Monday, February 16, 2009

Sticks and stones...

Monday in Cotonou and it’s actually very nice today. A fresh breeze has been blowing through the night, taking with it the poisonous haze that often lingers over the city and bringing in its place a layer of familiar overcast and cool temperatures. Very pleasant.

Not quite pleasant enough to make me forget the “incident” of last Sunday. I hate euphemisms like “incident.” They reduce experience to statistics and then assign them to conveniently discrete categories. They take no notice of the bruises (visible or not) left behind. They don’t account for the insomnia that lingers long after the “incident” is officially over. And they’re unable to penetrate those extra layers of armor erected as a result, for our own sake and the sake of those we love and wish to protect.

Forgive me for being cryptic. I was attacked last weekend; “mugged” as you might say in America. Rest assured, I am fine. The physical marks have almost entirely faded already, and I am dealing with the rest as well as I can. The details of what happened are unimportant. All I lost were my prescription sunglasses – which, though a pain to lose aren’t that big a deal. The two women who were with me were not accosted in any way – Thank God – and were able to get help before the situation escalated beyond control. I’ve gotten great support from Peace Corps and my fellow volunteers and I really am OK.

What remains can best be described, I think, as…vexation. I am vexed! My vexation is made up of approximately equal measures of anger, frustration and confusion. I’m angry that it happened at all, and also of the result: meaning that the little bastard took something of no value to him but that had enormous value to me that I had taken great pains to protect for the last year and a half. (I would have liked to have been there, though, the first time he put them on and realized he couldn’t see shit! I wonder if he thought I put gris-gris on him…)

I’m frustrated that I was so unable to do anything to stop it; on both the small and the grand scale. My resistance – even after he hit me – did not, in fact, keep him from hitting me again. And nothing I’ve done here has made it appreciably less likely that he will go out and do the same thing to someone else. Only time will tell if the conditions that made him so desperate in the first place will improve.

My confusion swirls around the question of what to take away from the experience. At first I was just pissed off! I was easily a foot taller than this guy and had probably 100 pounds on him, yet he came straight for me. And even after he should have figured out I wasn't just gonna roll over and give him what he wanted, he still hit me! I took it personally. I just wanted to lash out; to take my anger out on someone or something. I wanted to give up, say “Fuck Benin” and go home. Obviously, I haven’t done that.

Because after some reflection I realized it wasn’t personal. It couldn’t have been. He didn’t know me. He didn’t know who I was or why I was there. He had no idea I had volunteered to come to this country to try to ameliorate the very conditions that made it necessary for him to target me in the first place. (Not that I think it would have made much difference if he had.)

When he looked up that street and saw me coming, he didn’t see ME. He saw an image that has been ingrained in him since birth. He saw someone who, in his eyes, had everything they needed and more. The vast majority of Beninese have no experience of white westerners who are NOT exceedingly rich, by their standards. (This image is vividly perpetuated by such culturally sensitive exports as MTV’s “Pimp My Ride” and “My Super Sweet 16.”) And even as poor as I am by American standards, I am still far wealthier than the average Beninese. He just chose an unpleasant way of trying to redistribute a little of that wealth.

Do I romanticize my diminutive antagonist? Have I taken a violent ruffian and transformed him somehow into Jean Valjean? No, I don’t think so. Confronted with the same situation again, I would resist at least as strongly; perhaps more so. No, our role here can’t be just to give the Beninese what they think they need. It needs to be to show them how to achieve it and then get out of the way and let them try. Otherwise we’re just wasting our time.

So you might be wondering if I am reconsidering my decision to go to South Africa – which is a notoriously crime-ridden place – in light of this “incident.” The short answer is, no. It’s a question that came up during my interview in DC last month, if I had any qualms about going to a place that I knew could be dangerous.

Notwithstanding that Cape Town is a place I am already familiar with and am thus also familiar with the dangers there, I settled this question for myself some time ago. If I’m serious about doing this work there are certain realities that I have to face. One is that those parts of the world that are the poorest, that are most in need of people to do the kind of work I’m called to do, are also some of the most dangerous. The conditions make them so. Another is that in places like that I’m going to be a target for people who have decided it’s easier to take what you need than to earn it, or less humiliating than to have to accept it as charity. Doing this kind of work in places like that necessarily entails accepting a certain level of risk. That doesn’t mean being foolhardy or putting yourself in harm’s way. But it does mean that all else being equal, and even taking prudent precautions against the dangers that exist, the risks are just gonna be higher. This means that, in all likelihood, this is probably not the last time this is going to happen.

C’est la vie.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Mind the Gap!

So, there has been a very long gap since my last post. Part of that is because I went back to America for the holidays. It was fabulous...and horrible...and totally worth it. I ate LOTS of great food and drank lots of really good beer (there is only average beer in Benin).

While I was in Seattle, I got a call from the Congressional Hunger Center, where I had applied for a fellowship back in November. (see previous post) They said they wanted to interview me. Not only that, they wanted to interview me in person, so could I come to Washington, DC - on their dime - for an interview. Sooo... I went to bed at 10:00pm on New Year's Eve so I could get up at 4:00am on New Year's Day to catch a 7:00am flight to DC. Got in around 5:00 that evening, checked-in to my hotel, got some dinner, went to bed and got up the next morning for a 10:00am interview. Finished the interview around 11:00, went back to the hotel, checked-out, had lunch with a friend from MCC and flew out that evening at 7:00.

The interview was fabulous. I have done quite a few in my lifetime, but never one that went as well as this one. I was in the room with the Director of the fellowship program, the Associate Director of the program and the Deputy Director of the entire Center. It didn't even feel like an interview; it was more like a conversation. We talked for about 45 minutes and it was effortless. I answered their questions from my heart and everything was just...right. If it had been a gymnastics routine it would have been a 9.95. I was on cloud 12 as I walked back to my hotel - even though the shoes I had bought for the trip were making KILLER blisters on my heels.

Needless to say, I was pretty stoked when I got back to Benin.

But, as has been the case lately, there is no rest for the weary. I flew out of Seattle on Monday, landed in Accra Tuesday, got to Cotonou on Wednesday and then turned right around and went up to Parakou on Thursday so I could give two presentations for the PSL 21 SED/ICT In-Service Training on Friday. When I got to Parakou after no email for three days there was a message from CHC telling me I had been selected as a finalist for BOTH of the fellowship placements I applied for. Yeah! Better still, later the same day I got another email from the organization in South Africa saying they wanted to schedule a finalist interview with me. So suddenly, an interview I thought I would have weeks to prepare for was going to happen in FOUR DAYS!

That Wednesday, I sat down in a small conference room in the Peace Corps bureau and took a conference call with five other folks, two in DC, two in South Africa, and one in Chicago. This one wasn't quite the perfect "10" that the previous one was, but I'd put it at a solid "8" - so I couldn't complain too much. That was on January 14th. On January 16th, I received the following email:

Dear Steven,

We are happy to inform you that you have been selected as the AFR-02 ANSA/NASTAD Fellow for the 2009-2011 class of Mickey Leland International Hunger Fellows! The CHC staff, ANSA, NASTAD and Ikamva Labantu are impressed with your motivation and qualifications for the position. Moreover, we believe you will be a valuable addition to the upcoming class of Fellows.

Please notify us by Friday, January 23 if you are willing to accept this Fellowship placement. We of course would be happy to answer any specific questions that you may have about the Leland Fellowship as you make your decision.

Thank you for your interest in our program, and congratulations!

That's right, I'm going back to South Africa! I will be leaving Benin in late June - whether by COS or ET I don't yet know - and I will be in Cape Town by August. World Cup 2010, here we come!!!

For information on the Congressional Hunger Center click here. For information about my specific fellowship placement, click here.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Roller Coaster

The following was written on November 16, 2008:

Sorry it’s been a while since I posted. Once you’ve read this, the reasons should become clear. Obviously, I am using this blog as basically a substitute for a journal. If, as a result, I end up subjecting you to the random crap that goes on in my head... well, I hope you enjoy some of it.

One of my PCMI cohorts recently referred to Peace Corps life as simply, “the roller coaster” which is a pretty apt description. [Shout out to Abby! Keep up the good work. I know it gets tough, but it sounds like you’ve got some pretty good folks there who support and care about you. I’m sending only my best thoughts to you from Benin!] My particular instantiation of the roller coaster has been pretty active lately, to say the least.

As I think I’ve described previously, I got through the 40th anniversary with flying colors. The video project finally came together and was a huge success. I got a lot of very positive feedback from PCVs, from staff, even from the Regional Director, who insisted on getting a copy before he flew back to DC. It was even broadcast on Beninese state television, courtesy of the good folks at the US Embassy. Now we’re negotiating with PCHQ (some controversy over the copyright on the music I used for the video) about putting it up on YouTube. Ah, my 15 minutes…

Following the anniversary, work started to really pick up. There were a series of public information meetings to promote CAMeC and the work we do to the business and legal communities around the country. The first two were here in Cotonou and in Porto Novo, the capital. We drew large crowds and the exchange was really productive. Everybody was quite happy with the results. Then, my homologue and another staff member took the show on the road in the southern part of the country while I got to attend “life skills” training.

Three days of my life that I’ll never get back.

The program was designed to include PCVs and a host country work partner who would attend together and learn how to teach life skills related to reproductive health and HIV/AIDS. This is great for health volunteers, and maybe even for environment and TEFL volunteers. But for small enterprise volunteers, especially for those working at the level I’m working at, it’s pretty much a waste of time. (And that’s notwithstanding the fact that I could have TAUGHT most of what was presented.) But because this training was funded by a grant, and the grant was dependent on a certain number of people attending, no one was allowed to miss it. And all the while I could have been executing the marketing plan I submitted to CAMeC back in January! So, by the end of the week my enthusiasm for all things Peace Corps was at a low ebb…

Then things really went to shit.

We were supposed to continue the road show in the north of Benin the week after Life Skills. We were leaving on Sunday. Friday morning I got a text message from my homologue saying (I thought) that there was a meeting at MCA at noon. Well this was around 11:00am and I was still in Porto Novo so I couldn’t make it. Later that night (around 9:30) I got another text saying my homologue was unable to get me per diem and could I cover the cost of the trip and then be reimbursed. There was no way I could come up with enough money on such short notice. So after several more exchanges of texts, including one sequence where I told her how upset I was for the short notice and saying I felt disrespected, it was finally decided I would not go on the tour. She left as scheduled on Sunday morning.

One small problem…the initial message wasn’t telling me to go to a meeting, it was telling me to go to MCA for my “frais de mission.” What is that, you might reasonably ask? That’s my per diem. Obviously, I only discovered this after the fact. But thus, everything that happened after the first message was a result of me misinterpreting her messages in light of what I (mistakenly) thought was going on. Needless to say, I felt like a complete asshole…AND I ended up not going on this tour that we’ve been planning for four months.

To quote a line from Bill Murray, “And then...depression set in.” I wrote the following the next day…

Among the cardinal rules in life, right up there with, “Never get involved in a land war in Asia” and “Don’t bullshit a bullshitter” are the following: 1) Never go grocery shopping when you’re hungry and, 2) Never sit down to write when you’re depressed. Why? For approximately the same reason in both cases; you invariably end up with more than you bargained for. On va voir

One of the most amazing things about this journey I’ve been on for the last few years has been the absolute certainty that I’ve been on the right path. As I have described [previously], I have carried this sense with me; not like I-have-analyzed-this-thoroughly-and concluded-that, but more as a part of the fiber of my being. No doubts, no hesitation, no detours, u-turns or dead ends. I’ve been living a Yogi Berra-ism, “When you get to a fork in the road, take it,” I have been, and every time it’s been the right one. It has been a source of enormous strength and reassurance for me for going on five years now.

Not anymore.

I have lost my way. Like Hansel and Gretel, I look around me only to find that someone has eaten all the bread crumbs. All of the bright positive signals the universe had been so kindly providing have disappeared, replaced by…nothing. I don’t want to sound too melodramatic, but it really is quite profound. An accumulation of circumstances and events over the course of the last few months has left me bereft. My purpose for being here has been lost. My sense of my place in the world has been displaced. My confidence is in tatters. And the way forward looks very much like the slippery slope into the abyss. I am consumed with a deep and abiding sense of disillusionment which admits very little in the way of hope or optimism. I am, in a word, lost.

The one thing I am still fairly certain of is that quitting is not the answer. There is still work to be done here, even if I may not be the right person to do it. I have a plane ticket to Seattle leaving in a little over a month, which should give me an opportunity to gain some perspective. I need to decide whether to finish my degree program, and if so, why? And either way…then what?

What do the Germans call it? “Sturm und Drang?” Yup. That was about two weeks ago. Since then, I’ve gotten much better…maybe I’m bipolar… Anyway, I sat down with my APCD and explained what had happened and he was incredibly supportive. He tried very hard to get me to believe that “things like this happen all the time.” [He told me a little story that only really makes sense if you know French. It seems a couple of PCVs went to a restaurant and wanted to order bread. But they got the article wrong – instead of “le” they used “la.” So instead of bread they ended up with rabbit! (bread = le pain, rabbit = lapine)] He and I went to speak to my homologue together and she was very understanding. There seem to be no hard feelings and we are back to working well together, thank heavens.

With that resolved I followed some very good advice and went back to the beginning, trying to rediscover why I had embarked on this journey in the first place. One of the things I realized was that my descent into lostedness pretty much coincided with my starting to try to figure out what comes after Peace Corps. But it wasn’t that, per se, that was the problem.

The problem was that all my planning revolved around the idea that it was time to do for me now, instead of for others. As soon as I started caring more about what I could get out of this experience, and how I was going to turn it to my advantage (i.e., “good” job, better paycheck, more credibility or perks or whatever) that’s when the universe turned off the lights. Instead of being concerned with, as I have written before, “Bringing more of the world’s advantages to more of the world’s people” I was trying to see how I could bring more of the world’s advantages to ME! And basically the universe said, “Oh yeah? Fine. If you’re gonna be like that, you’re on your own.” Okay. Message received and understood.

So, in restarting the process of figuring out what comes next I went looking, first and foremost, for ways to continue to serve the greater good while, hopefully, also improving my circumstances and my future prospects. It certainly helped that this also coincided with election night, which dramatically improved my outlook on a host of things, Peace Corps included. (Yeah! I get to come home after my service is over!) Anyway, I’ve found some promising opportunities, several of which I am actively pursuing.

In particular, I have decided to apply for the Mickey Leland International Hunger Fellowship. It’s a two-year program through the Congressional Hunger Center that puts fellows into the field for a year and then at an organizational HQ doing policy work for the second year. If I get it, training starts in mid-July and field work starts in August (in either Uganda or CAPE TOWN!). Yes, that puts the Masters degree on hold. But, since the point of the Masters degree is to be able to actually work in international development, I figure doing that sort of trumps the degree.

But that’s getting well ahead of ourselves at this point. Because, the PC roller coaster has taken another very interesting turn just this past Friday.

By way of background, PC has three work stations around Benin, in three of the larger cities in the north of the country. These are buildings PC provides for volunteers to work, to sleep, to rest over as they are traveling around the country and also to gather in the event of an emergency. They have kitchens, sleeping quarters, TV/VCR/DVD, computers w/ internet access...basically all the comforts of "home" as far as those are available in Benin. Each of these has a PCVL (Peace Corps Volunteer Leader) who manages the workstation, hires and pays the guards and other support staff, provides support for the volunteers in each region, and is generally the go-to guy/gal for PCVs who have problems or concerns or complaints for PC staff. These PCVLs are generally volunteers who extend for a 3rd year to accept a PCVL position.

Now, because the PC bureau is down south in Cotonou, it is considered the "southern workstation." However, it doesn't really function like a workstation for many reasons, not the least of which is that there is no southern PCVL. There are also no sleeping quarters at the bureau, except for those in the Medical Unit for PCVs with legit medical problems. Ditto for TV/VCR and kitchen. PCVs who come to Cotonou generally stay in hotels (or with Cotonou PCVs) and if they are on PC business they should get reimbursed - several weeks after the fact. All of this is managed by PC staff and comes out of the PC budget. Despite that, all PCVs - north and south - pay workstation dues...go figure.

So, for quite some time, southern volunteers have been agitating for a southern PCVL who can provide the same kinds of support for southern PCVs as the three existing PCVLs do for northern volunteers. For a host of reasons, including those differences I outlined above, PC Admin has never authorized a PCVL for the south. the end of this year we are going to be moving into a new Bureau that will include volunteers sleeping quarters, kitchen, work area, lounge, etc. that will be in the same compound but in a separate building from the administrative offices. This area will be accessible to volunteers 24/7, unlike the current bureau which has an 8 o'clock curfew.

By now you're probably way ahead of me, but the upshot is that on an interim basis - sort of a proof of concept - I am going to take on the responsibility of the southern PCVL. Lots of details have yet to worked out - including a formal job description. The idea is that we'll do it for a few months and try to measure whether or not having a southern PCVL actually makes a difference in the level of volunteer support - or in the volunteers' perception of how well they are being supported, which is nearly as important. From there, PC will make a final decision about a permanent PCVL in the south.

What impact will this have on me, my work, my degree program, etc.? I have no idea, but those will be active considerations as we hammer out the details over the next few weeks. This all came out of a "Town Hall" meeting the southern PCVs had on Friday morning with the Country Director and the Admin Officer, so it's all brand new territory. The move is currently scheduled to happen while I'm in Seattle, so it should be up and running by the time I get back. As if the culture shock of coming back here isn't going to be enough all by itself...

How’s that for a loop-de-loop?!?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


So, this is a video taken by another PCV of me and Ben Fouty (PCVL in Parakou) performing at the All-Volunteer conference Talent Show back in March. We are performing a song entitled C-U-B-A, by Irving Berlin...though not in the original style. (Shout out to the Austin Lounge Lizards!)

The miracles of modern technology...and the lack thereof.

One of the hardest things for me to adjust to while living here has been the consequences of failed technology (NOT an unusual occurrence around here). In the States when a computer fails, for example, you just call up tech support and get someone to fix it. To my ongoing frustration, such is not the case here. Thus, the reason why I haven’t written for a while. My computer continues to resist all efforts to revive it (perhaps a new verb is needed: to lazarise, i.e. to bring back from the dead) so I continue to try to make due without much of the essential information of my life. This includes things like my email address book and my resume(s), but also all of my music (all on iTunes) and all of the data for the 40th anniversary video project I was working on. Needless to say, I haven’t been getting a whole lot done lately.

Now mind you, that’s not the only reason I haven’t been working much. As I recall, the last time I wrote I had just returned from working stage in Porto Novo and I was on my way to Grand Popo for the weekend. My friend Jaren’s parent were visiting and she and Steve had planned a vow renewal ceremony for them, which they had asked me to officiate. What a wonderful weekend! Annie and Greg (Jaren’s parents) are great and basically made me feel like one of the family from the get-go. (I think it’s safe to say at this point I am one of the family. I’ve already been invited to Husky tailgate parties and the family 4th of July at Liberty Lake...oh yeah, they're from Washington.)

We stayed in a beautiful little auberge right on the beach, run by a Frenchman named Guy who has lived in Benin for over 20 years. He is the stereotypical French ex-pat: he hates it here but he can’t imagine leaving; he is always “busy” but never too busy to be welcoming and generous with his guests; he is always working on the next scheme to improve his business (he recently bought and refurbished an old train, which he now runs between the auberge in G Po and the one he owns in Dassa); and, of course, he knows everyone and has stories about all of them – which he prefers to tell over a bottle of wine or a glass of whiskey. Quite a character, to say the least.

We held the ceremony on the beach, next to a lonely palm tree. Jaren and Steve had matching outfits made for Annie and Greg from local tissu in their original wedding colors. Jaren walked her mom down the “aisle” (across the sand) as local drummers played in the background. It was really very lovely. Afterwards we retired to the deck, under the umbrellas, for a celebratory dinner, to the accompaniment of more drumming and the sound of waves crashing on the beach. I’m not sure it gets much better than that. We came back to Cotonou the next day to send Greg off to the States and Annie continued on to visit Tchaourrou, where Jaren and Steve are posted.

I spent most of the next week trying to get my computer fixed. I won’t bore you with a litany of all the things I tried (with the help of an IT volunteer), but suffice it to say none of them worked.

It was the following weekend that I started to feel sick; fever, aches, alternating sweats and chills – all the classic symptoms of malaria. So I began a course of anti-malaria drugs (Coartem for you doctors out there). Only problem is, I had 3 malaria tests come back negative! The only thing worse than being really sick and not knowing what you have is being 8,000 miles from home and not having anyone to take care of you. Now, of course, the doctors took care of me, but only in the barest clinical sense. What I would have given for a bowl of hot chicken soup and some saltines...!

After about five days I started to feel better. But then a rash of little red spots started showing up all over my body and the next day the fever was back (though milder). So the doctors took more blood (and various other samples) and ran a multitude of tests. As of this writing, I still have no idea what was wrong with me. Actually, that's not true. I have a pretty good idea what I had, I just have no clinical confirmation. (Again, for you medical types, I'm pretty sure I had Dengue Fever. The symptoms match pretty well.) That notwithstanding, I seem to have fully recovered; both the fever and the rash are history. I have returned to my “work,” such as it is, and life is more or less back to normal.

***GREAT NEWS ALERT*** Within the last few hours I have finally – FINALLY!!! – managed to rescue the 40th anniversary video data from my hard drive, so I should be able to finish it in time for the big celebration on September 5th. (For you techies in the audience, I was able to boot my laptop using a bootable linux disk – Ubuntu – and get to my hard drive through a Windows-like shell. Then copied the files to an external drive and voila!) The computer is still not operational, strictly speaking, but at least I have access to my data. When my new hard drive gets here, then the real fun begins. I get to try to “lasarize” my laptop! Wish me luck. ***

OK, gotta go. Next big thing is the 40th anniversary celebration. We're having a big ceremony here in Cotonou, with speeches, booths, and the swearing-in of the new volunteers. The PC Regional Director for Africa is coming from Washington. He and President Yayi Boni are supposed to sign a new Memorandum of Understanding. (Our current MOU was signed by the government of Dahomey!) Finally, if everything works out, the president of Benin is going to host a banquet for all PCVs and PC staff that night. I'll believe it when I see it...