Parental Units Take on Africa

So despite my best efforts, here we are already a good two weeks after the parental unit visit before the first blog post goes up.  I meant to be blogging as we went along, and then instead of this epic post, each of these chapters would have been a manageable small post, but alas I didn’t find the time/energy.  So now they’re already back in your world and I’m back in mine, with their visit starting to feel like a nice dream but it’s still relevant to tell you about the events of the visit.  And as promised, there will be posts from them to follow, but I thought I’d get us started with a basic description of what happened.

Chapter I: Hungry but Polite

For my part, I think the whole trip went fairly smoothly, all things considered.  After picking the parental units up at the Cotonou airport and spending the first night in a hotel, I inadvertently treated them to a glimpse of some of the difficulties of traveling in Benin.  The taxi driver with which I had negotiated the trip changed his mind when he saw the amount of baggage we had (he especially wasn’t happy about the bicycle that had been stuck at PC headquarters for months and I decided to ‘just throw in the taxi’ because it didn’t seem like it would be that hard, since I was in fact paying for the entire taxi…not the case apparently) and we got stuck in a pretty good two hours of re-negotiating/me yelling at the taxi driver/rearranging baggage before we actually got started on the trip.  Then, continuing my recent transportation trend, we got a flat tire about halfway there and had to unload everything from the car so the unlucky taxi driver (who was quite grumpy by this point) could change the tire.  Finally, he decided that [supposedly due to the flat tire] he didn’t actually want to take us all the way to Glazoué as negotiated, but was going to pass us off to another taxi driver to finish the trip, which meant unloading and reloading everything yet again.  We finally made it, though, and when we arrived in Glazoué, three of my zem friends were waiting to take us back to village.  I was fairly sure that we would need to call more zems since we had so much stuff, but those guys know their work, and they loaded all the baggage, my bike, and the three of us all onto the three motorcycles and we got to village easily and safely.

As we pulled up in front of my house in the fading afternoon light, we were greeted outside the gate by the children who live with me jumping up and down and squealing at the excitement of new foreign guests.  They each greeted “mama et papa” very politely and brought all the baggage inside before I even processed what was happening.  Here the parental units encountered what was to become the theme of their visit: people coming by to saluer (greet) the visitors.  Within minutes of their arrival, word spread through the village and my friends started showing up to welcome them.  Personally I found this to be heart-warming; so did they, especially in hindsight.  At the time, perhaps they would have liked a few minutes to clean up, get accustomed to the new, admittedly sparse digs where they’d be spending the next few days, have a snack, etc before being plunged into the my social life.  But no such luck.  That first night, they were also introduced to the other theme of their visit: eating Beninese food and trying to be gracious about it.  My concession family prepared a massive quantity of yam pilé for us all to share, and apparently it wasn’t as good as I had promised it would be, because they sure didn’t eat a lot of it.  Of course, they were still probably trying to recover from the extremely long trip from Denver to Benin, not to mention the trip from Cotonou to village, and we were eating with our hands, which I’m accustomed to now but definitely takes some practice to get used to, and we were to some degree still receiving visitors coming to saluer all through the meal.  So I can’t blame them too much for the lack of eating.  They did tell me the next day that they didn’t really like it, though, and I was surprised because they seemed to like it enough at the time.  Turns out they just didn’t want to offend anyone by showing their displeasure.  Like my mom said after another similar encounter, “After all, I am a polite person.  Hungry, but polite.”  Fair enough.

Side note: I realized through their surprise at what yam pilé actually was that I may not have done a good job describing it in the blog [aka I may not have described it at all, other than to say that it was good], so I seize this opportunity to do so, because an understanding of this dish will be key to your comprehension of the events of the visit.  Yams here are massive tubers, much like a very large, thick-skinned, potato…except with less taste than a potato.  It’s mostly just starch, to be honest.  To make yam pilé, you take one or more arm-length, thigh-thick yams and remove the skin, cut it into small pieces, and boil them until they are soft (as you would to make mashed potatoes).  This takes an hour to two, depending on the quantity of yams you’re preparing and the fuel you’re using to cook them.  When they reach the soft point, you take out your giant mortar and pestle and start putting pieces of yam into the basin of the mortar where they will be crushed with the pestle.  If you’re preparing a large quantity like this, you probably will have two pestles, or sticks/poles with rounded ends, and two people to wield them.  When the yam has been crushed into small pieces, the real pilé-ing process begins: these two people will take turns thrusting the poles into the mortar with great force and pounding the yam until it becomes a formed mass sort of the consistency of Play-Doh (there is or will be a picture of this on the photos page).  This is hard work, takes a lot of arm strength and a lot of time.  Personally, I am incapable of pilé-ing for more than five minutes, and it usually takes at least 15-20 to finish a batch (people are strong here).  After it’s finished, you get a huge circular disc of elastic, pounded yam that you put on a plate or in a bowl and you add the sauce–usually spicy peanut sauce or a tomato/oil-based sauce–and the meat or cheese or egg if applicable.  Then you rip off small pieces of the doughy yam thing and dip it in sauce and eat it.  As Max observed by the end of the trip “yam pilé really depends on the sauce.”  If the sauce is good, the whole thing is excellent, but if the sauce isn’t great, it’s a lot like eating bland paste dipped in oil.

Chapter II: Churchly Things

The next day was Sunday, and Max was programmed to give the sermon at the Evangelical church into which I’ve been kind of adopted despite my original plan to frequent all the different religious establishments in the village [since the pastor lives next door to me and my entire concession family is very involved in this church, it just kind of happened].  Because Max’s church has been involved with a pen pal project with the youth group from this church, this was a special part of the visit plan–making the connection between the churches personal instead of only virtual.  Their visit happened to correspond with the church’s annual celebration of thanks, which is a special mass they have each year that is kind of like a party and lasts for hours and hours.  I was a little unsure about whether this was a good thing, because several hours of church is usually more than enough for me, and I figured that 5-6 hours might be too much for visitors, but I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to escape early.  Also, because it was a special mass, it was moved to 3PM instead of the usual 9AM time slot, which seemed to promise that we would all melt into nothingness due to the heat after a single hour, much less six.  It turned out OK, though.  We got a seat of honor in the front of the church with all the clergy-type people, right in front of one of two standing fans that were powered by the generator that also powered the sound system and a few ceiling fans.  This way, the temperature was actually more bearable inside the church than it would have been at my house, where the only fan is a handheld one woven from thick grasses.  I had attended this same celebration last year and go to church often enough to be vaguely familiar with the things that happen there, so none of the events were too new to me, but I think the parental units enjoyed seeing the mass and especially the dancing, which truly is impressive.  [I have the beginning of a blog about church services that I started last year, so if the parental units don’t elaborate too much on that subject, I’ll post that later.]  Max gave the sermon, in which he talked about Martin Luther King Jr. and about giving thanks for what we have in life, and for lack of a direct English to Fon translator, I translated into French and the local pastor translated into Fon.  It went well, and shortly after the sermon, we were given permission to leave (which we took, since it was already a good three hours into church…).  After we left, we heard the mass continuing for about two more hours.  What can I say?  People here love to pray.  And as my 16-year-old concession sister explained to me, “You know, there are a lot of people who are sick, who are in the hospital, or who died this year…we have so many reasons to give thanks to God.”  Who says young people can’t be wise?

Chapter III: Welcome to Village Life

Aside from church, we did a lot of saluer-ing as I walked them around village to show them where I live and work and greet important people like the village chief, the school directors, the health center staff, etc.  Everyone was very excited to meet my family, and going anywhere was a time-consuming process because we had to stop every 10 feet to talk to someone else.  I know from experience that this is an incredibly tiring activity, so I have to congratulate them on how tolerant they were and how well they did with talking to so many people in languages they didn’t know.  They did master a few phrases in Fon: “mifonganjia?” “nko” and eyizandé,” and people thought that was pretty much the best thing ever.  They also met with the youth group that has been writing letters to the kids from Max’s church, and the kids surprised us by presenting us with a gift which was wrapped and in an Operation Christmas box (the program through which churches in the US send Christmas presents to kids in Africa each year–Max commented on how after years of sending those boxes, he now was getting one back.  Life is funny like that.).  Apparently when they heard about the visit, all the kids in the group had decided to share a little bit of money (in all likelihood, their lunch money) to buy us each one of the t-shirts the national church was selling for their annual convention.  It was very sweet.  The parental units got a lot of other gifts of various magnitudes as well–several people stopped by with yams or corn and so many people bought us soft drinks that we couldn’t actually drink them all.

They did an admirable job of dealing with my living situation–my house is really much too small for three people to live in, even for such a short time, and it still lacks furniture to an extent.  There’s also the issue of having no plumbing or electricity, which makes life a lot like camping.  They came well-prepared with no less than four headlamps, so the electricity was less of a problem than the bucket showers and the latrine.  But as I said, they dealt with it quite well and complained very little, though my mom did say that she had gained a new appreciation for the little things–as long as she had a bed, a toilet, and a shower, life would be good.

Chapter IV: Feminine Football

Right before we left village, we carried out the biggest event of the trip, which was distributing 30+ pairs of tennis shoes to my girls’ soccer team.  This was made possible by the lovely folks of Max’s Saint Stephen’s, who came together to help after hearing about my work with the girls and how they played barefoot and often encountered foot injuries (one girl was even stung by a scorpion at practice last year).  Because of their generosity, the parental units arrived lugging two huge duffel bags full of brand-new, colorful shoes complete with notes of encouragement and a pair of knee socks for each pair of shoes.  I had asked the gym teachers who work with me on this project (really, they do the vast majority of the work, because I know nothing about how to train a soccer team) to help me organize a rendevous so we could give out the shoes, but not to tell the girls why we wanted to see them.  I had envisioned something small-scale in which we talked to the girls a bit, gave out the shoes, and continued with our lives, but in typical Beninese fashion, it turned out to be a big, involved ceremony for which we were under-dressed (luckily, we benefit from the yovo waiver on dress code) and unprepared.  All of the administration and teachers were invited and lined up in desks on one side of the designated classroom while the girls occupied the other half.  We were given seats at the front of the classroom facing the sixty-ish pairs of eyes.  There were speeches in French and speeches in English, which were read by the students and then re-read by the English teachers to assure our understanding, then we were asked to say a few words, and then finally we took out the shoes, arranged them at the front of the room, and each of the girls was called up to find a pair that fit her.

As an aside: Normally, Peace Corps volunteers work on small-scale projects and avoid hand-out type activities, but I considered this an acceptable exception to the rule because these girls have been working with me for almost a year, expecting to get nothing out of it other than an improved ability to play soccer, and it really is a safety hazard to play without shoes.  I also think it was nice for them to get a little encouragement, because it’s not easy to be the first people to do something.  Girls’ sports are such an unknown concept here that these young ladies have been pretty brave and gutsy to have jumped into it in a village setting where gender roles are so rigidly fixed.  And if you could have seen their faces and felt the excitement in the air when we took out the shoes… For most of them it’s the first pair of shoes they’ve owned that aren’t flip-flops bought for less than a dollar in the market, and if it isn’t their first, it’s definitely the first new pair they’ve had–any other shoes available to them are second-hand (or as a Beninese friend wryly put it once, eighth-hand) things that have been sent over from Europe or the States.  So it was pretty special for them, and they truly appreciated it.

After we finished the ceremony, they all put on their shoes and we took some photos to share with the donors at home, then they organized themselves into two lines and the captain of the team led them in a sort of parade from the school into the village.  As they marched, they sang a song in Fon announcing their impending arrival, telling people to get ready because the girls were coming.  It was a sight to see–maybe Max will be able to post the short video he took of it, because I certainly don’t have the internet capacity for that–and I think that the way they announced the receipt of the shoes in such a public way was the right way to do it.  That way, it was all out in the open and everyone knew immediately, because in such a small village, everyone would know eventually anyway, so better to just cut to the chase.  I was a little worried about what the reaction of the community would be–if they would criticize me for giving shoes to the girls instead of the more-deserving (in their eyes) boys–but it has actually been overwhelmingly positive.  There have of course been people who have come up to me and said “and where are my shoes?” but in general it seems to have lent a little bit of credibility to the idea of the girls’ team.  The administration took us out for a drink after the ceremony and at one point I picked up part of a conversation at the other side of the table where some administrators who had previously scoffed at my idea for a girls’ team were saying that probably in the coming years, all the schools would start having female teams.  And other people in the village have mentioned that when the girls wear their shoes, they become real soccer players, just like the ones you see on TV.  So pleasant surprise!

Chapter V: Life After Village

When we left village, it was market day in the larger town of Glazoué so I took them along on a typical market Wednesday.  First, they met a lot of my Peace Corps friends at a secluded restaurant where we usually get lunch and beers before tackling the market.  Then we ventured into the actual market and they tagged along with me as I bought some supplies for our upcoming journey, and finally we stopped by a stand to taste the traditionally brewed millet/corn beer.  By that time, the massive market was getting a little overwhelming (I still get overwhelmed by it by the end of most market days) and it was getting late so we called it a day and went to the hotel (which had running water, electricity, and a bed–parental units were happy).  The rest of the visit involved several days of safari in which we had excellent luck and saw many animals quite up-close.  We sat on top of a Forerunner-type car and looked ridiculous while the guide drove us around to the places he knew the animals would likely be found.  It was kind of cool to ride on the roof (you know, it’s the kind of thing your parents would never let you do as a kid) but it was also super dusty because it’s the dry season and we were on dirt roads.  When we got back to the hotel each night, we often were visibly caked in layers of dust–kind of funny.  Then we traveled all the way back down south and spent a few days at a beach resort where we ate pizza and drank smoothies and had air conditioning in addition to having almost private access to a beautiful beach.  It was awesome.

When the time came to see them off, it was harder to say goodbye than I expected it to be.  But it was an amazing visit and I’m so glad they made the trip.  As people kept telling us when they were here, “They must love you an awful lot to have come all this way to see you!”  True.  Lots of warm and fuzzy feelings.  And way too many words for one day.  Until next time.  CMK

3 thoughts on “Parental Units Take on Africa

  1. Excellent post, my dear! Really made me feel like I was there — and we hope to be next fall. Sure miss you. The oldsters are getting even older, Matt cut his hair after two years, the patio project (aka “the summah house”) is nearly done, and silly things continue to happen in Boulder. All in all, life is pretty good. 🙂

  2. Christine, thanks for writing and posting your wonderful words.

    Yam pilé sounds a lot like Hawaiian poi, which is made from pounded (beat to death) taro root. Taro root is a dense, hard, purple-colored tuber root, and Hawaiians and Asians eat it. The Hawaiians typically make poi out of it, and poi can be eaten alone or used as an accompaniment with other foods. Some Hawaiians like to eat it a few days’ old, when it has fermented slightly and is sour tasting. I prefer it fresh. In the olden days, it was mixed with water to a thin consistency and used as baby food. We Chinese use taro root like potatoes, cooking it with some meat and other veggies in one-pot dishes. It has a very thick, pasty, starchy consistency.

    Congratulations on your progress with the girls’ soccer team! It sounds like you are having an impact that is beyond what you’ve dreamed or planned. Such good news!

    With warm regards,
    Lelanda Lee (from Max’s congregation)

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