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Back in Benin

It has been about a month since I came back from America, where I spent my time mostly eating and laying on the beach. During my first year in Benin, I forgot how easy everything is in America—need to pee? Go to a public bathroom and use the free toilet paper and soap. Want to interact in a culturally appropriate way with someone? Think back to childhood and ACT THE WAY YOUR MOMMA TAUGHT YOU. The only thing that is more difficult is holding babies, which are hard to find and which people are weirdly possessive of.

Unfortunately during the time that I was gone, KuliKuli ran away. I was holding out hope that he would return, but at this point, I am hoping he is living a happy, feral life somewhere in the marshes skirting Cotonou. I was thinking that since he ran away in the city, his chances of survival might be higher due to more refined tastes, i.e. less cat eating. Recently my new neighbor asked me what had happened to my cat and I said he ran away. She replied “Oh, someone definitely ate him. You know, that’s what people do here. Cats are very good meat.” Well. Here is where I was going to write something about the cosmic beauty of KuliKuli nourishing a child with a protein deficiency, but let’s be real, I’m not at that level of spiritual enlightenment. If you recently ate a friendly cat, it is in your best interest to never mention it to me.

Temporarily, I am living near the national stadium in Cotonou, where I have a little room with a nice cross-breeze and a refrigerator that I get to use for free! (Although it does smell like rotten fish, something I combat with baking soda (ineffective) as well as double-wrapping all of my food and holding my breath when I open the door (more effective.)) I’m still looking for my permanent home, so if you know anyone renting in or around the neighborhood where I work, let me know! (As I have told everyone who I know or have met one time in passing in Cotonou.) House hunting by myself is ineffective for multiple reasons, but mostly because 1) I have no idea what I’m doing and 2) I am white, meaning I will never ever get close to a good price once a landlord has seen my rich-looking face.

In the meantime, I have started work. I am working at a business center aimed at women, and will also be helping out with some Jesuits and a weaving enterprise. I’m mostly teaching English classes (meaning I am trying to GET OVER MYSELF AND LEARN SOME ENGLISH GRAMMAR) and running business clubs. With the weaving operation, I’m trying to help them turn a profit. I may be underqualified for all of this, but hell if I’m not enthusiastic.

This Saturday is Independence Day in Benin. I’m very excited to see everyone celebrate and participate in the general festivities. Not so exciting is the fact that the military has closed a huge stretch of the main road starting Tuesday morning. Word on the street is that they are practicing for a parade. Just imagine the US military closing a large chunk of the Beltway in DC starting June 29th so that the military could practice for a parade on the 4th. The cost of my commute has risen significantly and the likelihood that I will get in a moto crash has increased because everyone is using the same tiny, pothole-y backroads. There are many traffic jams. I am disgruntled, but trying hard not to be a complete humbug. Happy Independence Day!

Book List #2 (books 20-40)

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.

  • Poor Economics, Abhijit Banerjee and  Esther Duflo
    • Very insightful—if you have any interest in development work or really just the way that humans make choices, this is a great read. Even if you know nothing about economics you will still be able to follow.
  • The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood
    • Good book, but not one of Atwood’s best, in my opinion.
  • Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
    • I liked the Year of the Flood better (the two are linked in the same story.) Again, not a waste of time, not revolutionary.
  • Trainspotting, Irvine Walsh
    • Written in dialect, which I always enjoy, but I had a really hard time with the way that the narration skipped around from character to character. I wanted a plotline that was a little bit easier to follow.
  • A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn
    • Read this book, it is important. It is biased, but so is all history, and this gives a little bit of the other side from what you’ve probably been taught in school. Long, but worth it.
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain ** Garth Stein
    • I read this book because I really liked the title and for some reason I thought it was not literal. But this book is about race cars and is narrated by a dog. If you like those things, read this book, if you don’t, don’t. The plot isn’t great.
  • A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
    • Way too Catholic and Irish for me. Does anyone understand this book? I liked snippets of it, but the inside of the Artist’s head is awfully tedious.
  • The Casual Vacancy, J. K. Rowling
    • Very British book, not as good as I was hoping it would be based on the author. Overall, kind of depressing—I like Rowling’s magical world better than when she writes about suburban muggles.
  • The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury
    • Bradbury is one of my favorite authors, and I’ve actually already read this book and read it again (which I never do.) Read it.
  • Mrs. Dalloway, Virginia Woolf
    • Lays out many truths about human nature stated in beautiful prose while also creating characters you care about. I loved this book.
  • Slave Narratives, a Folk History of Slavery in the United states from Interviews with Former Slaves,US Work Projects Administration
    • Could have used a little more editing, but very interesting first-hand accounts of slavery.
  • Get Shorty, Elmore Leonard
    • Fun gangster book based in Hollywood, highly fluffy, highly enjoyable.
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
    • A portrait of growing up in a time and place I can only imagine. The story feels real and you grow to love the characters. Wonderful imagery.
  • Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu
    • An important book, especially when balanced out by reading Poor Economics. The author annoyingly repeats himself a lot, and the book is dense, but the ideas are good ones. Helps you intelligently think about plausible answers to questions like “Why do people in Benin continue to eschew the plow and embrace the simple hoe?”
  • Galapagos, Kurt Vonnegut
    • Vonnegut is good per usual, but not particularly stunning. I thought the ending was a little lackluster but really enjoyed the book overall.
  • Facing The Congo,** Jeffery Tayler
    • A book about a man going down the Congo River—his experiences, thoughts, and feelings. Pretty boring and repetitive, also the protagonist is not very likable.
  • The Importance of being Ernest, Oscar Wilde
    • Delightful little read. Short, sweet, and funny. Read it!
  • Where’d you go, Bernadette?  Maria Semple
    • Well written, funny. Great beach read when you are with your quirky family and you want to read about a family that is even quirkier.
  • Radiance of Tomorrow, Ishmael Beah
    • Very African. Well written and fairly depressing, touches on many of the realities of poor West African nations. Written by someone who straddles two cultures—you get the best of both worlds—someone who calls Sierra Leoneans his people, but who understands how Westerners think and has a beautiful grasp on English.
  • Congo, Michael Crichton
    • Highly interesting, quick read. If you are interested in natural resource extraction, technology, animals, or the Congo, you should read it!

At Least I’ve got a Story for my Scar

One Sunday, about a month ago, I had a FRUSTRATINGLY BENINESE DAY. There was a series of events involving cultural differences and plain rudeness that rubbed me the wrong way, followed by an unfruitful and sunburn-inducing house hunt. In order to get over my FRUSTRATINGLY BENINESE DAY and into the mood to ENTHUSIASTICALLY START MY NEW JOB the next day, I went to a nice Thai restaurant with one of my best friends.

The Thai restaurant was a little oasis in the middle of the bustling city. Eating curry out of a coconut with a waterfall fountain running soothingly beside me, I almost felt like I had left Benin for a small, much needed break. It was like hitting a reset button. After a collective sigh, glad that this day was over and sure tomorrow was going to be a success, we left the restaurant.

We were staying at a hotel because the peace corps hostel was full, which meant we needed to find moto taxis. My friend found one and flagged him down. I was scanning the road, looking for another, when all of a sudden, I found myself in the ground. My friend looked over and I was no longer there. It was like a cartoon—I was Wiley Cyote and had unwittingly fallen into an open manhole.

Once I realized that I was in a manhole (in the splits, one leg out, one leg in, maxi dress stretched to its fullest capacity, weight resting on my helmet which luckily I was carrying and caught on the edge) I quickly found SUPERHUMAN POWER caused by adrenaline, and lifted my entire body out with my arms, landing neatly on both feet. My friend says this was a very graceful maneuver, which might be true only compared to how clumsy it is to fall in a manhole.

When I was on my feet again, we inspected me to see how bad the damage was. It didn’t look terrible. The moto taxi driver who we had already called over told me I should sit down, which I thought was a good idea. I went to sit on the back of his moto, and he said “Not there! On the ground!” I said “What?! No!” He said “SIT ON THE GROUND!” I said “DO NOT TELL ME WHAT TO DO!”

Luckily, about then, another moto taxi pulled up. Quickly, we discussed whether or not to go back to the peace corps office where there were medical supplies or just go to the hotel. The peace corps office was full of people and as my adrenaline wore off, I was trying not to cry. So I chose the hotel, and off we went. We get to the hotel, check in, and I start walking up the three flights of stairs to the room. “I may have a breakdown as soon as we are out of the hallway,” I warned.

I was correct! As soon as we entered the room, I started hysterically laugh/crying. I was laughing because I had fallen in a manhole and that is ridiculous and hilarious, but I was crying because it hurt VERY MUCH. Upon further inspection, my bleeding was just delayed, and now my leg and toe looked terrible. I really couldn’t even tell what was going on with my toe, but my leg had two gashes in it, one on top of an already huge knot on my shinbone.

After assessing the damage, we decided my wounds definitely needed to be cleaned out. My friend went back to the peace corps office to collect medical supplies. I called another friend and hysterically told him what had happened, unfortunately waking him up by wailing “I fell into a manhole!” into the receiver. Luckily he calmed me down by talking about economics books, which I can only maintain so much enthusiasm for.

My friend arrived with another friend for backup and with medical gloves, gauze, iodine, and alcohol wipes, they helped clean me up. I stubbornly said I was going to do it myself, and then couldn’t reach, so just laid back while one held up flaps of skin with cotton swabs and the other poured on iodine solution. It was uncomfortable, to say the least, and as the last vestiges of adrenaline left my body, I began to shake like some sort of drug addict going through withdrawal, which I’m sure made their job even more difficult.

Loaded up on Tylenol, I went to sleep, knowing that the next morning I would have to call my supervisor and say that I could not start work because I had fallen into a manhole, which is just the first impression I was hoping to make.

The next day, I went to the peace corps doctor who cleaned out all of the wounds again and said something comforting like “It is good you didn’t die. Many people die when they fall in manholes. You know, head trauma.”

It has been about a month since I fell into a manhole. Since then, I have not taken my eyes off the ground. I left Bante for reasons of health, and I haven’t been sick since I moved to Cotonou, but the city has its own menaces, as I have learned through experience.

Anyway, I can finally walk normally and only have one scab left! I think I’m going to have a wicked scar on my shin, but at least I have a good story. And my toe, which I thought was broken and looked much like a cherry tomato that had burst its skin when it became overripe, is right as rain. I don’t even think I’m going to lose the nail.

The Almost Demise of Clyde, or, Time for a New Adventure

Clyde the lizard lives in my ceiling. He is somewhat of a legend, at least to me personally, which probably says something about the amount of time I spend alone with my cat and my imagination. I pictured Clyde—scaly and huge—based only on the sounds I heard while sitting in my living room. Well, either Clyde suddenly got a lot friendlier, or he found a mate (Bonnie) and showed her the house, but either way, the lizard in my ceiling got super active recently, sounds smaller, and changed their behavior pattern. Let’s assume that it’s Clyde up there for the sake of the story.

Clyde has been living in my ceiling for at least 5 years (two volunteers ago.) The contract is this: the volunteers protect Clyde from hungry neighbors and Clyde does a passable job protecting the volunteers from rats and mice as well as providing impressive stories for people back home. Clyde can be in the platform ceiling of the living room and that is his only territory.

Recently, Clyde started going outside to my back area and resting on top of the wall. This was also ok, as I got photos out of the deal, and also really got to see who I was living with. He was scary, but honestly thinner than I thought. (I may or may not have been telling myself he looked a lot more like a komodo dragon than he actually does.)

Soon after the first Clyde sighting, Kuli Kuli (my cat) started yelling about something in the kitchen. He is very vocal, and weirdly mimics human emotions in his sounds. This sounded like “GET OUT OR I WILL KILL YOU I HATE YOU AND ALL OF YOUR KIND! I EAT YOUR SMALLER BRETHREN!” Upon further investigation, Clyde was sticking his head into my kitchen on a rafter. Ok. There is no platform in the kitchen. The kitchen is off limits. I told Clyde “Get out of my kitchen and go back to your area or I will let my neighbors eat you.” He withdrew his head.

At this point I became a little bit nervous that Kuli Kuli and Clyde might one day meet and have a bloody, bloody battle. It was clear that they were not afraid of each other but did foster feelings of animosity. If it came to a fight, I would obviously put my money on Kuli Kuli, but that is only because he has a vested interest in protecting me. Looking at it objectively, I do not know who would win.

I was telling a story about Clyde to my local language tutor while she was at my house the other day, illustrating with photos that I had taken. She cut in saying monitor lizards are very good to eat. I was like… “Are you not paying attention to my hilarious story? Please focus! But anyway, you can’t eat Clyde because he has held up his end of the deal and not entered my kitchen since then.”

No sooner were the words out of my mouth than Kuli Kuli starts yelling. Sure enough, Clyde’s lizardy head was poking into my kitchen. “NOW WE CAN EAT HIM!” Said my language teacher. “Maybe if I just throw this bottle cap at him he will go away!” I said. “SEND FOR A MAN WITH A MACHETE!” said my language teacher. “DO NOT MAKE MY HOUSE BLOODY!” I said. “I HAVE SEEN YOU HAVE LIQUID SOAP I WILL CLEAN UP THE BLOOD” said my language teacher.

At this point, the man with the machete arrived. I said “CLYDE GO BACK IN THE CEILING!” I said it in English so no one else could understand, but obviously Clyde doesn’t speak English either.

I quickly locked Kuli Kuli outside and then went outside myself. I did not want to see the carnage. A loud crash was heard by everyone in the concession as the man with the machete stood on a chair and tried to bring the blunt blade down on Clyde’s neck. (Side note, almost all things that are supposed to be sharp in Benin are very dull due to frequent “sharpening” on rough concrete.) Clyde scurried into the platform.

The man with the machete said he had hit Clyde but couldn’t see how much damage he had done before Clyde disappeared into my ceiling. “So if you don’t hear him tonight or tomorrow morning, let me know and I will bring a ladder and a stick and we will fish him out of your ceiling and then we will eat him. If you do not tell me if you do not hear him, your house will smell very bad.”

So now I had a lizard that was maybe bleeding out over my head. I was not at all pleased. Everyone else was a bit disappointed about the lack of a clean kill, but were still holding out hope that they would be able to feast in the coming days.

Luckily, I saw Clyde yesterday looking no worse for the wear. Unfortunately for him, I am moving to Cotonou and will no longer be able to protect him from my ravenous neighbors. Due to my body rebelling against my brain and refusing to maintain a semblance of health in village, I have been transferred to the big city. Although I am now officially living in Cotonou, I don’t have a house yet so I am living in the Peace Corps office until I do. I will write about my new job and new life once I have a few more details! If you are trying to send me anything, my new PO Box is:

Evan Fowler, PCV

Corps de la Paix

01 BP 971

Cotonou, Benin, Afrique de l’Ouest

PS I have some pictures of Clyde that I am having technical difficulties with. Hopefully they will be added soon.

Campaigning

The American political system is a beast. You can’t run away from it even in a tiny African nation where most people think there are only white people in America. Luckily, due to everyone’s knowledge of the American political field, I can immediately ask “Is the president of the United States white?” And, because Obama is so popular here that you can buy plastic sachets (think larger ketchup packets) full of whiskey with his face on them, they can usually tell me he is not. Obama also comes in handy when people try to tell me a white woman and a black man have never had children together (WOULDN’T WE BE SO PROGRESSIVE?! DON’T YOU WANT TO BE THE FIRST?! COME HAVE MY BABY!!) My thanks to Obama for aiding me in shutting down that unfortunate attempt at seduction.

I don’t know much about politics in Benin. I understand the basic structure, but there is much that remains a mystery. I’ve also been explicitly told by Peace Corps to stay out of politics—it isn’t our area, and it could mess up Peace Corps’ relationship with the country. I don’t know many things about the political system, or the platforms of different parties, but I do know about 5 different campaign songs.

Let me explain. Here, campaigning is not a series of televised debates and smear campaigns. Here, campaigning involves many people singing, driving around motos while holding up posters (DANGEROUS!) and running through the streets with posters taped around their heads. The cone-hats that people make out of the posters have an unfortunate resemblance to KKK costumes, which obviously is not clear to anyone here because the KKK is an American problem, but seeing a hundred black people in white cone-hats is like an image from some political cartoon.

Over the past two weeks I have been kept up at night by my neighbor’s tiny children singing songs supporting a popular candidate and blowing vuvuzelas. Although campaigning in the US can sometimes make me sick to my stomach, I have never felt rage in the same way I have here—IT IS TWO IN THE MORNING IF YOU BLOW ON THAT VUVUZELA AGAIN I WILL BREAK IT DEAR GOD YOU CAN’T EVEN KNOW WHAT YOU’RE SINGING ABOUT YOU ARE FIVE YEARS OLD!

Many people have approached me asking who I am going to vote for. They are very upset for me that even though I live here I cannot vote, which is very sweet. Many of them say I just need to become a citizen before the next election. I usually say “I’ll see what I can do!” Which is a lie, just to clarify.

I have tried to avoid all of the parades, speeding motorcades, and schoolchildren dancing in the middle of the north-south highway dodging the speeding motorcades during this time of democracy. The election was last Sunday and everything was calm in Bante when the results were announced. Good job guys, I’m proud. Now please be quiet.

(Please note there are more elections at the end of the month that promise to be even bigger than the last ones. Pray for my sanity.)

I lived like an ex-pat for a day (and I liked it)

Let me list some things that I did last Sunday. I was in Cotonou (the biggest city in Benin) and had some time, some money, and was not sick.

  • Slept in. Was not woken up by goats or children, rather was woken up by my body saying “Enough sleep! Time to start the day!” was therefore predisposed to be in a good mood.
  • Ate pizza, which was delivered to me, and had real mozzarella, while watching “The Wedding Singer.” “The Wedding Singer” feels like AMERICA
  • Went to a fancy-schmancy grocery store. Could afford nothing, but bought cat food and sour gummies anyway. And chips with powdered goat-cheese flavoring. It is unclear to me how it is in any way just that I live in a country with a million goats and no goat cheese. Was definitely the scruffiest person in the store and was treated politely anyway.
  • Visited a friend who works at a really nice hotel. Although you have to go into a compound that has walls that are high enough that you feel like you are walking into a war-zone to get there, once you are in it is an oasis of contemporary art and tropical flowers. As I sat surrounded by luxury, I drank real espresso which gave me a caffeine buzz that made me have slight heart palpitations. It was worth it.
  • I schmoozed with a French guy who works for security at an oil company whose compound is located near the hotel. French guy lives and works in the same building with huge walls around it. Seems suffocating but it is clear that he has access to many things that I don’t—he was not impressed by real coffee, for example. Was told by the French guy that we peace corps volunteers are confusing because we look American and speak French exactly like a Beninese person.
  • Go to some different French people’s house. Get in the private pool. Try to pretend that I am not SO EXCITED ABOUT BEING IN A PRIVATE POOL.
  • Go to the BEACH! Dip my toes in the water, turn around and see a completely naked man who seemed to be trying to rinse sand out of his swim trunks. Quickly turn away and pretend that it did not happen. Wonder about my grasp on cultural norms about nakedness.
  • Play beach volleyball with a bunch of expats and some Beninese people. At first wonder if I can hang as I last seriously played volleyball in 4th Quickly realize that pretty much everyone is terrible and I am only not good. My moment of glory happens when a 20-something year-old, 6 foot tall French man goes for a spike. I jump up to block him. He completely misses the ball. I’m still as intimidating as ever!
  • Ride in a real car that I think even has airbags to the house of a member of the Foreign Service. Swim and schmooze with expats. Officiate a water-polo game.
  • Eat Indian food until I am too full to eat any more. Watch Bollywood videos and dance in my seat.
  • Go back to the Foreign Service officer’s house where the party is still going. No one else from the peace corps went with me, so had some time to be with Americans who I haven’t already seen for hundreds of hours.
  • Took a shower with hot water and went to bed. Expat life is pretty sweet.

Things that could be in a horror film but that are really from the MOVIE OF MY LIFE

  • I am riding on a motor bike behind a fairly large woman in a dress with puffy sleeves. As we are riding, a whirlwind whips up—not so big that it is dangerous, but big enough that there is a ton of dirt and trash in the air. I put my helmet visor down and hope it dies down soon. The woman driving stops the moto, throws her hands heavenward (think evangelical-style) and starts to scream “SANG DE JESU!!!” which translates to “BLOOD OF JESUS!!! After repeating this for about 30 seconds, the whirlwind dies down. The woman contentedly nods—problem solved—and we continue on our way.

  • I am climbing the granite hill behind my house, looking for some peace and quiet when a child, who until this point had been hiding unnoticed in a tree, screams at me; “I AM A SORCERER!” I didn’t know exactly what to do, so I said “Is that true?” He replied “MY GRANDMOTHER IS THE MERMAID GODDESS, I AM A SORCERER!! AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” He then began throwing rocks at lizards and I told him I’d see him later.

  • I am cleaning my kitchen, getting rid of old food, dusting and sweeping, etc. KuliKuli is outside playing so he doesn’t get in my way. I find a huge nest of ants under a plastic container full of oatmeal. I run to get insecticide. Spray Spray sprayyyyyyyyy. With this, the ants die. But I begin to hear a rustling coming from behind my storage shelves. It is not KuliKuli, he is outside. I almost go find him so he can protect me, but since I have just sprayed poison, I figure that would be both cowardly and irresponsible. I see two antenna sticking out from behind the shelves. A cockroach! I spray him, thinking he is alone and will die and will give me no more problems. BUT THEN TWENTY COCKROACHES FAN OUT ALONG MY WALLS AND FLOOR FROM THE NEST THAT I HAVE OBVIOUSLY DISTURBED. To my credit, I did not scream. I did spray poison everywhere and lock the door and I haven’t opened it yet.

  • I am waiting for my taxi to leave (see transportation post.) This taxi is about the size of a Toyota Camry. I have already asked how many people will be in the car—6, plus the driver, plus 2 children who don’t count. This is normal. We all pile in. I’m in the front seat with another volunteer, with my backpack, helmet, and a tote bag all on my lap. Which is definitely tight, but whatever, it could be worse. We back up with difficulty because it is a manual transmission and my friend’s butt is getting in the way of the gearshift, but this problem will theoretically be solved when we start going forward. We finish backing up, the driver parks, gets out, and tries to HAVE ANOTHER MAN GET IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT WITH HIM. I am not calm. I yell “I AM LEAVING IMMEDIATELY DO YOU WANT TO KILL US ON THE ROAD ALSO YOU TOLD ME 6 PEOPLE THIS IS 7 LYING IS NOT GOOD WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM???????” Everyone except the other volunteer thinks I may be overreacting but I have made my point and they do tell the man that we will not take him in the driver’s seat. The taxi driver also tells me if I keep making a big deal about nothing, no drivers will want to take me anywhere. Just to clarify, there were already 6 humans (including 2 children) in the back seat, 2 of us in the passenger’s seat, and then they tried to put 2 people in the driver’s seat, which would have made shifting gears impossible, and could have impeded the use of the pedals. THE CAR WAS THE SIZE OF A TOYOTA CAMRY.

  • I walk into my house after going to the market, and am greeted by a cat with a bloody mouth and a 6 inch decapitated lizard who is also missing 2 legs. Soon after, only some entrails are left, and when I come back to deal with them, ants have already carried the scraps away. (Way to go nature!)

  • I am about to flush my toilet (by pouring a bucket of water into it—I don’t have fancy things like plumbing,) and find out I have worms. I can tell because they are not tiny and invisible. They are TERRIFYING!!!! I will never be able to think of my digestive tract as a safe space again. (Do not worry, I have fixed the problem with Modern Medicine.)

  • I walk into my office in a new outfit. Everyone there starts making a fuss because I look pretty decent and usually I just look like a pool of muddy sweat. One of the female apprentices says to me—“Evan, you are so beautiful. You are fat, you have a butt that is round like a grapefruit, and you have tiny feet. But if you don’t do something about your skin condition, you will go back to the United States ugly.” (Keep in mind, although I do have some sort of rash on my arms, I would like to think it is not THAT BAD.) For a moment, I did not know what to do with my face, but decided on smiling. I said, “Thank you for saying I have a butt like a grapefruit!” Which is the only thing from that observation that I will take to heart.

Book List (1) !

Here is a list of books I have read since I got here, and a couple of notes on each. I didn’t really put any summaries because if you are interested you can look it up on Amazon.  I’m thinking I’ll do this every 20 books I read. 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.

Also, I know I promised a baby post, but as soon as I promised that, a 2 week school break started and many of my favorite babies are off visiting family in other villages. I’ll get it done though, don’t worry!

  • Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? Mindy Kaling ***
    • Not nearly as funny as I had hoped. Tina Fey’s “Bossypants” had me laughing out loud, and I was hoping for the same level of humor, but I was disappointed. I would suggest watching “The Mindy Project” instead of reading this book.
  • Wild Cheryl Strayed ***
    • This was ok, but not anything really memorable. If you are thinking about doing a long trail by yourself (Appalachian, Pacific Coast, etc.) read this, but otherwise, I’d choose a different book. I feel like her experience wasn’t extraordinary enough to write a book about.
  • The Windup Girl Paolo Bacigalupi
    • If you like science fiction read this book. It was very good. If you don’t like science fiction maybe you should try again. This isn’t too geeky, it is well written, and is futuristic while remaining fairly plausible.
  • Dune Frank Herbert
    • Another sci-fi, also good. There are a bunch of sequels, and I’m about to start one, which means that the combination of the storyline and writing style made me want more! Significantly geekier and involving many more starships than The Windup Girl.
  • Native Son Richard Wright
    • An important book, but uncomfortable. Don’t read this if you are already feeling down on the world, but read it sometime.
  • Outlander Diana Gabaldon
    • One step above a “romance novel.” Fairly well written, with an ok storyline. I do not feel like I wasted my time with this book, but I don’t think it is important to read or particularly outstanding.
  • Lamb
    • A book that is funny, especially for someone who grew up in a religious family who knows a bit about the story of Jesus and the bible. If you are easily scandalized, don’t read it. But it was pretty good.
  • Monuments Men Robert M. Edsel
    • Interesting and worth reading, but I wouldn’t put it at the top of your list. There are other war books and art history books that are better. BUT if you want a combination of the two, this is the way to go!
  • 12 Years a Slave Solomon Northup
    • An important book. First-hand accounts of history, especially accounts of mistakes we have made, are always good to read. It is not an easy thing to think about, but you already knew that.
  • Everything is Illuminated
    • Highly recommended. I really enjoyed this book—the writing style is unique and the way that several storylines are wrapped together is fun to read and interesting. Touches on many important human themes as well.
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being
    • I enjoyed this book quite a bit. I’d call it an exploration of humanity and relationships. You should read it if you like a lot of character development in your books.
  • Wildflower ***
    • An ok memoir. Don’t be fooled by the beautiful picture on the cover—the actual content is not nearly as dazzling. I bet that if the author had been able to interview the subject, it probably would have been a really fascinating story. As it is, it was written after the death of the subject, and it feels like the book could be cut down by about 100 pages.
  • Cane Jean Toomer
    • If you like poetry, read this book. If you like jazz, read this book. If you are interested in the Harlem Renaissance or black history, read this book. It is beautiful, and partitioned into perfectly manageable poems and short stories that you can savor all day. If you only like very literal stories, ignore the underline. You probably will not like Cane.
  • The Feminine Mystique Betty Friedan
    • I had to keep reminding myself that this was written a long time ago. In the context of the 1960s, this book was powerful and important. It is important to read due to its historical significance, and there are parts that feel very current. There are other parts, though, that feel dated, and for me it was hard to get through the whole book because of this.
  • African Friends and Money Matters David Maranz
    • Extremely useful and important read if you are living in Africa or work with Africans (refugee resettlement, international business relations etc.) I would suggest that every person who will be in Africa for any extended period of time read this. I also think that it could be useful to give to Africans who are trying to work with westerners or assimilate to western culture as it explains differences in “African” and “western” perspective. Obviously makes over-arching and general statements, but acknowledges this upfront.
  • The Jungle Upton Sinclair
    • Sad, interesting, still relevant today even though it was written about life 100 years ago.
  • The Beautiful and Damned Scott Fitzgerald
    • I enjoyed parts of this book a lot, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the author. It felt like he was trying to show off through his character’s conversations. But, as expected from Fitzgerald, the feeling of glamour, excess, and sadness of the ‘20s shines through all of it.
  • A Prayer for Owen Meany John Irving
    • Beautiful, poignant, with just enough reality and just enough magic. I really loved this book. You get a lot out of it and it is a pleasure to read.
  • Only Travel Guide You’ll Ever Need Dave Barry ***
    • I have found Dave Barry very funny in the past, but this didn’t do much for me. Didn’t laugh out loud once.
  • 100 Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez
    • If you like magical realism and Latin American literature in general, you should read this. Revolution, love, banana companies, matriarchs, massacres, etc. described in a way that will dazzle your mind’s eye.

Things I Don’t Understand

  1. The number of grown Beninese men who have Celine Dion songs set as their ring tones. This seems to diminish neither their coolness nor masculinity in the eyes of Beninese society. I always have to try really hard not to laugh as I don’t know ANYONE in the US who would now admit to having a Celine Dion ringtone even back when she riding the wave of the Titanic craze.
  2. How many adults try to touch my skin (IT FEELS THE SAME AS YOURS PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH ME WITH YOUR UNWASHED HANDS)
  3. Related to that, the disbelief in soap’s effectiveness… many people feel like washing your hands with soap is kind of stupid.
  4. Why everyone loves pate (congealed grits) so much. If you ask children’s favorite food, it is always “pate.” I mean, I love grits, but they always involve milk and/or cheese. This is just cornmeal and water.
  5. Think of the voice you would use to talk to a baby under one year old or to a pet—that high pitched, terrible voice. People love to use that voice while talking to me. Apparently I sound like that to them. WHY? When this happens, I always ask people if they have a throat problem and need me to take them to the hospital.
  6. Men commanding me to come say hi to them. Like, they will be lounging with their friends and then they see me and say “White person come here and greet me.” I think this is a method of trying to show off to their buddies. I usually respond by asking if they can’t come and greet me because their legs are too weak, which shuts them up.
  7. Little children up to the age of about 10 pooping in public and greeting you WHILE POOPING with no shame. Example- child: “Hi! How are you??” me: “Feeling awkward and disgusted because you are in the middle of defecating.” On the other hand, the granite hill behind my house is a very popular pooping place and I can see why. Who doesn’t want to poop with a view?
  8. Putting dried fish in EVERYTHING. Have a perfectly delicious peanut sauce? Some nutritious wilted greens? A delightful vinaigrette to put on bread? No you don’t, not unless you have pulverized many tiny dead fish and added them to the mixture.
  9. Racism, sexism, ageism, socioeconomic-status-ism. Of course these are also things that I don’t understand in America (although surely I participate in all of them sometimes without meaning to) but they usually manifest differently here. I’ll write a longer blog post about these soon.
  10. Finally, how is it possible that all babies here are unbelievably cute? Even though I know that there is a 50/50 chance that any baby will be a urine-soaked, I ALWAYS want to hold them. Will try to do a cute babies post sometime soon so you can be jealous of me and my baby holding. Since the birth rate here is something like 5 children per woman, they are not only adorable, they are also abundant. <3<3<3

Things that Have Happened

Here some of the more ridiculous things that have happened to me in the past couple of months. All are true.

  • An old lady offered me snuff (ground up tobacco that you snort) out of a printer-ink bottle. I politely refused.
  • I had just gotten over being sick and a young man told me I was sick because I was suffering from “boy pallu” or boy malaria. This involves fever and chills and is caused by a lack of sex. (He found out that this was not an effective pick-up line)
  • I was told after the same sickness that I had malaria because I boil my water before I drink it. Therefore, the heat is already within the water and transfers to my body. (Note, I did not even have malaria which is caused ONLY BY MOSQUITOES.)
  • I carried two puppies in a cement bag 10 miles on the back of a moto as a favor to a friend. The moto broke down in the middle of nowhere and I had to wait beside an abandoned church with two puppies in a cement sack while waiting for my driver to go back to the closest town to get it fixed. Several people asked me what I was doing and I said “Going to Bante.” They responded “It doesn’t look like it. Give me a puppy.”
  • An ant colony moved into my water filter while I was away for a week. Half of them drowned because a water filter is in no way an appropriate home for an ant colony.
  • KuliKuli has so far killed 26 cockroaches (at least those are the bodies that I’ve found,) bitten the head off of one praying mantis, and pulled the tail off of 1 gecko, all within my house. Gecko tails continue to move for several minutes after they are severed—very entertaining for a cat. I’ve named the gecko Lefty—he still lives in my bathroom and is now very easy to identify.
  • Clyde moved back into my ceiling after a several week hiatus and KuliKuli is terrified of him. He hides behind my cleaning supplies whenever Clyde moves. This means KuliKuli is pretty smart because he knows that he should be afraid, but could also mean that I am pretty stupid because I let a terrifying monster live in my ceiling.
  • Although aware that I generally don’t eat meat, my local language tutor tried to convince me that it was worth breaking with my normal habits to eat some boiled cow skin because it is so delicious. (I was not convinced.)
  • I had a kid try to convince me to let her “paint” my nails with her finger and her spit. Although she waxed poetic about how shiny my nails would be, I refused. She did not understand when I tried to explain germs and is still mad at me.
  • I boiled the fermented milk I bought out of a bucket on a lady’s head to make it safe to drink and ended up accidentally making ricotta cheese! It was amazing.
  • I was told that only men can eat plantain chips and if I eat them I won’t be able to sleep. Fortunately I’ve been eating plantain chips pretty often and always sleep deeply so I had some contrary evidence from personal experience. They told me I didn’t know what I was talking about—there was no way I could be sleeping deeply after eating things that are “only for men.” Therefore, not only am I someone who eats things I shouldn’t but I am either a liar or do not know the quality of my own sleep.