It shattered my worldview, changed my perspective on life. It nearly undid me. I was at times stupefied by heat and pollution, tongue-tied by the language barrier, unable to process basic thoughts, uncomfortable from stomach ailments, so overwhelmed by poverty that I could not imagine how to improve the quality of life. But I was also fascinated by the many cultures, bonding with friends of every nationality, living each day full of adventure as it were my last, traveling, collapsing into bed bone-tired and loving it. Rediscovering my sense of wonder.
My experience defies any easy summary, an attempt to put it in a box and file it away. It is living, breathing, still breaking out on my skin Africa. Here are just a few memories to share with you to show what an incredible country Benin is, and to feature a special team of poverty-fighting Béninois called ALIDé.
Top 10 Bénin
1. Angels are real. I never believed in them before, but in the beginning I came to ALIDé a little lost, and they protected me and taught me how to live in the country. My friend Caroline especially showed me the true meaning of caring for others through her intense devotion to her work and to patiently helping me to interpret French, ALIDé office politics, and the culture of Bénin.
2. Voodoo is real. I know because I took a picture of a voodoo ceremony, and my camera stopped soon afterward. The country is permeated with voodoo – ceremonies of dozens of sects, Béninois staying in at night to escape curses, animal parts saved to give to fetishes after meals.
3. Bénin is a real melting pot. Béninois speaking Fon, Bariba, Mina, Gon, Adja, and many other languages, mix in the capital with the ex-patriot communities of Chinese, Lebanese, German, and French. I could have counted the Americans on my hand. This racial diversity also paralleled the rich religious syncretism of Catholics, Evangelicals, Celestial Christians, Moslems, and Voodooists.
4. Doucement = careful! Yovo = foreigner. Béninois seemed to have an obsession with calling out <<Doucement>> whenever I tripped, almost dropped something, or even when someone ran into me, which seemed unfair. By the end I got used to saying it as well. It annoyed me when people yelled Yovo at me after a long, sweaty day in the field. I got used to children chanting their Yovo song in the street, but it was the adults addressing me as Yovo that irked me more.
5. Igname Pilé, the unofficial national dish. A root that looks like an enormous potato – cooked, pounded, and shaped into a circular white mass, dipped into orange peanut sauce, and eaten with the right hand. Tastes even better when eaten with your four closest Beninois friends, after you helped them pound it.
6. Safety. Anxiety about safety was never far from me in West Africa. As a young, foreign woman who came to Africa alone, I made sure to stay alert and tried not to be neurotic. I walked with friends whenever possible after dark. A Peace Corps volunteer was killed two days after I left- why? No one knows.
7. The beach. Hours spent drinking a Castel beer, watching fishermen pull in huge nets in the mornings and fighting the dangerous tides to wonder- has there ever been a more perfect paradise?
8. Pagnes = West African cloth in loud, colorful patterns. Usually more Béninois wear pagne than suits to work. My friends and I became connoisseurs of pagne bargaining at Dantokpa Market, taking our designs to the tailor to get dresses made for 2 or 3 dollars.
9. Sleeping outside on a mat in the small village of Tayacou, in northern Bénin. It could not have been more different than the pollution of Cotonou. The stars were clear, and I slept in my Peace Corps friends’ compound with other village families on the cool ground.
10. Microfinance. It works. Most of the women I interviewed were illiterate, or had a primary school education, but their children were in school. The women overwhelmingly said that the loans helped them, they wanted higher loans faster, and they had plans to continue or build their businesses in the future. Goals were modest and loan terms long, but the progress was sustainable. And that is the reason I was there.
Bénin, I will miss you. . .
Sarah Lawson is a KF6 Fellow recently returned from working at ALIDé in Cotonou, Bénin./>