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Month: June, 2016

How I Managed to Breach Decorum with both the President and his Wife (on Separate Occasions)

We have a new president in Benin. He is a cotton magnate billionaire who inspires very different feelings depending on who you talk to and which part of the country you are in. The elections were overall very calm and orderly, and no one accused anyone of cheating. Good job, Benin! I’m proud of your election conduct!

I never had much contact with the former President, Yayi Boni . Every once in a while he would fly over my house in Bante in his helicopter, inspiring awe in the children. There is, as far as I know, only one helicopter in Benin, and so you always knew it was the president flying over. The helicopter was provided by America’s own Hunt Oil as part of the compensation for conducting oil exploration in Benin. It has since crashed, while it was being used by the incumbent party’s presidential candidate to travel. No one was hurt, except for perhaps Beninese morale, as it is unclear whether there is or will be a replacement helicopter to signal the people of Benin that their president is on the move.

Anyway, I digress. This is a story about me making an ass out of myself, not a story about a helicopter.

In my neighborhood, an army general was running for president. He had no chance of winning, and in fact was defeated in the first round of elections, along with thirty-some other candidates. The vote between the two remaining candidates would be in a couple of weeks. After this first round of elections, I suppose Patrice Talon (at the time one of the remaining candidates, and now the newly installed president) wanted to talk about an alliance (or something) with the General in my neighborhood. I was on the street buying tofu, and all of a sudden, several very nice SUVs leave the General’s house and start passing in front of me.

I’m squinting through the SUV windows, trying to see who is inside. The man in the passenger’s seat of the nicest car smiles and waves at me. Thanks to my many and varied experiences with sexual harassment in Benin, my first instinct when a man waves at me is not to wave back anymore, but to remain stoic. As the car pulls away, and my face unsquinches from trying to look through the glass, my neighbor selling the tofu begins to berate me: “When Patrice Talon waves at you, you wave back!! Don’t you know he is going to be president?”

Well, shoot. What can you do? I would like to remove some of the blame from myself by saying that I think his campaign photos were photoshopped a bit, because his face was plastered everywhere in the city and I didn’t recognize him in person. Oh well.

Then, I found out that Patrice Talon’s wife was going to come to a gender equality event hosted by the Peace Corps at the US Ambassador’s house. How exciting, I thought, to have the first lady come and support such an important cause! I was assigned to be the photographer for the night, and was told that the people at the gate would let us all know when the first lady arrived.

The night of the event, I was in the swing of things, taking photos of all of the guests as they arrived. There was a banner with the Peace Corps and other partner organizations’ logos on it, and I was supposed to try to get a shot of everyone in front of it. I was having fun, joking with the guests, and snapping away.

Two women came in and I said “Oh! Let’s get a picture!” They seemed hesitant, so I said “When you’re as pretty as you are, it would be sad not to take a photo!” while kind of slapping the arm of one of the women in a friendly way. They looked a bit perplexed, but then let me take the picture. Soon after, the Ambassador rushes over and greets the First Lady, asking me if they can get a picture together.

“Of course!” I said, inwardly cringing at the bro-slap on the arm and my jocular tone directly preceding. Luckily, the First Lady didn’t seem to hold a grudge and didn’t complain when I followed her around for much of the night snapping photos.

I don’t think I have much of a future in Beninese politics.

 

 

 

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Things that Made me Laugh (sometimes it took a little while, though)

**I have a favorite moto-taxi driver. He lives in my neighborhood, drives safely, and is nice to me. Whenever I can, I use him to drive me around. Recently, he asked me why I don’t have kids yet. I said “I’m still young and adventuring! I’ve got plenty of time for that!” To which he replied “You’re not young! You are about 45, right?” And, taken aback, I said “NO!!” He was like… “35?” Sputtering, I said “25.” “Oh! Well that is very surprising. I really thought you were about 45 years old. Ok we’re here! See you later!”

**My friend and I were looking for somewhere to eat lunch and decided to try somewhere new. There was a lady on the street selling pate rouge, basically polenta with crushed tomatoes, garlic, ginger, and pepper cooked in. We ordered and my friend asked for a piece of sheep meat to go with hers. When the food came, her sheep meat was mostly skin, and not very appetizing. She asked the lady if she could have a different piece of meat because she didn’t want skin. Now, there is a different food here that is literally cut-up cow skin that people cook in sauce until it floats in translucent squares for people to chew (and chew, and chew.) This is called “skin.”

So when my friend said she didn’t want “skin,” the lady threw a fit and insisted that this was sheep, not skin. We tried explaining that it was the skin of the sheep that didn’t interest us, we knew it wasn’t cow skin. Not understanding, or choosing not to understand, the woman says “If you don’t believe me that this isn’t skin, I will show you the sheep’s ear! I have it right there! Hold on!” Faced with the prospect of having a bloody ear shoved in our faces, we said, “That’s ok! We believe you!” We ended up leaving most of our lunches (including the sheep’s skin) because they weren’t very good. I walked across the street to buy something and on my way back, there were two very pleased moto taxi drivers who were eating the rest of our lunches, happily chewing on the skin.

**Horns are used as a form of communication here. You want to pass someone? Honk. You want to say hello? Honk. You want to tell someone to get out of the way? Honk. So if your horn is broken, what do you do? Use your mouth as a horn, of course! This was the delightful solution that my moto taxi driver adopted one night. “BEEP BEEP” he would say, joyfully, as we passed a car “BEEP BEEP BEEEEEEP” he said as a pedestrian tried to cross the street. I don’t know exactly why, but this made me very happy.

**When I was living in Bante, I lost a lot of weight because I was sick all of the time. At one point, I lost 20 pounds in about two weeks (not recommended if at all avoidable.) My new thinness made everyone very unhappy, because it was a visual sign of illness. Although I was still a healthy weight, people were bemoaning how thin I had become.(Sidenote– In fact, I have been here so long that my reaction to extremely thin people has changed—when looking at a fashion magazine from France the other day, I just kept thinking, “Dear God, that poor girl must be sick!” and then realized that they were that thin on purpose. Cultural differences and different standards of beauty, I guess! But also if you see someone that thin here, it really does usually mean they are sick.)

Anyway, when I came back to Bante, I had gained most of that weight back. Everyone was so pleased! “YOU ARE SO FAT! IT IS SO NICE!” said everyone. “JUST LOOK AT THOSE THIGHS! IT IS VERY GOOD!” said one neighbor. Another said “Well, it is very good now, but we all know Evan. She likes to do sports and also eat a lot of vitamins, both of which will make you fat. So be careful Evan! You are fat in a good way now, but if you eat too many vitamins or do too many sports, you will become fatter and fatter and then you won’t be able to walk well.”

Thanks guys.

**This is not actually funny, because it involves loss of life, but it is ridiculous. Recently, in one of my friends’ villages, a man dropped his cell phone down a latrine. Now, I know many people who have dropped their phones in toilets, but this is different. This is a hole that drops several feet down into many years’ worth of shit. You can’t just “fish it out.” Most people I know would have cut their losses and left it. But, for whatever reason, this man decided he needed to retrieve his phone. Using methods that are still unclear, he lowered himself into the latrine (usually the hole isn’t big enough for this.) He immediately died due to some sort of noxious gas poisoning.

Someone finds him in the latrine, and so another man lowers himself down to collect the body (at this point, I assume, not realizing it had been an instant death.) He also instantly dies.

But then this was repeated by two more people. So four people total died in a latrine, one after the other, all because of a cell phone. Finally, the fire department of the next large city was called and they got all of the bodies out.

Book List (81-100)

Here is the continuation of the list of books I have read since I got here, and a couple of notes on each. I’ve underlined the ones that I think you should DEFINITELY READ. I’ve put an asterisk by the ones I wouldn’t spend time on. The rest are somewhere in-between. Obviously this is all completely subjective and based on my own personal taste.

81-100

  • St. Maybe, Anne Tyler
    • If you like Anne Tyler you will probably like this book. Interesting characters, memorable sense of place and tragedy.
  • Pandora’s Star, Peter Hamilton
    • Sci-fi book with a lot of storylines and characters that get a bit hard to keep track of, but I liked it.
  • A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin
    • A refreshing collection of short stories revolving around a couple of relatable themes. Highly suggested.
  • Purity, Jonathan Franzen
    • I didn’t like this book much. It left a bad taste in my mouth—because of its cynicism I think. This book has gotten a lot of press, but I don’t agree that it was one of the best of the year.
  • The Harder They Come, T.C. Boyle
    • A book that touches on mental illness and violence in a way not many novels I have read do. Interesting and unsettling.
  • Crazy for God, Frank Schaeffer
    • Very interesting, although written with the vestiges of evangelical preachiness (about how “the good old days” used to be, etc.) I suggest it if you are interested in the emergence of the religious right.
  • Welcome to Braggsville****, Geronimo Johnson
    • This book is fiction, but the whole thing was unbelievable to me. I didn’t like the writing style and I didn’t like the plot. I think that it could have been done well, but in my opinion it was a chore to read.
  • The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison
    • Toni Morrison has a way with words. I love to read her descriptions of feelings because she always captures the essence of what she is trying to say in an unusual way. I find myself turning her descriptions over in my mind long after the book is finished. I love a book I feel compelled to savor.
  • Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist, Sunil Yapa
    • Surprisingly beautiful, a bit heart wrenching. Tells the very human story of a historic event, which I didn’t know much about beforehand. Highly suggested.
  • Created in Darkness by Troubled Americans, The Best of McSweeney’s Humor Category ****
    • I did not like this book. It seemed to be a compilation of things that should have been funny but were not. I think, perhaps, my sense of humor just didn’t mesh with it.
  • Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher
    • An interesting take on fiction, tries out a new style without dragging on for too long. If you are a professor or write a lot of letters of recommendation I think you would like it. I think you would like it even if you don’t fit that description.
  • The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
    • Everyone I know who read this book loved it, and I agree. As someone who loves art history, I particularly enjoyed the premise. The character and story development are spectacular.
  • Honeydew, Edith Pearlman
    • A mediocre collection of short stories, in my opinion. I just read it and nothing stuck with me. I can barely recall any of the storylines other than one particularly good story about an antiques dealer.
  • White Teeth, Zadie Smith
    • A very English book, while also managing to be very multi-cultural. It touches on race, beauty, colonialism, science, and socioeconomics while feeling like a novel and not a lecture. Very well-done.
  • The Story of My Teeth, Valeria Luiselli
    • I feel like if I read the epilogue of this book before I read the book I would have really liked it. As it was, I wasn’t too impressed. If you read it, skip to the epilogue, then start. You’ll thank me.
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
    • A wonderful adventure story about comic books, real life heroes and tragedy, and everyday life in New York City. Read it!
  • Food 52, Genius Recipes, Kristen Miglore
    • Generally I wouldn’t put a recipe book on this list, but I read the thing cover-to-cover. A lot of great ideas that I’ll use even though I haven’t actually made any of the recipes except for some fried eggs.
  • Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann
    • A wonderful read that ties together many stories from a momentous day in NYC history. All of the characters feel human, all of the stories are interesting. I highly recommend it.
  • Dietland, Sarai Walker
    • A novel that may be trying a bit too hard to tell the patriarchy to go screw itself (you never feel completely like you are reading a novel, more a piece of propaganda.) That being said, it brings up a lot of serious issues and is pretty empowering.
  • Ghettoside, Jill Leovy
    • A bit dry, but highly informative. If you are interested in gang violence, Los Angeles, policing, or how race plays into our justice system, read it.