

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