Benin, Africa - Peace Corps Years and Beyond

After Steve graduated from U. Mass Amherst in 1980 he decided to join the Peace Corps and see the world.  The initial assignment was going to be Oman, but the Peace Corps needed women for Islamic countries so Steve resubmitted his application and was given La Republic Populaire de Benin, West Africa.  The focus for Steve's Peace Corps years was building wood-conserving cook stoves to save forests.  Think of appropriate technology meets energy conservation meets design thinking. Steve was one of four volunteers on an "appropriate technology" project designing and testing wood conserving cook stoves in Benin. The monetary and labor cost of finding wood with which to cook was becoming a major factor in some villages across Africa, as well as extensive use of wood contributing to deforestation.​ 

 

It turns out that the best stove has complete combustion of the firewood and lower heat loss around the fire.  Steve was stationed in Malanville, Benin, 610 kilometers from the capital Cotonou. Steve lived in a hut with Brad Fletcher with no electricity, and no running water.  The village had less than 10,000 people who were very friendly and open to stove technology exploration.  There was one main paved road, route Nationale, that connected the town with the capital. Once a week there was a local market with camels, the occasional fruit, livestock, and dry goods.  Meals consisted of rice, sauce, beer, and beans.

After the Peace Corps, Steve had a chance to travel around Zimbabwe and Botswana with Dave and Margot White on safari, exploring Chobe National Park in Botswana, Hwange National park in Zimbabwe, Fothergill Island on Lake Kariba in Matusadona National park in Zimbabwe, and Victoria Falls among other magical places.  He worked with Ralph Faulkingham in Niger.

Hwange National Park
Fothergill Island - Kariba, Zimbabwe
Sable Valley Shimba Hills National
Chobe National Park
Chobe Game Park
Chobe Game Park
Chobe Game Park
Chobe Game Park

Memories from Brad Fletcher

Steve's Peace Corps roommate in Benin

In Africa, we were called ‘yovo’ by the kids—“Yovo, yov, bon soir, ca va bien, merci!” over and over—it got pretty tiresome for most of us and we tried to ignore it.  Steve always amazed me because he did the opposite—he usually engaged the kids in a little dialogue about it, joking and asking them about it—and they’d end up laughing and running away.  He did it again, and again, and again.   Steve was a kid magnet.

Steve was the tallest and biggest and blondest (the sun really bleached out our hair) yovo in Malanville, which got him a lot of attention.

Steve came to Benin as part of a small, four man, mud stove team.  They trained in California, met us teachers in Philadelphia, and we traveled on together to Benin in November of 1980.  Since Benin had, not too many years before, become a Marxist military dictatorship, the Peace Corps had drawn down its volunteer numbers so that the last few were leaving as we entered.  Unlike a lot of other PC countries, with hundreds of volunteers and long traditions and continuities,  Benin felt like new territory to us.  After three months, in-country training, Steve and I were posted the farthest out—to Malanville on the northern border. 

 We didn’t live in a hut—it didn’t have electricity or water (no one did) but it was cement block with a tin roof and one of the nicest places in town.  We mostly lived outdoors on the veranda, though, as it was always baking hot inside the house.  Steve and I each seemed to claim an open area on the porch as our ‘room’ for our stuff.  The interior of the house was just a storage area.

Until I got married, that house-sharing and living with Steve was the longest term relationship I’d ever had, and closest thing to a marriage I ever experienced.  We got along well and were in general philosophical agreement about most things but, admittedly, we didn’t ‘choose’ each other or our living arrangement—it was provided for us, and were both pretty headstrong young men.  In hindsight, I can say I prefer marriage.

Building construction techniques weren’t very good.  The house was surrounded by a cinder block wall, for example, but the corners were simply abutted—they weren’t interlocked.  Consequently, one night during a ferocious storm in the rainy season, we heard a loud THUMP and got up to see what the heck it was—Steve had a good flashlight and shined it out into the yard, to see that the entire section opposite the front of the house had completely fallen over.

Malanville was a unique place. Being on the northern border it had a Sahel-like feeling much of the year—green in summer, but incredibly dry and sandy (with camels!) in the dry season.  We were dusty and sun-burned much of the time.   Small, but a border town on the Route Nationale and Niger River, it sometimes bustled with traffic which just passed through.  On the weekends it had a huge market, but then that, too, disappeared.   In the mid-day heat pretty much everything stopped—school and businesses were closed, and everyone took a sieste until the sun lowered in late afternoon, then life resumed for the cooler evening hours.  There wasn’t much to do, not much to buy, not much to eat.  I wasn’t much enamored of the food, but either Steve was, or probably just less picky.  We mostly ate our dinner on the street—usually visiting the same women vendors and buying whatever they were selling, which they wrapped in the paper layers of discarded cement bags, and either ate it there or took it to a buvette to eat, drink, and chat.    I remember we liked the bean cakes and hot sauce one woman sold, and Steve ate the igname pele (pounded white yams with hot sauce), and sometimes some pepper covered meat brochettes—washed down with terrible soda called Youki, although that is probably misspelled.  The national beer was weak, watery, and terrible, and the green or orange soda was sickly sweet, and all of it was warm unless the buvette’s had a generator.  Few did.

Along with the evening meal, the nightly entertainment was to walk into town to eat on the street and drink soda at the local bar.  Steve was always more willing than I to engage the men (never women) at the bar over political and religious discussions—giving as good as he got in the exchange over American imperialism and Muslim hypocrisies—they were drinking beer, after all!  It was all the more remarkable because neither of us had very good French—but enough to make ourselves understood or to get into trouble.

Steve had a really good radio and used to listen to the BBC, which we could get pretty clearly.   Given the timing, and since it was the BBC, we listened intently to coverage of the Falklands War, which struck as a) incredibly bizarre, and b) a million miles away from where we were.  As it turned out, both of those things were true.  Musically, Steve loved Little Feat, of which I can only remember Dixie Chicken.

Steve drove a dirt bike.  I walked. We were bored a lot of the time.  We wrote a lot of letters—even though it took four to six or more weeks to send a letter and get a response.   I think we wrote mostly about the heat.  We read a lot, but do not appear to be well read in the letters.  Go figure.

Apparently, we played a lot of backgammon.  I think it must have been Steve’s set, which is just another indication of how well provisioned he was, and how miserably unprepared I was.  As to playing a lot of backgammon, I have absolutely no memory except that I’m sure I won.

We asked for packages from home but did not receive packages from home.

In terms of furniture, our prized possessions were a pair of thin, foam rubber mattresses.  We each had a chair.

Curiously, in 1981, we were very worried by BBC reports about the Soviet response to the strikes at the Gdansk shipyard in Poland, and what political effect it might have on us.  Surprisingly, there was none.

We  hung out in buvettes and Steve liked arguing about politics and poking fun at Benin’s claim to be a communist nation.  I’m sure we would have gotten into serious trouble for this had I not sat just outside of his field of vision while pointing at him, rolling my eyes, and making a circular motion along the side of my head in the universal sign for ‘he’s crazy.’  I’m sure we’d still be in prison otherwise.

On market days during the dry season we got really excited about buying fruit. 

We both had various, usually intestinal, maladies at various times, and occasional malaria.

Steve approached his Lorena stove-building duties with a systematic and methodical rigor which I admired and, I came  to realize, was characteristic of the man.  Not willing to simply accept on face value that these stoves were necessarily more fuel efficient—the whole reason for the project in a wood-fuel-strapped economy, Steve decided to test—and tested, and tested, and tested.  Carefully measuring wood, water, calculating boil times, trying different adapting techniques and doing it all over again and again—he decided, I believe, in the end that the traditional metal cooking ring which held a pot over a fire, if insulated by piling up sand around it,  was just as efficient—and certainly easier and more affordable to make.  

 

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Fothergill Island - Kariba, Zimbabwe