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