Qu’est-ce que c’est le Benin?

Or roughly translated: “What is Benin?” or “Talk to me about Benin.”

I learned the qu’est que c’est que sentence structure in preparation for one of our language tests, because there is always a section at the end where the testers ask you if you have any questions for them.  I like this structure because it asks a very open-ended question and gives the person on the other side of it the freedom to tell you whatever they find to be the most important things about the topic.

As I’ve been getting to know Porto Novo and Benin these past couple of months, this question has really been on my mind: What IS Benin?  I’ve been living here for awhile, and yet I still don’t quite understand this place.  And as I think about what I want to write about it here, I have trouble putting different aspects of life into the “boxes” that we all use to make sense of the world.  For instance, I read before I came that Benin is one of the least developed countries in the world and I learned some troubling statistics about malnutrition, illness and education here.  However, when I look around, I see people who seem to have enough to eat, who don’t seem to be crippled by illness, I see boys and girls who attend school even in the summer to advance their studies.  When we did our baby weighing activity in a nearby village, only one out of maybe fifty or so babies was at all underweight.  However, then I also think about the fact that as soon as one leaves the handful of main roads in Porto Novo, the terrain turns to dirt roads in such poor condition that they are sometimes challenging to drive on, and about the goats and chickens that I see eating trash around the city, and the children that I see out begging on the street; I ask myself if I would ever see these things in Washington, D.C., and of course the answer is no.  (Though, to be fair, there are things happening in DC that are just as severe as the things I have seen so far here; it’s just that they are different types of things and perhaps they are better hidden from the casual observer.)

So at any rate, I decided that the best thing to do for this week’s post would be to put together a list of brief statements about what Benin (at this point, mostly Porto Novo) is to me, based on what I have observed and experienced so far.  These are by and large still first impressions and will probably change, but it’s kind of fun to put together anyway.  Also, if there are things that I write here that you would like to hear more about, please let me know and I will expand upon them in subsequent posts.  It’s hard to gauge what would be interesting for you all, so I would love feedback if you have it.  So here it goes.

Benin is….

+A country in Africa
+Not remotely similar to the United States in most visible ways
+Similar in some ways to other African countries that I have visited

In Benin, one sees…
+Women sweeping the dirt off the street every morning even though it will settle right back on in a matter of minutes
+Laundry hanging off of balconies or on lines outside of homes
+Men holding hands with other men, and women holding hands with other women, but it doesn’t signify anything romantic, just that they are friends or they are going somewhere together
+Gas stations that are completely empty while zemi drivers fill their tanks at gaz-oil stands down the street
+Exhaust spewing out from the tailpipes of many motorcycles, cars, and trucks driving down the highway
+Taxis filled far past their intended capacity with people, luggage, and livestock
+People wearing clothing that would be considered outrageously quirky in the United States (lots of bright colors and really wacky patterns–like spaceships, chickens laying eggs, computers, dollar bills, and more–usually both in the same fabric) without people thinking anything of it.
+Far more traditional clothing than western-style clothing
+Televisions turned on for most hours of the day in households that can afford them
+Men urinating on the side of the road into piles of trash or bushes
+Women who change their hairdo completely every few weeks or month, because they keep their real hair quite short and get “weave” braided in by the hairdresser (I didn’t realize how much I identified people by their hair until I was having so much trouble recognizing people when they changed their hair style)
+Most places of residence hidden behind some sort of wall or gate, but people rarely spending their free time inside their house
+Women walking around and riding zemis with babies tied to their backs
+Food and other items being sold off of huge platters carried on the heads of walking women (who are sometimes also carrying said babies on their backs)
+People who can dance really well
+People balancing all sorts of improbable things on the backs of motorcycles–sometimes up to four people, couches, refrigerators, mattresses, etc

In Benin, one hears…
+Many different languages that are not English
+People joking and laughing a lot
+The sound of horns honking nearly constantly as drivers signal to others that they are nearby and trying to pass
+The occasional American song that people listen to without having the slightest idea what the songs mean (my favorite example is my host mom’s nephew who loves to listen to and sing along with the Aqua song, “Barbie Girl.”)
+People greeting you as you pass and vendors calling out or making smooching noises to invite you over to see their wares (I am still trying to figure out if the smooching thing is impolite, but I think it is not considered so here)
+If you are a foreigner, you hear the yovo song and people yelling “yovo!”
+Music blasting from storefronts where music or sometimes cell phones are sold
+The Call to Prayer ringing out from the mosques five times a day
+Rain pounding on tin roofs that makes even a mild rain storm sound like a tropical storm
+The squeaking of the FanMilk horn (the type of horn that one might put on a child’s bike in the states), which signals that the FanMilk guy is walking down your street, pushing a cart that is insulated well enough to keep hundreds of small packets of ice cream cold even under the hot African sun.  This is the Beninese version of the ice cream truck, except that it’s socially acceptable for grown people to buy ice cream from this guy.

In Benin, one eats…
+A dish called “pate” [pronounced like ‘pot’], which is essentially corn flour that has been boiled into a mashed-potato like consistency.  This is the main dish in the southern region of Benin (compare to matooke in Uganda–same position as the favored dish, same composition of 100% carbs, same bland taste, same contribution to malnutrition in children because it fills their stomach so much while giving so few nutrients)
+Pate rouge (red pate), which is similar to above, but with more taste (and I think a significant amount of red palm oil)
+A sauce made of tomatoes and onions and oil that can be put on almost any dish
+An absurd amount of white bread baguettes, which are really cheap and sold everywhere
+Rice, beans (though usually not those two together, which is unfortunate in my opinion), a sauce made of chickpeas, a lot of fish, some chicken and goat, rarely beef or pork, and if one is vegetarian, a lot of wagassi (Beninese cheese) and hard boiled eggs
+Ground manioc flour, called gari (this is often eaten with beans)
+A lot of fried foods (fried dough of various sorts to make donut-like snacks, fried bananas, fried omelettes, french fries, etc)
+Something called yam pile (yam pee-lay) which is some type of pounded yam thing that is presented in a fat disk shape that looks the way the dough for a small loaf of bread looks when you are done kneading it.  This eaten with one’s hands and dipped in a spicy peanut sauce with either meat or wagassi.  Probably one of my favorite Beninese foods, and rumoured to be very popular in the Collines, where I will be posted.
+A porridge-type food called “bouille,” which can be made out of many different types of flour, but I think the millet flour type is best.  They often feed this to babies but adults can also eat it for breakfast.
+Lots of good fruits–fresh pineapples, avocados, bananas, oranges, coconuts (is that a fruit? Maybe not), and when the season comes, mangoes!

This is getting pretty lengthy now, so I’m going to stop, though I feel like I could probably go on quite a bit more.  This is going to be an exciting week for me, because tomorrow we each get to meet our work partner and supervisor, who are traveling to Porto Novo for a couple of days to attend this trainee/counterpart conference (I think the conference will basically answer the questions “What is a Peace Corps Volunteer?” “What do they do?” and “how should you treat them/what do they require?”).  Then after the workshop concludes, we will travel with them back to our posts and stay there for 3-4 days.  I’ll be staying with a host family for the post visit, but I’ll see my house, my places of work, and start to meet people around town.  I’m super excited, a bit nervous, and generally can’t wait!  Wish me luck, and I’ll tell you all about it when I get back. Peace and love!

5 thoughts on “Qu’est-ce que c’est le Benin?

  1. Hi! I get the strangeness of people singing along to something in English they don’t understand. It’s a little stranger when they wear hats or shirts with things like the playboy bunny or more English. I loved hearing about the food though. Its funny that I recognize a few. The tomatoes with onion & oil sauce is used in just about anything in Colombian cooking. Brazilians put cassava flour in their beans quite often as well (with pork rinds & collard greens, they’re awesome). Do they do sweet plantains too? Before they are cooked they look like bananas, but they are bigger and the more they look like they’ve gone bad the sweeter they are inside usually. Good luck with conference!

  2. Thanks so much for sharing! How exciting!!
    It’s crazy how similar some of the things you mentioned are to what you would see or hear in Uganda…and it’s all the way on the other side of the continent.
    I’m looking forward to continuing to follow along with your adventures.
    Best wishes 🙂

  3. Amazing chica! It’s all interesting, don’t hesitate to include anything that you’ve noticed! I am hoping you’ll be able to teach me how to make a few of these dishes when you get back (assuming of course that we have the ingredients.) I am so excited for you! Keep us updated!

    ❤ Audra

  4. I wish you luck, but I don’t think it is luck that will make for your success — I don’t think it was luck that made you successful in the past. I think it is your nature and abilities that have brought you to the present opportunities. Carole

  5. Another fantastic post Christina! It is amazing to experience the power of juxtaposition that your blog posts bring. In and of itself, Benin seems starkly different than the US, and even just reading about them can be jaw dropping sometimes (goat head soup, for example). However, it has been taken to a whole new level after starting grad school this week. I cannot imagine two lifestyles more differently focused: I worry about whether or not I’m going to completely understand some extremely complex math reading, you worry that you might not be able to completely heal a sick child for sheer lack of resources. It really lends perspective on those touch school days. Can’t wait for the next post!

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