Emily Becker

About

Peace Corps volunteer in Benin. Caffeine addict. MU alumna in magazine journalism and sociology. Spontaneous dance party starter.

How did I find out that the electricity was back on in my village after five days with an overloaded transformer leaving me in the dark?

The sounds of the Italy v. Uruguay game.

World Cup Africa Benin Peace Corps Benin Peace Corps volunteer soccer

Boys club

I was surrounded by men. My postmate and I were at a bar waiting for the Germany-Ghana games to start and the room was full of twenty-something Beninese men, male students from my classes and the older patrons of the community. They were of all different ages, but, as my postmate was the first to notice, I was the only there who was female.

I started wondering why soccer didn’t interest any of the other women in the village. Girls soccer teams are few and far between (and usually Peace Corps organized) but that didn’t mean women couldn’t also be interested in the sport.

Then I realized where all the mothers and sisters were: they were at home making dinner for all the husbands and brothers who were here with me watching the game.

I knew there are different expectations for girls and boys here, but something about how, already as children, males are given so much more freedom in the choice of what they can do with their time. I had chores and was expected to help around the house, but so did my older brother. Never would I have been told to give up the chance to do something that interested me because I had to stay home and make my brother’s dinner.

What I realized in that bar was not that no other women of the village were interested in soccer, but that they had never been given the opportunity to be interested in soccer. 

World Cup Peace Corps Benin Africa Peace Corps volunteer Peace Corps Benin

The five stages

Last weekend, my postmate and I brought our girls soccer team to the first (volunteer-organized) girls soccer tournament in Parakou. Our girls had to play three games: two on Sunday and one on Monday and we ended the tournament with a 1-2 record. Dave and I didn’t care. We just wanted the girls to have fun. The girls, though, did care.

At the end of our last match that we lost 2-1, I had fourteen girls in tears. And I had one girl in particular who didn’t stop crying until she was hyperventilating and had to be talked down by the volunteer who had been our nurse all weekend.

I have never seen more tears in this country than I saw that weekend. Not just amongst my team, but, for every team, every match appeared to be a life or death situation.

The Beninese people, and even my girls who are only teenagers, are accustomed to sorrow. Benin is not an easy country in which to survive. However, the loss of a soccer tournament is not a sorrow to which these girls were accustomed.

I played soccer for 15 years. Every other weekend I was losing matches. I learned how to shake it off and prepare for the next match. These matches, though, these matches were the only three matched my girls had every played. There was not another weekend for them to play better at next time. This was it for them.

A loss at a match was so much bigger than just a lost match. After their third game, my girls also had to deal with the loss and end of a program that they would most likely not ever have a chance in which to participate again. 

Peace Corps volunteer Peace Corps Benin Africa Peace Corps Benin

Second wind

My postmate and I were tired. For the last three hours, we had been walking around the village with two of the girls from our soccer team searching (slightly in vain) for any amount of money that would ease the pain of the cost of transporting fourteen girls to and from our soccer tournament in Parakou that weekend. 

I looked over at Dave. He was slumped in the wooden chair in the room where we sat with my counterpart trying to determine our next course of action. I knew he was hungry and I knew he was dreading having to bike back to his house in the dark.

I was ready to call it. Dave and I had the money between us. It would just be a little harder to eat for the rest of the month. I explained this all to my counterpart in French in front of the two girls, who seemed significantly less tired than me and Dave.

When I got to the part of the story of how Dave and I were planning on paying for the difference between the two of us, the two girls perked up. When I had finished, they starting listing to my counterpart the people who were left in the village that we hadn’t visited yet.

“Madam,” they said to me. “If you’re not tired, we’re not tired.”

I smiled at their resolve to not let me and Dave just solve this problem ourselves: by throwing own our money at it. I was suddenly not tired anymore.

Peace Corps Peace Corps volunteer Benin Africa students Peace Corps Benin

June 12: Runner’s log

I don’t run with people. I run with my iPod. And my house keys. And until he took it back from me, my friend’s GPS.  I don’t run with the kids who follow me down the street. I don’t run with the people who yell at me from the side of the road. I don’t run with the men going to the fields who pull up next to me on their motos and want to know about what I’m doing and where I’m going and my phone number.

You could say that I don’t do a lot of things with people. I’m one of those types of people who, sometimes, really just prefers to be by him or herself than with someone else. I’m one of those types of people who, when at a large, crowded party will sometimes find herself with one other person (the one other person who feels the same way) in some corner of the kitchen talking about how over-stimulated she is at the moment. I’m one of those types of people who, sometimes, just needs some time alone with her thoughts.

Which, is why, when I started out running today with three other people (two volunteers and a Beninese girl who works with one of the volunteers through GenEq’s scholarship/mentorship program) I didn’t think it would last that long. I fully expected to run away, if you will, after a couple minutes.

Then we started chatting. I don’t really remember what we even talked about. All I remember from those 18 kilometers was that it lasted 18 kilometers and, all of a sudden (well kind of. 18 km is still long), we were left with 5. When those 5 kilometers started to feel like they were going to drag out forever, that was when I finally decided that it was time to leave the others for a while.

What I realized, though, as I was left alone on the road with only Aloe Blacc’s World Cup theme song looping in my ears, was that while I physically alone, I would never be alone on this run. This run, this tour, was about so much more than my ability to run the 23 km between my village and Savalou. It didn’t matter that I had momentarily left everyone else behind. All the volunteers who had organized this run, every volunteer who had run before me and will run after me, every girl who had benefited from our scholarship program, every girl who had realized that she was allowed to want and deserved to want so much more than she has been told she could want and deserve from her society, all these people were running with me.

One of my jobs as the editor of this blog is to update our list of sponsors from our fundraising, which means that I see every individual in the United States that believed that what we do here is worth giving $10 or $50 or $100. A few days ago, I was working on this update when I saw the names that I had been waiting and hoping would appear: the names of my friends and family back home. Seeing those names that I knew on the list in some way clicked with me. I started to figure out that this was bigger than me.

And it was this that I was thinking about in those last minutes of my leg of the tour. What I realized in those last kilometers as each of my footsteps landed on the highway, each slowly but surely taking me closer to my destination, was that I had so many people running right beside me.

1 note Peace Corps Peace Corps volunteer Benin Africa Tour du Benin running Peace Corps Benin

I have this student, part 4

Romain never smiles. He rarely talks. He mostly just sleeps, or at least that’s what is appears he’s doing in the back row, leaning against the back chalkboard of my 7th grade class.

He’s the class-appointed person who erases the board, but it’s rare that another boy doesn’t beat him to the task at the end of class. He’s old for the seventh grade, not because he’s retaking the class, but because his parents started him at school late. He’s becoming used to being one of the oldest students in class. That he knows the age difference between him and me and me is significantly less than that between me and my other students is what gives him his gravitas. He’s taken all the stereotypical behaviors of teenaged boys and amplified them through a Beninese speaker: he lies about where he’s going when he leaves class, he never does the activities I put on the board and he doesn’t seem to care about any of it.

Today, in Romain’s class, we were playing a vocabulary review game where I wrote all the words from the last unit on the board and the students had to smack the word I called out with a fly swatter. (We had finished the curriculum weeks ago - I was reaching to find things to do in class.) I had divided the class into boys v. girls. The stakes were high.

I was waving up the students two-by-two to take their turn at the front of the room. Romain was begrudgingly paired with Odette, another older student in the class. 

I called out the word “doctor.” Romain looked around the board for a moment. Then his fly swatter solidly collided with the word. When he pulled back, the plastic was marked with white chalk dust.

The boys erupted in cheers.

And Romain, as he handed the wire handle back to me, smiled.

1 note Peace Corps Peace Corps volunteer Benin Africa teaching Peace Corps Benin

May 23rd: Runner’s log

From May 30-June 19, GenEq Benin is holding Le Tour Du Benin, a grueling 21-day relay-run across the entire western African nation of Benin. I’ve been asked to chronicle the training for my 25 km run on June 12. Visit indigogo.com to donate to the fundraiser.

Distance: 14.07 km

The last three kilometers, all I can think about is water. Drinking Nalgene after Nalgene of it. Pouring it over my head in the shower. Jumping into a pool of it. I didn’t start until too late in the day and the noon sun has zapped most of the water from my body by just halfway through this long run. The next hill I climb, I pretend is a waterfall.

The last two kilometers, my thoughts turn to other beverages: cold Coke, cold Sprite, cold Gatorade. I used to run with a bottle of water. Now, I run with a GPS. I begin to severely question this trade.

The last kilometer, I am swirling the remaining spit in my mouth around, trying to distract myself from how much longer there is until the water severely lacking in my system is replenished.

When I make it home, the first place I head is my kitchen and my water filter, resisting the urge to just stick my head under it and open my mouth like it’s a faucet.

I stop drinking 2.5 liters later. 

Benin Africa le Tour du Benin half marathon Peace Corps Peace Corps volunteer Peace Corps Benin

May 22nd: Runner’s log

From May 30-June 19, GenEq Benin is holding Le Tour Du Benin, a grueling 21-day relay-run across the entire western African nation of Benin. I’ve been asked to chronicle the training for my 25 km run on June 12. Visit indigogo.com to donate to the fundraiser.

As I rounded the last turn of my run, the middle school that marks my return into my village looming up ahead to the left, I encountered three of my students coming out of the woods that line the road.

The woods here aren’t like the woods full of dense trees and small limestone cliffs in my backyard where I grew up in the US. Here, as the trees are mainly cashew tress or mango trees or some other fruit-bearing tree and the main method of cooking is over a wood-burning stove, it’s not uncommon to see people crashing out of the woods along this road with branches or mangoes balanced in basins on their heads.

These students were carrying palm tree branches. I’m not sure what they were going to do with them: use them as a covering for some structure or were just messing around.  But regardless, after greeting me, they started running alongside me, normally something that would irk me, but something that I’ll allow if it’s my students.

As a pretty noticeable stranger here, a lot of times, people just want to be with you. They gain respect by appearing to be associating with an American or they think you’ll have something for them or they’re just interested in what you’re doing.

Which is to say that I’ve been followed before. On my bike, while walking through the market. Once, I ran almost four kilometers before noticing that a kid I was vaguely familiar with has followed me the entire way on his tricycle. They want you to know that they’re intrigued by what you’re doing. Even if it’s sometimes a little bit off-putting.

My students followed me for about a quarter of a kilometer, their palm fronds waving as they ran, before they stopped, waved and walk off into the village. 

Africa Benin Tour du Benin half marathon Peace Corps Peace Corps volunteer Peace Corps Benin

The case of the missing pate

You’re in class when one of your students asks you if he can go to the bathroom. You hesitate because it’s in this class that the students like to ask if they can go to the bathroom but then actually go do something else.

His friend sitting across from him tells you to refuse. He says he’s just going to go eat his pate, fried dough served with a spicy sauce that is typical snack food around here.

You allow it. But tell him to leave his pate in the classroom.

When the student gets back a few minutes later, his pate is gone. He immediately blames his friend who sits across from him. You agree with this action. His friend is a good student but has been known to get into trouble when he’s already finished the assignment.

You ask his friend if he really ate the pate. He giggles manically and nods.

Unbeknownst to you, he hasn’t eaten the snack. He’s only switched the black plastic bag that held the pate with another empty one he’d already had.

You ask the first student how much he paid for it. You are prepared to make his friend pay him back.

You’re in the middle of this line of questioning when the friend suddenly produces the bag that actually has the pate in it and chucks it across the table at the first student.

Your belief is reinforced that you students might be what make everything else that happens here worth it. 

Peace Corps Peace Corps volunteer Benin Africa teaching Peace Corps Benin