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Living Conditions in Benin

Communications

Volunteers find that it is common to use apps like WhatsApp for communication by chat, voice calls, and video calls with friends and family at home, as well as with colleagues and friends in Benin. Internet access is not like in the United States - the connection quality varies in rural areas where Volunteers live, and Wi-Fi is not commonly available. Volunteers in Benin generally connect to the internet either using their cell phone or Wi-Fi hotspot device (available for purchase in Benin), and in both cases they pay for data through their Beninese cell phone company. To do online computer work, Volunteers connect their laptop to a hotspot from their phone or a Wi-Fi hotspot device.

Most Volunteers find that at their house (and if not at their house then nearby in the community) they are able to have an adequate connection for sending messages and in many cases also for voice calls. It is not as common to have an adequate connection for video calls. Data is expensive compared to U.S. rates, and the price and connection quality may make streaming videos challenging, so many Volunteers develop new media consumption habits.

In general, Volunteers are able to complete work that requires internet access at or near their sites using their personal laptops connected to their phone or Wi-Fi hotspot. There are also two regional Peace Corps workstations with Wi-Fi access for Volunteers, but most have to travel hours from their community to get there, so they are not for everyday work.

Volunteers are given a local SIM card with a Beninese phone number the day they arrive in Benin, and are required to be reachable by a local phone number. Many Trainees bring unlocked smartphones or buy one in Benin. In order to complete required reports and assignments it is also helpful to bring a laptop if you have one. Phones and computers or tablets will be made available for Volunteers who do not have them.

Packages and letters

Letters and packages sent by mail may take 3-12 weeks to arrive in Benin; note that packages are expensive to ship and the recipient usually also needs to pay customs fees to receive it, which may exceed the price paid for the items.

Languages

Benin is a fascinating country for language lovers. After two years, you will leave Benin with at least an advanced-low level of spoken French, as well as skills in one of Benin’s local languages.

French is the official language of the Beninese educational and governmental system, and most Beninese people who speak French also speak one or more local languages, such as Fon, Mina, Adja, Bariba, Yoruba, Idaatcha, Mahi, Saxwe, Kotafon, or Nagot. Learning French is essential for successful Volunteer service, and you will have language classes and other resources to help you reach the required level for your service. In order to work successfully in a rural community, you will likely also need to reach a certain proficiency level in a local language, as local languages are used more than French in many rural communities where not everyone speaks French. Having an interest in a deeper study of local language, which most often will occur at site in the form of self-study, will help you connect more directly with community members who do not speak French.

Peace Corps Benin has dedicated Language and Cross-Culture Facilitators to teach French and local languages during the 12-week Pre-Service Training program, and you will likely also live with a host family during this time, an experience which will immerse you in a language and culture learning environment. Your host family will likely primarily speak one of the local languages of Benin, as well as some French. You will be supported throughout your service by a full-time Peace Corps Language & Culture Coordinator who monitors each Volunteer’s progress in French and local language. Peace Corps Benin will provide you with resources for your continued language learning throughout your first year of service, including identifying and training a language tutor in your community.

French language skills are not required to apply to serve in Benin, but if you have low-level French skills, we strongly encourage you to take a French course or make a commitment to self‐study prior to arrival in Benin in order to prepare for living and working there, as you will start interacting in French from your first week in Benin. You can find numerous free on-line French language resources. Upon arrival in Benin, you will be tested on your ability in spoken French for language class placement. If you are an experienced French speaker and test at a higher level from the beginning of training, you will begin learning the nuances of Beninese French, do self-directed research on various aspects of the culture of Benin, and start learning a local language spoken in Benin.

Housing and site location

Peace Corps Volunteers in Benin live and work in communities in the southern half of the country. Communities are selected based on their expressed interest in collaboration with a Volunteer.

Volunteers live in simple houses that are similar to the homes of their Beninese counterparts and neighbors.

For the first three months in Benin, during Pre-Service Training, Trainees generally live with host families. Host family housing is simple. Each Trainee has an individual bedroom, and share bathroom facilities (generally a latrine) with the family. There may not be electricity or running water.

After successful completion of Pre-Service Training, Trainees are sworn in as Volunteers and move to the communities where they will work for two years, where they live in independent housing. In most cases this is a simple two or three room house with cement floors and walls and a tin roof, often including a private outdoor space for cooking and bathing (by bucket bath), as well as a private latrine or a basic toilet. Houses are usually located in a compound with a family or families. Volunteers are provided a two-burner gas stovetop and gas bottle for cooking. Many Volunteer houses have basic electricity, and many of the Volunteers who are provided with houses without electricity buy solar panels in Benin. It is less common to have running water in a Volunteer's house, but there will be a source of water nearby within the community.

Living allowance and money management

Volunteers receive a monthly allowance in Benin's currency (CFA) that is sufficient to live at the level of their local community. The allowance covers food, household supplies, clothing, transportation to and from work, utilities, recreation and entertainment, and incidental expenses. Housing is provided by the community. Peace Corps Volunteers are expected to live at a level that is comparable with that of their Beninese colleagues. The Peace Corps discourages Volunteers from supplementing their living allowance with funds from home. However, Volunteers often wish to bring additional money for vacation travel to other countries. For this, credit cards and traveler’s checks are preferable to cash. If you choose to bring extra money, bring the amount that will suit your own travel plans and needs.

Food and diet

Volunteers in Benin adapt to the local diet as access to foods from home may be limited. The delicious foods of Benin are featured in the High on the Hog documentary and book. Most Beninese meals consist of a starch and a flavorful sauce -- depending on the region and the season, the starch may be corn (served as "pâte," which is similar to polenta), rice, yams (pounded, a bit like stiff mashed potatoes, or fried), or cassava/manioc (fried or in a polenta-like form). This may be served with various sauces, including sauce made from a base of peanuts, leafy greens, palm nuts, pumpkin/melon seeds, or tomatoes. Common protein sources are various kinds of meat (fish, goat, beef, sheep, pork (in certain regions), chicken), eggs, local cheese (called wagasi), beans (including black eyed peas and a bean similar to chickpeas called voandzou), and soy products like tofu (amon soja). Spicy green hot sauce (piment) is served with nearly every meal.

Access to fruits, vegetables, and proteins vary by region and season. In most communities it is easy to find tomatoes, onions, garlic, ginger, okra, and hot peppers. Vegetables that may only be available in larger market towns include lettuce, cucumbers, carrots, eggplant. Benin grows world famous pineapples, and other fruits that are available in some seasons and regions include mangoes, oranges, and bananas. Peanuts and tree nuts are part of the staple diet. Cashews are grown mainly for export and are available but expensive. Couscous, pasta, and bread are readily available in larger towns.

Benin has great street food, including savory bean flour beignets, banana fritters, sweet beignets, fried spicy peanut butter sticks, and fried yams.

European, Lebanese, Indian, and Chinese ingredients and products are available for purchase in grocery stores in the capital, where there are also a number of international restaurants, but can be expensive on a Volunteer’s budget.

Vegetarians and Vegans

Beans, including black eyed peas and voandzou (similar to chickpeas) with rice or bread are common, and are a good option for vegans or vegetarians. For example, atassi is a common mix of beans and rice. Vegetarians can also find small restaurants that sell omelettes and spaghetti in most towns. Sauces can be made vegetarian, but many sauces in Benin are usually cooked with meat, fish, shrimp powder, or bouillon cubes, so it can be challenging to fully avoid exposure to meat or meat flavoring when eating in restaurants or street food stands. At most food stands you order (and pay for) a specific number of pieces of meat, so it is not difficult to ask for sauce without a piece of meat, if you are comfortable eating sauce that has had meat cooked in it.

Transportation

Public buses and car taxis are used as the main transportation between towns for many people in Benin, including Peace Corps Volunteers. Within cities, towns, or villages, motorcycle taxis are more common, as well as car taxis in bigger communities. Volunteers in Benin are currently allowed to ride as passengers on motorcycle taxis (with certain restrictions about riding at night, on highly trafficked roads, etc.), and are issued motorcycle helmets which they are strictly required to wear if riding on the back of a motorcycle. Trainees receive training on riding as passengers on motorcycles as well as other training on transportation and safety in Benin. Many Volunteers ride a bicycle for getting around within and near their communities and for exercise. If you want a bicycle, Peace Corps will provide one or the means to purchase one. To bike in Benin, you will need to be in decent physical shape. Many roads in the country are unpaved, and their condition varies with the seasons, being dusty in dry season and muddy in the rainy season. Paved roads within and between cities are also of varying condition.

Social activities

The most successful Volunteers are those who make friends in their villages and organize their lives around activities that take place in the community. Going on walks to greet friends and/or neighbors in the community, as well as sitting and chatting along with them are the most common social activities in communities where Volunteers live.

Other common social activities include:

  • Watching or playing soccer (called football in Benin), which is generally played by men and boys, but many Volunteers help form teams for girls and women
  • Playing other sports like basketball and handball in some communities
  • Playing games like cards, checkers, and mankala (called adjito)
  • Attending church or mosque for weekly religious services. Some Volunteers find attending services (whether or not they share the religious beliefs) to be an effective strategy for integration into the community; in addition to weekly services, weddings, funerals, baptisms, etc., are common events attended by many community members
  • Women in rural Beninese communities often socialize while handwashing laundry, fetching water, or doing other household work, as well as while doing each other’s hair
  • There are frequent community holidays and celebrations, big and small, which generally involve gathering with friends and families, eating food, singing, and dancing
  • Some communities host large annual festivals, including Gaani fete in Parakou, Novitcha in Grand Popo, the yam festival in Savalou, Glexwe Xwe in Ouidah, and Goh Goh Xwe in Bopa, among others

Professionalism, appearance, dress, and behavior

Professionalism in the Peace Corps requires an awareness of the host community workplace culture, community values, and your self-presentation. To maintain a positive, culturally appropriate professional standing within a host community or workplace, Volunteers may need to adjust their style of dress, hair style, facial hair, make-up, piercings, manner of greeting others, etc., to demonstrate respect for local culture and customs. How you present yourself, in both informal and professional settings, is a reflection of you as an individual and of you as a representative of Peace Corps and the United States. In the U.S., dress (and other elements of personal appearance) may be seen as an expression of personal freedom and identity. In many host countries where Peace Corps Volunteers serve, the way you dress and present yourself may be interpreted as an expression of regard—or disregard—for those host community members around you.

Volunteers are encouraged to spend time in their communities, to develop their language skills, and to get to know the individual members of their community to better understand their traditions, culture, and local norms. As mutual trust is established over time, there may be opportunities for Volunteers to adjust their personal appearance and dress outside of the more rigid local standards. Volunteers are encouraged to discuss these potential adjustments with staff and other cultural mentors.

Volunteers in Benin are seen as professionals and are held to the same professional standards for appearance, behavior, etc., as their counterparts and colleagues. As in many communities on the African continent, dressing well conveys respect for others, so it is difficult to overdress. Dress codes may be conservative compared to some in the United States, but there is a great appreciation for fashionable clothing in local fabric. More details are listed in the packing guidance, but in general long pants, blouses/shirts, skirts and dresses below the knee, and nice sandals or shoes are appropriate for work. Dressing inappropriately (shorts, halter tops, short skirts, tight or low-cut blouses, spaghetti straps, dirty or torn clothing), will make it difficult to be seen as a professional in your community, while appropriate dress will earn you respect, facilitate integration, increase your professional reputation, and decrease unwanted attention.

In Benin, long hair, braids (including cornrows), locs, and long beards on men are unusual. All men are encouraged to adjust to the local style for hair and facial hair (low cut/short/well-trimmed). Many Volunteers identifying or presenting as men have chosen to shave or trim their facial hair and cut their hair to facilitate integration. Many Volunteers identifying or presenting as women wear their hair short, back in a ponytail or bun, or in braids or locs. Regardless of gender, to meet Beninese professional expectations, Volunteers should keep their hair clean, neat, and well-groomed throughout training and service in Benin.