Living conditions and volunteer lifestyles in Benin
From Peace Corps Wiki
Few countries in the world offer the level of service we consider normal in the U.S. If you come to Benin expecting U.S. standards for mail service, you will be in for some frustration. We do not want to sound discouraging, but when we are thousands of miles from our families and friends, communication becomes a very sensitive issue. We would prefer you be forewarned so as to decide what is important to you.
We strongly encourage you to write to your family regularly. Family members typically become worried when they do not hear from you, so please advise your parents, relatives, and friends that mail is sporadic and that they shouldn’t worry if they don’t receive your letters regularly. If a serious problem were to occur, Peace Corps/Benin would notify the Office of Special Services at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., and your family members would be contacted.
Similarly, in the event of an emergency at home, your family could contact the Peace Corps at 1.800.424.8580 and any messages would be transmitted to us to deliver to you.
Mail generally takes two weeks to one month to get from the
U.S. to Cotonou. Some Volunteers rent post office boxes in their villages; others have mail sent to the office in Cotonou where they pick it up or it is periodically delivered to sites near the Volunteers. Airmail is received several times a week via France and Dakar. Surface mail arrives approximately once every five weeks. Some mail may simply not arrive (fortunately this is not a frequent occurrence, but it does happen). Some letters may arrive with clipped edges because someone has tried to see the contents (again, this is rare, but it does happen). Ninety percent of all packages sent to Benin arrive (sometimes a few months late). Padded envelopes are a better bet than boxes because you don’t have to pay duty. Don’t ask people to send valuables to you. Items such as Walkman speakers, food, and clothing have usually arrived with no problem.
Number your letters, and advise your family and friends to number their letters as well and to write “Air Mail” and “Par Avion” on their envelopes. Your address during training will be:
“Your Name”, PCT
Corps de la Paix Americain
01 B.P. 971
Afrique de l’Ouest (West Africa)
Once you have been sworn-in as a Volunteer and are at your post, you will have your mail sent directly to your new address there. However, many Volunteers continue to receive packages in Cotonou since in-country delivery of mail is usually unpredictable.
Generally, regular and long-distance communication via telephone is available but expensive. If you are calling from outside the capital city, it may take longer to get a line. You can generally arrange for your family to call you in Benin, depending on your location in-country. You can tell your family how to call once you learn where you will be posted. Remember that there is a six-hour time difference (five hours during Daylight Savings) between Benin and the East Coast of the U.S.
Cellphone coverage is more and more prevalent throughout Benin. Many Volunteers buy cellphones once they arrive, which facilitates contact with family and friends back home as well as Peace Corps staff in-country. The Peace Corps does not supply cellphones to Volunteers.
Computer, Internet, and E-mail Access
If your sponsoring agency or counterpart owns a computer, you might be able to arrange access for work or personal use. The resource center in the Peace Corps office and the three workstations located in Parakou, Natitingou, and Kandi all have computers for work-related use. However, Internet access is currently not available at all of these workstations, nor is it available in rural areas where the most Volunteers are placed. In most cities, Volunteers have been able to access e-mail at private businesses or at Internet cafes; access to the Internet averages about $1 per hour, though the connection and speed are best in major cities and much slower in rural areas. Please let your family and friends know that it may be one or two months between times when you can check your e-mail. E-mail should not be considered by family and friends your main avenue of communication.
Housing and Site Location
Peace Corps staff, in collaboration with the ministry for which you will work, will decide your post according to the needs of the country. This happens after Peace Corps staff reviews all sites for appropriateness, safety, and security and takes time to get to know each trainee during pre-service training. You may not know where you’ll be assigned until the last few weeks of your training program.
Living Allowance and Money Management
As a Volunteer in Benin, you will receive four types of allowances: living allowance, settling-in allowance, vacation allowance, and, when needed, travel allowances.
Your living allowance is meant to cover your basic expenses; i.e., food, utilities, household supplies, clothing, recreation and entertainment, transportation, reading materials, and other incidentals. The allowance is reviewed at least once a year through a market survey to ensure that it is adequate. Currently, the living allowance in Benin is paid in local currency and is equivalent to approximately $180 a month. It is directly deposited quarterly into your bank account.
Additionally, you’ll receive a one-time settling-in allowance (roughly the equivalent of $150, and paid in local currency) to buy basic household items when you move to your site.
You earn your vacation allowance at the rate of $24 per month and it is added to your living allowance each quarter.
If you are requested by the Peace Corps to travel, you will be given funds for transportation and meals. This amount is based on the costs of transportation and lodging.
Most Volunteers find they can live comfortably in Benin with these four allowances, although many Volunteers bring money (in U.S. currency; cash or traveler’s checks) for out-of-country travel. You are strongly discouraged from supplementing your income with money brought from home. The living allowance is adequate, and Volunteers should be living at the same economic level of their neighbors and colleagues.
Credit cards can be used at a few hotels in the capital. Traveler’s checks can be cashed for a fee. You will not find many retail places that accept credit cards or traveler’s checks.
Food and Diet
Practically all foods are available at local markets in regional centers and in Cotonou. In some regional centers, there is a sufficient variety of meats, and local green vegetables are in abundant supply and variety when in season. Most tropical fruits can be found year-round. Fresh milk is not available, but powdered milk can generally be found throughout the country. In some villages, fruits and vegetables are rare, and Volunteers must travel to larger towns to obtain them.There are several supermarkets in Cotonou that cater to European and American tastes. Almost everything is available, but items are typically imported and therefore expensive. Basic foodstuffs available in almost all markets include beans, corn, rice, tomatoes, yams, hot peppers, garlic, onions, and spices.
Volunteers are not allowed to own or drive cars. Instead, you will be issued a bicycle and a bicycle helmet. All Volunteers must be prepared to ride on zemi-jahns (a motor scooter operated by a taxi driver), which is a principal source of transportation throughout Benin. You must wear a Peace Corps-provided motorcycle helmet when riding one of these, and you must wear the bicycle helmet when riding your bike. Violation of this policy will result in administrative separation. There are precious few vehicle taxis, and they are expensive and located only in Cotonou.
Most Volunteers travel throughout the country in “bush taxis,” which are generally in less-than-optimum condition and unregulated for safety standards. There are frequent road traffic accidents due to fast driving and poor road conditions.
We strongly urge that you pay careful attention during the training sessions on selecting public transportation and ask other Volunteers to assist in identifying safe drivers. You should avoid traveling at night whenever possible and use the bus lines when feasible.
Geography and Climate
Benin has a hot and humid climate in the south. There are four distinct seasons in most of the country: a long rainy season from April to July; a short dry season from August to September; a short rainy season from October to November; and a long dry season from December to March.
In contrast, the north has two seasons: a dry season from November to the beginning of May and a rainy season from May to October. The north is also marked by extreme daily temperature fluctuations, especially during the Harmattan (a dry sand-carrying wind from the desert during the dry season months of November, December, and January).
Social activities will vary depending on your interests and where you are located. They may include taking part in various festivities, parties, storytelling, and local dances. We encourage all Volunteers to remain at their sites and to discover the region to accomplish the second Peace Corps goal of cultural exchange.
A few larger towns may have more entertainment venues and an assortment of buvettes (bars) with live music and dancing, but for the most part it will be incumbent upon you to entertain yourself. The most successful Volunteers are those who make friends in their village and organize their lives around activities that take place there. There are many religious and traditional ceremonies during the year that provide opportunities for you to participate and immerse yourself in the cultural life of your village or town. Much of life revolves around food and Volunteers are often invited to other people's homes to relax and enjoy a meal and conversation.
Professionalism, Dress, and Behavior
Your social and public behavior as a Volunteer is of critical importance to you and the Peace Corps. Volunteers have social responsibilities that are more complex than those of private citizens. The Volunteer is often the most identifiable (and frequently the only) American in the community; hence, in addition to the responsibility for personal conduct that resides with every individual, Volunteers have a responsibility to conduct themselves in a manner reflecting credit on the Peace Corps and on the United States. Your hosts will inevitably see you as an example of American culture and customs. You will receive an orientation to appropriate behavior and cultural sensitivity during your training. As a Volunteer, you have the status of an invited guest, and thus you should be sensitive to the culture and customs of your hosts and other Americans who may have a culture different than your own.
Being neat and cleanly dressed is a sign of respect and pride. Trousers (for men, and women in some regions), blouses/ shirts, skirts (below the knee) and dresses are appropriate wear for work. Particularly in the Muslim north, dress is very conservative. If dress is inappropriate—shorts, halter tops, short skirts, form-fitting or low-cut blouses, dirty or torn clothing—you will not be readily accepted in your job.
Moreover, for women, inappropriate dress and behavior will attract unwanted attention. Beninese may not directly comment on your dress, but they most likely will think that you either don’t know what is culturally acceptable or that you don’t care and are disrespectful. Beginning in pre-service training, staff will require you to appear appropriately dressed and will ask you to leave the training site if you are not dressed properly.
More information about the Peace Corps approach to safety is outlined in the Health Care and Safety chapter, but it is an important issue and cannot be overemphasized. As stated in the Volunteer Handbook, becoming a Peace Corps Volunteer entails certain safety risks. Living and traveling in an unfamiliar environment (oftentimes alone), having a limited understanding of local language and culture, and being perceived as well off are some of the factors that can put you at risk. Many Volunteers experience varying degrees of unwanted attention and harassment. We ask that you inform the country director of harassment of any kind on the job, as there is a zero-tolerance policy.
Harassment in public (e.g., being called yovo [foreigner] by children or adults on the street) is an issue that you will encounter. Staff and peer support Volunteers will help you develop strategies to cope. Your success and effectiveness in doing so will depend largely on your personality. Perhaps for the first time in your life, you will learn what it means to be “different” or a member of the “minority.” If you are uncomfortable with being perceived as different all the time, Peace Corps service is not for you.
Petty thefts and burglaries are not uncommon, and incidents of physical assault do occur, although most Volunteers complete their two years of service without personal safety problems. The Peace Corps has established procedures and policies designed to help Volunteers reduce their risks and enhance their safety and security. At the same time, Volunteers are expected to take responsibility for their safety and well-being by exercising common sense and by following the policies and procedures developed from the experience of staff and Volunteers who have come before you.
These procedures and policies, in addition to safety training, will be provided once you arrive in Benin.
Rewards and Frustrations
Although the potential for job satisfaction is quite high, like all Volunteers, you will encounter numerous frustrations. For example, the pace of work and life is slower in Benin than most Americans are accustomed to; and, people change practices and traditions that are centuries old only when it is sensible to them and profitable. Also, due to financial or other challenges, collaborating agencies do not always provide the support promised. For these, and other similar reasons, the Peace Corps experience is often described as a series of emotional peaks and valleys that occur while you adapt to a new culture and environment.
To counterbalance some of these frustrations, Peace Corps/Benin has worked to create formal collaborative and supportive systems and work environments. You will find yourself in work situations that require an ability to motivate yourself and your counterparts with little guidance from supervisors. You may work for months without seeing any visible impact and without receiving feedback on your work.
Development is a slow ongoing process. Positive progress is often seen only after the combined efforts of several Volunteers over the course of many years. You must possess the self-confidence, patience, and vision to continue working toward long-term goals without seeing immediate results.
To approach and overcome these difficulties, you will need maturity, flexibility, open-mindedness, and resourcefulness. Beninese are a hospitable, friendly, and warm people. The Peace Corps staff, your co-workers, and fellow Volunteers will support you during times of challenge as well as in moments of success. Judging by the experience of former Volunteers, the peaks are well worth the difficult times, and most Volunteers leave Benin feeling that they have gained much more than they gave during their service. If you are able to make the commitment to integrate into your community and work hard, you will be a successful Volunteer.