Friday, August 14, 2009


Free refills, getting change without a verbal skirmish, fixed prices, and having everything on the menu. Recycling, clean streets, and temperate climates. Free, fast wireless, unlimited nights and weekends, a post office that won’t loose/steal my mail. America, I am coming home!

I have just finished the most challenging and rewarding experience of my life. I lived in an impoverished but wonderful rural African village, I worked hand-in-hand with members of my community to make our lives better, and I learned and gained more than I could have possibly have taught or helped. Peace Corps volunteers say this all the time. Filled with the fresh euphoria of having completed my obligation I am proud and pleased with the work I have done and the life I have lived.

I’m going to miss speaking French and Franglais. I’ll miss beans and gari, people selling whatever I need off of their head while wandering around, overloaded taxis and most of all I am going miss Zems! There aren’t many other experiences that allow the freedom of Zemidjan riding. These guys will take you anywhere you want whenever you want, as long as you are willing to discuss the price for the same amount of time as it takes to travel to your destination. While they may be frustrating a t times, they are probably the most fun-loving and happy group of people in Benin. Their lust for life seems to influence me almost every time I climb on the moto and say “Ça y est!” (“That’s it!” in French).

You can take the hillbilly out of Africa, but you can’t take the Africa out of the hillbilly. So I say to Benin, Peace Corps and the last two years, Ça y est!

I’m on to the next arena (as of yet undefined). Be sure I’ll be writing about it. For now, my only goal is to make it to Dakar before September 3rd and have as many outstanding experiences as I can along the way.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Enter the Heroine

I had spent the last half hour jockeying for position with a room full of anxious Beninese and other ex-pats waiting for a glimpse of a loved one or business partner who came in on this particular Air France flight. I'd spent the previous two weeks or so planing and re-planning my mother's first visit to the African continent. My goal was to fit three solid weeks of activities into 9 days and have everything come together perfectly.

Gathered around a nylon belt we all stretched and peered through the customs foyer and into the luggage room, like Sooners sizing up the Oklahoma landscape; I no longer cared about the perfect balance of tourism and real volunteer experience. I just wanted visual confirmation that my Mother, Colleen Banbury, had boarded a plane and now was planted firmly on Beninese soil.

On April 8th at 8:20pm (Cotonou, Benin) my mother stepped into the receiving room at the Cotonou Airport with a huge carry-on bag, a smile to match and a wonderful laugh that I hadn't heard in 21 months.

We waited around for the hotel shuttle to fill and talked about her harrowing trials in Charles de Gaul and the chaos of preparing for a trip such as this. At the hotel restaurant we ordered the last pizza of the evening and talked over draft Castel beer.

It was a good arrival, une bonne arrivée.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


As you may have heard or read, A PCV here in Benin was murdered last week. This sad news has been devastating to the local PCV community. Kate Puzey was an exemplary volunteer and a fantastic woman.

I had the great honor to spend two months of training with Kate. We were two of nineteen TEFL volunteers arriving in Benin on a two year commitment to serve. Over those first two months and the 18 that followed I knew Kate as an indefatigable source of positivity and energy. What was it about this woman that allowed her to shine so lively? Where will that force come from now, if not from Kate? I hope it will, in part, come from those of us who had the good fortune to be touched by her spirit.

Kate's blog reflects her zeal. Its a nice read; though as I miss her, I wish there was more of it. My heart goes out to her family. I can't imagine how they are coping with the loss of their daughter.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Pride and Patriotism

Patriotism might be on the rise in the US, but its not the only nation feeling a surge of national pride. In my week in Ghana, I was struck by where and how often the national flag surfaced. Everyone from the smallest baby to the most elderly grandmother seems to be sporting the flag or colors of Ghana these days. Every telephone booth is painted with the red, gold, and green. The black star can be spotted in company logos, on tee shirts, and just about any place else. Teenagers are walking down the street in silly Ghanaian hats and Ghanaian tee shirts. Everyday in Ghana rivals the most intense Fourth of July celebration I have ever witnessed.
Perhaps the most striking example is the number of young couples that can be seen taking wedding photos at the memorial to the first president of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah, every weekend. While Nkrumah may not have a perfect political record, he certainly led Ghana into a new era and new beginning. Perhaps this is what draws so many young people to his monument on such an important day of their lives, hope for greater things through unity. In an hour or so I counted 4 couples that came to the museum, park, and monument. They took photos with the structures and toured the museum; looking at photos of Nkrumah with every world leader from Castro to Kennedy.
The only thing more prevalent in Ghana than Ghana is God. Christianity is overt and on display everywhere, from "Blessed be thy Light Tailor" to "His Grace Butchery." I find it a little devisive in a country with a large Muslim population, but I suppose the spirit moves some people.

Returning Home

As I climbed out of my cab into the practically visible, polluted Cotonou air after 10 hours of travel from Accra, the stale smell of exhaust and sewage hit my olfactory like a glass of wine turned to vinegar. As the zems ran up to the car jockeying for position, joking with one another, I knew I was home. It is good to be back. Cotonou is a city known only to those who've weaved through her traffic on a zem driven by a slightly (one hopes) intoxicated maniac. The city and her people simmer in a cauldron of sweat, tar, and trash. While the ingredients of the stew are essentially the same as most underdeveloped metropolies, the bouquet is specific to this city and this city alone. Over the last year and 8 months, I've become accustomed to its rhythm and tune. I know how to talk to people, engage them or brush them off. In short, its home.

Ghana was a wonderful experience, but it was difficult to reconcile that I was just another foreign traveler, forever out of step with the local dance. Of course there are details I liked more about Ghana than Benin. One might say the same thing when comparing a family member to a friend; but when it comes down to it, family is family. For now I'm Beninois, and I'm proud.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Post Office Traumatic Stress

A couple of months ago I loaned a friend my PO Box key. She was going to share my box since she just got into town. Well she lost it. No big deal, you just go to the post and pay for a new key right? Hmmmm, no.

I should preface this by saying my post office (PTT here) is a great guy. He is always in a good mood when we talk and has done me a couple favors over my time here. He is relatively young and completely on top of things, two qualities I rarely encounter.

So one morning I was running errands and decided it was time to get my PO Box key replaced. I went in to the office and was surrounded by maybe 30 other patrons. The PTT also serves as a money transfer center (i.e. Western Union). It was a the holiday season so this was a pretty busy time.

I elbowed and hip-checked my way to the counter (like may other things "lines" haven't developed). So I give my best sympathetic smile, go through the list of 10 or so mandatory greeting questions, and launch into my situation. I explain the deal, and he's pretty cool. "You just need to write a note explaining that you need your clock changed." he tells me. This is radical! I, being a genius, have already written a letter. I had researched the price of the change and everything. My letter goes something like this:

To Whom it may Concern,
I would like to replace the lock on PO Box 217. I have included 10,000f CFA to pay the necessary fee.

Thank you,
Matthew Banbury

I'm the next Hemingway, right? My friend the post master takes one look at this scribble and then looks slightly let down. I ask if that will do and he explains that it will not. Taking pity upon this confused grinning foreigner, he explains what I must do. I am really confused. So in exasperation, he writes the letter, to himself. Then tells me I need to copy it and sign it. It reads as follows:

To: Mister the Receiver of the PTT Glazoue,

Object: Request of Change of Lock

Mister the Receiver,
I have the honor of soliciting from your high benevolence a request of changing of lock of my PO Box.

In waiting of a favorable continuation, I pray you to agree, Mister the receiver, the expression of my distinguished sentiments.

Matthew Banbury

Amazing is it not? Could the tone and language be anymore colonial? Keep in mind this a down to earth guy. If he were a stuck up jerk, there would be no surprise. He was clearly busy, but protocol is protocol, no matter what. I laughed when I read it and then copied it precisely, even the half page heading that he wrote.

Two days later my lock was changed. He had indeed won my distinguished sentiments.

Black Death Blackout Bingo

I'm doing my best to collect every stereotypical "African" illness. There has been amoebas, giardia, some mystery illnesses that may or may not have been Malaria, and a few others whose names I didn't catch as I ran to the latrine. The latest has been a fungus-bacteria tag team that has my face looking like I'm testing 12 gauge buckshot from point blank range face-first.

Luckily here in Peace Corps Benin we have a great medical staff that takes excellent care of us and with combined experience of over 40 years, there is little they haven't seen. Sometimes they can be a little over zealous if anything. So last Thursday I found myself pleading with one of our medical staff to allow me to spend the weekend in post so that I might hold my AIDS training session. Eventually I got my way (and the session was great!). This week he took one look at my chewed up mug and quickly prescribed a second cream and an anti-biotic.

Hopefully the chemical cocktail will prevent me from looking like Robert Davi.