Emily Becker

About

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

Harassed

 You get the call in the mid-afternoon on a Tuesday. It’s one of your best friends here, but it’s too early for one of your “how are you doing?” chats that often happen at night when you feel like you’ve already spent too much time that day watching television and you’re feeling the need to reach out to an actual human because while watching Captain Mel does pass the time, he’s the not the best listener.

You answer and, unfortunately, she’s not just asking you for a quick piece of information, but, instead, needs a moment to tell you one of those stories that happen too frequently when you live in a society that is obsessed and captivated by foreign women.

You listen and respond and try to make the situation better, but after 22 months, you think that you should be better at this conversation. This is not the first time you’ve had this conversation and you know that it won’t be the last. It won’t be the last time when you feel a friendship or work relationship take a completely different turn when he illustrates to you that he would like to be more than friends or work colleagues.

You realize that you haven’t gotten to used to it. Each time you get propositioned, you still feel violated. You know that the culture is different from your own. You know that it’s supposed to be flattering. You know that you can say, “no.” But each time it happens, you can’t stop your mind from momentarily going to those who didn’t have the chance or knew they had the right to say, “no.”

Peace Corps Peace Corps volunteer Benin Africa rights sexual harassment

No regrets

You just ate a tube of ice cream and French fries for dinner in village. While you did share the melty bits of the former that you couldn’t finish with your cat, a significant portion of that tub of ice cream now sits in your stomach. And you’re ok with that because it’s the first time in 22 months that there has been a tub of ice cream in front of you to eat in one sitting. 

dinner Peace Corps volunteer Benin Africa ice cream cold

Real Gs move in silence

It wasn’t that we were making deep-fried lasagna, but that we were making deep-fried lasagna in Benin.

It was my friend’s birthday, and I was at our ex-pat friend’s (the kind that get paid a salary that allows them to live in house with air conditioning and satellite television) house in Bohicon. Her requests for the day mainly included a list of things that she wanted to eat.

Culinary-wise, most things are possible here. That is, if you’re willing to think ahead, lay down enough money, have access to a fridge and live close enough to make a trip to Cotonou. (which means, yes, we had previously thought out this plan to eat deep-fried lasagna, and it wasn’t something that just happened after too many Beninoise)

She had made the trip to the biggest city last weekend, then transported the lasagna, hot dogs, cheese and pizza (which we had previously used for other things), dropped them off in the freezer in the city before biking back to her village 15 km away. The other three of us that were there had traveled in by bike, taxi and bus in journeys that ranged from 3-6 hours.

Then, we had defrosted the lasagna, cooked it for 40 minutes, covered it with pancake batter and pan-fried it while sweat dripped down our faces.

Never had I worked so hard for the ability to eat something so ridiculous.

1 note Peace Corps Peace COrps volunteer Benin Africa food lasagna fried

First Camp GLOW meeting

You’ve lived here almost two years. You know that finding Beninese people to get excited about working on projects is hard. You know the horror stories. Every volunteer has one. You know about waiting for things to happen and getting someone to do something for free and how the daily three-hour siesta sometimes marks the end of the workday.

You know that it is hard, but necessary if you want to be able to remotely label your project as “sustainable,” you’ve got to work to find one person in the community who will follow your project through to the end.

So, when you call the first meeting of your organizational committee for the girls’ camp that you’re holding this summer, and you don’t have to say anything after making introductions, you don’t say anything.

1 note Camp GLOW Peace Corps Peace Corps volunteer Benin Africa empowerment girls camp

Climbs

This is not the first time you’ve climbed this hill. You downshift into the next lowest gear and confidently stand up on your pedals in order to find that one last burst of effort that will get you to the top.

You think for a second about the first time you did this. You thought that it was death incarnate. Your host father passed you in a truck and gave you a thumbs up out the window. You wondered why he didn’t stop and offer to help given your distress was so obviously displayed across your face.

The first time you did it in 1-1. This time, you do it in 2-6.

This time, it’s just another hill on your bike ride to Savalou. You mount it and continue on. Turns out, the past 20 months have made you stronger. 

1 note Peace Corps Peace Corps volunteer Benin Africa strength bicycling

Sharing the road

I’m on my bicycle on a hunt for ice this morning when, as I’m turning onto the main road, I have to wait for one those times when there are motorcycles driving three across and coming down the street in rapid succession to pass. In a few minutes I’m able to keep moving and I pass another motorcycle whose driver doesn’t seem to know where he wants to go. I realize the driver is wearing one of the t-shirts students at my school wear for gym class and it suddenly seems to make so much more sense to me.

There are very few driving laws here. At least, there are very few driving laws that are followed or enforced. What strikes (ie scares) me the most is the seeming lack of a minimum driving age for motorcycles. (For cars, which are much more rare here, you have to pass a driver’s ed class and have a license to drive) I’ve seen plenty of my late-teenaged students driving, but I’ve also seen  students in my 6eme class who I know to by 12 years old driving motos around the village.

Kids learn how to drive from their parents, brothers or their friends. Parents don’t argue because, frankly, the earlier someone learns how to drive, the earlier that person can run errands for the parent.

More than on the highway, being on the roads in village is sometimes like playing a real life game of Mario Kart. Rocks. Twisting turns. Goats. Pigs. Chickens. And 12-year-olds driving too fast.

Everyday is a new adventure for a bicyclist.

Peace Corps Peace Corps volunteer Benin Africa driving

It’s that time of year again

It is with my up-most disappointment and disagreement that I have to report that, once again, we are in the midst of a strike of permanent teachers over salary disputes and an overly violent reaction to a protest by the ministry of education that has lasted so long there are talks of canceling the school year meaning every student will restart the same grade next year in an education system that is fast showing me that the most important thing is not our students, but our pockets. 

1 note Peace Corps Peace Corps volunteer Benin Africa teaching education

It’s back

The electricity did not come back quietly. Since last Sunday, waiting for repairs to be made on two broken lines had everyone in our state constantly on the edge of the relief of having electricity back, and with it, the ability to get some work done.

So, when, in the middle of the market, it suddenly reappeared after days of speculation, suddenly, the town came back alive. The ironworkers were out soldering. The bars were blasting music. My neighbors were watching television as I ran around in a frenzy trying to plug everything in.

Suddenly, we were back in business.

When the electricity went out again six hours later, it left much quieter. 

4 notes Peace Corps Peace Corps volunteer Benin Africa electricity

The new normal

When my English club stood up to close this week’s meeting by singing “Hello, Goodbye,” I thought about how we would look to an outsider:

Me, in front of 19 middle school-aged Beninese students, wearing pants in traditional fabric, plus my bright yellow dry-fit shirt from last year’s half marathon. My postmate’s dog is at my feet. He has just spent the better part of the meeting doing laps around the classroom with his tongue hanging out and scaring every student he approached. My postmate was in the back, dirty from that day’s bike rides and had just finished a conversation with a French teacher about how we elect presidents in the US.

I thought about my role in this ragtag group signing the Beatles and wondered when exactly this had become normal to me.

3 notes Peace Corps Peace Corps volunteer Benin Africa teaching students normal

Hold tough

In my second year at my school, the most controversial thing I’ve proposed since starting continues to be my girls club. What other teacher and students say, though, doesn’t stop me. What I fear is that it will stop the girls.

I’ve started to dread 4 p.m. on Wednesdays, an hour after we start our meetings. All of the 5eme students show up around that time for their PE class, the teacher of which tends to be especially not understanding about the point of a girls club. During weeks when we’re having discussions, it means that I have to chase some students away from eavesdropping. During weeks when the girls play soccer, it means fielding constant demands from boys to let them play, a gathering of hecklers on the sidelines and the occasional degrading comment from the professor himself.

This week, the girls were in the second half of their scrimmage when the PE teacher called for the 5eme students to assemble under the cashew trees. He told them to line up and start running the perimeter of the field where the girls were playing. The game was soon interrupted by 86 5eme students walking two-by-two through the middle of the game to the other side of the field.

I was pissed at this interruption, but didn’t feel like starting an argument. All the girls got out of the way, except one.

Esther, who was goaltending on the far side planting herself in the middle of the goal and forced the two lines to fork around all four feet of her.

When another student caught me laughing at the situation, I’m pretty sure he thought I was laughing at the absurdness of Esther’s actions. I wasn’t.

I was laughing with joy to watch her stand her ground.

3 notes Peace COrps Peace Corps volunteer Benin Africa students girls club empowerment