Saturday, June 1, 2013

Getting Power: A Saga

Last August, UGKAP received a grant which paid for new shea transformation equipment.  This documents the process of getting our shea complex machines wired to the electricity so we can actually use them.

-68.000 (approx. $136) paid on August 30 to increase the capacity of the counter
The hallway where you spend hours stalking the director's office,
trying to find an opportunity to get inside 
-in November they finally came to rewire the counter, and now said that this would not work—that we need an entirely new counter to reach the necessary capacity.

-in November we paid 435.000 (around $870) for the larger counter, the 4 new wires, etc.  They promised to come do the work at the latest in February, and showed us the dimensions of the panel and panel cover that we need to have made, which we did right away.

-At the beginning of March (the work is still not done), they informed us that we overpaid and needed to come get our change—234.396 ($368) was all we had needed to pay--what was this extra $500 for?!  At the same time, we paid for a new panel b/c ours was the wrong size.

-Mid-March they came to install the new wires.  They then informed us that the cover we bought for the counter box was too small (even though we bought the exact one they told us to) and told us what size to make the new one.  They left the wires and never returned to do the work. We were also told to call an electrician to come and disconnect the counter that is already in place and move it so that it can be used for the office space and the complex counter can be separate.  This work was all finished in less than a week.

trying to get in to see the head of branching.
check out the awesome wiring job he has doen for his own lights...
-Since finishing the work that they told us to do, someone from UGKAP went to the SBEE once or twice every week (at least 9 times), each time being told to bring in new photocopies of the same receipts and that the work will be done in the next 2 days.  The head of the branching department refused to even speak to us when we showed up without our photocopies, even though all he needed to see from them was the address of our office, which we told him in words exactly as it is written on the papers.  This was his indirect way of asking for bribes, which we refused to offer.

-Finally, only after I pulled the white person card and showed up with our accountant in mid-April, we got someone to say they would come and do the work.  They do not show up at the time they said they would so I proceeded to call every 30 minutes until they finally come, at COB.

-While doing the work we are informed that they are taking the first counter back with them and the whole office will have to run off of the same counter on a pre-pay system, even though we had earlier signed and agreed to having 2 separated counters: one for the machine complex and one for the office.  They install the new counter but tell us that we have to call an electrician to actually connect the wires.  I start losing my temper with the dude so he finally agrees to just do it.  However, when the work is finished the power for the neighborhood has been cut so we can’t test to see if everything works.

-The next day: naturally, the power still doesn’t work.  We have to call the electrician anyway and get him to fix whatever they did wrong.  One week later, we finally have functioning electricity in the office and for the machines again.  It took almost 8 months, over $550, 10 sets of photocopies of the same receipts, and at least 25 visits to the office to finalize what initially seemed like a simple task.  And this, my friends, one of many reasons why change takes so unbearably long.

the main entrance to the office.  inspires a lot of hope, no?

Thursday, April 18, 2013


What is it?

Camp GLOW (Girls Leading Our World) is a week long camp for exceptional girls, selected by Peace Corps Volunteers, to come together and learn how to be leaders among their peers and receive education about important health and social issues affecting their communities.  Camp GLOW is a Peace Corps initiative that started in Romania in 1995 with the purpose of promoting female empowerment.  The program came to Benin in 2004 and has been widely successful; current volunteers are encouraging and educating promising young females all across the country.

What do we do?

Throughout the week, girls will live on a university campus and attend sessions that target vital public health concerns, emphasize the value of education, focus on developing life skills, and encourage creativity and critical thinking.  Topics include: finding safe drinking water, sexual health, study skills, career planning, leadership, entrepreneurship, creative writing, and domestic violence.  At the end of the week, girls will collaborate with their volunteer to discuss the ways they can bring what they have learned at camp back to their villages.

Why do we do it?

Most of the girls who attend Camp GLOW will have never before stepped foot on a university campus.  They will have their first experiences with touching a keyboard, picking up a paintbrush, and being told that it’s not OK for a husband to hit his wife.  The girls will be mentored by adult Beninese women who have been selected for the exceptional example they set as professional, progressive women as well as older girls (junior mentors) selected from last year’s camp as outstanding participants.  Most importantly, the girls will be surrounded by positive encouragement.  They will not be hit, they will not be constantly sent out for chores, and they will be reminded that they are special and valuable.

How can you help?

Camp GLOW is financed through the Peace Corps Partnership Program (PCPP).  The project is posted online where friends and family of participating volunteers can come together to collectively finance the demand.  Please follow this link: and search by our project number: 13-680-015 or my last name: Hembre.  You can read project details and contribute with your credit card directly through the site.  If you have any additional questions concerning the budget or activities of the camp, please feel free to contact me (  If you are interested in sending supplies that we would like to use, but do not have access to in Benin, please contact me as well.

Check out some of last year's pictures:

Monday, March 25, 2013

Don't worry, I brought my own razor

Scarification has a long tradition in Benin.  There are different meanings for the marks--some show which family or tribe you belong to, some are done in times of sickness as a method of healing, and others are done during ceremonies for protection against sorcery and evil spirits. Check out a couple examples of different styles of facial scarring:

Heather and I have made friends with a traditional healer in a small village community just outside of Parakou called Korobororou. Have fun pronouncing that one.  Well, so naturally he was the one we wanted to perform our scarification ceremony.  We told him we were interested and set up the date.  It was quite the ordeal.  We brought a chicken as a gift to be sure we were in the good graces of the spirits/community and, of course, our own razors as to avoid the diseases.

So we started with a ceremony.  The elders of the village prayed for our health, safety, and well being while in benin.  They then passed some 'holy water' over the sacred ground area and had us take a sip (we did our best to not actually swallow much of it--there were all kinds of things floating in that business.)  They then tossed cola nuts and let the weak pieces fall off and had us eat the strong pieces that stayed together.  The cola nuts are extremely caffeinated and taste so extremely bitter.  They continued with various water splashing and prayer saying for a few minutes and then we could get up and continue with the scarification process.

Step 1: We discussing where to make the cuts.  We had our ideas in mind, but they made some adjustments.  They did not want to do anything right along the spine and preferred that we made the cuts in groups of 3, and in a triangular form.

Step 2: Make the cuts with the razor.  Heather was totally looking over his shoulder for me, trying to make the cuts as symmetrical as possible.  Thanks, girl.

Step 3: Let the blood start coming out a bit to make sure the cuts are deep enough.

Step 4: Rub in the ash.  This was the most painful part.

Step 5: Let it clot.

Here we are with our ceremony team right after it was finished.


and a couple weeks later they are finally looking more normal!  Not sure how long they'll stick around for but it's nice knowing that I'll have a daily reminder of Benin when I'm elsewhere.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Kidnapping a Child

So last weekend I tried out single mother-hood and brought Rosalie, one of my favorite kids from last year’s village life, up to Parakou to give her a taste of the “big city world” out there.  She’s about 4 years old and I adore her because she’s a boss.  I was expecting her to freak out being away from her family and seeing some place so different, but she took it like a champ.  First things she did when she got to my house: strap a stuffed animal to her back and start playing with scissors. 

She started getting fussy at the end of the weekend, but of course when her dad came to pick her up she just talked about all the food she got to eat and how she wants to stay.  She’s pretty much the coolest kid ever and I hope that she never lets go of her ‘don’t take no nonsense from nobody’ attitude—Benin needs more women like that.

picking her up from her house in Kêmon (a village of maybe 2,000 people)

trying on the dress I had made for her.  It was a little too small at first so I tried to take it off so that it wouldn’t rip before taking it to the seamstress for re-sizing.  It literally took 3 of us to hold her down and get the dress off, and then she insisted on sleeping with it like a baby doll.
ready to hit the town

failed attempts at kite flying (not enough wind.  Boo)    

taking a nap at the restaurant
we found a little ‘amusement park’ for kids.  Here she is knocking down all the little boys on the trampoline.

hopefully a glimpse into her future…

Friday night dinner (please note the matching outfits… and the 2 older boys that she was bossing around all night)

breakfast at my house.  She wouldn’t let me help her tie her pagne, so it ended up being more like a toga for a while.
she convinced me to carry her around on my back for a while when she started getting homesick

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Park W

I thought it would be fun to take my visitors to the less explored Park W during their visit this holiday season.  It turned out to be an interesting choice.

Day 1:  We set out from Kandi for the park at 6am.  6:30 am our car breaks down on the side of the road.  We wait an hour for the mechanic to come and another 30 minutes to get things fixed.  Off again.    7:30 we enter the park.  No one even checks our tickets.  We then commence on a 5 hour drive through the bush where we see one babboon.  Literally, that was it.  To get to our lunch spot/hotel we have to cross the river on foot because there is no bridge.  After 3 hours of nap time, our guide then takes us out for some kind of "nature hike" where I'm mostly hoping that we don't see any animals because we have no way to protect ourselves.  Bedtime.

Day 2:  We get started an hour late because we've crossed the border to Burkina which is in a different time zone.  Funny how that doesn't change the time the sun rises.  Now the road starts getting really bad.  There isn't any discernable path, so we rely completely on the memory and experience of our guide to carry us through 6 hours of bumpy, unmarked, uncleared bush.  We see some antelope, warthogs, birds, and lots of huge Baobab trees.  But mostly dry landscape.  Our tent hotel across the Niger border awaits us with ice cold beers, however, which does a lot to lift our spirits.  We take a relaxing boat cruise along the Niger River.  We might not have seen any hippos, alligators, or other animals along the water, but at least it was a smooth ride laying on mattresses in the boat.  We headed to a lookout spot to search for some evening wildlife and saw so much elephant dung--but no luck.

Day 3:  Woke up after not really sleeping because of the freezing cold.  Well, freezing to me.  But we finally got the early morning start we'd been trying for.  Saw a higher frequency of what we'd been seeing (different kinds of antelope, warthogs, babboons, crocodiles in lakes, big birds), as well as a group of water buffalo.  We retraced our steps through the 6 hours of horrible roads, forging the river, and then 5 hours of OK roads.  Most notable sighting: vultures circling above a recently dead elephant.  The smell was so strong and our guides guessed that he had been taken down by poachers.  They hacked off his tusks to 'give to the local authorities' and keep them from the poachers... so I hope that this is where they actually ended up.  Although I'm not sure I have much faith in the local authorities.

So that was our experience in a nutshell.  Perhaps a month farther into tourist season things would be different, but for us the park seemed desolate, of both people and animals, and like a perfect spot for poachers.

The video attempts to capture pretty much how we spent our three days: bumping around in the backseat of a toyota SUV.

Looking for things.  Did a lot of that.

The only elephant we got to see :(  sorry, dumbo

Thursday, November 8, 2012


I was lucky enough to spend the first 2 weeks of October with my good friend Nora road tripping through South Africa.  We started in Cape Town and worked our way along the coast to Durban, then headed north through the Drakensburg mountains, ending in Johannesburg.  It was an absolutely gorgeous drive--I don't think I've ever been on a trip so consistently and diversely scenic--mountains, beach, rolling hills, you name it.  We're both "bang for your buck" travelers so we did far too much to write about, so I'll just cover a couple highlights that I thought were particularly fabulous.

"All dressed up but nowhere to go".  One of our first outings was to visit the Simon's Point penguins!  We took the local train out to Simon's Point and spent the day in the relaxed beach town eating fish and chips and playing with penguins on the shore.  You can walk right up to them!  They're small and really into hiding in the bushes and making this honking noise.  Also, they have the incredible ability to tilt their heads all the way backwards, which they do when the honking gets really serious.  We spent a couple hours just being entranced by the penguin waddle.  It never gets old.

The ostrich.  Quite possibly my favorite stop on the trip was Oudtshoorn, town with the world's highest ostrich population.  Such interesting creatures.  Running, they can reach speeds up to 40mph, the top land speed of any bird.  They are notoriously dangerous for their powerful kicks (pretty much their only defense) with their funny looking two-toed feet.  They also have the largest eggs of any bird, which are so strong that you can stand on them.  At the show farms you can ride the birds--quite an experience.  I feel like this would not be legal in America.  They pull the bird up, put a bag over its head, and have you climb onto its back.  You hold onto its wings with your arms extended and leaning back.  A very unnatural position.  Then they take the bag off its head and let the bird loose.  It runs around frantically for a while, the ostrich jockeys following the whole time to catch you if you lose your grip, and eventually they'll tell you to let go and you just trust fall back into their arms.  I couldn't stop hysterically laughing pretty much the whole visit.

Sights from the drive.  The Garden Route is an absolutely gorgeous ride.  Even when we veered off the route to go to the Wild Coast and up north, it never stopped being scenic.  The highways were impressively well maintained, although this involved passing through significant roadwork and toll booths.  It was a nice contrast to the crazy potholes even on the main roads of Benin, however.  Also we had to drive on the left side of the road which was quite a trip--it always seemed like the cars going the other direction were heading straight for us.  Our little rental car could barely make it up a lot of the big hills, and since most of the drive was one lane highway we had to adjust to constantly passing by going into the wrong lane.  It definitely made me realize how much I miss driving though.                     
South Africa was beautiful.  However, talking with locals and friends of Nora's who are Peace Corps volunteers in a smaller village, it's also a country with really complex social problems.  Apartheid had so many strict rules separating and giving specific rights to each racial and cultural group, and the social tensions are still very present.  For example, we locked our keys in the car while visiting the smaller village of Nora's friends and, even though he had been first approached by the rental car company and we agreed to pay an exorbitant fee, the locksmith refused to drive out to where we were.  Many white South Africans that we talked with were quite openly bitter against the strong 'affirmative action'-esque hiring policies in practice, and society in general seemed to still be pretty self-segregated.

Overall, we had an amazing trip and I would definitely recommend the country for anyone's vacation-- particularly for adventure tourists or those, like us, who like making spur of the moment decisions--we had made hardly any plans ahead of time and it was no problem.  And although apparently it's pretty bankrupt, South African Airlines had great food, movies, and unlimited mini-bottles of South African wine :o)

Saturday, September 22, 2012

mango spiders

the season of the fruit has passed and the season of the spider has emerged.  these huge spiders make their webs around the mango trees and typically if you see one of them, you see at least 20.  i took some shots around my neighborhood.