The Lock Out

Published by Brian on

Sorry for not being able to put up any updates lately. Although much has been happening, I’ve been without Internet access. I think I’ll be dialing onto the World Wide Web only once a month or so for the foreseeable future, so I’ll do my best to keep up to date with my stories. Most of this post is stories that I’ve written up in village and saved to be posted.

Since I last updated my blog school has started, I’ve gotten my house almost completely set up, and my routines are starting to get set in village.

Classes have been going on for about four weeks now. No real problems to report, kids in village are in general much better behaved than city kids. Even with a class of 65 or so (my largest) there aren’t any major problems, aside from a significant portion of them having no interest in learning English.

One thing I have learned though is that positive rewards are always better at producing desirable classroom behavior than negative punishment. For instance, the kids love to sing, and at the end of each class we practice a song. But, if they are too talkative, or if they don’t do their homework, we don’t do the song. They generally are pretty good at self-policing, since they know that if they go out of line then I’ll take away the song.

Something else I just started doing this week is dividing my classes into teams, and then have them compete against one another whenever we do classroom activities or go over homework. I told them that at the end of the semester whichever team has the most points will either get a prize or a (pool?) party, depending on whatever I decide I’d rather do. This generally gets them to put forth a good effort during activities and on homework.

A fun by-product of splitting them into teams is that I went ahead and assigned team names, which means they are all named after American sports teams. In my 5eme class, for instance, much to my surprise the Utah Jazz have sprinted out to an early lead. I would have predicted them to finish closer to the back of the pack, and I would have predicted a slugfest to the end between the male heavy Dallas Cowboys, and the girl heavy Chicago Bears.

I don’t know if the Jazz will be able to keep up this hot start, or maybe some other underdog (the San Francisco Giants perhaps?) will make a late play. So many maybes, that’s what makes it so exciting. And that’s just one class.

The other big thing with work is that I am trying to get the ball rolling on some school projects. My school is poorly resourced even by Beninese standards. It is not normal for a school to lack latrines, and it is not normal for there to literally be classes outside under a tree.

At my CEG (College d’Enseignment General, basically what they call secondary schools here) we have five classrooms and eight classes of students. This means that two classes are in temporary classrooms made out of sticks and branches with a thatched roof, and one class is under a tree. In all of these classes the blackboard is undersized and sits on top of a couple of cement blocks. After a few weeks of teaching I’ve come to prize blackboard space.

There are a lot of downsides to teaching outside like this, one of which I’ll get into a little bit later. The biggest downside, though, is that the kids don’t pay attention. They spend all of their time looking around, seeing whose coming and going, rather than looking at the board or doing activities. Having class outside is very difficult, and a rather legitimate barrier to success at my school.

To this end, I’ve been talking to my administration about starting a project to build some new classrooms. Right now the parents association is building two new classrooms, which will help, but simply put we need more.

On a side note, with there being construction on going at my school, I can only brace myself against the potential onslaught of possible OSHA jokes.

Anyways, next year the school will be adding another grade level, and with it three new classes, meaning that by estimation we will need four more classrooms, on top of the two currently being built to prevent outdoor classes next school year. I’d also like to add latrines, because it’s kind of hard to be serious about teaching health with kids using bushes as their toilet.

Of course physically building classrooms is only one (admittedly large) part of the problem. You need desks too. Right now most of our desks are old desks that other schools have donated to us instead of throwing away. They are not in good condition, and often don’t have the bench part to sit on.

The kids frequently get around this by making their own benches out of spare pieces of wood and cement blocks, or by just sitting on cement blocks, but there still aren’t enough benches. In one of my classes earlier this week we had three students standing for the whole class because there wasn’t anything for them to sit on. That means they stood for a two-hour English lesson, and had to hunch over to write anything in their notebooks. Obviously this is less than idea.

Much to the parents association’s credit they are also paying for some new desks that have been trickling in over the last few weeks. My school doesn’t have much as far as resources, but they do have an incredibly active and supportive parents association, which is a real asset for the community.

And with that I’ll start with some stories from the last few weeks, in roughly chronological order.

The Lock Out

One of my worst fears was realized a couple of weeks ago. I was sitting in my house; it was about 4:30 or so, when I started to hear that pitter patter on my ceiling. Rain was coming.

I’ve been at village long enough to know one thing, when it rains, you get out the rain buckets. Most people will use rainwater that has run off their roofs for just about everything. I only use it for bathing and washing my clothes; I absolutely do not use it for anything that involves food or water, since it is not at all clean or safe to consume water that has run off a dirty roof.

But, when it rains you better start collecting, because getting water from a well is annoying, even more so after it rains. You see, when it rains in village they lock up all the pumps, and most people take the buckets out of their wells. If there’s rainwater, there’s no need for any other kind of water, or so the reasoning goes.

Anyways, back to my story, I hear the rain coming and I race out my back door to put out a bucket and my washbasins to collect the water. There is a little walled in outdoor space (maybe 5 feet by 10 feet) behind my house, which is where I do all of my washing, this is also where I collect my rainwater.

Now, in theory that door cannot lock behind me unless I specifically lock it from the outside, the latch does not retract automatically. Usually it just bangs against the frame (unless you retract the latch with the key).

For some reason this did not happen, and as I darted outside to put out my rain collection system, the door shut and locked behind me. I was now in the worst place for me to be locked out of my house, a narrow, walled in strip behind my house and the backside of the concession. All I have is my rain jacket, my pants, and (thank god) my phone. And it’s raining.

If I was locked out the front door I would just go to the carpenter and have him get me in (a relatively simple and easy thing to do), but this is not an option. I could also try calling my carpenter, but I do not have his number so that’s no longer an option either. I could try shouting, but unless one of my neighbors is also behind their house, they will never hear me. And even then they may not hear me.

No, I decide that my first option is to try and ram my shoulder into the door. I mean, they do that in movies, right? And it seems like a good idea usually. It is a bad idea though, all it does is hurt. After a few weak attempts at breaking down the door I realize this will never work, and if for some reason it did I would then have to deal with a broken door. A bad idea all around, there has to be a better option.

So I take out my phone and call another teacher at the school. He doesn’t pick up. I call a different teacher, tell him that I’m locked out (which I cannot say in French, and would probably be pretty funny to hear me try), and that he should come with a carpenter.

I’m at about the ten-minute mark now, but since the teacher lives in the next town over, and it takes people forever to go anywhere, I figure I’ve got a good sized wait on my hands. And it’s still raining.

I can into my cooking space though (I hesitate to call it a kitchen), which means that I can get the utensils. Inspiration strikes. I take a fork, and since I had to buy a ten pack I have a few forks to spare.

I bend back three of the tines (had to look that word up, did not think a word existed for the sharp stabby points on a fork), and jammed the remaining tine into the lock to see if I could pick it. After fishing around for a couple minutes I start to give up on this too, when I again think back to good ideas from movies.

You never see someone picking a lock with just one piece of metal fishing inside in the lock; they always have multiple things fishing around in the lock. I believe this has something to do with keeping the right amount of pressure on the pins inside the lock.

So I take the fork and go over to my window and pry off a thin, skinny nail that the carpenter had used to install some screening the day before. I know have two pointy metal things to fish inside the lock with, the nail and the fork with one tine isolated.

It took me less than a minute of fishing around to pick the lock, which makes me proud that I can pick a lock, and terrified that my lock can be picked (good thing that door has one of those chain things that you see on hotel doors). Just as I get into my house and find my keys, the carpenter arrives.

“Serpent!” or “There’s a Snake in My Classroom”

Second week of school, I’m teaching outside in what I call a temporary classroom (it’s made out of sticks and has a thatch roof), and we are just finishing up my brilliant and inspiring lesson on the simple past. I glance down at my watch and see that we have less than 5 minutes left, not enough time to really start anything.

As the students are copying down the homework assignment, and I’m sort of circulating but mostly waiting for class to be over, I hear one of the boys in the back yell something.

At first I didn’t really catch what he yelled, but he’s usually a good student so I did not think he was yelling fire in a crowded theater. Almost immediately there was a general commotion in the whole classroom though, only later did I realize that he yelled out “serpent!”

Teaching outside means that you are teaching in the elements, and sometimes you have special visitors sit in on your class. They are not always welcome guests though, and this snake was certainly not welcome.

Now, what did our brave narrator do during this commotion? I’d like to say that I remained calm, that I was able to walk towards the snake in question and teach it a lesson on disrupting my class.

I’d like to say this, but I cannot. I did what any sensible person would do, I climbed onto a desk and watched as some of the boys threw rocks at the snake and beat it with sticks. The snake was dead. For the students class was dismissed until Wednesday, for the snake class was dismissed permanently.

The next week, in the same class, we had another unexpected visitor. This time instead of a snake, our class was graced with the presence of a scorpion. Similar story, a student (this time a young girl) noticed a scorpion in the thatched roof, and yelled out scorpion. Fewer kids scattered, and some of the larger boys used brooms to try and find the scorpion in the roof.

Eventually the scorpion was found and knocked to the ground. As far as scorpions go, this was a fairly small one. Its stinger was separated from its body, and that was the end of it.

Special visitors are one reason why it is better to teach in a class than outside.

An Unhappy Candidate

The same day as the snake incident we had elections for each class’ “responsables” or prefects. My school has 8 classes spread across three grades, and there is one boy and one girl responsable for each class. Responsables are sort of like a less powerful student council, they can take issues before the administration, but mostly they take attendance for each class, take students to the surveillant general (like a dean of students), and fetch things for the teacher.

It is a job with little to no benefits, and actually can be a fair amount of work. Unsurprisingly, in the class whose elections I oversaw there were no volunteers, and many candidates refusing their nominations. This included one boy who was in tears for a while when his refusal wasn’t recognized by the other teacher. However, with 39 students in the class we were eventually able to find 3 boys and 4 girls willing to stand election.

The election included writing their names on the board, followed by their moyenne (which is like their GPA), and then having everybody write down their votes on a secret ballot, which we would then count in front of everybody.

So we have the boys’ election and collect all the votes. There seemed to be a strong pulling for Narciss, who students were shouting for everybody to vote for, but after collecting the ballots a problem quickly emerged. 39 kids in the class. 40 paper slips turned in. Clearly this cannot be, anyone who has taken election-monitoring 101 knows that this situation stinks of voter fraud.

After a second, much more closely watched balloting we had our winner, and it wasn’t even close, the vote was 33 to 5 to 1. Now, there may not have been any ballot stuffing, but I’m still concerned about voter intimidation, and thus am not comfortable declaring this election “free and fair.” The girls’ election was slightly closer, and slightly freer and fairer I’d add, but the winner was still able to command a comfortable majority.

The next week, in another class, I had to oversee something of a by-election; the original male responsable in another class was removed from office by the administration due to some minor scandal.

Instead of forcing the office on a candidate, however, this class had two willing candidates. After nominations were closed I slowly started a chant of “speech,” and made the candidates start campaigning (in French). Both speeches essentially boiled down to, “I love you, and you love me. I will work hard.” Like the others, this election wasn’t very close.

In Sickness

Through the beginning of my service I’ve been lucky, I haven’t gotten sick. Aside from a bad weekend back in July (really a bad 36 hours) I’ve had almost no health problems of which to speak. No need to see the Peace Corps doctors in Cotonou. No diarrhea. No constipation. No consternation.

All that changed a couple of weeks ago in what I consider to be perhaps the most ghoulish 24-hour period of my life to date. Certainly it was the sickest I can ever recall being (although I’ve been told I once had a bout with meningitis during my youngest years).

I went to bed Tuesday night well enough, no problems to report. I woke up Wednesday feeling like I just did ten rounds with Tyson. Mike that is. It was 7:00AM and I was supposed to teach a 5e class in an hour. It didn’t take me long to realize that wasn’t going to happen.

After sloshing to and fro the latrine I wandered to my medical kit to take my temperature, which was what could be considered a high fever. I self-medicated and tried to see if I could get myself psyched up enough to make an effort to walk to school. I could not.

Ten or fifteen minutes of staring at my knees followed before I moved into my living room, collapsed on my extra bed (oh yeah, there are two beds at my house, a more proper tour of my house will come later when I’m done getting it all furnished), and called up the school director to let him know that I was sick.

The next two hours were spent sleeping in the fetal position until I heard a knock on the door. The sleep had temporarily improved the situation, and I even thought I had turned a corner, but this false dawn was not to be.

I stumbled to the door and talked to my school director for a few minutes. He asked if I needed to go to the hospital and I waved him off. I wanted to rest and see what happened a bit before making any decisions.

As he left I stumbled back to the day bed (this is what I call my extra bed, I think it gives my house a certain European aristocracy feel that I enjoy), turned on my fan, and grabbed some more sleep.

Again there was a knock on the door. I staggered up. This time there was no false down, instant vertigo and nausea. My body was angry with me for going vertical. I get to the door and it is my neighbors inquiring about my health, I tell them I’m a little sick right now but not to worry. They don’t buy it, asking if I need to go to the hospital. I wave them off. I read in some Peace Corps handout that oftentimes when you go to a hospital in Benin they diagnose you with malaria pretty quickly even if you don’t have it, and I wasn’t ready to use the m word.

I again wander back to the bed, cranking my fan up to the highest setting and try to doze off. Maybe thirty minutes pass before I get another knock at my door. At this point I’m starting to get annoyed with people knocking on my door since sleep seems to be best medicine, and I ain’t sleeping when I’m greeting.

So I head back to my door and undo the lock, it’s my homologue checking up on me. About 30 seconds into him talking with me the nausea and dizziness is overpowering, I have to put both hands on my knees and hunch over. This quells my urge to vomit (at several points I was certain the puke train was coming), and staring downwards seems to bring the dizziness under control.

I finish up my conversation with my homologue and he walks away. I can’t move. I remain hunched over, hands on my knees, standing in the doorway with my eyes closes for another thirty seconds to a minute before feeling able to absolutely vertical. Again I am asked if I need to go to the hospital, and again I wave off the notion.

I’m able to grab a few more hours of sleep before the next knock comes. It’s my neighbors again, only this time they bring food. It looks like pasta + spicy sauce + fish. I thank them and bring it in.

Usually I’m in charge of all my own food, but seeing that I was sick they decided to help me out. This is good because I don’t think I could have both made it to my kitchen and been able to actually cook something.

The plate of food goes immediately on my table though, because only slightly less revolting than the idea of standing up is the idea of putting food in my mouth. That’s a good way to make the puke train conductor yell out “all aboard!”

I sleep for maybe another hour before I can’t fight off the urge to go to the bathroom anymore. This is actually a frightening thought, because the latrine is something like 75 meters away I’d say, and going there involves going through a number of doors (3) with locks that I’ll have to lock and relock each time I go through them. Safe yes. Time saving no.

So I do my business in the latrine and have to take a bit of a rest in there before being able to get up and walk back to my house. I consider the walk back the most frightening part of my day.

All day my eyes had been more sensitive than usual to sunlight, but this was something much worse. As I stepped out of the latrine everything looked illuminated. It was as if my eyes had been replaced by light bulbs. I could hardly make out the ground through what seemed to be a flood of light hitting my eyes from every direction. To get back I had to keep one hand on a wall to guide me and help me keep my balance. Additionally, my hearing pretty much went out during the walk. I could see and faintly hear some kids asking me questions. My responses sounded like they were coming from a speaker set on the lowest audible volume.

As I got back to my room I again collapsed on my day bed and slept for another couple of hours. This is where I turned the corner. When I woke up it was about 4. I took my temperature again. Still not normal, but no longer a fever worth writing home about. The general aches and fatigue remained, but I could stand and walk moderate distances without dizziness or nausea.

So I head back to my kitchen and boil up more water (I was almost out), and finally get around to eating the meal that had been delivered. The rest of the evening is spent relaxing, but I no longer feel the need to always be sleeping. Before going to bed I again check my temperature. No more fever. In fact, my temperature is below what is considered normal.

The next day, a Thursday, I’m functional. All that remains is a sense of fatigue and a stomachache. This is a good thing because it just so happens that my boss from the Peace Corps was coming on a site visit and was going to watch me teach. I’m not at a hundred percent, I’d say I was still at something like 75 percent, but that is a lot better from the 15 percent I was at the day before. Things slowly get back to a sense of normal over the week or so.
Now as to the question of what malady struck me, I believe I have the most likely culprit. I do not believe it was some weird exotic disease, but rather think that it was simply a case of food poisoning. Probably from the igname pile, rabbit, and cheese that I had eaten for lunch the day before.

Darkness at Noon

At village I have almost no contact with the outside world. If it is something that has happened, or will happen, odds are I don’t know about it. There is no Internet for hours, and I have no radio. If I were to get a radio, I’d have to get a shortwave radio, since the only regular radio stations that can be picked up in village are the local rural radio station (which broadcasts something like 80 hours a week I think, but in various local languages), and some music station out of Nigeria.

Anyways, I’m basically a kitten opening its eyes for the first time; I don’t know what’s going on out there in the world. One of the first ways I heard about the government shutting down was when I called my host dad in Porto-Novo to say hi and he told me I should call America. Village gossip has become my CNN.

So this is where I was last Sunday when I left my house to go to one of my favorite places to get lunch (it’s the only restaurant I frequent whose name I don’t know), when my neighbor/landlord informed me that there was going to be a solar eclipse between 12-2 that day. This is something that I did not possibly believe was true, partially because it was 12:30 when he told me and there was no sign of an eclipse.

I go and grab a delicious lunch of chicken and rice and get back to my house a little before 1:30, still no sign of an eclipse. Now I’m wondering if he meant a lunar eclipse, which I’ve seen before and don’t feel the need to go out of my way to see again.

Maybe 15 minutes after getting back there’s a knock on my door, apparently it’s happening. I go outside, and immediately see my neighbors staring at the sun through some old x-rays they had lying around. It’s still staring at the sun, so you need to use some precautions to protect your eyes, and the x-rays were actually very effective (more so than my sunglasses), even if you are staring through a broken wrist.

The family grandma, who also happens to be my next-door neighbor, came up with probably the most ingenious way of observing the eclipse. This thin, frail woman, who speaks almost no French, filled a washbasin up with water, and had been looking at the sun and moon’s reflection in the water.

A crowd gathered and we watched the eclipse for maybe half an hour, passing the x-rays back and forth. Once the moon was covering up as much of the sun as it was going to, which was maybe 2/3rds of the sun, people started to go back to their business.

My landlord was particularly disappointed, he had been hoping for a total eclipse. He was somewhat surprised when I told him that this was the first solar eclipse of any kind I’d ever seen. Apparently back in 2005 Benin had the opportunity to experience a total eclipse, so this was strictly minor league.

1 Comment

mj engelsma · November 8, 2013 at 3:34 pm

Great post Brian. Hmmm, there is however a lot you neglect to tell your mother in our phone conversations! Keep up the good work!

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