Beninese Omnivore

This is a moto-cag driver who is holding the head of a dead pig.  This is the place I always get pork from when I go to Bohicon.

This is a moto-cag driver who is holding the head of a dead pig. This is the place I always get pork from when I go to Bohicon.

Showing off my delicious dinner before preparation.

Showing off my delicious dinner before preparation.

If you want you can by freshly cut pork meat, and by freshly cut I mean it is chopped up each morning.  There are usually flies all over it, so make sure you cook it well.

If you want you can by freshly cut pork meat, and by freshly cut I mean it is chopped up each morning. There are usually flies all over it, so make sure you cook it well.

This is the nasty smoked fish you will find in nearly every market.  I have refused to eat it since arrival in Benin.

This is the nasty smoked fish you will find in nearly every market. I have refused to eat it since arrival in Benin.

My coworkers and I often take a midday break and walk across the road to the local bar which also usually serves fried chicken with some sort of filler.  Today it looks like we are having pate rouge and chicken.

My coworkers and I often take a midday break and walk across the road to the local bar which also usually serves fried chicken with some sort of filler. Today it looks like we are having pate rouge and chicken.

Excited for dinner.  A hunter caught these rabbits in the bush and sold them to my neighbor for 3000 mille , which is roughly 6$ for the two.

Excited for dinner. A hunter caught these rabbits in the bush and sold them to my neighbor for 3000 mille , which is roughly 6$ for the two.

My office goes next door to get pate rouge and chicken for lunch.  We enjoy all eating together.

My office goes next door to get pate rouge and chicken for lunch. We enjoy all eating together.

Looking out my front door one day I found three visitors as well as my neighbor all hanging out on my porch.

Looking out my front door one day I found three visitors as well as my neighbor all hanging out on my porch.

In front of my house.  Free-range turkeys roam wild.

In front of my house. Free-range turkeys roam wild.

This is in front of my house.  There are often wandering animals, that always look so tasty.  Here is a pig.

This is in front of my house. There are often wandering animals, that always look so tasty. Here is a pig.

The chicken I eat is usually cooked in the mornings, and then it is kept in this bin to prevent flies from getting to it.  Yummy fried chicken!

The chicken I eat is usually cooked in the mornings, and then it is kept in this bin to prevent flies from getting to it. Yummy fried chicken!

Being from the Midwest United States has provided me with a palate that is very fond of meats, but in particular the great red meat of beef. Upon filling out our initial applications for Peace Corps, one of the questions asked if we were vegetarian. There are many volunteers in Benin who are vegetarians, but I need more than just beans to get my source of protein. Food is something that is often on my mind, but since I can’t eat American food for some time I am writing this blog to remind myself of what we can get here in Benin.

When I talk with other meat-eating volunteers the same topic often seems to come up. Whenever we see a goat, sheep, pig, or cow (sometimes even other types of animals, but never dogs or cats because we still view them to be domestic animals) we think about how delicious it would be to kill it and eat it. This is definitely not the way I viewed animals before coming to Benin. Dinner was always neatly wrapped sitting on the refrigerated shelves in an air-conditioned supermarket. Also, the cuts we buy in grocery stores in the U.S. are incomparable to the parts of animals we eat here. The tough skin of cows and pigs is a delicacy here. You are very lucky to find more meat than fat or bones on a cut of meat here. This is likely caused by the malnourished animals you are eating, but hey at least they aren’t given all those hormones like in the great US of A.

Finding meat in Benin is all relative to where you live. Each region is different. Luckily I have plenty of Fulani people in my area who raise cows and sheep and then sell the meat on the main road through my village. Each night they cook up the meat over charcoal and sell thinly cut pieces to those who have the taste for flesh. There are also a few places in and near my village where a pig is butchered every day and you can get fresh pig meat (no bacon though). I don’t want to leave out what is slowly becoming my new favorite meat, chicken. Chicken are abundant in village many of them wander about aimlessly pecking at the ground looking for insects or anything edible they can find. You ask… “How do people know what chicken belongs to who?” Each chicken either has some sort of tissue or ribbon tied around their legs or wings so people know whose chicken is whose. The communal lifestyle relies on trust, so it is not likely that your neighbors will steal your chickens. Another popular bird to eat is guinea fowl. It is an ugly looking bird that also meanders about the village.

On top of these meats that we deem pretty normal to eat, there are also a few exceptions here in Benin. Slowly surpassing my love for chicken is rabbit. I cannot believe that rabbit is not more popular in the states. It is absolutely wonderful! It is definitely the other white meat. If you cook it right, it can be so tender. I have rabbit at least once a week. Finally, here comes the weird stuff. Bush rat, is very popular especially in village. It is slightly sweet and somewhat like rabbit. I have had guinea pig when I was in Peru, and it is much better than that. There is more meat and it is not very gamey like guinea pig. Some meats that I haven’t tried that other volunteers have told me about are snake, antelope (which I will definitely try when I go to visit other volunteers in the north), and some volunteers in the north have eaten dog. The dog eating came as a surprise to them. They did not seek it out. They were given a plate of sauce and mystery meat and asked how it was, afterwards they were told it was dog. I’m not planning on eating any dog while I am in Africa, but I guess I need to be sure I know what I am eating before I begin. Fish: I have only had fish once when I was near the ocean and it was awesome. Most of this fish here is dried and makes me gag so I really do my best to avoid it at all costs. So, I hope you now have a little idea of what I am eating here in Benin. Cheers!

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Happy New Year!

I have been continuously hounded by many of you to post on my blog, and I am sorry that I have not been posting as much as you would like. Honestly though, I feel like it was just yesterday when I posted my last blog. The past two months have really flown by. I now understand when volunteers who are leaving say how quickly time passed here in Benin. The first few months went by quickly, but days still seem to drag out a bit. As I am more comfortable with my language level and finding more and more work to do as time flutters by. I also found a somebody who is willing to tutor my in French and Fon in my village. He is the director of the CEG (high school). Anyways I hope that you all had wonderful holidays and I wish all a Happy New Year. It seems the Mayans or our calculation of their calendar was off because the world is still here after December 21, 2012. I was kind of looking forward to what the apocalypse would be like, but it is great to still be alive! The last two months have been a whirlwind of emotions, but most of them have been pretty splendid.

After 3 months at our posts we had our first in-service training session. Each sector of volunteers met up in Parakou for a week of training the second week of December. It was refreshing to see all of the other volunteers and to share stories (both good and bad) of our experiences at our posts. During training we learned how to get grants as well as to raise money to fund our different projects. I’m sure you will be hearing from me soon regarding different projects I will be starting. The best part about training was the hotel we stayed in. After not having air conditioning or hot water for 6 months now, it was amazing to just sit in a room that does not have you constantly sweating. The hot water was a plus, but I think the girls enjoyed it more than the guys. I have become accustomed to taking cold showers. In fact, with the heat here I prefer the cold shower. There was also a pool at the hotel which we swam in the first couple nights until we saw the pool during the day and realized the green murky water was probably not treated and possibly would lead to some sort of skin disease. Don’t worry it didn’t happen to anybody (that I know of). Anyways after in-service training it was back to post for a week, before many volunteers commenced their vacations for the holidays.

*I stayed in village for the holidays and had a great time! If you want to know more about my time in village shoot me an email. Anyways, I have also been getting request to post more photos, so I will do my best to get some photos up soon. It takes forever to upload the photos, so it is easier to do it when I am in Cotonou at the workstation. I will most likely be going down there the first weekend of February to catch the Super Bowl game. Go Pack Go. Hopefully, the 49ers don’t come too prepared next week! I will try not to get lazy and keep posting and you folks back in USA updated.

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Turkeyday Now Duckday

Who says you can’t celebrate Thanksgiving in Africa? After a much anticipated wait, I again what know it feels like to be in a food-coma. Last weekend, several other volunteers and I made a short journey (for some it was a rather long trek) to Savé to celebrate Thanksgiving at Linsey’s house. About ten of us volunteers made it and everyone who came brought something to the table (both hypothetically and materially). There are turkeys in Benin but they cost anywhere from 25.000F-40.000F ($50-$80) and that roughly half of a volunteer’s monthly budget. Instead, we opted out and purchased 3 ducks. There was a smaller duck that cost 2.500 F and the other two were 5.000F a piece. So, we definitely got a bang out of our buck, three for less than what one turkey would cost. After a few volunteers learned how to properly dehead, pluck, and then gut them it was time to prepare them. We don’t have ovens here in Benin so we first boiled them in water and then grilled them after to get a crunchy skin texture. André and I were in charge of the ducks while others slaved away in the kitchen making mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn casserole, green bean casserole, baked beans, biscuits, and gravy. I also made some pretty awesome deviled eggs for an appetizer.
The meal turned out to be far more authentic then I ever would have imagined. Besides being short on plates thus leaving me to eating out of a frying pan which I definitely didn’t mind (more food!). Only problem with this was that I think my stomach may have shrunk a little bit, because I was certainly forcing food down the last couple of bites. Of course there were leftovers and we finished the duck in the morning with duck fat, gravy, and sweet potato hash browns. After losing 15 lbs already in Benin I think I at least gained 5 back after this past weekend. However that is not to say I will be losing them again after returning to my bean and rice diet in village. It was a successful weekend, and it was definitely a reminder to be thankful of what we have even in Africa.
December looks as if to be a crazy month. We have IST (in-service training) in Parakou from December 9-15. We will be learning how to get grants as well as more technical training related to our jobs here. It should be a good time seeing all the other volunteers again and the Peace Corps is also putting us at a hotel that has a pool, so I am also looking forward to lather on the sunscreen and soak up some friendly African rays. The following week of IST is Christmas and there are some volunteers who are heading to Grand-Popo (a beach resort town in Benin) to spend the holiday there. I am doing my best to set aside money to be able to afford the things to come in December, but it can get a little tricky at times. Anyways I wish everyone a happy and safe holiday season back in the States and hope you all feasted as well is I was able to

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Ode to my Porto-Novo Family

This gallery contains 18 photos.

It goes without saying that I miss all my friends and family in the United States, but I never would have thought I would miss the host family I stayed with my first two months in Benin.  About two weeks … Continue reading

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American Elections

In a little over a week America will choose the new “leader of the free world” for the next four years.  I remember four years ago when our country was just yearning for something new and different.  Hope was a reoccurring theme in Obama’s first campaign, I just hope the hope hasn’t dwindled.  We realized that the eight years prior brought us instability in the world and economic policies that did not help anyone who really needed them.  I will not forget the night we elected the President Obama.   I was sitting alone in Lincoln, Nebraska at my house on Claremont Street.  I remember watching the acceptance speech on CNN, and as I sat there I could not help to tear up a little bit.  What a moment!  I was witnessing history in the making, and for once in a long time I had that overwhelming pride of nationalism that had been lacking the past eight years.

So here we are again, another election, another year.  This time I am not sitting in the comfort of the United States but rather the confinements of tin roofed hotbox of a house in Benin, Africa.  But, I am not complaining because I chose to be where I am, and I can say to some respect it comes from the nationalism that was revived in me four years ago.  I know that not all you reading my blog are huge fans of Mr. President Barack Obama, and I am not here to change your minds.  In fact, it won’t really matter because most of you are reading this from Nebraska where we are only giving five electoral votes to the process, and we all know that they will most likely be red.  (*Quick fact:  Nebraska is one of the only two states in the Union that can split their electoral votes.  The other is Maine.  In 2008 the intelligent voters of Omaha helped Obama get one electoral vote out of Nebraska in the process.)  Hopefully, we will see this again, but Romney is definitely not McCain.  So all you Omaha folks get out and vote!

What I intend to do with this blog is not to change the mind of voters in America but to note the overwhelming support our current President has overseas.  And being the “leader of the free world”, isn’t this an important attribute to have?  Before leaving the continental U.S.A., I had an idea of the popularity of Mr. Obama elsewhere in the world, but was completely unaware to the extent.  As you all are aware at this point Benin is a tiny country in W. Africa with a population of roughly nine million.  It is about the same size of the state of Pennsylvania, and if Benin were Pennsylvania Mr. Obama would undoubtedly pick up 20 electoral votes.  You see, Obama is adored here in Benin.  Whether it be the kids walking around in Obama apparel (t-shirts, hats, pants, even socks), or the considerable amount of consumer goods that are named after our 44th president, President Obama is an icon here in Benin, and around the rest of Africa as well.  Obviously, this is probably not a shocker to most of you.  He is the first African American president of the United States.

For me the reasons to reelect President Obama have nothing to do with his race, but rather his principles and actions in office the previous four years.  National security is sound, he has not gotten us into any unwarranted wars, the economy is rebounding (slowly but surely), we are gaining respect with the rest of the world once again, he is an honest man (as honest as any politician can be), and he brews his own beer.  There is a reason that there are soaps and beers in Benin bearing the name “Obama”.  In many cases the people of Benin know more about President Obama than their own President Yayi Boni.  It is a remarkable thing to see support galvanized all the way over here in this tiny West African country; I hope that Americans are doing the same.

Myself and a shrine to the President at Obama Beach in Cotonou. I am not smiling because this is the typical Beninese pose.

I did a little photo shopping to put together a few different photos I had taken in Benin, for comedic campaign ad.

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More Blogs

For those of you who are interested, I have added a link on the right of the page so that you can follow the lives of other volunteers here in Benin.  There are four different sectors working here in Benin; health, environment, English, & business volunteers.  Every job is different as is every region.  I can only potray Benin from my point of view and with the help from others I feel that you will get a more accurate representation of what Benin is actually like.  Also, this may be helpful to those of you (mom) who say that I need to post more often.  *Note: Not all volunteers post pictures on their blogs because some have slower internet that does not allow them or takes too long to do so.

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Sharing is caring

I’ve always been somebody who has viewed human beings to be inherently good.  As I grow older I can honestly say that this theory is only strengthened day by day, especially in Benin.  Since I can remember I have enjoyed sharing with others, whether it is sharing possessions or thoughts.  Sharing physical objects always plays out better than sharing my thoughts.  I am not one to keep things to myself regardless of who I am among.  Sometimes this has incurred inconvenience in my life, but most often I find my openness and sharing personality to be beneficial.  I had a conversation tonight that validates my assumption.

A typical night in village I will stay home and cook rice and beans or something comparable, however tonight I felt the need to treat myself to a beer and spaghetti and omelet.  I know it doesn’t sound like a 5 star meal, but you can’t knock it until you try it!  So, I went to my local cafeteria, which is a roadside restaurant that really only serves two things…eggs and spaghetti.  This cafeteria is the only one in my village so I really don’t have a choice, and it is where I end up if I want to get a good spaghetti omelet.  Tonight, there were no other customers so service was fast (for Beninese standards).

I got my spaghetti omelet before my beer, and finished it well before they even got to giving me my beer.  When I finally got my beer, I was complacent with my meal and took my time enjoying my beer while I watched African music videos on the small television in the corner of the kitchen.  Before long a friend from work showed up out of the blue and I offered him a beer to join me.  Thus accustom in the Beninese way of life I assumed that I would be paying for his beer.  (If you invite somebody for dinner or a drink in Benin it is assumed you are paying.)  A couple minutes later another co-worker showed up and offered me another beer.  I of course, with not much to do and it only being 7 o’clock accepted his offer.  Afterwards I tried to pay for my food and drink and the other co-worker would not allow me to do so and said that he was paying for everything.

I thanked my co-worker and decided I would head home and buy some street meat for that cat on the way home.  I stopped by a friend’s shop in village on the way home and they invited me in to chat a little.  After sharing a couple of pieces of street meat, they offered me a bowl of salad.  It consisted of cucumbers, carrots, tomatoes, lettuce, corn, onions, and salad dressing.  This is unheard of in village, but this particular family has their own farm and grows all their own produce.  They are extremely generous and the mother is of Nigerian decent and speaks English!  After the salad they must of thought I was still hungry (I wasn’t), but I didn’t want to be rude as they plopped down a spoonful of hot veggies on my plate.  As we were sitting their chatting and eating the husband versed me in his perceptions between Americans and French.  He flat out told me that he preferred Americans to the French because Americans are “more open”.

He went on to elaborate his reasoning.  Apparently, he still holds a grudge about the colonization of Benin by the French.  It is not the colonization in general, but the state of the country that the French left behind.  Remember, what I am writing is coming from one individual and does not reflect the viewpoint of all Beninese people.  He went on to talk about another volunteer who can from France and was only in village for two months.  She did not learn any of the local dialect and was unknown by many in the village.  After hearing his insight, I found it uplifting to know that I already in a month was connecting with my village, without even knowing the language of the country before I arrived.

This was one of those moments when you realize why you have been waiting to be a part of something like the Peace Corps.  The people in your community have intense respect and overwhelming inclusion towards you.  They share their lives with you just as much as you are willing to share your life with them.

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A little work, a lot of learning

Come tomorrow, it will be two weeks that I have been living on my own in village.  It still seems very new to me, as it should.  There is minimal work for me to do right now, so I am doing my best to keep sane by finding ways to occupy the time.  Monday through Friday I go into my office (Union Communale des Producteurs de Coton) around 8 o’clock, and usually leave around 6 or 7 o’clock.  These lengthy days are usually unproductive as I spend most of the day at a desk greeting people as they come and go from my counterpart’s office next door.  When not talking to coworkers, the rest of the day is spent on my computer researching karité and moringa, with the occasional examination of American politics and sports.  It’s good to see that the real refs are back.  The Packers were scandalized!  Anyways, on Wednesday of this week, my counterpart and I met with a man who works with a Non-governmental Organization (ONG).

The name of the organization is, SNV Netherlands Development Organization.  The man, Raphael, explained to me that SNV wants me to go around Djidja commune and enlighten the habitants the importance of the shea tree (karité).  We went to a few small villages around the commune and tried to talk to some of the locals to no avail.  Side note: Djidja is the one of the biggest communes in Benin and there are two different ethnicities that populate it.  The Fɔn are the majority, and are the people that I work with most of time.  The others are the Fulani (or Peul).  They are a nomadic, beautiful people who raise and herd cattle anywhere they can find grass for their livestock to eat.  The women rest in village with the children while the men are away.  The Fulani have awesome face tattoos and wear clothing that resembles Muslim garb, very vibrant!  The problem with effectively communicating with these people is that they only speak their local dialect of Peul.

The village that we visited on Wednesday was occupied by only Fulani women, so communicating was unfeasible.  Not to mention, the women were petrified to see a white man coming into their serene society.  The village was full of karité, and Raphael wants me to form a women’s group that will collect the nuts from the trees when they fall.  Looks as if I have another challenge in hand of learning a third language!  My counterpart said that he will search for a Fɔn man who also knows Fulani.  I still am going to do my best to learn some of the local greetings in hopes of pacifying the women’s impression of the daunting white man.

Over the past few days I have kept busy trying to put together a generic script that I can use when going to these villages.  I am typing it up in English first and will then translate it to French when it is finished.  Eventually, I would like to have some locals help me translate it into Fɔn and Fulani if possible.  I am doing my best to not become too technical since many of the villagers are uneducated, and I do not want to shoot information over their heads.  Along with working on a script, I do my best to walk around village and meet as many locals as possible.  I am doing my best to instruct the children to stop calling me yovo but rather by name.  I tell them, “Un nɔ nyi yovo â, un nɔ nyi Ryan”.  This is Fɔn, and it translates to, “My name is not yovo, my name is Ryan”.  It works like a charm every time.

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My Nightly Visitor

My first week spent in village has flown by.  At this point I am basically feeling out my surroundings and setting up my house that I will be living in for the next two years.  Right now my house is just the basics.  I have a mattress (with mosquito net) a table and a chair.  I will slowly be buying furniture when I have the funds to do so.  Also it is a challenge to get the furniture to my village because the road from Bohicon (biggest city near me) to Djidja is a little rough.  I do have a carpenter in my village, and I have already purchased a few items to be made by him.

First, were a couple of screen doors so I can get some air flow through my house.  The two screen doors cost 8000 cfa, which is roughly 16$.  My next purchase was a set of tables (10,000 cfa = 20$) to cook and prepare my food on for my kitchen.  Right now, I am preparing and cooking on the floor with a small gas stove.  It is the kind one might take if they are going camping.  It really isn’t that bad, but I definitely don’t want to be sitting on the floor preparing my meals for the next two years.  There isn’t a wide variety of food selection in my village so my cooking options have been limited as of now.  I’ve been making due with rice, beans, spaghetti, onions, tomatoes, garlic, peppers, and eggs.  The first meal I prepared in Africa was a spaghetti plate topped with eggs.

I went to Abomey yesterday to meet up with some other Peace Corps volunteers.  We normally do not work Saturdays and Sundays unless there is a special event going on.  Abomey is the ancient capital of Benin.  So there are alot of tourist attractions an places that cater to foreigners.  We found a 6 hole mini golf course and enjoyed the day eating some delicious Beninese cuisine and talking about our first week in village.  I took advantage of the “city life” and found some carrots, cabbage, avocados, and green peppers to bring back to Djidja so I could have something to prepare for dinner today.  I don’t have a refrigerator so I need to prepare things that will go bad quickly so they don’t spoil.

Anyways, the reason I wanted to make this post was to talk about my nightly visitor.  So far I have been sleeping well, however there are nights when I wake up and swear I hear something flying around my house.  It is dark and I am under a mosquito net so I usually try to just not worry about it.  Well the other night I had to make a midnight trip to the bathroom.  To my surprise when I turned on the light a small bat was sleeping from my shower head.  I was astonished he did not wake up and I went to grab my camera to get some photos.  I got a few good ones I will post.  I took photos for about 15 minutes with the flash, and he still did not wake up.  I did my thing and went back to bed.  I told other volunteers about this yesterday and they said I needed to get rid of him, but I don’t really know how and he’s not bothering me so I am just going to let things play out and see what happens.  Oh, Africa!

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It’s Official!

It’s been a while!  I know I said I would try to do a better job of keeping my blog updated, but it makes it hard when you do not have internet access.  The past month has been full of surprises and excitement.  Last time I posted we were still working on language training.  Since then, I visited my village and learned where I will be living for the next two years.  I spent two weeks in my village, Djidja, and returned to Porto-Novo after for another month of technical training.  I have finished technical training and was sworn in as an official Peace Corps Volunteer last Friday at the U.S. Ambassador’s house in Cotonou.  I now am back in Djidja setting up my house and adapting to village life again.

My two weeks spent in village were definitely interesting.  I got my first taste of what the next two years of my life will be like.  The name of my village is Djidja.  It is what the people here refer to as a “grose village” (this translates literally in French to fat village).  It does not mean that the people are fat, but that the village is just not an extremely small village.  I really could not get a straight answer from anyone on the actual population of my village, but I have estimated it to be around 5000 people.  The people are extremely friendly and I am the only foreigner in the village so I definitely am noticed.  My house is comfortable, but completely unfurnished at the moment.  I will post more on my house when I get time to buy furniture and take some photos.

Djidja is an agriculture village and most of the economy revolves around this sector of business.  Those of you in Nebraska will be happy to know that I am surrounded by corn and soy fields.   It is funny that I came to the opposite side of the globe only to be placed in a rural village that reminds me a lot of the small towns that much of my relatives come from.  It’s great, I feel right at home!  My job (which may possibly change) is working with the Union of Communal Producers (of Cotton).  I put cotton in parenthesis because cotton is the biggest cash crop in our region and my organization works a lot with cotton cultivators.  I however, will probably be focusing in on other plants such as the karité tree.  This is the tree that is used to produce the nuts to make shea butter.  The Peace Corps wants volunteers in West Africa to educate the farmers on the importance of this tree and why they should not cut it down.

Karité is an important and profitable tree that many farmers are cutting down before it matures.  They use the wood of the tree for making “charbon” (charcoal).  I will be giving formations to farmers on the importance of letting these trees to mature so that they can sell the profits off the nuts produced by the trees.  This of course will not occupy all my time in village.  The Peace Corps asks volunteers to assess the needs of their villages to see what other kind of projects may be feasible.  The first three months at post will be primarily spent assessing the needs of my village as well as more local and French language training.

I am looking forward to being done with training and getting to my village.  It will be interesting to not interact with other Americans on a regular basis but is essential for me to improve my local language.  I bought an internet key in Cotonou after the swearing-in ceremony and have great access in my village.  I will now be able to post on my blog more often without any excuses not to.

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