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.

Circle game

You talk a lot about karma. You’re not a strict devotee, but you have this feeling that having an altruistic nature will lead to things working out in your favor later in life. You have this idea that the nicer you are and the more you give, the more things will work out later. The easier things will be for you.

Except that you’ve moved to a place where things rarely work out easily. That is, as easy as they would if you still lived in the US. You have failed to reassess this particular brand of karma when you moved to a place where, when things work out, you still believe them to have been hard because you have failed to realize that for here, that was easy. As much as you would never admit to someone, sometimes you want to remind everyone at all hours of everyday how much you don’t have to be here. How much you chose to be here. And how much you perceive you have chosen to give up to be here.

This inflated sense of your position in this new place makes you think that everything here should work out exactly how you want it exactly when you want it exactly how you planned. You fall apart when you are trying to genuinely complete work and systems or structures that are out of your control prevent you from accomplishing what you set out to do (ie when you lost electricity for four days while trying to fill out end of service paperwork). You don’t understand why the universe can’t just align for you.

What you think you deserve here is significantly different than what you really deserve here. Even after almost two years, you sometimes fail to understand that this is what working here is like. That you should just stop whining and feel successful when your work is completed.

This is because of one fundamental omission. What you have failed to understand in all this is that you are not the person who deserves to get everything she wants. You have failed to see that all around you are people who deserve so much more than you. You get mad when you can’t watch the third season of Girls as soon as you get it? What does your friend do when he loses his first child to a disease that probably would have been diagnosable and treatable if he came from where you come from? What do your students do when they are subjected to forms of punishment that are outlawed in your country? What karma did you have already acquired to be born when you were instead of where you are?

If you want to talk about karma, first talk about how much more these people have compiled than you.

What’s your name again?

Here, I am Madam. Or, I am Foreigner. I am a label or a title that defines my position in this country. They tell me it’s respectful to call my director “Director” and my vice principal “Vice principal.”

Which is how, as I am started to fill out my close-of-service paperwork (!) and I have to list the names of my neighbors and friends, I find that all my neighbors and friends are named things like “Driver,” “Mama” and “Hairdresser.” I realize that I don’t know anyone’s name. I realize, that like the kids that only know how to call my by my skin color, I have allowed myself to define other people by what they can do for me: Tailor, carpenter, rice and beans lady.

As I am working on filling out these forms, my neighbor pops out of her house.

“Hey, Dressmaker,” I yell at her through my window. “What’s your first name?”


Last week, representatives of the teacher’s union and the department of education reached an agreement that ended the teacher’s strike that had closed schools across the country since the beginning of the year. Now, as we wait for the official number of weeks the school year will be extended, I offer these final thoughts for the permanent teachers:

If you’re going to strike, strike for the students. Strike because none of the department of education’s money leaves the southern schools. Strike because your students have never even seen the textbook their curriculum is supposed to be based on. Strike because a person’s quality of education should not be dependent on his or her geographic location.

Don’t strike because you want more. Strike because your students deserve more.


 You get the call in the mid-afternoon on a Tuesday. It’s one of your best friends here, but it’s too early for one of your “how are you doing?” chats that often happen at night when you feel like you’ve already spent too much time that day watching television and you’re feeling the need to reach out to an actual human because while watching Captain Mel does pass the time, he’s the not the best listener.

You answer and, unfortunately, she’s not just asking you for a quick piece of information, but, instead, needs a moment to tell you one of those stories that happen too frequently when you live in a society that is obsessed and captivated by foreign women.

You listen and respond and try to make the situation better, but after 22 months, you think that you should be better at this conversation. This is not the first time you’ve had this conversation and you know that it won’t be the last. It won’t be the last time when you feel a friendship or work relationship take a completely different turn when he illustrates to you that he would like to be more than friends or work colleagues.

You realize that you haven’t gotten to used to it. Each time you get propositioned, you still feel violated. You know that the culture is different from your own. You know that it’s supposed to be flattering. You know that you can say, “no.” But each time it happens, you can’t stop your mind from momentarily going to those who didn’t have the chance or knew they had the right to say, “no.”

No regrets

You just ate a tube of ice cream and French fries for dinner in village. While you did share the melty bits of the former that you couldn’t finish with your cat, a significant portion of that tub of ice cream now sits in your stomach. And you’re ok with that because it’s the first time in 22 months that there has been a tub of ice cream in front of you to eat in one sitting. 

Real Gs move in silence

It wasn’t that we were making deep-fried lasagna, but that we were making deep-fried lasagna in Benin.

It was my friend’s birthday, and I was at our ex-pat friend’s (the kind that get paid a salary that allows them to live in house with air conditioning and satellite television) house in Bohicon. Her requests for the day mainly included a list of things that she wanted to eat.

Culinary-wise, most things are possible here. That is, if you’re willing to think ahead, lay down enough money, have access to a fridge and live close enough to make a trip to Cotonou. (which means, yes, we had previously thought out this plan to eat deep-fried lasagna, and it wasn’t something that just happened after too many Beninoise)

She had made the trip to the biggest city last weekend, then transported the lasagna, hot dogs, cheese and pizza (which we had previously used for other things), dropped them off in the freezer in the city before biking back to her village 15 km away. The other three of us that were there had traveled in by bike, taxi and bus in journeys that ranged from 3-6 hours.

Then, we had defrosted the lasagna, cooked it for 40 minutes, covered it with pancake batter and pan-fried it while sweat dripped down our faces.

Never had I worked so hard for the ability to eat something so ridiculous.

First Camp GLOW meeting

You’ve lived here almost two years. You know that finding Beninese people to get excited about working on projects is hard. You know the horror stories. Every volunteer has one. You know about waiting for things to happen and getting someone to do something for free and how the daily three-hour siesta sometimes marks the end of the workday.

You know that it is hard, but necessary if you want to be able to remotely label your project as “sustainable,” you’ve got to work to find one person in the community who will follow your project through to the end.

So, when you call the first meeting of your organizational committee for the girls’ camp that you’re holding this summer, and you don’t have to say anything after making introductions, you don’t say anything.