The alphabet of my Beninese life

Tomorrow is my one-year anniversary of moving to post.  In honor of this, I’ve compiled a list of some of the more important/interesting words of the last year of my life.

A is for afonganjia (“did you wake up well?”): the number one basic phrase of Fon.

B is for bats, which as it turns out are even worse than mice as household companions, because you can count on mice to stay on the ground, but bats are airborne and erratic.

C is for Christine, Christian(e), Christiana, Christinia, and occasionally Christina, all of which I now answer to.  Also for Christinu, Chri-Chri, Christo, Crindo, Crigbo, and other related nicknames that are popping up for me around village.

D is for doucement, or in Fon, dede, or in Mahi, dedema, all of which mean roughly “be careful,” and can be used in any variety of situations–when you bump into somebody, when you want to request that your zemidjan drive more slowly, when someone trips or falls, when someone is standing in your way and you want to push them to get by, etc.

E is for electricity, which one both appreciates and forgets about once one lives without it.  Recently, I was at a PC workstation, and multiple times I found myself walking into a dark room, and instead of hitting the light switch, using the flashlight on my phone to find what I needed before leaving again.  Habit is a funny thing.

F is for family, the cornerstone of life here (and arguably, everywhere).  The Beninese family structure is large and encompasses far more than what Americans consider to be the nuclear family.  It’s deceiving at first because people will tell you that someone is their brother or their sister (and they’ll tell you this for seemingly half the people you meet), when really they are cousins or perhaps not actually related by blood but the person is the child of their uncle’s sister-in-law, so they grew up in the same compound.  To determine the blood relationship, it’s necessary to ask if they are “même-père, même-mère” brothers, meaning they have the same mother and the same father.

G is for gleji, the Fon word for “the fields/the farm,” which is where the majority of residents of my host community go each day, especially right now because it is the season in which the majority of work in the fields needs to be accomplished.  I’m realizing that it’s a bit lonely to live in a farming town when one is not a farmer.  In the middle of the day, if I don’t have work to do or even when I leave on my lunch break, I often don’t find anyone around to hang out with and end up either napping or doing some other task alone in my house.  I kind of want to find a little patch of field somewhere and do some gardening, just to fit in (and also to grow some vegetables that I can’t find here).

H is for heat.  Couldn’t write a blog about Africa without mentioning the heat.  It’s funny, even during the less hot seasons, I rarely go an entire day without thinking at least once “goodness, it’s hot right now!”  And during the February through June season, called chaleur (literally: heat), I spend a lot of the day thinking that.  But that said, I actually think that the climate of my town is probably fairly mild compared to much of Africa.

I is for instant coffee, which is served in “cafeterias” (small shacks set up by the side of the road generally with a bar-style counter and stools and which can be counted on to serve coffee, eggs, bread, and spaghetti, in various combinations) throughout the country.  Before Peace Corps, I scoffed at instant coffee, but now I consider it a treat.  A little sweetened condensed milk, a little instant coffee…it’s like Beninese Starbucks.

J is for joie (joy).  How people manage to have so much of this while simultaneously suffering so much is still beyond me.

K is for koko, the Fon word for porridge.  Made out of corn flour and water and possibly some secret ingredient that adds flavor, and then sweetened with more sugar than is probably healthy, women prepare huge, steaming vats of it and sell it in the market in the mornings and evenings (when, by African standards, it gets a bit chilly).  One can buy a small bowl for 25 francs in village (or 50 francs in town) and it’s actually pretty good.

L is for legume, literally “vegetable” in French, but in Benin used to describe a variety of dark green leaves that can be cooked (at which point they very much resemble spinach) and eaten with pâte (boiled corn paste that is the staple of the Beninese diet).  Pâte with legume is one of my favorite village meals.

M is for mouton, which is technically a sheep, but in Beninese village French, it usually means goat.  Goats are everywhere, especially in the rural areas, but even in many cities one can find them roaming around.  They are smaller and stouter here than the goats I’ve seen in the states and are super cute.  Beninese goats are amazing creatures that are a useful form of investment because one buys them young and inexpensive, and then can either sell them for a higher price or eat them when they’re older, but in the meantime they eat everything (they are essentially the waste disposal system in much of Benin), are extremely sturdy (I once saw one get run over by a motorcycle–both wheels went right over the goat’s middle section–and then get up and walk away), and are huge trouble makers (I’ve learned first-hand that if you leave anything edible at goat level, it will be eaten in seconds, and if you leave your door open and go into the other room, they will also help themselves to anything edible in your house).  They’re a wonderful part of life here.

N is for the night sky, which is splendid and magnificent and generally awe-inspiring in the middle of rural Africa.  Especially on nights when the moon is not visible, the stars (referred to in Fon as the moon’s children, which I love) are incredible.  I can even see the Milky Way when I’m lucky.

O is for okra, one of the few vegetables available in my host community year-round.  One of the specialties of Beninese cooking is a sauce made from okra, called sauce glissant, (sliding sauce) which is eaten with pâte and is slimy and in my opinion, disgusting.  I suffered through too many plates of pâte with that sauce before I found a tactful way to tell my concession family that I didn’t like it and would much rather cook for myself than eat with them if that’s what they were having.

P is for pagaye: roughly translated, “mischief.”  Generally used to describe harmless teasing or other fun, one finds pagayeurs (mischief makers) everywhere, and accusing someone of making mischief (or being accused of making mischief myself) is often part of an average day.  Some typical pagaye that can be made includes: making funny faces/eyes at someone, pretending to take someone’s money or food, jumping uninvited on the back of a stopped motorcycle, pretending that you’re going to hit someone with your motorcycle, covering someone’s eyes with your hands and making them guess who it is…actually pretty similar to a lot of little jokes we play in the States, too.

Q is for quitter (to leave/to get away from); in Fon, gosin.  Useful verb in command form for use with children, who are everywhere and often either in the way, crowding around to see some interesting thing you are doing (such as eating, writing, or really anything one might do), or spilling into your house in large numbers.  Also useful for people who are protecting me from being hit by motos, harassed by vodun spirits, or other typical dangers.

R is for rain.  The rainy season is upon us now, and I’m again getting used to the sound of the rain pounding on my sheet metal roof.  I’ve discovered something very important about rain that I didn’t realize last rainy season: one has no need to get water from the pump during these months (I was probably the only person in the village using the pump at this time last year).  You gather drinking water in buckets as the rain falls (I’ve gathered nearly 50 liters in one night of rain) and then you use well water for showering, laundry, and everything else.  Pretty cool.

S is for sodabi, the locally brewed hard liquor of southern Benin, and one thing that you can find in any village in the region.  It is quite strong and one can find certain people drinking it throughout the day–starting in the early morning because it is said to help people eat well if they begin the day with it. *shudder*

T is for terre rouge, or dirt road.  Particularly important for me because the sole road that leads to my village is one of these.  Mildly bumpy and very dusty during the dry season (keep in mind that one travels down this on a motorcycle), it becomes less dusty but extremely bumpy during the rainy season.  In fact, parts of the road erode away entirely after heavy rains.  An interesting thing occurs at these times, though–teams of young people will deploy on market days to fill in the holes in the road, and then wait next to their work and solicit small donations from everyone who passes by.  A great example of a community taking initiative to fix a problem on their own without outside incentive.

U is for umbrella, a thing that is generally useless in my life, despite the frequent occurrence of rain, because one never has the need to go out in the rain.  If it’s raining, everyone stays put.  Nothing in my life here is pressing enough to need to venture out in the rain.  It can wait until the storm is over.

V is for vodun, the traditional religion of Benin.  I’m still struggling to get a good understanding of this aspect of the culture, because there are so many different facets of it and there is a lot of secrecy surrounding some of them, but I find it extremely interesting.  Many weekends, there will be some sort of a vodun celebration/ceremony/demonstration in a central gathering spot in the village which is open to the public, and I often attend.  There are many different vodun…gods, I suppose is probably the translation, and depending on which one they are celebrating, the demonstration will take one of several forms and different people will be involved in the event.  The way I understand it, one who practices vodun has an assigned (or chosen, not sure of the process) god/spirit for which he/she is primarily responsible for worshipping, and so when the time comes to do a big ceremony, it is those who are assigned to that god who make the music and perform the dancing/other parts of the event.
The attire and decoration of the body varies for the different demonstrations; there are some where male dancers wear grass skirts and coat their body with some sort of a corn/water mixture and wield knives for cutting their own arms (though I’ve watched this demonstration twice now and have seen no actual cutting, despite what was promised to me); there are others where women dancers wear hot pink pagnes or dresses with lots of anklets and bracelets made of shells and chase down anyone who makes eye contact with them and hits them with a long stick; and my personal favorites are those where the spirits themselves come alive (or back from the dead? Again, unclear) and perform in elaborate (and surely extremely hot) costumes that are made from layers upon layers of heavy, shiny fabric and cover every inch of the performer.
Especially with the latter, one has to pay close attention while watching the demonstration, because some of the spirits like to make pagaye and chase the people who are watching.  And if any part of the costume worn by the spirit touches a living person, he dies on the spot.  When this happens, the person drops to the ground and the spirit kneels down to him until the spirit-helpers come and carry the dead person into a designated house where he can be brought back to life (I’m not sure if this service is provided at a fee or if there is some sort of physical punishment awarded for having been stupid enough to get killed by a spirit, but I suspect it’s one of the two).  What I can’t figure out is why the spirits are violent like that; why do they want to kill people?  Or is it just to add some excitement to the demonstration–kind of the way that referees allow fights in hockey?  At any rate, I used to be a bit scared of those demonstrations until I figured out that if you stand behind the people who make the music you are safe, because there is an unwritten rule that says the spirits won’t bother those people, so it’s like having a nice, strong shield and a great view, if also a strong earful of cowbell.  I hadn’t quite gotten the nerve to take photos of these events before I lost my camera, but when I get a new one, I’m going to start (I’ve asked, and they welcome photography for a small fee–they want people in other countries to see their culture) and I’ll certainly post the photos when I do.

W is for wa(h), the Fon word for “come.”  It’s a fun word to say, and one accompanies it with a hand motion that is sort of like a version of the American wave (hand up, palm facing the person you want to beckon–as if you were going to give them a high five–and then you bring the fingers down to the heel of the hand several times).  One never uses the American hand motion for “come here” (palm up towards the sky, beckoning with the fingers), because that is used for animals and is extremely insulting.

X is for xa (read “ha”), the Fon word for broom.  Brooms here are different than brooms in the states; they are made of long, dried reeds/grasses and are held in one hand while the sweeper bends over.  A broom is one of the most important possessions here, because there is so much dust in the air that one needs to sweep one’s house daily to avoid collecting a layer of dirt on the floor (confession: I don’t always do this…one of many reasons I would be a terrible Beninese wife).

Y is for yovo.  A word I really detested at first, I’ve softened a bit on my refusal of its use.  I’ve grown to see that people here just use labels like that when referring to people, and in some cases it’s considered more polite than using their name.  They will greet the carpenter as “carpenter,” and the woman who sells beans as “woman who sells beans” (it flows better in Fon), and when people who I don’t know really well call me “yovo” or “yovo doto” (the white health worker), it’s not rude or malicious, it’s actually friendly and normal.  You can tell by the tone of voice if someone is trying to be obnoxious about it–mostly young men who are just passing through the village, and perhaps children who insist on singing the ridiculously annoying yovo song fall into this category–but mostly it’s harmless.

Z is for zemidjans. More than simply a method of transportation, you can also count on any given group of them to be making mischief (see pagaye, above).  For the ones in my village, with whom I’m friends, I find this refreshing and fun, but I often avoid other groups of zemidjans unless I’m in the mood to get involved in a playful banter, because they are just trouble-makers and will never let a yovo walk by without baiting her in some way.

Happy one year anniversary:) Eyizandé!

P.S. Good news, things are looking up since last post.  I replaced my phone within days of losing it (a friend in village lent me an extra until I found a permanent new one, which was free from a departing volunteer) and I recently got a new kitten!  This one is significantly older than Rafiki was when he came to me and he’s already better-adjusted than Rafiki perhaps ever was, though they do look somewhat similar.  He also loves to cuddle and is very fluffy.  Haven’t named him yet, but will do that soon.

4 thoughts on “The alphabet of my Beninese life

  1. Happy Anniversary sweetie!! I am so proud of the important and courageous work you are doing, and I know you are happy to be there, in spite of the many challenges that present themselves. What a fun post, with so many different snapshots from your life in Benin. I am glad you are feeling more cheerful, and we are so excited and hopeful that we will be seeing it all (and you!) for ourselves soon–keep your fingers crossed. Love you, Mom

  2. Got your elephant post card today and caught up on your blog as well. I am ashamed to admit I haven’t written in a long time. I will do so tonight or tomorrow! Hope things are going well for you. All my love, Granny Kathy

  3. Christina! What a wonderful entry! Happy anniversary, time flies soon it will be two years! I am currently located right next to a post office… no more excuses. Will write soon! miss ya ❤

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