Friday, November 9, 2012

Benin Orphanage Project: Dagbé

I have founded Dagbé, a 501c3 non-profit organization to continue supporting the children's home that I built in Ouèssè, Benin with your generous assistance. Please visit our website,, to find out more!

Dagbé means "to do good" in Fon, the local language spoken in Ouèssè. We seek to continuing doing good by providing shelter, food, clothing, healthcare, educational opportunities, and more for orphans, vulnerable children, victims of abuse, extreme poverty, and child trafficking. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to continue supporting our work. 

Visit to find out how you can donate. Thank you!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Motorcycle Taxis

I have spent many hours over the past sixteen months staring at the back of a black person’s head. This is a natural consequence of living in a sub-Saharan African country in which motorcycle taxis are a primary mode of transportation. And it actually is quite intriguing. Now, before you go labeling me as “slow,” or “easily entertained,” let me point out that most people never focus on the back of any person’s head. I had plenty of time in school and in movie theaters to study the back of people’s heads, but there was always something more important further on in my line of vision.

Motorcycles are quite dangerous, with roads being the way they are here. (Which is to mean, oftentimes, nonexistent) Rides range from, “This pavement is relatively smooth,” to “There is not a medical facility within 100 kilometers that won’t determine it’s best to treat me by bleeding me.” I often thank God for the motorcycle helmet issued by Peace Corps. It’s comforting to know that if I smash my head up, at least I won’t die, I’ll only be a vegetable for the rest of my life.

To take my mind off of the possibility of impending death, I have developed several games to play while I am on the back of motos. These include “Write Your Own Mental Will,” “How Long Will You Spend in Purgatory,” and “Which Tree Would Be The Most Fun To Smash Into.”

I had plenty of opportunity to play these games when riding with the previous president of artisans in Ouesse. We would drive out to a village 25 kilometers away through dirt roads, streams, and sand, and he would be flying the whole time. Trouble was, if you tried to tell him to go a little slower, he would take it as a challenge and speed up. One time, we were going out to a village called Akpero, and were on a small sand path approaching the village. There was another motorcycle coming toward us, and neither motorcycle felt as though it ought to yield. This often tends to cause problems. At the very end as horns were blaring, the president of artisans swerved our moto out of the way, where we could a sand pit and nearly went down. My elbow was only inches from hitting the ground before he and the sand righted the moto. The president laughed nervously as he looked back and said, “They were supposed to yield.” My initial reaction was, “Bull#%&^!”

A new president of artisans was elected in June, so now when I ride out to villages, he’s the one to drive me. He’s not nearly the speed demon the other president was, but he’s a little more absent-minded. He’s the kind of guy who will drive into a ditch going 5 miles an hour because he was waving at someone on the side of the road. I’m all for that kind of guy, though, considering the driver I had before.

All in all, though, Benin is a pretty safe place. People are nice and are always willing to help you out to make sure you don’t put yourself in a dangerous position. Although sometimes, when they have a moto, they enjoy putting you in a dangerous position!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Ouesse Orphanage Project - I Need Your Help!

Hello everyone,

I am currently working on a very big project to open an orphanage/children's home in Ouesse. I would really appreciate your help with this project. Use the link and instructions below to donate. Following that on this blog is a further description of the project. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about the project.

The link: Click on "Donate Now" on the left side of the screen. Next, choose, "Donate to Volunteer Projects." Then select Africa as the region. My project is project number 680-166, listed under Benin, Children's Home Construction, and my name "T.Seromik."

About the project: My village, Ouesse, and the surrounding region do not have any institutions currently operating that take care of children in difficult situations - this means orphans, trafficked children, and sexually and physically abused children. Because of Ouesse's location next to the Nigerian border and the conditions of life in Ouesse along with the high rates of HIV/AIDS in Ouesse and Benin in general, children that fall into these categories are numerous. Currently, a friend of mine, Victor Kinmagbahohoue, tries to care for the kids. He and his wife take them in, feed them, give them clothes. However, he does not have the resources to help all of these children. In April another friend, Alexandre Zondo, a representative of the Ministry of Family and Children in Benin, took me along with him to take care of a situation with the local law enforcement officials. They had stopped 7 Togolese children being trafficked, and my friend, as a local government representative, had to intervene. I was appalled as the police pulled the children, aged 10 to 15, out of the cells in the local jail and pushed them forward to interview them, find out where they were from so they could try to send them back home. My friend Victor did not at that time have the space or the resources to accommodate them at his house. This incident struck me very hard. Although I can only make a small difference, my job here as a volunteer is for the development of Benin. This development occurs only by providing tomorrow's generation with opportunity, and there is a significant portion of that generation in the region of Ouesse that is not receiving that opportunity. This is why I want to help.

Victor proposed building a center for children in difficult situations in Ouesse. This would house orphans in long-term situations and feed them, clothe them, and pay for their schooling, but also it would house trafficked children or victims of abuse or other vulnerable children in short-term situations. Over the past few months we have met with government ministry officials and directors of large international aid organizations to gain their support, especially for the independent continuity of the project. Victor created the center on paper as an independent NGO, called CAEES (Centre d'Accueil et d'Ecoute des Enfants en Situation difficile: Center for Children in Difficult Situations).

Now, we need your help to finance the construction of the building.. The Peace Corps Partnership Program is a program designed to let friends and family of volunteers participate in their projects, share in their experience, and assist in making a difference in their communities. The donations that you would make would be 100% tax-deductible. Donate what you can afford, any amount is welcome; the total amount of the project is just under $30,000. With your help, we can complete the construction of the orphanage and work on opening the center for operation before the end of my service.

I thank you for all of your help, prayers, and support throughout this process, and I ask that you consider donating some money for the construction of this children's center. The community of Ouesse and I would be extremely grateful.

There is an option to make donations anonymously. We would like to recognize you once we get through the construction, but we understand if you would like to make the donations anonymously.

Lastly, please pass this message along to friends, family, organizations, businesses, or other groups that might be willing to donate.

Thank you very much for your help,

Tomas Sebastian Seromik

Friday, June 13, 2008

Speaking English

I have a postmate who teaches English at the local secondary school. This is mostly advantageous – my postmate is fantastic. In addition to actively listening with feigned interest to all the mundane things I find amusing, she often cooks for me, she cuts my hair, and brings me my mail from Parakou when she makes the trip up there.

However, her students don’t quite seem to know what to do with me. I’m white, but I don’t teach them any classes. Nevertheless, this does not keep them from practicing their English with me. I’ll be walking home from a meeting at 5 PM and they’ll say, “Goot Mahning, Teachah.” Depending on my mood I find this either funny or annoying – in part because it’s not the morning and in part because I’m not a teacher. With my politically-correct Ann Arbor-native leanings, I try not to perpetuate the stereotype that all white people speak English, so I normally respond with a simple, “Bon soir.” Unless I’m reading through yet another translated work of 19th-century Russian literature, in which case I respond, “Yes a fine morning indeed! Capital!” This usually only confuses them, but the point is that they try.

The Nigerians that I know also try. For many of them, English is a language that they only learned in school. Consequently, for many of them, they don’t speak it very well. I asked my friend Matthew one day if he had gone to play soccer that morning.

“No, I don’t go. My machine do not respond me,” he replied, meaning that his motorcycle hadn’t started. Another conversation I had out at a local buvette (bar), with two Nigerian friends. It went like this:

Friend 1: Do you have these buvettes in your country?
Me: Yes, only we don’t call them buvettes, we call them bars.
Friend 1: (getting excited) Yes! This is same as Nigeria!
Friend 2: Yes! We call them bars, also!
Friend 1: Yes, bar. B-E-A-R.
Friend 2: No, that’s “beer.” Bar is B-A-A-R.
Friend 1: Oh…
Me: Yep, we have them.

I am actually fascinated with these new insights into the English language - hearing peculiar words or phrases, seeing how even in countries like Nigeria, where it’s the official language, it’s taken a course all its own. It’s a great reminder that language is in a very real sense a living thing.

A few months ago I met a young man in Ouèssè who was a university student in Parakou on break for the holidays with his family. His English was pretty good, and he was thrilled to have the chance to speak with me. Afterward, I told him I’d call him when I was in Parakou for a conference three weeks later. I called him, but school officials had sent him to a town a few hours south and he wouldn’t be back until later. I called him back later but he was still on the road and I was tired, so I didn’t end up meeting with him.

A couple of weeks ago I ran into him in Ouèssè as I was walking home and he offered me a ride.

On the way home he said, “I knew that day when you call you are very hungry for me, but my people they send me everywhere. But I see you are very hungry for me that day.”

Huh. That’s not how I would have described my feelings. Yet here I saw a golden opportunity to have some fun and at the same time not give anyone the wrong impression.

“Yes, I was very hungry for you,” I said. “Starving, in fact.”
“Yes,yes. I knew, I say to myself that you are very hungry.”
“You’re right, I was very hungry for you.”
“Yes,yes. If I don’t go everywhere that night I would come with you any place.”
“Yes, I know you’d follow me anywhere.”
“Tell you what,” I said, as we pulled up to my house, “next time I’m in Parakou, if I work up an appetite for you, I’ll give you a call.”
“Fine, fine. Yes. See you after.”
“Yes, take care.”

I certainly don’t get as many chances to speak English here as I do back home, so I take advantage when they present themselves. This also helps me put my French into perspective, making it easier to tolerate mistakes I make in that language while at the same time pushing me to improve. But in the end, stripped of all its décor, it’s all simple communication. They know what I mean, and I know what they mean. It’s one of the joys of this experience, realizing that there’s so much that’s different between us, but underneath it all so much that we have in common, and because of that, we understand.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Health Care

I cut my thumb in October. This was no routine paper-cut style scratch but a gash worthy of several stitches. On the positive side, I know that when people point to my scar and ask me where I got it, I can reply "Africa" with a certain air of masculinity that leaves the listener in awe. On the negative side, the story behind it is not nearly as romantic. I was opening a can of peas, and the can opener missed two spots directly opposite each other. Being the incredibly bright individual that I am, gifted with the mental capacity to graduate from an institution such as the University of Michigan, I thought to myself, "Well, I'll just push the lid open with my thumbs!" Five minutes later I was on my last piece of gauze from the medical kit the Peace Corps had provided me, calling my postmate who was at the Peace Corps office, to tell her to bring me some more gauze when she came back the following day.

"Well, do you need stitches?" she asked. I hadn't thought of that.

"I don't know, probably they'd stitch it up in the US but I can't really see it because it's dark," I replied through a mouthful of peas cooked in Type O positive blood.

"Well, you might have to go to Parakou tomorrow," she said, referring to the big city two hours away with a decent hospital.

I slept fitfully that night, my hand bleeding through cloths I had wrapped around it and my arm raised above my head. In the morning, I decided to try out Ouesse's little medical clinic. I arrived and asked two men where the doctor was.

"Why?" asked one. I told him I'd cut my thumb.
"I can take a look at it," he said. I followed him hesitantly into a room where he slowly put on a shirt. The room was furnished with a blood-stained wooden table and a cart with medical supplies. He told me to put my hand on the table, which looked as though it had been previously owned by some goat-slaughtering voodoo fetishers. He then carefully unwrapped my bandages with tweezers treated with what he said was "sanitizer." I got my first daylight look at my injury, and knew immediately that I needed stitches.

The prospect of dealing with a white person's lesion must have aroused the curiosity of this man, who had never actually admitted to being a doctor or told me where the real doctor was. He started poking and prodding the cut with the tweezers until it started gushing blood again, after which he said that it was worse than he had thought.

"Yeah, I think I need stitches," I replied.
"No, you know what we're going to do," he said, taking surgical scissors and placing them around the front half of my thumb which was falling off; "we're going to cut this off and let it heal a l'aire." This was a little too much for me to handle; after all, I have enjoyed playing guitar for the last ten years. I stopped him in time and told him I was going to go to the hospital in Parakou instead to get stitches. He looked hurt, but I think he understood.

The doctor in Parakou, I was told, is regarded as one of the best surgeons in Benin. He took one look at the cut and told me he'd stitch it up. I told him what the man in Ouesse had wanted to do and he gasped. He then gave me several shots of anesthetic and I waited a minute for the anesthetic to work its magic. It didn't.

He approached with a thread that looked thick enough to use as a ropeswing, so I told him that maybe we should wait another minute until the anesthetic started kicking in.

"It hasn't yet?" he asked, surprised.

He thought for a moment and then proceeded. Every time I winced in pain as the needle pierced my thumb and the gigantic thread was pulled through, he would ask incredulously if it hurt. As if the procedure wasn't painful enough, now he had to put my manhood into question. I lied and told him it didn't. He finished and I headed off to find lunch after thanking him.

The cut healed well; I'm actually somewhat disappointed that the scar isn't nastier. Nevertheless, it was a memorable experience that gave me a first-hand look at the Beninese health-care system.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

My Way or Their Way...?

I often look at my current job as an opportunity to teach other people something I already know. I teach accounting and marketing skills to artisans and secondary school students. I teach music theory to church choir groups. I'm teaching a friend the alphabet so that she can eventually write her own name. With all of this teaching it's very easy to miss out on all the opportunities to learn from people here. This is why I get very excited when I see some useful tool that I can take back home with me at the end of my service.

Benin recently held municipal elections, and the campaigning process provided me with one such opportunity. Although I do keep tabs on the presidential campaign in the United States, I have to admit it's been quite refreshing not to be flooded with news about the candidates all the time. In the United States, the prospects declare their candidacy months, even years, in advance and you never stop hearing about them - what they did right, what they did wrong, what they mispronounced, why they will or will not be elected.

Here, the candidates could not begin campaigning until 10 days before the election. As soon as the campaign was open, they all made a mad dash to distribute as many posters, flyers, and stickers as they could. These featured, usually, the candidate's face and the party's logo.

The general campaign strategy seemed to be something like this: the candidate would get 20 or so of his friends together at his house, they would all take a handful of posters, take a couple of shots of sodabi (moonshine), and head out on their motorcycles, honking. Also yelling into a megaphone if one was available. When they ran out of posters, they would ride back to the house, grab some more, take some more shots, and then head out again.

As I was observing all of this from an outsider's perspective, the thought occurred to me: "This is what we should do with the presidential campaigns in the U.S!" Think about it - it can't make the campaigning any less serious than it is right now, it would be wildly entertaining, and we could cap off each night with a nationally televised debate. I don't think it's a stretch to say that after a few drinks throughout the day, the candidates would be more sincere during these debates.

So, sometimes there are things where it seems to me that the "American way" is better, but there are still plenty of things that I can learn from and appreciate about the local way of life. While this example is perhaps somewhat more of a joke, this also holds true for many other things. In a position like mine, it's often easy to fall into the trap of thinking that my way of doing things is superior. It's a challenge to remember to look for ways in which I can grow or I can learn from people here, but when I do pick something up or learn something, it's very rewarding.

Life continues to go well here in Ouesse. I enjoy my town, my friends, and my work, and I'm thankful that I made the choice to come out here. Thank you for all of your prayer, love, and support, it really means a lot to me.



Friday, March 28, 2008

Friendships at Post

Several months ago, if you had told me that someday one of my closest friends would be a 26-year old illiterate woman who didn’t shave her armpits, I probably would have had trouble believing you. However, this is the reality for me in my village in Benin. It really is amazing that you can forge significant friendships with so many different types of people.

I’m really enjoying my community in large part because of these friendships. Originally, coming into Benin, I thought that my post would be where I worked, but that most of my fun, social interaction would be with other volunteers. It’s a pretty typical American mentality—find the other Americans and hang out with them. That’s why we always do study abroad programs in large groups, I guess.

I’ve slowly realized that while there is a lot of value in friendships with other volunteers, the most rewarding ones are with the locals that I meet at post. This realization has led me to appreciate cultural differences even more, and to look for ways in which I can let go of my preconceived notion of what a meaningful friendship should be, and instead embrace the opportunity to create different types of relationships that are just as meaningful.

Felicite, the woman I mentioned above, was friends with the volunteer before me, and pretty soon was coming over every day for a while just to chat. She is a single mother with a 7-year old son who has club feet and a 9-month old baby. One of the most interesting and most fun projects, as well as one of the most simple, I have begun with her. She told me that she would someday like to be able to write her name, so I’ve begun teaching her the alphabet, and working with her so that she’ll be able to do that. It’s not quite the type of work I’d ever thought I’d do, and it’s not what most people think of when they think of development, but it’s definitely one of my projects I love the most.

Other friendships have similarly involved. Victor is another of my close friends at post. He’s a very dynamic NGO president, with a clear heart to improve his community, and I’ve come to rely on him for a lot of things, and feel very comfortable talking to him about nearly everything. I also enjoy going and spending time with other friends at their shops or work stands. All in all, I’m finding more and more value every day in the friendships that I’ve made with Beninese people, and have come to learn that they often provide greater wisdom and insight when I need it than I ever expected. I’m truly thankful for them, and they are a big reason why I love my post so much.

Sorry I haven’t been updating my blog lately. I actually spent the last two months at post without leaving, and it looks like I’ll be doing things more in that vein from now on. Perhaps not two months, but I don’t think I’ll make it to a computer every two weeks like I had originally planned. This is not to discourage all of you from emailing me and keeping me updated on your lives—please do, I love hearing from you.

I hope everyone is doing well, staying healthy, and getting ready for summer! God bless,