Saturday, November 27, 2010

World Cup 2010, 6 months later

World Cup 2010
Before starting this entry, which is my first in 5 months…ya sorry, I’d like to make good on a promise to my cousin Molly. CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR ENGAGEMENT!!! Tyler, you’re a lucky guy…

So as I was saying, it’s been six months since my last entry which was just shortly after La Coquille had its first fundraiser dinner. Since then, I’ve done a lot of traveling, and thus, my work has been a little sporadic. For instance, I started a business course with artisans in May and then gave them a month to actually employ what I had taught them (in this case, accounting, among other things). In that month, I went to the world cup, which was beyond words...but I guess I’ll try.

But just to sum it up, I went with my two best Peace Corps friends, Doug and Brandon. We took a bus from Cotonou to Accra. In Accra,we got to go to a shopping mall for the first time in almost a year, which was more awesome because there was pizza, video games, and a movie theatre. The whole shopping thing wasn’t for me. I became very greatful for Peace Corps Benin’s facilities because what amounted to the equivalent of their capital bureau looked more like a Vietnam military camp. The volunteers that actually stayed the thing there were stuck in a creepy hostel with nothing but a moldy bathtub that basically had the water pressure of a small child spitting on you. In short, I’ll never complain again.

The night we left for the Joburg, it was raining like crazy. In case you didn’t know, rain is to Africa as snow is to Arizona, meaning that the town literally falls into gridlock and/or shuts down. Long story short, we abandoned the car that we were getting a ride in to literally run to the airport. Luckily a lady was nice enough to give her cab to us for a little bit. We made the flight, but I almost had a mental breakdown (the thought of not going was inconceivable) and in the end, I’m pretty sure that I got an ulcer as a result.

When we got into the airport in Joburg, we were met with free cokes. It was genius on Coke’s part as I didn’t buy anything but Coke products the entire time I was in SA (except for beer). Finally attempting to find Sandro, my 4th cousin twice removed also proved a bit funny as neither of us knew what the other guy looked like. He had in his mind a tall, dark haired man, as did I. My question is, who was this guy that we must have ran into at his sister’s wedding that had impersonated the both of us? Alas, we did find each other and drove on the other side of the road to his apartment which overlooked Joburg. Getting into his car was the first of many times I tried to open the door on the driver’s side as South Africa drives on the left side of the road.

That night we had tickets to the concert w/Black Eyed Peas, Alicia Keys, and Shakira in Soweto. Surprisingly not scary, although we did get robbed in that we thought the stage would be in the middle of the arena when it was at the other end completely. The concert was still awesome and afterwards Doug and Brandon got lost. But we eventually made it back in one piece after rolling through all sorts of stop lights (or robots as their called in SA) so our car wouldn’t get hijacked. The rest of the time in Joburg we made pasta and pretty much spent the next 3 days at the mall until we went to our first match in Rustenburg: USA vs. England.

The match had been openly threatened by al-Qaeda, so I figured that if I lived through this match, I could probably make it through the entire World Cup. We were staying with a family, the Bourhills, at their farm about 30 minutes from the stadium. We had met them through, which is probably one of the cooler things that the internet has ever come up with. They let us crash at their place for 20 bucks per night and they fed us 3 meals a day. On top of it, Vicky Bourhill was about our age, had a land rover and a press pass. What did this mean? We basically climbed into her truck with a cooler full of beer and she drove us to the stadium with her boyfriend and his “mates”. Normally you’d have to figure out how to get to a place where shuttles would drive you to the stadium (park and ride), but we drove pretty much all the way there.

Arriving at the stadium we were immersed into a sea of fans; the English singing all of their 100ish songs that they have because football is a big sport in their country, and the Americans chanting “USA! USA! USA!” I was proud to be American but a bit ashamed that we have no real team songs.

We immediately headed to the stadium, which was being circled by multiple helicopters, news crews, and loud, cheerful people. Even when heckling would take place, at least before the game, it was always in jest. This was much the case when on the way to the stadium we saw some English fans peeing in some bushes on the side of the road. Upon seeing this, Brandon cried “The British have small bladders!”, at which point, Brandon, Doug and I all jumped out of the truck and went and peed in the bushes too.

Once we got into the stadium area, which was protected by the checkpoints, Brandon disappeared to find us some beers. We thought he’d come back with 3…he came back with an entire 24 pack. I’ve never been so happy to see his goofy face.

The game was awesome. We played well, the English didn’t, and thanks to some AYSO level goalkeeping by Greene, the English keeper, we emerged 1-1; the first of four ties that I’d see during the World Cup. It was also fun singing “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” when the English were singing “God Save the Queen”. Whoever thought that up, however unoriginal, was quite the heckler.

The day after the match, we headed back to the Joburg airport. We got another free ride from some friends of the Bourhills who refused to accept any kind of money from us. Arriving in Cape Town, we made our way to the house that we’d be staying in all week. It was in Oranjezicht, I believe an Afrikaans word. Once we got to the house (and check out the pictures), we were pretty stunned that we were only paying the equivalent of about 50 bucks a night. We were greeted at the door by a crazy eyed German guy wearing his Germany jersey in preparation for the game and his enormous dog. The house was actually three floors, but we were only allowed to two, sharing his kitchen, flat screen and (to Doug’s delight) Playstation 3. He only had FIFA World Cup 2010, which though I was there, had no interest in playing.

That night we got a ride in Manfred’s tiny VW Beetle to the waterfront where I saw a Paulaner bar (and a tear came to my eye). This was one of my favorite beers from Oktoberfest, which I definitely plan going back to on my trip home. Apparently, they were having a party that night for the Germany game, but you needed tickets. Rats.

Instead, Brandon, Doug and I went to a ritzy restaurant named Balthazar and spent $80 a piece on dinner. Best steak I’ve had in Africa, bar none.

As this was the first time that I’d been to the developed world, I was excited to remember what a real bar was like, and even more to see some people who (I LOVE PEACE CORPS GIRLS) didn’t look like they’d been whipped with a bamboo stick for the last year. Well we found a bar that had a pretty sizable line, so we went to check it out. We got inside and there was a live band playing, cold beer, but something was missing…I was soon after that I scanned the room and realized that we were at a boerwurst fest, which for those of you who don’t speak Afrikaans is the equivalent of a sausage fest. I guess it’s not that surprising considering we didn’t see too many girls at the games, but we were hoping something would change that night…oh well, at least we had beer!

The next day we woke up late and shuffled down to the supermarket where we enjoyed the amenities of sample dishes and a deli that was serving meat that hadn’t been cooked over an old oil drum (which is what we’re accustomed to here). It was glorious not to have to listen to blasting music or shoo flies away from my coke. Just very chill. That night Brandon (who is openly bi…how do you spell that), wanted to prove a point to us: there are more girls at gay bars than straight bars, and they are better looking too. Well hell, after being in Benin for a year, eating bush rat and fish that more so resembled snake, I guess a trip to a gay bar wouldn’t kill me…so long as nobody started thinking I was playing for Rainbow Nation’s other team.

The first place we walked into, I was greeted by a bar tender with no shirt. In a low, awkward voice, I ordered a Heineken. Doug and I seemed to be clinging to each other...but in a dude way. You know what I mean. The bar tender turned to Brandon to ask “what did you have to do to get them to come out here?” Apparently my plan was working, but Brandons was not. We were the only dudes in the bar excluding a guy that kept speaking to me in Italian, which, though exciting in the sense that I wanted to speak Italian, wasn’t in that he kept touching my arm and saying “ragazzo mio”. Well no biggie, we left to cigar bar and bought some fat Cubanos that I later found out can have stronger effects than alcohol.

I should stop for a second and mention that just uploading the pictures for this has taken about 2 hours. If you want to see more, go ahead and check out my facebook album

Well after a bit, Brandon got impatient and led us to “The Bronx”, which was everything I imagine a gay New York to be. The pictures on the walls of dudes with no shirts holding fire hoses and other phallic symbols put me off a bit, as it made it hard to bat my eyes away from other things like a tranny giving the show of his/her life on the stripper pole. Swimming my way through the crowd and keeping my eyes down, I finally arrived in the back of the bar, only to find our funny looking German friend surrounded by (female) models! Brandon was right! Yay! Well that didn’t change the fact that models tend to be…what’s the word…dumb, dull, boring, and generally unpleasant people. I remember the next night after the Brazil game getting a pep talk from a Canadian model in the virtues of a good (multiple partner) sex life. I’m sure you can imagine his confusion when I told him that I was (willingly) a virgin. I guess for some people, when you’re good looking, there’s no reason to be smart.

Ok moving on. Thursday we went to the England vs. Algeria game where we were rooting for a tie. You can imagine the agony of cheering for whichever team doesn’t have the ball. Every shot is terror, no matter the team. Luckily, we got our wish, another 0-0. Don’t ask me how, but after the game, we ended up in gay version of Hooters. All I can say is that I should have paid more attention to the name on the pink sign, “Beefcakes”. They had good milkshakes.

Towards end of the week (Thursday), I finally got my wish; doing some actual tourist activities. We went to Groot Constantia, the oldest vineyard in the Southern Hemisphere, and tried some really good wine. We also had a fantastic lunch and, yes, another milkshake. That afternoon we climbed Lion’s Head, which though terrifying on the way up, gives you a 360 degree view of Cape Town (pics). It was nice to get some fresh air and take a break from all the clubbing that Brandon was trying to make up for having lost in the last year.

The week wound down from there and it was time to head back to Johannesburg. Brandon stood at the jet way entrance looking longingly backwards saying, in the works of General McArthur (maybe), “I will return”. All in all, Cape Town was absolutely incredible…next time maybe my experience will be a little more peaceful…and less gay.

Arriving back in Joburg, we all felt a little worn out. We made our way back to Sandro’s house with little trouble and proceeded to pass out on his floor. Going to the little supermarket a few times, Doug and I started to notice that Brandon was looking a little rough…turns out he almost died.

Though funny to look back on, I remember being woken up in the middle of the night to whimpering because he couldn’t eat his ice cream, the only food that he had bought because he couldn’t take down solid food. Looks like trying to make up for a year of clubbing in five days took its toll. He ended up being ok, but we did have to forfeit his seat to the Brazil vs. Cote d’Ivoire game. By far the loudest (but best seated) match we got to go to. I’m going to let the video/and pictures do the rest of the talking on that one.

Our last game was a bit impromptu. Because we sold tickets to one match that would have been impossible to get to, we ended up picking up tickets to the USA vs. Ghana match. Again, we stayed with the Bourhills, but this time the match wasn’t two sided on the field or in the stadium. I felt like everyone hated me because Ghana was the last African team in the Cup and it was an African World Cup. In fact, at one point before the match, I got all confused and thought that a 7 year old girl had stolen my ticket. Long story, all you need to know is that I’ll no longer be excepting free drinks…because it’s harder to count. The game was…well we didn’t win. That’s all you need to know. We got pictures though! We ended up staying another day with our gracious hosts, the Bourhills, and it was really tough to leave such welcoming people, especially for Brandon, who told Mrs. Bourhill she was a “hottie”.

We spent our last day back at Sandro’s before catching our flight back to Ghana and then took our regular bus back to our home sweet home, Benin. Overall, it was fantastic trip, and I can’t wait to go to World Cup 2014 in Brazil!

Oh yeah, there are also some pics from the USA vs. Germany match that we put on ourselves in Benin. Blood was shed, it was fought tooth-and-nail, and ended in a tie. As a friend of mine said jokingly “It’s kinda like the Peace Corps; it’s really hard to do, and in the end, you might not have accomplished anything, but at least you have more friends!”

Thursday, May 20, 2010

I'm back


Hello everyone. Has it really been 3 months!? Time flies I guess. I’ll try my best here to remember what has happened lately…

La Coquille

Speaking of fundraising, ILL BE COMING HOME IN SEPTEMBER. Bobby and Kayla are getting hitched, so I figure it’ll be a good time to come pitch the project at folks in person. If you want me to stop by your neighborhood, send me and email and I’ll put you on the list. Just please realize that I’m taking work days in America to do this, so if I have to pitch this while playing 18 holes or over a beer, I am willing to make sacrifices.

We had a fundraiser with all the richest people in town on April 10 (I guess that was the most recent thing that happened after my last post). It was quite a stressful week that was itself preceded by several weeks of distributing invitations as well as explaining the project to people. After going to Cotonou to distribute invitations to natives of the town in addition to people that still lived there, we had invited around 50 people at $40 a head. The dinner itself was comprised of 2 dance troupes, a band called “Les AAA de la cite”, the son of our president who pretty much just sang karaoke, and a guy in a voodoo costume that danced .

That week, I realized how disorganized my committee was (at least when it comes to organizing fundraisers). So as the night drew close, we divvied up the responsibilities; we had a presentation, menus, flyers, donation cards, a billboard with our logo, a sound system, the food, drinks and the program for the dinner itself to organize. Unfortunately, I’m the only one in the group that can work quickly on a computer, so the majority of that all conveniently fell on my head. Needless to say, those good ol’ college days came in handy! I painted the logo myself (looks like painting class in Italy paid off) and the 3 days before the dinner, I got about 10 hours of sleep total and was still teaching my business club.

The day of the dinner itself was incredibly stressful. I had 15 volunteers coming to sleep at my house, as well as my boss and the country director coming to Kétou. In addition to that, I had to make copies of all of those fun things that I mentioned and get the courtyard that we were using for the dinner ready. I figured I could delegate setting up the courtyard to one of my other committee members, so I didn’t show up to the courtyard until after the “start time” of the dinner (which was 4pm, things here start at least 2 hours late). As if someone was playing a joke on me, the copy machine of our president was broken, so I had to take my papers to someone that does copies at about 1 per 30 seconds. On top of this, our president informed me that the person who was going to deliver the drinks couldn’t come, so we’d be getting less drinks for more money. In addition, I had to write a speech in French as well as ad-lib the presentation... in French. So when the copies were all done and organized, the presentation was complete, the music was in order, and I was dressed (can’t forget that), I made my way over to the courtyard.

Upon arrival, the first thing that I realized was that the amp was far away from the screen, which was a problem because we had a video to show with sound, but the computer had to be by the projector…So I had to go buy about 20 yards of cable 1 hour after the start time of the dinner. In all this madness, as the 2 hour mark rolled around, I started to realize that there weren’t too many people there, even though we’d received promises from 50 people to show up. Quite honestly, during the entire project, I was trying to stay (foolishly) optimistic, trusting that the people on my committee knew what they were talking about. Well sadly, that is the last time I think I’ll ever be optimistic, because not only did we only get about 20 people to show up, but they showed up 3.5 hours late (at least that’s when we started the dinner). Throughout the dinner, our MC, who came highly recommended by one of our committee members, was not only extremely boring, but also couldn’t follow the program for potatoes. We actually had to bring in a ringer to help the guy out… And as if to spit in our face, Mother Nature decided to rain the day before, so this night the termites were out in swarms, so we couldn’t even turn on the lights that we brought.

So I know what you’re thinking…What the hell? Ya I was too. But after the program got underway, things started to turn around. People didn’t seem to care too much about starting late (no surprise there), the food was good, and even though the band gave POSSIBLY THE WORST MUSICAL PERFOMANCE I HAVE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE, it was still music. I gave my presentation, which is included in the pictures a little bit and it seemed like people were pretty well focused on what I had to say. A few performances later, I showed the video (which is a bit of a tear jerker, I’ll put it up on facebook in a few weeks). The night gained momentum, and by the end, we had raised $1400, but profited $800. I know what you’re thinking, “Rich, I though you needed $10000 from the community to build the center”. Well…ya. But this is the first fundraiser dinner ever in the history of Kétou, so the whole attitude of giving doesn’t really exist here yet, but it never will if nobody tries.

So would I say that it was a success? We made money, didn’t we? If nothing else, it got us on the map, and fundraising is still a very big part of our current process. The best news is that we’ve found a good piece of land for the building that will be given to us (which will count towards the $10000 that Kétou will have to contribute) and we have 3 other fundraising activities underway. Overall, I still do think that this is going to happen; it’s just going to be an enormous struggle. Hardest job I’ll ever love, right?

Mobile Banking and My Presentation and the Ministry of Microfinance

Well I’m fairly certain that I wrote about this on my blog before, but just as a refresher, mobile banking is a system that allows you have to savings account with your mobile phone; allowing you to easily transfer money to friends and family without needing to go any further than a boutique that sells phone credit (which are everywhere) to save money onto your mobile phone. Something that is very possible but does not yet exist is the ability to make purchases with the phone (much as you would over the internet) and then have the goods delivered to the town in which they are sold. This would eliminate and incredible amount of transportation, risk, and wasted time for small business owners.

So what do I have to do with this? Fraser Kinnear, who is a buddy of mine from college, first pitched the idea of running a study in Benin trying to outline spending and saving habits of Beninese people in December, and now this has evolved to also running a study for the mobile purchasing side of this.

We’re hoping that a nationwide survey conducted by volunteers will help to “grease the wheels” of industry (so to speak). If we show what the weaknesses are of the current system and outline how such weaknesses could be filled in by employing this technology, we are hoping the government will do their best to facilitate the adoption of this technology and the private sector will jump at the opportunity to make some mad cash. The only problem with this is that we had no contacts in the government until by some strange reason, at our second in-service-training (which was not interesting enough to write about), the Officer of Microfinance Studies and the Officer of Employment Studies decided to show up at a forum that we were holding for our program (SED). We got lucky enough to plan a meeting with them where we could present the study and see how they could assist us. The planning for this presentation took place over the course of a week in which we were planning the staging period for the next group of volunteers. So we’d be working for 8 hours a day on that, and then we’d have to switch to putting this presentation together all in French as well as translate our surveys (which in total were 16 pages long). While everyone was enjoying their evenings at the beach, Ravi (another volunteer) and I were stuck at our crappy hotel translating endless pages of surveys (It wasn’t all bad though because a couple of the earlier nights we did get over to the beach to grab a beer and a plate of fish ‘n chips). One night was particularly funny as we were attempting to translate a particularly difficult piece of French when we got lucky enough to find a French guy in the courtyard of the hotel that was a sucker for free coke…like coca-cola. This guy’s accent was SOOOO French (or just normal to him). It’s just funny because we’re used to speaking with a lax Beninese accent, and then when this guy shows up and I have to switch to sounding all sophisticated (but in the end I think I just end up sounding like a tool…or at least that’s how I feel). Seriously, speaking French like a French person hurts my throat after a while.

So after hours and hours of translating and typing and printing and correcting, we were done. For the presentation, Ravi and I decided that we’d dress to impress (which to us meant ties and shoes). Our boss, who was really excited for us, even gave us a ride over to the ministry. We rolled up expecting to go into a conference room, staring into a sea of high ranking officials. In the end, it was just the two guys that were at our IST. But NO MATTER! We took it seriously, pointing our projector at their white-washed wall as they made the effort of turning their chairs from their desks to face us in their air conditioned office.

The presentation went splendidly and we left them with copies of the presentation and the survey itself. They were very interested by our plans, and though they said that there was no way that they could finance us (big surprise there), they gave their full support for the study in terms of advice as well as informing the “proper authorities” that we’d be starting this survey. If nothing else, it will give the survey credibility if we plan on publishing it somewhere. The survey should be getting launched in a few weeks (at least a “soft launch”)

Business Club

Well we finally finished. There was a market day for which each team had to prepare a product. It was funny that 3 of the 5 teams who originally claimed that they were going to produce something ended up just reselling whatever the product was in a different package. We had soap, cookies, and an African drink called bissape (bee-sap) that’s made from boiling flower pedals and mixing the syrup with sugar. Each team had to make a list of what supplies they needed to produce the product, as well as what their profit margin would be for each product and their sales target. I made my own type of money for the event called Kpankou Kash of which the “treasury” produced 500 bills so that each team could have a sales target. Not surprisingly, every team overestimated their sales target which on average would be around 100 bills per team if they sold all of their products. I had a team who thought that they’d capture half of the market (soap) and 3 other teams that estimated that they’d get 40% of the market. In total, if all of their estimations were correct, I would have had to produce something like 2000 bills. The 500 bills were handed out to the best students in each class and then they came to the market after they got out of class. There was a catch though. In the stack of 500 bills, I included 25 fake bills with the names changed and a different font, so at a glance they wouldn’t have noticed. The funny thing about this is that there are a lot of fake bills floating around Benin as it is, so it is actually something that they need to keep an eye out for.

The goal was that the team with the most cash in the bank at the end would win, so hopefully whoever made the biggest profit would win. Well oddly enough, it ended up being a competition of who lost the least. And our winning team? They made exactly 0. It was a little disheartening, but in the end at least they got the opportunity to see how much organization goes into running a business as well as how to do some basic accounting. Also, because they all budgeted to feed the entire freaking school, we had a lot of leftovers that we just ended up eating afterwards with a little party. Plans for the future include some sort of snack bar that will probably be run like the one I did in middle school. The high school is about a 20 minute walk from anywhere, so there are a lot of supplies and other goodies that we could sell there. We’d take the profits from the snack bar and put it towards the education of each kid, thus making sure that they stay in school. The only catch is that in order to work the snack bar, they’d have to be in the business club first. Nice.

I’m teaching another business course for the tailors. They are awesome! They show up on time, are attentive and responsible. I have 16 students and we’ll be finishing their course in 2 weeks (right before I head off to the world cup!).


In mid-march we had GAD dinner. It was a fundraiser for our Gender and Development program. We raised about $7000! Not bad f0r a group of people who make $200 a month!

My birthday was a little bit ago. I wasn’t expecting much in my town, maybe just a few beers with my friends. Well on Tuesday and Thursday nights, I have meetings with my committee of La Coquille. This particular Thursday, I had planned with a few of my buddies to go grab a beer after the meeting. Instead of just my two friends showing up, the entire staff of the CLCAM and CFAD (another microfinance institution) showed up with food and bissape. More or less it was a surprise party “Benin Style”. It was one of the first times since I’ve been here that I truly feel as though people really care about me for more than just what I offer to the community. It was nice.

Me and Abdel

The Manager of the CLCAM and our Accountant
Pierre and Medard

My birthday in Parakou was ridiculous. I’ll just leave it at that (no pictures).

This evening I went for a jog in what I was pretty sure would turn into rain. It did, and not just a little. I was basically running in a shower. While all the Beninese were running for cover, they watched in shock as I jogged on by, seemingly enjoying myself (and I was!). As I was finishing up, the hardest rain arrived, and the gutters from my apartment shoot straight out the front from 3 stories up. A few of the apprentices of my landlord were putting their stuff away and one of them joked with me that I should just take a shower since I was already soaked. Well I took it seriously and what at first seemed to be a joke turned into a water fight out in front of the apartment between me, these apprentices, and some little kids. Everyone thought I was crazy for wanting to stand in the “frigid” rain, but it’s one of the few times that I haven’t been hot since I’ve arrived here. Someone even ended up lobbing a bar of soap down from the second story, so I took a shower while I was at it (don’t worry, I left my shorts on). I started doing the Footloose (right? ) dance that Chris Farley did in “Tommy Boy” when he is getting hosed off by his step brother while I was rinsing off and everyone lost it. Sure, maybe I might have sacrificed some maturity for that one, but I also think everyone realized that being a goof can be a good thing.

I feel like I’m really settling into the sweet spot of my service. I speak French comfortably, I have a lot of friends in my town, I’m busy (thank God), and everything that I’m working on looks like it at least has a fighting chance of succeeding. It’s just going to be a matter of time and patience. My goal getting here was to be able to say “I can’t believe I ever considered not coming”, and though that might never come, I do think that I’m getting a lot closer. Thanks for reading! Stay tuned for the world cup adventure...