The token "reflection on the past two years of my life" post

What can I say about my service? I did it. I saw a lot of things I would have never seen otherwise. I ate food I would have never eaten otherwise. I communicated in a language that my parents don’t understand. I did some things I’m proud of. I met sides of me I didn’t know existed beforehand. I never said some things that I wish I had.

What will I miss the most? The people I met here, both Beninese and American. Ask what I’m the most proud of or what was the most defining aspect of my service or any variant of those questions and the answers will always be the people I met here and the relationships I formed here. I can tell you honestly that what kept me in this country for two years were the people whom I had the fortune to surround myself with: my best village friends who always knew how to cheer me up with a game of foosball; my volunteer friends are some the best people with whom you’ll ever have the chance to share a beer; my students, who while weren’t always the easiest, I still wish them more than they ever imagined they were allowed to want out of life. The thing that scares me the most right now is the idea of having to live a life without the family that I’ve found here.


What’s next? I can’t really tell you. The planner in me is suppressing the urge to freak out about it constantly. The 24-year-old in me is slowly starting to learn that sometimes you can’t plan life. For the next three months, I’ll be traveling with a friend (another volunteer who arrived and left Benin with me) around southern Africa. I have this scheme in my head that I’ll keep writing about it and people will keep caring enough to read about it. After that, my plans involve being near the people who are important to me. If I’ve learned anything these two years it’s that my life is incomplete without the people who I let in it. 

Eight hundred and six days ago, I left the United States because I wanted an experience. I wanted to do something with my life that seemed like it would be greater than me. Fourteen days ago I turned in a piece of paper that officially finished my service. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t reflective. I didn’t even particularly feel the need to have a celebratory beer. Why? Because I know now that some experiences are never really finished.

Leaving, part 2

I woke up today feeling terrible. I can’t focus on Pillars of the Earth while I drink my coffee. I feel like I have the anxiety to run from the friend’s house where I stayed last night back to the workstation. I keep making lists of things that I need to do. Over and over again, the same list. And keep asking myself the same questions to which I still haven’t come up with the answers: When should I turn in my helmet? What should I eat for my last meal? How am I ever going to carry around this 37-pound backpack for the next three months?

I thought I was over the fact that I’m leaving Benin tomorrow. My subconscious is telling me different. 

Left behind

I’ve lived my whole life believing that it was better to be the person who was leaving than the person who was being left behind. I believed that if you were the one who was leaving, you were the one in control of the situation. You were the one who was going after bigger and better things. You were the one who was moving on.

But now, I’ve somehow ended up in the situation where I’m the one that’s still here. I’m watching as my friends one by one leave this country and travel back to the United States. I see their pictures of US food on Facebook. I see the status updates from their parents who are overwhelmingly thankful for them to be back. I see pictures of people who lived in Benin back in the US together. And I’m jealous.

I’m still here. And I’ll still be here for another week before my end-of-service trip starts. And I’m thankful for the chance for that trip. And I’m excited for this trip to begin. But until then, this end-of-service-but-not-yet-out-of-the-country limbo in which I’ve found myself is, frankly, starting to become unbearable.

I officially ended my Peace Corps service today (much like when I graduated college, the piece of paper that completed my service seemed so entirely anticlimactic) but the truth is, my Peace Corps service ended two weeks ago when I started saying goodbye to the people that defined my time here. To end my service without the people that got me through the past two years seems unfair. To end my service with a week in our office in air conditioning, getting up at 11 a.m. to drink coffee, fill out forms and watch Entourage is so unlike what the past two years of my life have been like, it’s almost a joke.

I can’t tell you, though, how to make it better. I don’t know that there is a way to end this part of my life that could effectively summarize what the past two years have meant. How many times can you say that you just ended the two most formative years of your life before it becomes redundant?

And so, I’m here. I’m freezing in air conditioning, updating my resume, watching YouTube. I cleaned out my house and filled out all the paperwork. I’m waiting to leave this country behind.

Boys club

I was surrounded by men. My postmate and I were at a bar waiting for the Germany-Ghana games to start and the room was full of twenty-something Beninese men, male students from my classes and the older patrons of the community. They were of all different ages, but, as my postmate was the first to notice, I was the only there who was female.

I started wondering why soccer didn’t interest any of the other women in the village. Girls soccer teams are few and far between (and usually Peace Corps organized) but that didn’t mean women couldn’t also be interested in the sport.

Then I realized where all the mothers and sisters were: they were at home making dinner for all the husbands and brothers who were here with me watching the game.

I knew there are different expectations for girls and boys here, but something about how, already as children, males are given so much more freedom in the choice of what they can do with their time. I had chores and was expected to help around the house, but so did my older brother. Never would I have been told to give up the chance to do something that interested me because I had to stay home and make my brother’s dinner.

What I realized in that bar was not that no other women of the village were interested in soccer, but that they had never been given the opportunity to be interested in soccer. 

The five stages

Last weekend, my postmate and I brought our girls soccer team to the first (volunteer-organized) girls soccer tournament in Parakou. Our girls had to play three games: two on Sunday and one on Monday and we ended the tournament with a 1-2 record. Dave and I didn’t care. We just wanted the girls to have fun. The girls, though, did care.

At the end of our last match that we lost 2-1, I had fourteen girls in tears. And I had one girl in particular who didn’t stop crying until she was hyperventilating and had to be talked down by the volunteer who had been our nurse all weekend.

I have never seen more tears in this country than I saw that weekend. Not just amongst my team, but, for every team, every match appeared to be a life or death situation.

The Beninese people, and even my girls who are only teenagers, are accustomed to sorrow. Benin is not an easy country in which to survive. However, the loss of a soccer tournament is not a sorrow to which these girls were accustomed.

I played soccer for 15 years. Every other weekend I was losing matches. I learned how to shake it off and prepare for the next match. These matches, though, these matches were the only three matched my girls had every played. There was not another weekend for them to play better at next time. This was it for them.

A loss at a match was so much bigger than just a lost match. After their third game, my girls also had to deal with the loss and end of a program that they would most likely not ever have a chance in which to participate again. 

Second wind

My postmate and I were tired. For the last three hours, we had been walking around the village with two of the girls from our soccer team searching (slightly in vain) for any amount of money that would ease the pain of the cost of transporting fourteen girls to and from our soccer tournament in Parakou that weekend. 

I looked over at Dave. He was slumped in the wooden chair in the room where we sat with my counterpart trying to determine our next course of action. I knew he was hungry and I knew he was dreading having to bike back to his house in the dark.

I was ready to call it. Dave and I had the money between us. It would just be a little harder to eat for the rest of the month. I explained this all to my counterpart in French in front of the two girls, who seemed significantly less tired than me and Dave.

When I got to the part of the story of how Dave and I were planning on paying for the difference between the two of us, the two girls perked up. When I had finished, they starting listing to my counterpart the people who were left in the village that we hadn’t visited yet.

“Madam,” they said to me. “If you’re not tired, we’re not tired.”

I smiled at their resolve to not let me and Dave just solve this problem ourselves: by throwing own our money at it. I was suddenly not tired anymore.

June 12: Runner's log

I don’t run with people. I run with my iPod. And my house keys. And until he took it back from me, my friend’s GPS.  I don’t run with the kids who follow me down the street. I don’t run with the people who yell at me from the side of the road. I don’t run with the men going to the fields who pull up next to me on their motos and want to know about what I’m doing and where I’m going and my phone number.

You could say that I don’t do a lot of things with people. I’m one of those types of people who, sometimes, really just prefers to be by him or herself than with someone else. I’m one of those types of people who, when at a large, crowded party will sometimes find herself with one other person (the one other person who feels the same way) in some corner of the kitchen talking about how over-stimulated she is at the moment. I’m one of those types of people who, sometimes, just needs some time alone with her thoughts.

Which, is why, when I started out running today with three other people (two volunteers and a Beninese girl who works with one of the volunteers through GenEq’s scholarship/mentorship program) I didn’t think it would last that long. I fully expected to run away, if you will, after a couple minutes.

Then we started chatting. I don’t really remember what we even talked about. All I remember from those 18 kilometers was that it lasted 18 kilometers and, all of a sudden (well kind of. 18 km is still long), we were left with 5. When those 5 kilometers started to feel like they were going to drag out forever, that was when I finally decided that it was time to leave the others for a while.

What I realized, though, as I was left alone on the road with only Aloe Blacc’s World Cup theme song looping in my ears, was that while I physically alone, I would never be alone on this run. This run, this tour, was about so much more than my ability to run the 23 km between my village and Savalou. It didn’t matter that I had momentarily left everyone else behind. All the volunteers who had organized this run, every volunteer who had run before me and will run after me, every girl who had benefited from our scholarship program, every girl who had realized that she was allowed to want and deserved to want so much more than she has been told she could want and deserve from her society, all these people were running with me.

One of my jobs as the editor of this blog is to update our list of sponsors from our fundraising, which means that I see every individual in the United States that believed that what we do here is worth giving $10 or $50 or $100. A few days ago, I was working on this update when I saw the names that I had been waiting and hoping would appear: the names of my friends and family back home. Seeing those names that I knew on the list in some way clicked with me. I started to figure out that this was bigger than me.

And it was this that I was thinking about in those last minutes of my leg of the tour. What I realized in those last kilometers as each of my footsteps landed on the highway, each slowly but surely taking me closer to my destination, was that I had so many people running right beside me.

I have this student, part 4

Romain never smiles. He rarely talks. He mostly just sleeps, or at least that’s what is appears he’s doing in the back row, leaning against the back chalkboard of my 7th grade class.

He’s the class-appointed person who erases the board, but it’s rare that another boy doesn’t beat him to the task at the end of class. He’s old for the seventh grade, not because he’s retaking the class, but because his parents started him at school late. He’s becoming used to being one of the oldest students in class. That he knows the age difference between him and me and me is significantly less than that between me and my other students is what gives him his gravitas. He’s taken all the stereotypical behaviors of teenaged boys and amplified them through a Beninese speaker: he lies about where he’s going when he leaves class, he never does the activities I put on the board and he doesn’t seem to care about any of it.

Today, in Romain’s class, we were playing a vocabulary review game where I wrote all the words from the last unit on the board and the students had to smack the word I called out with a fly swatter. (We had finished the curriculum weeks ago - I was reaching to find things to do in class.) I had divided the class into boys v. girls. The stakes were high.

I was waving up the students two-by-two to take their turn at the front of the room. Romain was begrudgingly paired with Odette, another older student in the class. 

I called out the word “doctor.” Romain looked around the board for a moment. Then his fly swatter solidly collided with the word. When he pulled back, the plastic was marked with white chalk dust.

The boys erupted in cheers.

And Romain, as he handed the wire handle back to me, smiled.

May 23rd: Runner's log

From May 30-June 19, GenEq Benin is holding Le Tour Du Benin, a grueling 21-day relay-run across the entire western African nation of Benin. I’ve been asked to chronicle the training for my 25 km run on June 12. Visit to donate to the fundraiser.

Distance: 14.07 km

The last three kilometers, all I can think about is water. Drinking Nalgene after Nalgene of it. Pouring it over my head in the shower. Jumping into a pool of it. I didn’t start until too late in the day and the noon sun has zapped most of the water from my body by just halfway through this long run. The next hill I climb, I pretend is a waterfall.

The last two kilometers, my thoughts turn to other beverages: cold Coke, cold Sprite, cold Gatorade. I used to run with a bottle of water. Now, I run with a GPS. I begin to severely question this trade.

The last kilometer, I am swirling the remaining spit in my mouth around, trying to distract myself from how much longer there is until the water severely lacking in my system is replenished.

When I make it home, the first place I head is my kitchen and my water filter, resisting the urge to just stick my head under it and open my mouth like it’s a faucet.

I stop drinking 2.5 liters later. 

May 22nd: Runner's log

From May 30-June 19, GenEq Benin is holding Le Tour Du Benin, a grueling 21-day relay-run across the entire western African nation of Benin. I’ve been asked to chronicle the training for my 25 km run on June 12. Visit to donate to the fundraiser.

As I rounded the last turn of my run, the middle school that marks my return into my village looming up ahead to the left, I encountered three of my students coming out of the woods that line the road.

The woods here aren’t like the woods full of dense trees and small limestone cliffs in my backyard where I grew up in the US. Here, as the trees are mainly cashew tress or mango trees or some other fruit-bearing tree and the main method of cooking is over a wood-burning stove, it’s not uncommon to see people crashing out of the woods along this road with branches or mangoes balanced in basins on their heads.

These students were carrying palm tree branches. I’m not sure what they were going to do with them: use them as a covering for some structure or were just messing around.  But regardless, after greeting me, they started running alongside me, normally something that would irk me, but something that I’ll allow if it’s my students.

As a pretty noticeable stranger here, a lot of times, people just want to be with you. They gain respect by appearing to be associating with an American or they think you’ll have something for them or they’re just interested in what you’re doing.

Which is to say that I’ve been followed before. On my bike, while walking through the market. Once, I ran almost four kilometers before noticing that a kid I was vaguely familiar with has followed me the entire way on his tricycle. They want you to know that they’re intrigued by what you’re doing. Even if it’s sometimes a little bit off-putting.

My students followed me for about a quarter of a kilometer, their palm fronds waving as they ran, before they stopped, waved and walk off into the village. 

The case of the missing pate

You’re in class when one of your students asks you if he can go to the bathroom. You hesitate because it’s in this class that the students like to ask if they can go to the bathroom but then actually go do something else.

His friend sitting across from him tells you to refuse. He says he’s just going to go eat his pate, fried dough served with a spicy sauce that is typical snack food around here.

You allow it. But tell him to leave his pate in the classroom.

When the student gets back a few minutes later, his pate is gone. He immediately blames his friend who sits across from him. You agree with this action. His friend is a good student but has been known to get into trouble when he’s already finished the assignment.

You ask his friend if he really ate the pate. He giggles manically and nods.

Unbeknownst to you, he hasn’t eaten the snack. He’s only switched the black plastic bag that held the pate with another empty one he’d already had.

You ask the first student how much he paid for it. You are prepared to make his friend pay him back.

You’re in the middle of this line of questioning when the friend suddenly produces the bag that actually has the pate in it and chucks it across the table at the first student.

Your belief is reinforced that you students might be what make everything else that happens here worth it. 

May 21st: Runner's log

From May 30-June 19, GenEq Benin is holding Le Tour Du Benin, a grueling 21-day relay-run across the entire western African nation of Benin. I’ve been asked to chronicle the training for my 25 km run on June 12. Visit to donate to the fundraiser.

Distance: 6.04 km

I wasn’t supposed to run today. I was supposed to run yesterday.

But a surprise visit from my boss and the inclination to get work done while I could still feel the caffeine from my instant coffee surging through my veins and then the inclination to eat lunch and take a nap meant that I opted for P90x in my house, in front of an episode of Gilmore Girls and hidden from the early afternoon African sun.

I vaguely thought to myself yesterday that I could make up for this missed training day by running today after finishing up my work at my school. Somewhere between last night and this afternoon this vague thought morphed into a definite decision, and I found myself trying to leave school as soon as possible, calculating in my head if I still had enough time to go to the market (my best shot at finding fruit and vegetables in my village) and get in a day’s worth of training.

I didn’t really have to run today. I’m scheduled to run tomorrow, and I will run tomorrow. (I’m one of those people who will feel guilty and stressed until I do something that I know I’m supposed to do.) But the more I tried to talk myself into just going home and occupying myself until I was hungry for dinner, the more I realized that, from somewhere deep inside me, was this incurable, insatiable need to run. I was antsy and my thoughts were spacey to the point where I knew the only way to collect myself was to take off down the road in front of my house for a while.

This is not the first time that I’ve felt like this. Not just since I moved here, but in my entire life. In the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading, George Clooney’s character runs in order to cope with anything that goes wrong in his life. In a scene after everything begins to unravel, he stops mid-conversation and just states, “I have to go for a run.”

I remember the people I first watched the movie with found this comical. I identified with him.

I’ve never really been a speed runner or a long distance runner, but, I’ve been enough of a runner to realize that, sometimes, you just need to go outside and push yourself.

In volunteer training, we talk about how to find security while trying to assimilate and adapt to a new culture. The forty minutes to hour and a half that I spend running is the time that I feel most in control of a life that a lot of the time is spent out of my control. My breath comes short and quick, my feet pound on the dirt path, my head is clear. 

May 16th: Runner's log

From May 30-June 19, GenEq Benin is holding Le Tour Du Benin, a grueling 21-day relay-run across the entire western African nation of Benin. I’ve been asked to chronicle the training for my 25 km run on June 12. Visit to donate to the fundraiser.

Distance: 10.99 km

Halfway through, I can tell this is going to be one of those runs. One of those runs that I’m going to feel for the rest of the day. One of those runs that I’m going to have to reach into my finite stash of Gatorade powder afterward. One of those runs that’s going to (almost) justify me taking a motorcycle taxi anytime I have to go anywhere for the rest of the day.

This will be my greatest accomplishment today.


I followed my students out to the overgrown area that slowly, with hoes, rakes and machetes, is becoming the soccer field. Normally, I would have been teaching at this time, but the vice principal had declared all the students of the school would be working this morning. And, in the hierarchy of our school system, I did not have the power to refuse him. 

My vice principal and I do not have the best relationship. He thinks it’s funny to talk to me in languages he knows I don’t understand. I abhor how he carries out the primary function of his job: disciplining students. Today, he is the one who has the power to make me stay and watch students weed and cut down trees for two hours.

I stopped under a tree to evaluate my plan for sneaking away. 

“Are you going to work too?” one of my students asked.

I shook my head. “I’m going to go home,” I said, tracking the movements of the vice principal. If I left now, would he see me? I watched him pass from group to group.

“Do you have to work again this afternoon?” I ask the same student.

She shrugs. “If the vice principal says to work, then we have to work.” We both knew no student would ever refuse.

I stood there for a few moments longer.

“Madame, what are you waiting for,” she asks. As I watch him disappear behind a grove of trees, I decide I can make a break for it.

What she doesn’t realize is that I, too, am a little afraid of the vice principal.

May 14th: Runner's log

From May 30-June 19, GenEq Benin is holding Le Tour Du Benin, a grueling 21-day relay-run across the entire western African nation of Benin. I’ve been asked to chronicle the training for my 25 km run on June 12. Visit to donate to the fundraiser.

Distance: 6.69 km

Before I moved here, I don’t know that I would call myself athletic. I had played soccer until I was 16 and I spent time at our student recreation center, but I had never run more than 5 miles and never biked more than 18.

I started running here mainly because of the circumstances (which is the reason for why I try and do a lot of things here that I never tried or did before): three months of a trainee lifestyle where I sat in a classroom for nine hours a day and came home to large portions of carbohydrate-focused food had not been kind to me. The volunteer who I replaced told me that she had lost all her moving-to-village weight by running, so in the first week after I moved in, I also laced up my running shoes and slowly (at the time) started down the road that runs outside my house. And then I did it again two days later. And then again two days after that. And so, I kept doing it.

People noticed this pretty quickly. (Not that there are many circumstances here in which I am unnoticeable) But in a culture where my male students still tell me that girls can’t play soccer, a woman wearing shorts running down the same path every other day was pretty novel.

For the majority of women here, most of their exercise comes from the daily chores they do to maintain the household: fetching water from the well, washing clothes, preparing dinner with dull knives. And these women are strong (try pulling up a five-liter bucket of water), but they are still considered not as strong as men. And the people that surround them still note outdated pseudo-scientific ideas about why they will never be as strong as men.

Now, I wouldn’t say that I keep running necessarily because I believe that seeing me exercise has empowered other women and girls to know that they are as strong, if not stronger than the men in their households, but it seems to me that this is now about more than just living in a culture with a carb and fried-food focused diet.

May 6th: Runner's log

From May 30-June 19, GenEq Benin is holding Le Tour Du Benin, a grueling 21-day relay-run across the entire western African nation of Benin. I’ve been asked to chronicle the training for my 25 km run on June 12. Visit to donate to the fundraiser.

Distance: 8.07 km

When I first wake up, I rarely want to run. I sweep my house. I think about eating breakfast first. I feed my cat. I put away the dishes I washed the night before. In short, I put it off. I put it off until last minute possible. Or I try to convince myself that I’ll have time that evening.

This morning was no exception. Except that I teach Tuesday nights until 7 p.m., so I really couldn’t convince myself I would do it later.

I put away laundry. I ate a mango. I pack some stuff up for my meeting with the mayor later that morning. And then I finally convinced myself that I needed to go.

Actually getting out the door is the hardest part of training for me. Once I start, I rarely try to talk myself into quitting early or walking, but until my door is locked, my earbuds are in and my shoes are on, I’m constantly fighting an internal battle between my conscience that knows that I have to run that day and the other parts of my brain, all of which usually just want to go back to bed. Even days when I’m trying to run before an 8 a.m. class usually result in me running less than I wanted to because I snoozed my alarm too many times.

When I got back to my house this morning, I was hit with the overwhelming feeling of accomplishment that I normally have after running. It always feels like I’ve always completed one of the hardest things on my to-do list for that day. And I love that feeling.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m not looking forward to tomorrow morning and the chance to drink coffee and read The Pale King before I have to do anything.

May 4th: Runner’s log

From May 30-June 19, GenEq Benin is holding Le Tour Du Benin, a grueling 21-day relay-run across the entire western African nation of Benin. I’ve been asked to chronicle the training for my 25 km run on June 12. Visit to donate to the fundraiser.

Distance: 5.9 km

Tonight was the first time I have ran in 39 days. How do I know that? I’m the kind of person that writes that kind of stuff down. How long, how much time, sometimes even my average speed (thanks to my friend’s GPS that I borrowed about seven months ago). And I know that I’m that kind of person. So when my calendar says that it’s been 39 days since I last ran, it’s been 39 days since I last ran.Which is not the kind of information that a runner likes to realize when she’s 41 days from running her third half-marathon.

In 2013, I ran my first half-marathon here mainly after I was talked into it. At that point, I had never run more than 5 miles consecutively in my entire life. That February, my friend who had done the talking would finish what I believe was her fifth whole marathon in her entire life. I couldn’t walk for about a week after finishing those 21 km (At one point we were a French colony. We use the metric system here.) let alone imagine wanting to run a distance like that again. (I also believe I spent of that week making my students, my main job here is as an English teacher in a public middle school, write on the board while I perched on the edge of my desk willing my thighs to stop hurting.)

But then I did.

Last February, I ran the same half-marathon in Parakou, Benin, with another great group of volunteers running with me and cheering us on along the way. If you would like an indication of how unprepared I was for the half-marathon the previous year, I finished this year with a time that was 45 minutes faster than my first.

And so, when I was approached about participating in the first Tour de Benin, running the 23 km from my village to the city south of me seemed pretty doable considering I already had 42 km in timed half-marathons under my shoes.

Then three things happened, in no particular order:

1. It got hot. Hot enough where the only semi-decent time to run became in the early morning before the sun rose. And, I’m not going to lie, there are days when I like to sleep in.

2. I went on a bike trip. During our Easter break, I spent a couple days biking around Togo with a friend who was used to covering over a hundred kilometers a day, so I was a little focused, you know, on wrapping my head around that for a while.

3. I rediscovered how nice it is to do P90x in my house in front of my fan. No people watching me. No risk of sunburn. And the ability to also watch episodes of Girls at the same time.

And then 39 days passed.

So, now my calendar tells me that I’ve got 41 days to cram in 16 weeks of training. As they say here, du courage.