Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers serve across the African continent in countries as different from one another as Alaska is from Florida. As part of my blogging goals for 2015, I hope to bring you volunteer interviews from Peace Corps countries from all around Africa (and the world!). This month, I am excited to introduce to you a volunteer from Benin.
Ronald Walters – Age 24
Name, state you’re from (and hometown if you want), and age
I am from Chattanooga, Tennessee.
What country and program do you serve in?
I am currently serving in Benin (the club-shaped country west of Nigeria) as an education volunteer. Education volunteers in Benin serve as full time English teachers in secondary schools, usually teaching 6th – 8th grade English. Our three primary work goals are to work with English teachers to improve their pedagogy, gender equitable practices and their English communicative skills; improve student’s English capacities and increase their involvement and success in the classroom and after school activities; and to improve the overall school community, either through small scale projects or larger infrastructure projects, such as hand washing stations or constructing school libraries. A typical work week for an education volunteer will include 16 – 20 hours a week of teaching, attending staff meetings, and running after school clubs for students, in addition to the outside work of lesson planning, grading, and preparing clubs. However, for the other three sectors of Peace Corps Benin (rural health, environmental action, and small business development) the days can be much less structured, and finding enough work to keep a typical volunteer busy can be a bit of a challenge at first. Due to a site change a year into my service, my typical work is a bit different. I currently work full time at an NGO that provides art and music education to primary school students and part time at a local high school exclusively with teachers.
What is your housing like? What amenities don’t you have? What are some of the biggest challenges of your lifestyle?
My first Peace Corps house was the classic rural village Peace Corps house – mud walls, no electricity or running water, 125 kilometers of very degraded dirt road away from the nearest paved road. It was incredibly rural and isolated, and probably as close I could get to the “original” Peace Corps experience. Food options were very limited, and during the summer “hunger season”, it was often difficult to find food at the end of the day. My daily diet consisted of pounded yams, soy cheese, and the occasional village eggplant – a small, green, tough version of the massive purple ones found in American super markets. On special occasions I could buy a chicken and have a local butcher kill and cook it. The biggest challenge for me was figuring out what to do with myself. Even after teaching, lesson planning, and other school work, I had more free time on my hands than I had ever had before. At first, it nearly drove me insane, the free time, but I eventually settled into a good routine during weekends and days off. I spent a lot of time reading and studying, trying to better myself. I took a lot of long bike rides and walks into the bush, discovering villages, creeks, fields that were not on any maps. I took a lot of naps. I even got used to the heat, although I still prefer colder climates. The hot season was the most challenging. Imagine 125 degrees at midday, teaching under tin roofs, and even at midnight your house is still over 100 degrees. You get well attuned to the weather without electricity and pavement though – every rain storm turns a 10 minute walk into a 30 minute adventure, a 5 hour taxi ride into an all-day white knuckle event.
At my new site, however, I live in what we jokingly call a “Posh Corps” house. I have running water, electricity, a toilet, access to all the fruits and vegetables I could ever want, and cold drinks. I live an hour from the capital on a main road (currently under construction, so I still get to take a trip down the memory dirt lane every time I travel). My daily meal usually consists of a pounded corn mash with some kind of tomato or peanut sauce, with cheese, meat, or green leafy vegetables. When I’m feeling fancy I will stir fry all the vegetables I can find – it’s always a treat. One of the most difficult things I’ve found in moving to a larger, more developed site is adapting my budget. I never had to worry about running out of money in my first site, because there was no possible way I could ever spend my entire monthly stipend because there was nothing to buy. Now, I have to be very careful with my money, otherwise I run out very quickly.
What’s Benin like?
Benin is a fascinating little place, and given its role in American history, it is surprising that more Americans have not heard of this country. Ghana was previously known as the Gold Coast; Cote d’Ivoire, the Ivory Coast. Benin’s unfortunate former moniker was the “Slave Coast”. Many of the slaves that arrived in the Caribbean, Brazil, and southern America were taken from the interior of Benin by European slavers. Ouidah, a large town on the ocean near the Togolese border, was the capital of Portugal’s slave trade, then became France’s slave port. In the center of town the old slave market can still be found, and the road leads directly to the beach and to the “Gate of No Return”, through which slaves were forced to march before being loaded onto ships headed to the New World. Benin is also the birthplace, and arguably the capital, of “Voudoun”, the local animist religion better known by its American spelling, “Voodoo”.
Benin, like many other African nations, is a country still haunted by the legacy of colonialism and continues to face numerous challenges in education, public health, and dependency on foreign aid. Over 50 languages are spoken in this country of 10 million people, and there is a distinct divide between the “haves” in the largely Christian south of the country and the “have-nots” in the largely Muslim north. Benin has avoided the resource curse of oil that has caused so many problems in other countries, but on the global scale, Benin has few resources. Malaria remains a huge burden, adult literacy and student drop-out rates (particularly amongst girls) are still high, and there is precious little modern infrastructure to encourage further economic growth. Benin is a very patriarchal society, and there is massive inequality between men and women here. Benin is actually one of the pilot countries of the recently announced Let Girls Learn initiative, so we are all excited about the new gender equality opportunities we will have.
Still, Benin has one thing going for it that continues to be remarkable in this day and age of increasing extremism and distrust. By and large, the Beninese people have managed to avoid that violent human characteristic of feeling the need to kill other people who don’t share their religion, their language, or their ethnicity. Beninese people pride themselves on their tolerance and their religious, linguistic, and ethnic diversity. Christians and Muslims live together peacefully, never feeling the need to kill each other over something silly like religion. Violence; religious, ethnic, or otherwise, is incredibly rare. Most people speak at least two or three local languages in addition to enough French to interact with curious Peace Corps Volunteers. Additionally, Benin has one of the most active free presses on the continent, and people are fiercely proud of their democratic constitution. When the president tried to modify the constitution in 2013, public outcry was so intense and loud that he abandoned the plan. Since 1992, Benin has had a continuous democracy, with routinely recognized free and fair elections.
Perhaps the thing I appreciate the most about Benin, however, is the complete lack of shame of public displays of dancing. Any occasion is an occasion to dance. Some of my favorite memories in service have been observing random outbursts of dancing of middle aged women, dancing for no other reason than the fact that they want to. The local dance here can only be described as a violent, distantly related cousin of the chicken dance. Shoulders bounce violently, backs are contracted and expanded, knees are bent, and always there is a radiant smile. Also, celebrations are a huge part of the social life here. My favorite part? A few weeks before the event, everyone will buy the same fabric, have clothes made, and then wear the same fabric as everyone else – it’s a social faux pas to show up without the previously agreed upon fabric.
Fun fact: Benin is one of the few countries where PCVs are permitted to travel by motorcycle! Outside of the capital, there are no taxi cabs. Instead, we have motorcycle taxis to get around cities and in between small rural villages and towns. It is another one of my favorite parts of service here. There is something incredibly liberating and beautiful in a sunset motorcycle ride through the bush, as the greens and browns of the landscape blend with the reds and oranges and yellows of the sunset, something that says “you will never be as free as you are at this moment”.
What are some of the most rewarding parts of your service? What have been some of your greatest challenges? Has PC service met/surpassed/trampled on your expectations of what service would be like?
I began my Peace Corps service in June 2013 with the expectation of living in a grass hut, communing with village elders, and changing the world. It was a hopelessly naïve and unrealistic expectation. I started Peace Corps pretty close to that though, in an incredibly small, isolated, rural village, before having to change sites for security reasons and moving to a large town that is also a tourist destination in Benin. I still have had an incredible experience, but man, they don’t lie when they say Peace Corps is the toughest job you will ever love. Peace Corps provides challenges that you never really expect – living without electricity, without running water, without internet rapidly becomes very easy, and you soon forget that you don’t have them. The most challenging part of Peace Corps, behavior change, is also the most rewarding, if it is done well. Volunteers are placed in communities where locals have been doing things their way for a long time. In cultures where age, marriage, and children garner respect and people’s attention, what is a 24 year old, unmarried, childless volunteer to do? There are often reasons, sometimes good reasons, that people have for behaving in a certain fashion, and our challenge as a volunteer is to identify those reasons, and then provide the motivation, evidence, and encouragement to change a behavior. For example, open air defecation. Often in the smaller villages in Benin, there are no latrines, but even if there are pit latrines, no one uses them. The trick is to then find the reasons for why someone would not use a pit latrine even if it was available, and provide the motivation and perhaps even build the latrines if they are not present.
A volunteer’s service is often riddled with projects that never got off the ground or started strong but petered out, and continued failure can be hard on a volunteer. For a motivated, energetic volunteer it can be hard to balance our expectations and passion with the reality that after cooking, cleaning, and working all day, women in our village might not have time to listen to us talk about water sanitation and malaria for an hour every day. I’ve found that what is most difficult, however, is trying to share this experience with friends back home, and coming to terms with the fact that most people just aren’t that interested in what you are doing. You of course get the standard “what you are doing is so brave” or “you are doing such good work” and the like, but after a few minutes you find that people just don’t care about it as much as you do. One of the most difficult things I have come to terms with in Peace Corps is that there are a lot of people I care about that will never fully understand this experience. Of course, this is why having friends and family come visit is so important to volunteers!
Despite these challenges, Peace Corps has been an incredibly rewarding experience. On a simple level, it is incredibly rewarding to be able to function in this hot, humid, often aggressive climate I live in; it is rewarding to thwart every vendor and taxi driver who wants to rip you off; it is rewarding to have the carefree and adventurous attitude that you develop as a Peace Corps volunteer. As a teacher it was rewarding getting to know my students, watch them grow throughout the year, listening to them ask questions and posing them questions that you could tell, see in their eyes, opened up a new avenue that they had never realized before. It has been rewarding watching my own growth, being able to pull myself out of those low places of service and work my way toward becoming a professional. You learn so much about yourself during service, more than you ever could in graduate school or working a temp job, and no matter how much you give back to your community, you can be sure that you, in the end, received more.
Why did you join Peace Corps?
For as long as I can remember, Peace Corps was something that I would do after university. I remember, as a freshman in high school, creating a “goals” poster I put under the bookshelf overlooking my bed, and after the goal of going to Tufts for undergraduate (much to my chagrin, I received a firm rejection from Tufts come college application season), there was the Peace Corps logo. I was a Model United Nations nerd in high school, so I was exposed early to the world of development and international aid policy, and among other degrees, I majored in Global Studies as an undergraduate. So in a lot of ways Peace Corps was the next logical step for me, especially given the incurable case of the travel bug I picked up during my junior year abroad in France.
What really cemented my decision, however, was a class I took on the 20th century American novel. I had a brilliant professor who got me to think about, among many things, privilege. After 22 years, I had finally come to the realization that my privileged upbringing as a white American male was a gift most people never receive, and that the only logical thing to do with that privilege was to spend a life working, in whatever capacity I was capable of, to help others better their own lives. I regret nothing about my decision to apply for the Peace Corps – my reasons for joining are still valid today.
Do you feel like Peace Corps is still a worthwhile program for the U.S. Government?
I still believe in the mission of Peace Corps, despite some of the recent negative press the organization has received. As a purely developmental organization, there are certainly other organizations that are better equipped to handle infrastructure and funding needs. But as a cultural exchange organization? There is nothing else like it. For many people in the far flung places of the globe, a Peace Corps Volunteer is the only American they have ever met, the only individual that has shaped their opinions of us as a people and a nation. Can you think of someone better to represent us? Someone who willingly gave up two years of their life to work and live in unknown and quite often uncomfortable environments? Someone with boundless energy, or years of experience in a career, someone passionate enough in their belief of helping people that they went through with Peace Corps?
Also, on a selfish level, Peace Corps trains thousands of (relatively) young people every year, and the majority of them eventually come back to the US with their experiences, new skills, and the practical experience to affect change in US communities as well. It’s a win-win for both parties, perhaps even unbalanced in the favor of the US and the volunteers themselves. Ask almost any volunteer about their service, and almost all of them will say some sort of variation of “I got back more than I gave”, in terms of what they learned about themselves
If you had to give a piece of advice to someone thinking about applying to Peace Corps getting ready for staging, what would you say?
Don’t get too attached to a specific job or country. Everybody wants to go to South America, Ghana, or Senegal. Allow yourself to the freedom to go anywhere – chances are you will never have another opportunity quite like this one. You’ll be surprised by how much you end up loving your first Peace Corps country – it stays with you always.
Any plans for post-Peace Corps?
I am currently in the process of applying for a third year extension that will allow me to gain professional experience in a development organization and continue my work with Peace Corps Benin’s malaria committee. If that doesn’t work out, I have this reckless urge to buy a motorcycle and drive around West Africa until I either find another job or need to go home for graduate school. I know that whatever I end up doing, I’ll be back in Africa in the near future, for the foreseeable future.
Thank you Ronald! I’m still looking for lots of PCVs and RPCVs from countries that are now closed to interview for my This Peace Corps Life project. If you’re interested, please contact me!