During my Peace Corps service ('06-'08) I had a few visitors, a husband and wife, the husband had served 10 years prior and was back to show his wife a piece of what made him the person he became. It was a fantastic visit but I remember thinking, "TEN YEARS?! How can you go that long without re-visiting a place this important?"
Silly volunteer. I now see how easy it was to get wrapped up in daily life and forget that it just keeps happening. Here I am, 6 years later wondering where the hell that time went. I've been back in Benin for 2 months and it took a little longer than I thought to adjust. Sure, the heat and diarrhea are the same but the shocking difference has been norming my daily operations system. I came back to run a pilot for MamaCarts, to improve the quality (nutritional and hygienic) of Beninese street food and increase market access for vendors. It's been an incredible, if warp speed process so far.
I firmly believe my PC service was so enjoyable and I remember it so fondly because I showed up with no expectations. Right or wrong, that mentality set me up to enjoy things as they came and treat each day as an adventure. Quarterly reports were filled with "Tried this, don't know if it worked. Tried that, really fun...don't know if it worked" etc. Peace Corps has a few main goals for volunteers and really, they can be easily summarized - "Keep your ears and eyes open, try to learn something, don't be an asshole, come back to America to share your story" It really is a fantastic ambassador program and I wouldn't trade my experience for anything.
It's a very different story when you show up with capital, a business plan, a board of directors, a timeline, and a commitment to do no harm in your community. In a word: expectations. This has been a whirlwind lesson in forming, storming, norming, and we're getting to performing an organization. Food carts are being welded, nutritional menus are being created, and women from our focus groups are regularly calling to ask when they can get started. It may not be happening the way we thought it would, but it's happening!
But why am I back here at all? Because I lived in the magical land of Guinagourou, where the Fulani cattle roamed free, the kids were hilariously terrified of big white ladies, and every day in the field with my work partner was a good day. Phone calls and email have been few and far between. One day, I just left my village and another volunteer showed up. My ego begged the question, "Would anyone remember me?"
Yesterday, I finally took a moto trip back to see some friends. I had no idea what to expect, it's been the better half of a decade after all. So. much. goodness. I'm not a big hugger here, it's always awkward and not something everyone does so I just go for the solid handshake every time. Until yesterday.
Found David at his farm about 10 kilometers outside town. Bear hugs and raucous laughter ensued and he took me and a fellow road warrior to a few Fulani camps to check out the cows and grab some porridge. We have spoken maybe 3 times in 6-years, but it was like I never left. We both excused ourselves for the terrible communication and got on with things. Later on in town, a neighbor kid who was FOUR when I left, smiled knowingly at me, shook my hand, and took me to the houses of all the people I knew during my service. His little sister, the 18-month old girl who cried EVERY DAY when she saw me, ran right up and shook my hand. Their mother and I don't share any language but we got across that all is well and things have been moving along. So it went all over town.
And then I saw my old work partner's wife. Rather, she saw me. We always communicated through David because my Bariba was so slim so I didn't know how'd this shake out. It was one of warmest welcomes I have ever received. Mama tore across the road, made sure to wash her hands as she ran (she had been serving up street food) and came at me with a fierce embrace. We nearly screamed our salutations in Bariba and walked on to sit under a tree to make sure (through many hand gestures and a few words) that all was well in everyone's household and that things are just fine (alafia :) for the moment. Once again, it hit home that my service did more for me than I could ever have done for my community. I needed this trip so badly to smell the cashew trees, bow to old ladies, and see some familiar faces.
Life still isn't easy on that red dirt road, but the smiles are big and the generosity flows freely. My travel buddy and I sat under a few mango trees, filled our bellies with delicious food, and were sent on our way with a bag of bananas, some phone numbers (because there's cell coverage now!!) and many, many hearty wishes of luck. Here are a few pics from my day trip.
|Fulani cow babies, a little camera shy.|
|Red dirt road in Guinagourou, (royal poinciana trees?)|
|PC work partner, David. Most contagious laugh ever.|
|Millet porridge and raw milk, mmmm|
|Yuck it up boys!|