Saturday, August 23, 2008

A White Girl's Wishlist

It’s like Christmas here whenever we get a letter!

MAGAZINES! The key to my heart lies in magazines. Ok!, People, US Weekly, Vogue, Elle, Glamour, Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, Marie Claire, etc. To remember my former life and know what the hell is going on in the US! Plus I want to plaster my walls with pictures from magazines.

Garnier Fructis “Surf Hair” Texture Paste Matte Effect. It’s a little bright green bowl with a bright yellow lid. I use it a lot in my hair and hair products for white girls are absolutely unknown here! It can be found in the hair product section, with all the other Garnier products, in Target or Walgreens.

Unscented Dove body lotion – my favorite

Jelly Bellys

Stickers for my classes

Shampoo and conditioner- at this point, I could care less what brand it is. Again, white girl hair products are absolutely unknown here and I need them! Hahah. Brands I like: Herbal Essences, L’Oreal Vive Pro Nutri Gloss Shampoo and Conditioner, Dove Hair Care, ANYTHING!

Hair Gel- do not care what brand it is or what kind. But I like Herbal Essences and LOreal products.

Maybelline Great Lash Mascara in Black – another white girl product

Little gifts for the kids- they’ll love anything! Little gifts from the dollar stores are great, also candy. Candy like M&Ms, Starbursts and Skittles don’t melt. Books for them would be good too, in English or French.

Tips for Mailing Things: There is a $37 flat rate box, ask for it at the post office. Also, the padded with bubble wrap envelopes are getting here in two weeks- and they are a much cheaper option. A small envelope costs about $7 to send. To mail me a letter, ask for the 94 cent stamp to Africa, or just put four stamps on the envelope. Thanks! I love you!

My Village

My village is called Biro. I am the first white person to ever live there! I’ve visited my village only once, and I will be moving there for two years on September 7. I live in a house across the street from the school I will be teaching at. So rest assured, I will have children at my house 24 hours a day hahah. My house is a three-bedroom African-style house, it’s huge for just one person! I also live across the street from a Catholic Mission that is run by a priest from India, which is random but cool. The closest volunteer, Ryan, is about 30 km away from me. He’s a business volunteer, helping the women’s groups produce shea butter, which is a really cool project!
Biro is absolutely gorgeous, it’s in the jungle so its green and misty as far as the eye can see. There’s rolling hills and at night, a million stars. It’s so beautiful.

Hi Everyone!


Ugh I have just not been keeping up with my blog and for that, I apologize! I am going to do a much better job, I promise!

Things have been going extremely well here- I really like it here! The people are just great- I live with the most amazing host family and I have so much fun with them. My fellow volunteers are spectacular as well- we’re all getting along so great. Last weekend we had an “Iron Chef” competition with three teams of five. We had two hours to make a dessert and entrĂ©e with a secret ingredient- coconut. We made fried turkey marinated in coconut milk with a pineapple, onion and lime salsa over green beans and carrots, and for the grand finale, banana coconut cream cake. It was phenomenal, and my team ended up winning! It was a really fun day.

Training can be really draining, the average day I’m gone from 7-7 and then I usually have to come home and lesson plan. Peace Corps just throws you in there- I’ve already started teaching English classes of about 30 African fifth-graders. I’m really a teacher! With my own class! This week I teach 2-hr classes four times a week. The Peace Corps offers free summer school English classes- and the kids just show up for a chance to watch the Yovos teach. Still, its incredible. Some of the other volunteers are just so fantastic at teaching, you would have no idea they just started a few weeks ago!

I taught my kids how to sing “Umbrella” by Rihanna and they just loved it; ella-ella-ey-ey-ey. I videotaped it and I will post it on facebook as soon as I get a good internet connection!

The kids I teach are so freaking adorable. At any given moment, I have about twenty children charging at me screaming; “Madame Nora! Madame Nora! Ca va?” and then they try to carry my bag for me. They also pick me flowers or if I drop a pencil or something, I have five little boys diving for it! This is their first English class ever- so now we’re working on colors, parts of the body and the verb “to be”. My kids are so cute- and they’re even starting to imitate my hideous Midwestern accent!

Being in Benin is like being a famous celebrity, it’s hysterical. “Yovo” means “whitey” or “foreigner” in the native language, so everywhere we go it’s just “Yovo! Yovo! Bonjour Yovo!”. The kids also sing us a little song and its very cute. The Beninese are not used to seeing white people, and when I go up north, babies burst into tears at the sight of you. Hahaha sometimes it’s hard not feel like an alien that landed from the Planet White Freak, which is exactly what we are. We are such fish out of water!

I’m also called “Blonde” all the time which is funny. Little girls cannot resist the urge to pull my hair- I see the moral dilemma in their eyes, like “I know this is really rude, but I have to pull her hair anyway”. It cracks me up. I just laugh and feign shock at their braids.

I officially swear in as a volunteer on September 5, 2008. Training is beginning to wind down! Our swearing in ceremony is going to be a big fete and the President of Benin is coming! I seriously think it will be the proudest day of my life, more so than graduation from college! On September 7, I leave for my village, Biro, and begin my two years of service. For the first three months, we’re on what we like to call “lockdown”. We are not allowed to leave our village for more than a day for three months, until Thanksgiving! So don’t expect to hear much from me during this time, I’ll be lost in the African bush!

Other fun things I’ve done here: visited a voodoo temple, a natural healer, a shrine to twins (twins are sacred here!) and a former slave port. Next Saturday, we get a little break by going to visit a beach town not far from here and lay on the beach all day. I’m so excited! In addition to tons of French lessons, I’m also learning Bariba, the native language of my village. In French.

Please keep me updated with everything, I love emails and letters and packages! I also have no idea what’s going on on the other side of the Atlantic, so I’d love some news about the US! I love you!


Wednesday, June 25, 2008

What the hell am I doing in Africa?

I will be serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin, a teeny-tiny country that borders Nigeria and Togo in West Africa. There are 100 volunteers in the country. On July 1, 2008 I leave for Philadelphia for three days of orientation and vaccinations! There are 65 of us new volunteers leaving together. On July 3, we fly all night to Paris, finally landing in Cotonou, Benin at 7 pm on July 4 (what a crazy 4th of July! Think of me...). We then have three months of training and in French (the official language) and Fon (the native language), teaching, visiting hospitals and different parts of the country, etc. I'm also going to be living with a host family during that time in Cotonou.

If I get through training (1/10 does not but who's counting?), I will be officially sworn in as a Peace Corps volunteer. Then I stationed to an area of the country, which I do not know right now.

My primary duty as a volunteer is a "Teacher of English as a Foreign Language" (TEFL). I'll have classrooms of Beninese kids from 7th grade-12th grade, and I'll be teaching them in French. Benin has traditionally followed the French system of schooling, but is looking to move towards a more Americanized version of education.

Volunteers are also encouraged to undertake a secondary project. Secondary projects contribute to the development of a volunteer's community. They include projects in HIV/AIDS prevention, Environmental or Health projects, business development or the Gender and Development project. I've heard of volunteers setting up soccer leagues for the kids or a program to monthly weigh babies so mothers can see development. I'm most excited about getting involved in the Gender and Development program, activities include distributing scholarships to needy girls, organizing "Take Your Daughter to Work" days and leading girls' clubs at school.

That's that.

Communication and such

In order to forewarn friends and family of the reality of Third World mail, Peace Corps would like us to emphasize the following points:

1. Volunteers, friends and family must realize that communication will be through international mail. Although very slow, it is the most reliable. Mailed letters take about three weeks to arrive in Benin. It takes $00.94 to mail something to Benin, so please put four stamps on your letter!

2. Packages- Packages should be sent via airmail. Theft of packages is not only a problem on the Beninese side, but on the US side as well. Packages may take months or get "lost" along the way. Do not send valuables. Packages take about 3 months minimum to arrive.

3. Packages- Bubble envelopes are the best way and seem to work better than big boxes. The sender should clearly and honestly mark the contents on the outside of the package. A general description is sufficient: "clothes and candy" vs. "2 lbs of Godiva chocolate and Nike sneakers"

4. Volunteers must pay a tax on all packages before they can retrieve them from the post office, up to $10.

5. Packages are kept in the Cotonou Peace Corps Office until the volunteer can pick it up or friend can deliver it.

6. Telephones- it is not uncommon to be cut off mid-sentence due to a lacking infrastructure. The majority of Benin Peace Corps volunteers get a cell phone during their service.

7. Internet- The technology is just beginning to spread in Benin. Internet cafes are found in major towns and cities, and can cost from $0.75-2.00/hr. However, the technology can be slow and unreliable. However, the Peace Corps office in Cotonou has three computers available for volunteers, and one computer is available at each of the Peace Corps "workstations" throughout the country.

8. Visiting- The Peace Corps encourages friends and family to visit.

9. Generally, communication in Benin is very good.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

How to Visit Benin (because you all should)

Dear Prospective Volunteer: Please give this letter to your family and ask them to hold on to it for as long as you are in Benin.

The following points of information and advice have been compiled from various sources (previous visitors, former Volunteers, staff, etc.) for people planning to visit Peace Corps Volunteers in Benin. Visitors and Volunteers have learned that advance planning, communication between the volunteer and visitor, and flexibility are very important aspects of a successful and satisfying trip. We hope that the suggestions and information below will be helpful. You may also wish to consult various travel books such as the Lonely Planet's Africa on a Shoestring and West Africa on a Shoestring or the Rough guide.

1. Planning. Start planning at least six months before departure since several things have to be done sequentially which can add up to several weeks/months. Keep in mind that communication takes a long time, so arranging the logistics through the mail will require a lot of lead-time. Make sure that the timing of your visit is convenient for the Volunteer you are visiting. A Volunteer's primary obligation is to his/her assignment, so be sure that your visit will not disrupt any work plans. We recommend visits at some point during the second year.

2. Passport. If you do not already have a passport, obtain a passport application and application instructions from a post office or your travel agent. To apply for a passport, you will need the completed application with two passport photos (with your signature on the back of each photo) and the application fee.

3. Visa. To apply for a visa to Benin, obtain two application forms from the Beninese embassy, 2124 Kalorama Road, NW, Washington DC 20008; the phone number at the embassy is (202) 232-6656. After completing the applications, send them to the embassy with your passport, two passport photos, W.H.O. records showing the required yellow fever shot (see below), the application fee, and a copy of either your tickets or your detailed flight itinerary, and a bank statement. You may also need to submit a letter of invitation from your Volunteer family member. You will be issued a single entry visa only, unless you specifically request multiple entries. You must have multiple entries if you plan to leave the country and return during the period of the visa's validity. Be sure to call the Embassy and verify with them that procedures have not changed.

It is our understanding that the Embassy will not return your passport to you unless you send a pre-paid express mail envelope. If you are in the D.C. area, you can pick it up at the embassy.

Separate visas are required for almost all African countries you may plan to visit, except for intermediate stops where you will not go outside the terminal while en route to or from Benin. Each embassy requires that you send your passport with the visa application, so you can only apply for one visa at a time.

You can consolidate and expedite your passport and visa applications if necessary by going through a private company that handles it for you for an additional fee of approximately $30 per visa or passport. (Ask a travel agent for details).

4. Health. A yellow fever vaccination is required. This immunization must be logged in a World Health Organization (W. H. O.) International Certificate of Vaccination. For more information on what additional vaccines, antimalarials or medications are required or recommended, contact your local health board or the Division of Immunization at the Centers for Disease in Atlanta, Georgia, (404) 639-1870, or on the Internet at

You should also plan to take anti-malarial prophylactic drugs prior to departure from USA and during your stay in Benin. Contact the Malaria Hotline at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, Georgia, (404)639-1610 for information on what drug(s) to take and where you can get them.

While in Benin, precautions must be taken with food preparation and water treatment. Drink only bottled water in sealed bottles or water that has been filtered and chlorinated or boiled. Vegetables must also be soaked in chlorine if they are not being cooked or peeled.

There are health risks, and the medical facilities in Benin are not comparable to facilities in the United States. Peace Corps medical Staff cannot provide care for family members or friends who require medical attention while in Benin. We strongly suggest that you consider extra insurance with emergency evacuation coverage from a company such as International SOS Assistance, Inc. (P.O. Box 11568, Philadelphia, PA 19116, 1-800-523-8930 or 215-244-1500 in PA).

5. Money. The currency used in Benin is called franc CFA. The franc CFA is linked to the EURO (About 656 FCFA = 1 EURO; 1 USD is about 414 CFA.) Travelers’ checks are recommended. You may want to take at least some travelers checks in EURO, since switching dollars to CFA in Cotonou is usually more expensive than switching dollars to EURO in U.S. and then EURO to CFA in Cotonou. Some of the big (and expensive) hotels in Cotonou will accept an American Express or Visa credit card. The best person to answer questions about money (and how much to take ) is the Volunteer whom you are planning to visit.

6. Baggage. Have all your suitcases locked. On most airlines, you are allowed 2 pieces of baggage (not to exceed 50 lbs. each) per passenger for trips from the United States to Europe, but only 20 kg (44 lbs.) total for intra-European or African flights. Therefore, you may be charged an excess baggage fee for anything over 44 lbs. from Europe to Africa unless you check your baggage through to Africa directly from the U.S. (If you check baggage all the way through, be sure the baggage ticket has all appropriate code letters for the trip; the code for the airport in Cotonou (COO), and the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris is CDG). Consult your airline or travel agent for further information. There are also new baggage fees on US airlines, check with your airline!

7. Flight Check-In. If you fly through Paris, arrive at the check-in counter for the flight to Cotonou two hours before take off. They start checking passengers in then and you cannot get a seat assignment until this check-in. The check-in process goes very slowly, so plan to stand in line a long time. They will not allow large carry-on bags.

8. Arrival in Cotonou. You must have both your passport and W.H.O. card for immigration when arriving at the airports in Benin. French and some English are spoken at the airport, but it would be best to ask the Volunteer you are visiting to have someone meet you at the airport. You will have to open all bags for inspection. Try to keep all your bags in sight once they come into the baggage area. There will be men vying to carry your bags for payment. Carry your bags yourself if you can. If not, negotiate a price with one person before allowing anyone to take your bags (about 1$ per bag.) If no one is going to meet you at the airport, get instructions ahead of time from the Volunteer on how to take a taxi to your next destination.

9. Accommodations. Your best source of information about where to stay is the Volunteer whom you are planning to visit.

10. Photos. Picture taking is fine, in general, but you should always ask permission before taking anyone's photograph. Photos are never allowed at the airport, seaport, embassies or any military installation, so please keep your camera concealed when near these locations.

11. Identification. During the course of your stay in Benin, you will have to show your passport to the police several times, so you must carry it with you in a safe place at all times. It is sometimes convenient to have a certified photocopy of your passport to present to officials.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Ivory Coast Aid

Here is the website of a former Peace Corps volunteer and friend who has set up a foundation to help women and children in Cote d'Ivoire (the Ivory Coast), two countries away from Benin in West Africa. She is currently building a school in Cote d'Ivoire with donations to Ivory Coast Aid.