Sunday, May 27, 2007

Movin' On Up

I've taken a new position which begins in September. I won't be able to teach (formally) anymore and I'll have to move to a new city which is much farther north. Awesome.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

a w00t gandji a?

The One Laptop Per Child project is probably the coolest thing ever. For those not in the know, a non-profit group designed a small, $175 laptop for use by children in the developing world, which governments will buy at cost to distribute for free to all kids attending school. Supposedly.
The laptop is powered by a hand-crank, though AC power is optional. It can access wireless networks, but since they’re usually in short supply in the middle of any given developing country, they’re also able to connect to any other OLPC laptop to create a sort of intranet (e.g., in a village that’s not close to anything, all the kids could connect to each other’s computers and collaborate on something or exchange files).

There are no moving parts. Flash memory is used instead of a standard hard drive. This is crucial, since laptops and dusty, non-air-conditioned environments usually lead to hard drive failures. The screen can be switched from color to black-and-white to make it more readable in sunlight, and uses little energy compared to normal laptop screens.

I doubt I’ll be in Benin when the laptops get here, if they ever do. Even in Nigeria (which borders Benin to the east) they’re only now doing a test run of 3,500 laptops. Still, I thought it would be worthwhile to look at what impact they would have in my village on a day-to-day basis, especially since most of the debate over the laptop seems to be taking place between people who’ve never been to a developing nation.

Textbooks aren’t used in my school due to their relatively high cost (tuition is $40 a year, which many families struggle to afford, so requiring books on top of that would make it impossible). Instead, students buy small notebooks and copy information down from the blackboard in a textbook-like fashion. They’re really methodical about it, using different-colored pens and underlining with rulers, since accurately recording what’s written on the board is the only way to know that what they’re studying at home is what the teacher actually wrote. One of the main selling points to governments is that the laptop will be able to provide a platform for free textbooks. It’s easy to imagine the difference in the quality of education that having a book would provide, but almost as beneficial would be all time that could be spent on instruction rather than on copying. In my classes, I spend around 10-25% of the time just letting kids copy. Still, they complain that they’re being rushed.

A few teachers require their students to buy booklets (around $2-4). This is pretty much unavoidable in biology classes, since drawing a detailed picture in chalk of, say, the cardiovascular system, is both difficult and time-intensive. A computer would make it possible to use diagrams and charts more easily, and for free. It would also give teachers the ability to use photographs.

Though being a way of delivering information might make the investment worth it by itself, the main goal of the project is to teach kids to ‘learn how to learn’. I think that this receives a lot of criticism since the way it would be realized isn’t obvious, and its necessity is deeply underestimated.

Learning is done mostly by rote here. My entire adolescence was spent in interactive classes where collaborative work was required every day, so it’s natural for me to try to teach that way. But it’s physically difficult to run things like that when the class has 60 kids, because you can only ask so many questions to so many kids, and if a student doesn’t want to participate, it’s easy to blend into the crowd (NB: 60 kids in a class is actually pretty small. Most volunteers have around 75, which is again smaller than in some other countries).

Having a laptop could partially solve the class-size issue, if the software were written correctly. A teacher who was networked with the students’ laptops could check to see if someone wasn’t doing their work, and the work itself could provide a much higher level of interactivity than is currently possible. Even outside of school, the programs that the laptop comes with standard (music composition and drawing programs) would encourage creative thinking.

Motivating students to develop a culture of reading would be a tremendous step forward. Reading for leisure is a luxury when a newspaper costs what some people spend on food each day, and books a fourth of a tuition. The laptop doesn’t have the storage capacity to contain a library, but each school could theoretically be distributed with a bunch of USB keys that contained a few thousand books each, and kids could go and ‘borrow’ a copy. This would be even better than a physical library, since books are subject to wear and tear, as well as theft, and there are a limited number of copies. Also, libraries that lend books out usually charge a small fee, which is, of course, not small to poor students.

I could go on forever about the advantages of this thing. There are downsides, to be sure, but they really are insignificant in comparison to the problems the laptops would ameliorate. Even if it served as nothing but a platform for books, it would be worth the investment a thousand times over.

Now we just need $500,000,000.

PSL 20 Awesome Detailed Explanatory Packing List

If you’re coming to Benin in July 2007 for the Peace Corps, you’re in PSL 20. You’ll get a packing list from the Peace Corps, but it doesn’t explain a lot of things (like what the point is of bringing a digital camera if you live in a place without electricity, where you go to the bathroom in Benin, whether shorts are acceptable, etc.).

I wrote up this post to explain all the things I wish had been explained to me when I was getting ready to leave, and at the end I’ve written a packing list, and even more awesomely, a list of what you don’t need to pack. In retrospect, this may be a bit long, but I don’t really remember exactly what I was worrying about before I left, so I just wrote about everything I could think of.

If you have any questions, send me an email at

The two days you spend in Philadelphia will be pretty much like the first week of your freshman year of college. Have fun with the money that the Peace Corps gives you, but save $20 or so for the trip to Benin (it will take about 24 hours, and you’ll probably have a very long layover in Paris, so it’s nice to have money for water and snacks and such). If you have any cash left when you get here, someone can help you get it changed into francs during your first week in Cotonou.

During Stage and at your post, you will have a latrine or (if you’re lucky) a toilet. Toilet paper is sold everywhere.

You can get a cell phone here. Most volunteers have reception at their posts, but those who don’t just let their family know in advance when they’ll be in a city with coverage, and the family calls them on that day. If you want to bring your phone from home, make sure to call your service provider and tell them to unlock your phone for use with other companies, and anything else that’s required for you to be able to use it in Africa.

There are lots of cyber cafes in Benin, though most of them are on dialup and the connection isn’t always reliable. Still, at the very least, you will be able to check your email once every month or two. Some of the southern cyber cafes have high speed connections. The Peace Corps office and the Workstations all have Internet access.

You’ll be given an address to give to your friends and family back home, but you may find that there are 19 different version of this address. All that matters is that you have:

(your name)
B.P. 971
Cotonou, Benin

Anything else is superfluous, but won’t hurt. Don’t worry about people writing PCV instead of PCT. If your name is on it, it’ll get to you. Don’t send heavy boxes or expensive things or you’ll have to pay a tax on it that could be as high as a month’s pay. Bubble-wrap envelopes are the way to go. Letters sent in standard envelopes are not very reliable.

Bring a digital camera (I’d recommend a 1GB memory card, since it’s not certain how often you’ll get to send pictures back home or back them up). You don’t need a laptop unless you’re an ICT volunteer, though it’s nice to have if you write a lot, want to watch movies, or want to update an mp3 player. You could probably find a way to do work with it if you wanted. If you do bring a laptop, buy an external hard drive, since the dust and heat are hard on computers and it would suck to lose your data and your laptop at the same time. If you want music, bring an MP3 player.

It can't hurt to get a solar-powered charger. Even if you end up getting a house with electricity, someone would buy it.

Electricity here is at 220V (somewhere between 1/3 and 1/2 of the volunteers have electricity at their post). You can get batteries here (AA and AAA, and sometimes C, D, and 9V) that work just fine, and they’re cheap, even on your living allowance.

The place where you’re going to live hasn’t been assigned to you yet, so there’s no way to know if you’ll have electricity or cell coverage. You’ll find out after your fourth or fifth week.

You’ll get a language CD in the mail. This is just to refresh your memory or warm you up. If you speak absolutely no French when you get here, don’t worry. You’ll be fine. You might also receive a CD with the ICE Catalog. You don’t need to look at this at all, and I’m not sure why they send it to you. But do pack it.

You will be provided a French-English dictionary, French grammar and vocabulary books, a 128 MB USB key, a cookbook (with recipes that can be made using stuff you can buy here), a detailed map of Benin, a first-aid kit, and a bunch of other materials depending on your sector. If you’re in TEFL, I would highly recommend getting the book Practical English Usage by Michael Swan (2005). The Peace Corps will give you some books on English grammar, but that one is outstanding.

You really don’t need that much to get by during Stage. In fact, if you came with nothing but clothes, a towel and a toothbrush everything would work out okay, so don’t worry if you think you’re not packing right. The main issue with clothing is that you won’t have much time or money during Stage to get stuff made, so you need to have all the appropriate clothes for everything you’ll be doing already with you.

For TEFL volunteers: If you’re male, you’ll be wearing slacks and a button-up t-shirt during class (long sleeves are okay, but it really is too hot for them). You can get shirts and slacks here, but if you have nice, good-quality clothes from America it will make you look very professional and your colleagues will be impressed. Female volunteers need blouses and long skirts, I think. You probably shouldn't look to me for anything related to what women need to bring.

What You DON’T Need to Pack

-insect repellant (unless you want DEET-free), sunscreen, floss, antacid tablets, minor first aid stuff (band aids, Tylenol, common OTC medicines, etc.), chapstick, condoms (all provided by Peace Corps)

-playing cards (can be bought here)

-waterproof matches (this was a joke item on another list that you might find)

-map of the world or west Africa (you could bring these if you want to decorate your house with them, but you don’t actually have any specific need for them. Kids do love looking at them though)

-basic office supplies (Peace Corps provides you a bunch of stuff during Stage, after that you can buy it)

What You DO Need to Pack

-a business casual outfit or two (you may not ever need these except for pre-stage in Philadelphia. It can't hurt to be able to look nice, but really you could get along without it. But they actually will get mad if you don't have it at Philly)

-three or four comfortable shirts (the Peace Corps list says that we prefer darker colors, but I don’t know why that would be)

-jeans (they’re culturally acceptable, but hard to wash by hand. You’ll be fine with or without them)

-cotton pants

-shorts (you’ll only be able to wear them when you’re hanging out at the house or going on a bike ride or exercising, but they’re good to have)

-underwear and socks


-swimsuit (you don’t need two)


-sandals (you’ll wear these the most, so get durable ones. I’d recommend Tevas)

-tennis shoes (for running, playing soccer, visiting people’s farms, etc)

-toothpaste (more can be bought when you run out. You can get Colgate here)


-nail clippers

-stick deodorant (you can’t find good stick deodorant here)

-shampoo (this can be bought here but you’ll want it during Stage)

-shaving razor (you can buy replacement Mach 3 blades here)

-shaving cream

-small mirror (also can be bought here. Bring this if you don't want to do shopping at first)


-books (bring a few, but don’t go crazy. There are small libraries in Cotonou and at the three Workstations, and everyone has books at their houses. We all just share whatever books get sent to us in the mail. You might want to consider making an Amazon wishlist before you go, since for some reason everyone back in the US wants to send you stuff, and this way you can make sure it's what you want)

-DVDs (bring a few if you want. Even if you don’t have anything to play it with you’ll be able to watch them at the Workstations or in Cotonou)

-MP3 player

-solar-powered charger (if you want to make sure the mp3 player will work)

-digital camera


-two Nalgene bottles (they are hard to break and can be boiled if they start to smell bad)

-headlamp (you can’t cook while holding a flashlight. Get one that takes AA or AAA batteries. Even if you have electricity you’ll be using it often, so get a nice one)

-leatherman (you might as well get the badass one with 900 tools)

-roll of duct tape (you can get normal packing tape here, but it's nice to have this handy)

-ziploc bags

-tasty snacks (you can get Snickers bars and Pringles here, but not much else that’s American. Occasionally there are Skittles in Cotonou but it seems to be irregularly)

-spices (the more common spices are easy to get in cities, but it can’t hurt to bring some)

-measuring cups and spoons (these cannot be bought here)

-nice can opener (get one that will last)

-teflon pan (you can buy these in Cotonou, but your move-in allowance might not cover it)

-hand sanitizer


-pictures of home/loved ones

-thermarest or yoga mat (this is highly recommended. Sleeping on concrete when you’re visiting a friend is lame)

-large, comfortable pillow (really, this will be one of the things you later say to yourself that you're really glad you brought)

-a backpack for short trips (i.e. 3-4 days)

-wall calendar and/or day planner

-shortwave radio (it will be your only source of news unless you use the Internet or get a subscription to a magazine. We get Newsweek every now and then, but that doesn’t really count. You can buy radios here, but if you want a high-quality one, buy it before you leave)

-empty waterbed mattress (this isn’t a joke. A carpenter can build you a frame when you get to your post. The Peace Corps will give you a twin-size mattress, and you can buy larger regular ones here, but waterbeds haven’t been introduced yet. I should also mention that this is highly optional, but it would still be impressive)

-anything else that you want

That's about it. See you in July.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Bob Marley Fest

I'm pretty sure this blog presents a highly skewed picture of my life, so I'll preface this post by saying that most of my days are repetitive and not that interesting (I teach the exact same lesson 4 times twice each week), and at the end of the day I'm usually exhausted.

That said, I went with a teacher from my school to the Bob Marley Fest last night at the University that's 25 minutes from my house. A student band was playing covers (they were excellent) and a good time was had by all. Apparently they have these all over Benin every year on the anniversary of Bob Marley's death. I don't know why Africa gets such a bad rap.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Please End Generosity

The NGO that backed out of funding Camp GLOW decided to fund it at the last minute, so donations are no longer needed. If you already gave money, it can't be refunded, but it will be used for next year's camp. Thanks to everyone who contributed, and sorry if this was confusing.