Benin: Week 3.5

Greetings, world. How is everything going? For me, this week has been an improvement over the previous one. I think I’m settling into life in Porto Novo a little bit, and while I’m still ridiculously impatient to get to my post and start actually working, I’m enjoying this phase a little more than I was before. Partially this change in mood is because I’m gaining some independence. I’m starting to figure out how things work, and I’ve been able to do some of the things I want to do by myself, without help from others. I made my first trip to the post office on Wednesday, which was highly exciting (keep the mail coming, by the way–I’m writing back, it just might take awhile to get to you!). I also successfully found the marche (market) over the weekend with some of my friends and bought my first Beninese fabric, which I’m having made into some clothes. My host mom says I got a fair price for the fabric, so I’m pretty proud of myself for that purchase. I also borrowed a guitar from another trainee to use for the rest of staging, until we’re back in Cotonou and I can buy my own guitar, so I’ve been playing some music, which is always a good thing in life.

Aside from that, life kind of goes along as it has been, so I don’t have much interesting news. As I was thinking about what I was going to write for this blog, I realized I that I hadn’t really described Benin at all yet, so I’m going to attempt to do that so you can get a better idea of the context in which I’m talking about things. I will take some photos eventually, but I’m holding off a bit because I don’t really have a good feel for where it’s ok to take photos and where it’s not. We were warned that some people here hold the belief that taking someone’s photo is akin to stealing their soul, and also that people may demand money from you if they think they were captured in your photo without their permission, so I’m treading lightly around photography involving or in the vicinity of people…which is basically everywhere. So for now, pictures with words (disclaimer: descriptive writing has never been my strong suit, so please forgive me if it’s bad…)

Let’s see, I guess I’ll start with the place where I live, and I’ll work my way elsewhere. For most intents and purposes, my host family lives in a single story, two bedroom, western-style house. However, from the outside, the building looks like it could be an unfinished apartment building or a duplex, with one apartment on each floor (except that the second floor is still being built and thus is vacant). This is kind of a trend in Benin–unfinished buildings of many sorts. It has been explained to me (though I forget by whom) that this is probably due (in a roundabout way) to the cultural norm in Benin that one rarely says “no” to a request, especially by one’s friends or family. So for example, if I am saving up my extra money to build a house and then your brother breaks his leg and you ask me for money to help cover the medical bills, I basically have to give it to you. So my strategy becomes then, instead of saving up and building my house all at once, as soon as I get any extra money, I will go buy some building materials and put them in my yard. Then I will gradually buy more, and eventually I’ll build my house. Then when I am asked for money, I won’t have any to give (though it also means that if my brother breaks his leg, I won’t have any money to cover it and will have to ask others for help. Basically, saving culture doesn’t exist here, which I believe is something that the business PC volunteers work on). So I suspect that this is the type of thing that is going on with my host family’s house, but at any rate that was a bit of a tangent. The house is surrounded by a 6-ish foot stone wall with a gate, through which we come and go, and which is locked from the inside at night. The floor throughout the house is tiled, and the walls are cement that has been painted what was once white or off-white but now is more yellow/brown from all the dust, I suppose. There are two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen, a living room, and a front porch where I like to sit and read, write letters, or occasionally eat my meals.

I have my own room (which I feel a bit bad about because everyone else in my family sleeps in the other bedroom together, leading me to suspect that I probably took someone’s room) which is slightly smaller than my dorm room at Tufts last year. The room’s main features are: a door that can be locked from both sides, a bed, my mosquito net, the plastic table and one chair that PC provides us with, my water filter (also provided by PC) and my bike. It’s a nice room, and it has a big window, which allows for great air-flow when I have the door open and also lets me wake up to the sound of either the neighbor’s rooster crowing or the first call to prayer ringing out from a nearby mosque. It’s so cool–I rarely need my alarm clock anymore because I’m almost always awake before it goes off at 6:30. I have never been an early riser, and though I’m still not what one would call a morning person, it’s really nice to wake up gently to the sounds of life and not be hitting the snooze button over and over.

Outside the gates of my house, there are a few palm trees. One thing that you notice about palm trees after you get over the novelty of them is that they occasionally drop massive coconuts which hit the ground with alarming velocity and little warning. It’s kind of terrifying to walk near them. There is a small dirt road that branches off a larger dirt road and leads to our house; it loops around and passes the houses of some of my family’s friends before it hits the larger dirt road again. Both of these roads flood pretty significantly when it rains, and they resemble rivers more than roads during big storms. There is also trash on the ground in most places here because there isn’t really a waste management system. There are no public trash cans, so people generally throw their trash on the ground when they are out and about. And waste from the home is burned in small trash piles every so often, giving the air a frequent scent of fire and burning. Recycling has become a distant memory as plastic burns with the rest of the trash and releases toxins into the air every day. I guess trash management is something that PC’s environmental volunteers work on sometimes, but I get the feeling that it may be considered too large a problem to be tackled by a single volunteer.

The main road near my house, which takes me to school every day, is paved in a cobblestone sort of a way. It’s not the smoothest thing to ride a bike over, but it’s definitely more even than the dirt roads, which put my small amount of mountain biking experience to work. The roads are lined with small businesses, which generally don’t exist in what we think of as stores, but are more along the lines of street vendors that sell out of carts or set up their wares on a blanket on the side of the road. The most frequent type of vendor (and most interesting, in my opinion) is that of what is consistently labeled “gaz-oil.” These are men who sell contraband gasoline that has been smuggled across the Nigerian border. This gasoline is unregulated and unrefined and is probably responsible for a lot of the smog that clogs the air of the city during the busy hours of the weekdays, but it looks really cool in the huge glass gourds in which they store it. I don’t know if the glass is tinted or if the oil is a kind of yellowish/green, but the color is especially striking at night when the vendors set glow sticks or lights of some sort behind each gourd, making the oil glow with a neon green light. I’ve seen very few actual gas stations, which I guess are regulated by the government and are more expensive than the guys on the side of the road, and it seems like the gaz-oil business is big here. It’s also a way in which people re-use plastic and glass containers from other things, so even though recycling is unknown, the re-use part of the recycle triangle is done really well here.

So there are a few of the sights and smells around Porto Novo. I’ll close with one of the sounds that I’m becoming very familiar with: the yovo song. This is something that small children, older children, and even some adults find to be the best way to greet a foreigner who is passing by. It’s a song/chant that goes like this:
“Yovo! Yovo! Bon soir!
Ca va bien, mer-ci!
Et chez vous?”
Which translates roughly to “White person! White person! Good afternoon! (Though this lyric does not change if they happen to be singing it in the morning, and I think it contributes to the phenomenon that a large percentage of people tend to say “bon soir” to me even when it’s not the afternoon.) It goes well, thank you. And for you?” And it can be sung over and over and over a surprising amount of times in the amount of time it takes to ride one’s bike past a group of children. It’s a little more intense than the simple yelling of “mzungu! mzungu!” that I was used to in Uganda, and it’s in danger of becoming the soundtrack to my life here.

Anyhow, that is more than enough for now. All the best until next week!

5 thoughts on “Benin: Week 3.5

  1. And now we have another evocative post from our American correspondent in West Africa! You are doing a great job of sharing experiences that most of us will never experience personally, but we can actually get a handle on the Benin terrain from your great descriptions. Consequently, I reject your disclaimer. In any case, reading your fascinating posts cheers me up as I fall into utter despair about the political conditions in our home country, the dis-United States of America. Your may be experiencing an environmental crisis in Benin, but we are experiencing a debt crisis in the U.S. I wonder if you get hear about it. No matter — you’ve got plenty to deal with where you are. Much love,G-ma Carole

  2. You sound good! And thank you for the description of the house and town. I am delighted that at least for now you live in a house with a bathroom and your own room! Enjoy! The unfinished houses sound just like the ones in Greece in 1965. There often the upstairs was given as a dowry when it was completed! Did keep the daughter close to home after marriage! Here the country is on edge due to the economic crisis being perpetrated by a minority in the Republican party. By the time you read this I hope it will have resolved It was so hot here last weekend (105) that I didn’t even go swimming but today it was under 90 and so I went and had a lovely swim. How is the French going? Do you read it as well as speak it? And I didn’t even know you played the guitar! Bravo! Stay well, Love, Granny Kathy

  3. Just checking in CK!- great work on the blog, i enjoyed catching up on it and reading it all in one sitting as i’m supposed to be working today myself- we’ve had a rain delay in our fieldwork since it is the rainy season here in St. Lucia as well. (I have found it interesting that the locals here still call it summer right now- even though they only have a wet and a dry season, and calling it anything else is effectively meaningless, plus why not spring when in the states it is rainy? or winter, when the weather is more dramatic? just a side thought). ANYWAY, totally understand the frustration/wanting to be settled. It is all part of the game! You are doing great! keep on keeping on!

  4. Can you eat the coconuts!? That would be almost cool enough to negate the downsides of falling coconuts.

  5. Glad you are doing well. I know exactly the feeling of being lost, not knowing how to do or ask about things, yet being excited to figure them out. I waited several weeks in Germany to get my shoe fixed as I did not know how to ask to get it done, once I braved the journey and got it fixed I felt like I had won the lottery. Enjoy the life of challanges, it will serve you well in the future when you become our president.

    All the best from Ryan and Mary Ann also. We will work on getting some snail mail to you.


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