Xeni on the road in West Africa: Blogger and Peace Corps Volunteer Kate Puzey Murdered in Benin

(Image: Catherine "Kate" Puzey, from her online photo album.)

I have been traveling in the Republic of Benin in West Africa for the last two weeks, and am writing this blog post now from the country's sorthern port capital, Cotonou. Two days ago, a 24-year-old Peace Corps volunteer from Georgia named Catherine Puzey, who maintained a colorful and passionate personal blog, was found dead outside her home in a remote, rural village about a seven hour drive north of here. Her death is understood to have been a murder, though neither the US nor Benin governments have officially declared it so. By coincidence, my travel partner and I passed through that very same village, on that same day. We spent most of the day just 10 km from Badjoudè, where the young Ms. Puzey lived and volunteered as an English teacher for the past two years, and died.

Kate, as she was known to friends, maintained a (Blogger) blog here, and a photo album series on Picasa, which was last updated just a few weeks ago. Judging from both, and the comments piling up elsewhere, she was loved intensely by family, friends, and fellow volunteers -- and by the Beninois community that had become her home.

This very traditional village is close to the border of Togo, in the northwestern part of Benin. My fellow travelers and I spent most of that day in the nearby village of Alédjo-Koura, a short drive away. The roads in this area are just rough, red, dirt. It is absolutely not an area frequented by tourists or foreigners. It was so strange to realize we'd been so close to the site, so randomly on that day, in such an unconnected place off the beaten path.

I heard about the incident when we were en route back to the capital a day later, long after we'd left the area. An AP wire item came out last night, as did one post, and then another, on an ABC News blog. The Peace Corps and the US State Department issued statements, but without details. An investigation is ongoing, I'm told by a source in Cotonou familiar with the case.

As Africa goes, Benin really is a stable, peaceful, relatively safe country. Poverty and related health problems are intense and widespread; domestic violence is a big problem. But I'm told that violence of this kind in rural communities is rare, and violence against foreigners, particularly NGO workers or aid volunteers, more so.

Earlier today, I spoke to two Beninese men I know here in Cotonou who happen to be from an adjacent village. We'd all been traveling together on the 12th. They said the people in Benin tend to (their words here) "respect foreigners," and the incident saddened and angered them. Translating, roughly: "It's terrible for our community when something like this happens, because the West already thinks badly of Africa and of Africans. One violent act like this, committed by one bad person, means the assistance and development our country so desperately needs will become more scarce, and that fewer volunteers like her, fewer means of support and change, will come."

I realized after speaking with them that on the road back to the capital yesterday, our shared car had crossed paths with the string of vehicles carrying government investigators and Benin's security minister up to Badjoudè. Government vehicles, I've learned on this trip, blare out distinctive siren sounds that distinguish them from normal police or fire vehicles. They tend to move in squads for security. We'd passed similar caravans carrying Benin's president Boni Yayi earlier in the week near the Cotonou airport, as he was coming back from a trip to India.

Ms. Puzey's blog is a beautiful read. Cleary, she loved this place, and many of the people of the place she called home in turn had great affection for her. I've just sat here for hours in a Cotonou hotel bar, reading her blog posts and poring through her photos. Here is a snip from my favorite entry, about ambient noise in the village -- something I've been very aware of on this trip:

I realized some time ago my education here goes way beyond the local language and customs. I've become familiar with so many new sounds. I now know the sound of a chicken when it's being killed, a goat when it's giving birth, the baby next door when it's hungry. I know the sound of the tonal repetitions in the local language when two close friends meet in passing; the rumble of the flour grinder two houses down and the hum of a nearby generator; the sound of mice and big lizards running around my ceiling at night and the ruckus that ensues when one chases the other (I always root for the lizard); the sound of the marché across the way from me carrying on well into the night; the deep-throated grumble of cattle as they graze in front of my house; the low clicking orders of their herder; the whining of children versus the baying of goats, though I swear one goat sounds like he's always saying in a deep grumpy voice "Badddddd!" (I've named him Eeyore); all the different bird and insect calls. I'm even learning to discern the voice of each student who, in passing at night, will see me cooking dinner by candlelight and holler out from the dark "Good Evening, Madame Catherine!"

This passage, from another post (which includes a mention of her work holding workshops on family planning, conflict resolution and women's health with village girls) really hits home for me now, as I shift from my brief experience of village life here toward a return to Los Angeles:

Even in its calmest moments -- say, the minute just before a gorgeous sunrise over the plains -- [Africa] is vibrant and tussled, never at rest, never totally tranquil.

I think in America we sometimes overlook how many of us live in ideal magazine images of our own making.

My condolences to the friends and family of this beautiful young woman.

Screengrab from blog of murdered Peace Corps worker in Benin


  1. My condolences go to Ms. Puzey’s family and friends. I’ve known several Peace Corps volunteers and have found them to be some of the most adventurous, open-hearted, loving and free spirits anywhere. Her loss is a real loss for the world and for America.

  2. Beautiful writing. I’m sure she put as much heart into her other work. My sympathies for those feeling the loss.

  3. My deepest symptathies to Kate’s family and friends who I’m certain have made wonderful memories over the year. There is little comfort in the words here and now, but my hope is that those memories will keep you strong.
    Her beauty and compassion shines through the photographs and entries – thank you for this post.

  4. And round that early-laurelled head
    Will flock to gaze the strengthless dead,
    And find unwithered on its curls
    The garland briefer than a girl’s.

    This post, her blog and photos, and the brevity of her life moved me to tears. May she rest in peace.

  5. Indeed, despite the years of maddening stalemates and undermining by Peace Corps paid staff and HQ, I look back on my Corps years thinking mainly of the invaluable treasure of the volunteers I met.

    (Although I’d like to note that in the country where I was posted we had a Country Director who wouldn’t permit us to blog – wouldn’t even permit us to write letters to stateside newspapers until HQ had gone through them all and censored out all references to, say, poverty, AIDS, famine and corruption.)

    Consider this about this tragic case: the typical PCV is a vivacious, adventurous, very physically healthy middle class female feminist in her mid-twenties, fresh out of college…and one of the first things her trainers will teach her is that, thanks to Hollywood, people all over the world think of her as (1) a slut (2) a natural born victim (3) the universal beauty ideal and (4) their best chance to escape their poverty. Female PCV’s often have a hard time accepting the limitations their gender places upon them in some societies…and female PCV’s get raped and/or mugged a LOT.

  6. Xeni. Your post is Service at it’s best. The heart of Love and Beauty is the easiest thing to kill. Anywhere, Happened here with the genocide, and continues to happen in the mind of anyone who wants to F*@# this World. Your gonads are not up to it.

  7. God Bless Kate, her family and friends, especially in her host country. Being a Peace Corps Volunteer is a gift, usually more to oneself, but also to others. Rarely, Volunteers are victims, but please don’t get the wrong impression. I’ll say I was generally treated better as a Volunteer than before or since.

  8. Xeni, thanks so much for posting this too.

    I spent an amazing two weeks with Peace Workers in Costa Rica in 1989; it was an inspiring, eye-opening experience for a doe-eyed (yet so sophisticated I thought I was), Silicon Valley-bred teenager.

    My condolences go out to Kate’s family.

    I have been fortunate to learn of a non-profit, East Africa, Stepwise, which focuses on East Africa and “…is a not for profit organization committed to providing basic needs to rural East Africa’s orphans and vulnerable children.”

    While not based in West Africa where Kate did her work, the young Australian and American woman behind Stepwise, demonstrate a similar spirit, one I thought the BB community might be interested in.

  9. As a young aid worker also in Africa, my heart is shattered for this girl and for her community. You can bet that who ever killed her will face the wrath of the community elders. That community for quite a while longer now won’t receive any outside volunteers or aid. It will be scorned, I’ve seen it happen here.

    Such a brief life, shattered by inexplicable violence. I honestly feel sick.

    Good on you Manko, good on you. Your words are so very true.

    1. @hcoates, @Manko, +1.

      @hcoates, your point about the wrath of the village elders is something I understand more now, after some admittedly brief but intense experiences in that very region during the past couple of weeks. They absolutely do not fuck around, and potential consequences for something like this are as extreme as you can imagine. Traditional culture is not a joke.

      And I, too, have seen the same thing happen in communities in Guatemala and elsewhere, when I was observing/reporting on or working with aid or development projects. The reckless, violent, or sociopathic acts of a single community member can create untold damage even beyond that act, because aid groups or would-be forms of help just dry up and go away.

      NGOs don’t want to send people, or resources, into a community where there is proven risk. And it just takes one person, one person who does not represent the will or standards of that community, to blow it for everyone.

      When you look at her blog and photo album, and you see how much she absolutely loved and was devoted to those beautiful kids there, the reality of that likely outcome — a cutoff of support — makes the situation even more tragic.

  10. Translating, roughly: “It’s terrible for our community when something like this happens, because the West already thinks badly of Africa and of Africans. One violent act like this, committed by one bad person, means the assistance and development our country so desperately needs will become more scarce, and that fewer volunteers like her, fewer means of support and change, will come.”

    Ths s whr w g wrng flks: Kp yr fckng “Trnsltns” , rgh r nt, t yrslf nd stck t th trth. Pr grl ws mrdrd by sm nccntbl pc f sht.

  11. Even under normal circumstances, when a community loses a PCV, they think “What did we do wrong?” I am sure the feeling of guilt will be much greater having had the PCV be murdered.

    I really don’t know what people think the Peace Corps life is like. We toil unnoticed by pretty much anyone but our family members. We try to improve our sites in almost any way we can. While most of us feel completely safe in our towns and villages, it’s not true security because cultural and linquistic differences keep us separated. People know we are Americans. They think all Americans are rich. They don’t understand why we give up 27 months of our lives to come to their country.

    It’s very slow going. I will finish at the end of this year and I am not sure if I have made much of a difference for anyone. When I go home, I will be tossed back into a world that is substantially different from the one I left. (There was no financial crisis in fall of 07 when I left.) We work often times without having another American very close by. If we want to have a gathering, we have to exercise caution because there are elements that would take advantage of that. If I have a serious illness, I am about 20 hours from reliable medical treatment.

    All that is to say, without patting myself on the back too much, Peace Corps Volunteers are all heroes. Ms. Puzey deserves the same level of honor a soldier killed in combat receives. She gave her life serving her country in the *best* way possible. She didn’t go there with any agenda other than to help, because the benefits Peace Corps pays in the end are pretty meager. The main reward is how you feel knowing you went to this other country and managed to survive and maybe even be loved by your community.

    Even that is double edged because the community I am in is filled with ethnic minorities who already suffered mass deportation and will likely suffer again in another five or six years as the local former superpower exerts pressure on the people and the peninsula. What will I do if people I love are embroiled in a war? What will I be able to do to help them?

  12. Dear Xeni, and all other posters,

    Thank you so much for this wonderful piece. Kate is my cousin. My wife and I visited Kate in Badjoudè over Thanksgiving two years ago, and my wife was there again this past December. We experienced what an amazing place Benin is. Kate’s village is beautiful and full of people that loved Kate. She was doing exactly what she wanted to do. There has been a lot of nastiness on blogs in relation to Kate’s death, and we would just like to say that the spirit of this blog is exactly what we would like to see. Kate would be mortified and angry to see people speaking badly of the Peace Corps, but even more importantly speaking badly of the people of Benin, and women in service. Thank you. We are utterly devastated.

  13. Loving Spirits live on and on. Her life, far too short, left a mark on all she encountered. Kate made a difference. Isn’t that what we all hope that we can do?

    For her family and friends, I pray that her memory will bring you peace and comfort.

    I have a new Grandbaby named Kate. May she live her life with such honor.

  14. I was one of Kate’s high school teachers, then friend. I love her so much, and have learned so much more from her than I ever taught her. Her parents are an inspiration, also.

    Kate would not want to be in this spotlight. She wouldn’t want her life relegated to the shadow cast by her death. She would want all of us to learn from her love and service and carry on her mission to help others in need.

    Xeni, thank you for your wonderful posting.

  15. Bless you Kate Puzey, you are the light now, go with grace of love and live in the hearts of all. There are not enough kind soul of your magnitude on this world. Freedom is yours and for ever more.

  16. Xeni, I’d like to reiterate what others have said here in regards to thanking you for your excellent post. I’m a current volunteer in Benin and was touched to read the post and know you took such time and effort to create it when you didn’t even know her. We are all grieving Kate’s death but are also trying to find solace in her beautiful memory. Thanks for contributing.

  17. This just hurts my heart. It’s unfathomable. I didn’t know Kate, I had randomly come across her blog several months ago and enjoyed her beautiful writing and pictures. I read it again this week in tears. I was an English teacher in Africa as a 24 year old as well, and her writing brings back so many memories. Her family and friends, the Benin PCV’s and the people of Badjoude are in my thoughts. She was beautiful.

  18. I went to high school with Katie, and she was, without a doubt, a wonderful person. My condolences to her family in those hard times. She will definitely be missed, but never forgotten.

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