Happy Thanksgiving. I’m back in Parakou for a week of training with the other education volunteers. Before I begin, there will be a report on 20/20 on December 3 about Kate Puzey, the Volunteer who was murdered in Benin last year. It might discuss the Peace Corps’ Kafkaesque reluctance to disclose information about the murder, but I don’t know. Someone please watch it and post a comment about it.
I have added a page about this issue, which you can find on the top of the screen under “Information about Kate Puzey.”
Life’s humming along at post. I’m sure that I’m rapidly devolving into an uncouth barbarian, by American standards. I don’t really prefer a toilet to a latrine any more and stopped killing the spiders in my house because they kill flying insects. I made an exception for the three-inch-diameter burrowing ones because (a) they don’t spin webs and (b) you can see the pincers, for Christ’s sake. I also don’t mind the lizards any more because they eat cockroaches like Rush Limbaugh eats tubs of vanilla ice cream.
While on the subject of vermin, I’ve had a recurrent mouse infestation. My neighbors say that the mice here are too smart for a mouse trap, but they had an alternative idea. On market day, you go to the guy who sells flip-flops and fedoras and ask for the mouse poison, which he sells in little paper sachets that he keeps in the box he’s sitting on. This I did, wondering the whole time if “mouse poison” is West African slang for “cocaine.” I figured I’d get the desired result in either case. When I hear mice knocking around at night, I just mix this stuff with fish and leave it out, then the next day follow the stench of death.
There’s a common perception in Benin that white people are all here to give out money. Since the basic approach of many aid organizations is to parachute in, throw some money around indiscriminately, and then leave, I can’t say this is an unfounded expectation. As a result, the director of my school is ever after me to undertake various Sisyphean feats of diverting aid money to the school. The school certainly needs funding and has solid plans for what to do with it. The problem is that I may be American, but because I lack wealth or power, the people with the purse strings aren’t automatically inclined to listen to me.
I was pleasantly surprised, then, when two officials from the American embassy showed up a couple weeks ago to look at the school. The school has been applying for a grant to build a much-needed classroom building, but I wasn’t expecting anything to actually happen. One official was Beninese and the other, coincidentally, was from California. It was nice to tak to another American but the gap in lifestyles and perspectives was disheartening. They rolled into Kemon in the shinest and most well-air-conditioned SUV this village has ever seen. Amusingly, at lunchtime, we had to go to a neighboring village to find a place that served food acceptable to a normal American. We find out in February if we get the money.
I’m teaching a class of first-year English (the equivalent of seventh grade in the US) and two classes of second-years (eighth grade), and I’m team-teaching a fourth-year class (tenth grade). Team-teaching’s been different. My counterpart is enthusiastic and fairly receptive to new ideas, but Beninese and American teaching styles are worlds apart.
It’s been fun at times, though. My students love playing Hangman with vocab words. I taught prepositions of location to my first-years by playing “Where is the teacher?” (“The teacher is on the table,” “the teacher is under the table,” etc.) I don’t think they’d ever seen a teacher crawl under a table before. And, of course, language learners just make funny mistakes sometimes, as with this gem:
Me: Do you like bananas?
The other afternoon a school official entered my class to expel a girl for not paying her annual student fee of $16. The class laughed riotously as she was led out. Her parents couldn’t or (as is likely with a girl) wouldn’t pay, so she had slept with a teacher for the money. He didn’t pay.
This isn’t specific to Benin. Power and weakness, and therefore exploitation, exist in every town of every country on earth. Teacher student relationships are widespread in many African countries: teachers are among the most well-paid and well-respected people in their communities, and so girls, sometimes with their parents’ encouragement, go to their teachers for grades, money, or marriage. Direct coersion also happens (“Come to my house or you’ll fail the next exam”), but with these economic and social conditions, it’s hardly necessary.
I understand how it happens, but there remains the girl who sat in the front row and liked to answer questions in class, the look on the face of a 14-year-old girl as she realizes that she rolled snake eyes in the lot of life.