In recent weeks, while the loss of Kate hasn’t become any more real to me and while I still find myself weakest in my most private moments, I’ve noticed that life has a funny way of moving on whether you’re ready or not. The calendar has now turned to May, and I’ve discovered myself spending more and more time here, there, and everywhere as my service begins its final encore. Camp Success 2009 is steadily gaining steam and with the camp itself taking place during the first week of July, these next two months are sure to be full of careful planning and frantic preparation. With any luck, I hope that this year’s edition of Camp Success will be an even greater achievement than it was last year. For many reasons, this camp has become very personal for me, and I would like to see it reach its full potential. Not only has it felt like the most important project I’ve done thus far in my service, but this year’s camp began as a collaboration and as a union of my girls camp and of Kate’s girls camp. Therefore, more than ever, I feel the weight of this year’s camp on my shoulders; its magnitude is painfully clear. Camp Success 2009 will serve in memoriam of Kate’s dedication and service to the development and equality of females in Benin. In this vain, we have extended the scope of Camp Success to include female students from fifteen secondary schools across the Donga department. The campers will learn about educational opportunities, career development, and reproductive health from sessions facilitated by upstanding female community leaders. These women role models will serve as our Camp Mama and Camp Tantis and will further assist the girls in cultivating strong goal-setting, decision making, and leadership skills as well as developing a greater self-confidence. As in the years previous, the aim of this camp is to educate, motivate, and reward high-achieving female students. I have faith that if our goal is met, we will honor the memory of Kate in one of the best ways possible—by carrying on her work.
In other projects making progress, the manual work on my basketball court has finally drawn to a close thus giving myself, along with two other coaches from the community, the opportunity to have begun working with a boy’s team and a girl’s team three times a week. I’ve been watching this baby grow and grow and grow for a long time now, so it’s been very rewarding on a personal level to finally start practicing and training. The work is very much “petit a petit” as these kids have literally never touched a basketball before, but as of week two, everyone is still very much motivated to learn and get better, so as long as the attitude is there, the skills will follow. In reality, one of the difficult aspects for me has been learning a whole new French schema for basketball. As it is an American sport, much of the main vocabulary remains the same, “dribble, pass, rebound,” but try explaining, for example, how to shoot the basketball—for me, it’s always been BEEF (Balance, Elbow, Eyes, Follow through), when you follow through it’s like “reaching into a cookie jar,” goose neck, etc.—none of these concepts translate, on any level, into French. Truth be told, even the most basic concepts are difficult for me to explain as well; quite simply because I, honestly, don’t think that I’ve ever had to teach someone how to dribble. I’ve taught crossover dribble, spin dribble, speed dribble, hesitation dribble, pound dribble, in-and-out dribble, around-the-back dribble but I don’t think I’ve ever had to start at step one. Most American kids have had some introduction to a bouncing ball before they begin learning basketball, so the concept and the basic fundamentals are already there. These girls and boys are literally blank slates and any athletic adventure they’ve had has been with a ball at their feet—certainly never bouncing or dribbling. In this sense, coaching beginner’s basketball in Benin has been “petit a petit” for me, too.
In terms of immediate gratification, the best thing happening to me at the moment is the culmination of my teaching career here in Manigri. While the current teacher strikes are liable to delay the final exams, the sun is shining and I can see the light! In less than a week, I will have taught my final class (fingers crossed) and in less than two weeks I will have graded my final papers (fingers crossed, again). While my teaching experience has been many things to me, and while I have certainly learned more than I can even begin to express at this moment, I cannot deny that the prospect of never having to design a lesson plan around the present perfect tense again, does not intrigue me in the slightest. I suppose in my current musings of my experience here, I am most proud of the fact that even in these last few draining weeks, I have still come to class fully prepared and fully eager to make every class my best class—I’m still trying to be better and do better. My hope is that in my passionate attempts to make English class interesting, I have lit a spark under those students who would have otherwise apathetically cruised through the school system. I know that I have several bright and extremely motivated students, and I am confident that with or without me they would have found (and will find) a way to succeed. I guess my real wish is that I somehow in someway, I got to those students who hung around the middle or who have in other ways been ignored by their other professors. I hope that in someway, I was different, even if only for four hours-a-week. And the hardest part for me (and the hardest part about being a teacher) is that I won’t really ever know if I made a genuine difference—I just have to hope. Regardless, I’ll be toasting a “Beninoise” to myself come Thursday night!
The rest of the exciting news in country isn’t really mine to share, but I can certainly dance around it a bit! The good news is that two of my best friends in country have been accepted to extend for a third year of teaching in China. The bad news is that they will be leaving in less than a month marking them as the first batch of PSL 20ers to officially COS (close of service), and leaving me more alone than before here in Benin. Truthfully, I’m very happy that I get to share in the excitement, because it’s going to be an amazing opportunity for the both of them, and I’m hoping that if I play my cards right, I could find myself making a visit to the land of noodles and pandas in the near future! Talks from other volunteers have surfaced as well of people extending in all kinds of interesting, new and exotic places in addition to plenty of plans being made for COS trips and post Peace Corps life. I should mention that a fair number of those plans include what his/her first meal back in the States will be—ah yes, the land of ample goodness and fat. At this moment, I, myself, would want to go straight American—a greasy Quarter Pounder with cheese, a side of French fries (with ketchup and mayonnaise, please), and then maybe topped all off with a Dairy Queen blizzard or even caramel Moolatte…yummm. With all the planning and leaving and now, first goodbyes, I find I can’t but help get a little nostalgic. In fact, to mark my time here, I’ve started working on a “Peace Corps by the numbers” list—here is what I have so far:
350 approximate number of students taught
60 number of times I’ve played “Cross of Flowers”
59 number of original volunteers in PSL 20
35 number of current volunteers in PSL 20
22 books read
21 months of living in Benin
10 most impressive number of grown adults smashed into a 5-passenger car
7 pounds gained in Benin
6 people in village who can properly pronounce my name
5 new countries visited
4 number of “Oh My God” diseases or injuries I’ve had
2 number of times I’ve seriously considered going home