Friday, August 17, 2012

Scenes from My Backyard - 1

In the grand scheme of things, there are many people, places, and things that I'll miss about Benin. I'm already sentimental as I prepare to part in 5 months.  My backyard finds itself on that list. Since I've been in my current house, many friends from the states and elsewhere have passed through, and they've all experienced the same peace that I experience on a daily basis. 

The mosquitos and sandflies are awful, but the wandering poultry, happy dogs, trees waving in the wind, and the African stars make up for the itching and gallons of deet. 

I've decided to start sketching my backyard. Below you'll see my first. I have a bit of a scribble-sketch style. I'm no artist.  This was the view from my couch this morning. I drank my coffee and looked out the door. 


Sunday, August 5, 2012

5. Don't Sell Your Baby. . .

My frustrations with the school system here are many. There is much I want to share before I leave. I just ran into this charming text from the 3eme (sophomore year) English as a Foreign Language Document.  I've tried to deal with this text and students many time, and I can't help but laugh. I don't even understand much of the lingo. . .

If you’re a young person, you’re going to be faced with something that can change your life. You’ll have to decide whether to do it or not. And if others are around, it’ll be hard to “just say no.” If you say “yes” and you’re lucky, the rush will last 20 minutes, so if you’re not so lucky, the rush won’t stop. Your blood pressure could rise high. Your heart beat out of control. You may have a heart attack. You could get a seizure, a stroke, or lapse into a coma.

Or you may just stop breathing altogether. Cocaine is extremely addictive. Maybe more so than heroin. If you smoke coke-as freebase or crack – you could get hooked from the first hit.

Why? Every coke high is followed by a low. To bring yourself back up, you do more coke. The highs don’t get any better, but the lows just get worse. You become tired. Irritable. If you get hooked, you’ll plunge into depression, even paranoia. You might even end up committing suicide.

Cocaine can alter brain chemistry until you prefer it over everything – food – water – even sex.  It could also make you do things you wouldn’t normally do.

One woman sold her baby to buy coke. And a 14-year-old boy killed his mother when she tried to stop his crack habit. It might sound exaggerated. Unbelievable. You may even think it could never happen to you. However, nearly 700 people died of cocaine abuse last year. Two to three (2-3) million ar addcits. And all these victims have one thin in common. They didn’t think anything would happen to them, either. With cocaine, you never know whether you’ll get hooked or not. Or whether you’ll die or not. And no one in the world can tell you. No doctor. No expert. But when you face that first line, you may be hearing a lot of other things. Like coke’s a fantastic trip. Or that everybody who’s somebody does it. You might even hear that it’ll make a man. But now you know what cocaine can do to you. And if you really want to prove you’re a man, you’ll make your own decisions.

Adapted from Parnership for a Drug-Free America
Document d’Accompagnement d’Anglais, 3eme, Benin

Saturday, August 4, 2012

4. Tchoukatou

The tree filled horizon was quickly turning grey. Clouds clashed together and flashes of lightening zapped through the dusty sky.  The downpour began, pounding the roof of the hundred some market stalls at the Marché Des Sombas in Parakou, Benin.  We sat there, squash bowl in hand, watching the waterfalls of water cascade off the roof of the stall. 

Somba, often considered a slander, is what many people call the 4 or five ethnic groups found in the northeastern Attacora region of Benin. This region is known for it’s old granite mountains, waterfalls, majestic wildlife, and its delicious booze.

Women work hard here.  “Meals from scratch” are a reality that few westerns would understand. For many women the closest thing to a food processor is a millstone coupled with significant forearm strength.  To add to their already labor-intense existence, women take on the task of brewing Tchoukatou. It’s not uncommon to walk into a compound in northern Benin and find a woman using a giant spoon to stir a 10-gallon caldron on a wood fire.

She’s already been on the project for three days. She dried the millet, soaked it, let it germinate, milled it, and now she’s boiling it. After, the fermentation will take place, and those who count themselves lucky will be sitting on a log in a market stall, sipping the beverage out of a calabash bowl.

The Marché des Sombas has about 100 different Tchoukatou stalls. You can’t try every brew so you have to discriminate.  Observe and assume that the most crowded stalls have the best booze.  Have a seat and count on quickly becoming friends with the crowd.  They will respect you for your bravo.

Just like a gourmet restaurant will offer you a taste of the wine before you accept, the Tchoukatou Tanti will give you a splash of Tchouk.  If it’s early in the day, the drink might be sweeter; later it might be sour. Ideally it should be somewhere in the middle, and taste a bit stronger than beer.   A bit of active fermentation bubbling up is a good sign. If it’s too strong, feel free to mix a little sucrerie, the sweet, non-fermented version of the drink. 

Don’t like the brew you chose?  This is your chance to walk. If you’re a fan,  it’s time to order up. Order for 100 francs, and you’ll fill up your bowl. This will give you a nice buzz. Another 100 francs, and you’re well on your way.  Another 100, and you might need help from one of your new Beninese friends to bring you back to your residence.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

3. Thoughts on convenience

Let me be honest. My prose would be much better if I had written this when electricity was out. In the moment. “Here I am sitting in the dark,” I would say, “24 hours into the blackout, my cellphone is no longer charged, and I'm now lighting my house with candles.”  The truth of the matter is that I didn’t write at the time because I wanted to save my computer battery for watching old episodes of House and surfing the web. Priorities.

Yes, I suppose I could have written by hand, but I’m not sure I could even find a blank piece of paper in the house. Last week, I was trying to light charcoal without any kind of starter. I found twigs and leaves and set them on fire under the charcoal. The wind came up and blew them all out.  I then shuffled through my house trying to find paper I could use, but I didn’t find anything but books.  Using a book as a fire-starter seemed like the wrong thing to do on the day of Ray Bradbury’s death.

I asked Jacob to start the fire. The boy probably laughed inside. He could probably start a fire by whittling sticks. 5 minutes later the charcoal was hot, and 45 minutes later we were eating grilled chicken.

But back to the electricity. I was barely asleep in my bed when a gust of wind came up the other night. My fan was on, the humidity suggested that the rain would come. Rustling trees out my window and puking dust into my bedroom, the storm moved in like a malaria-sick-thief looking for a hideout. Water poured in to our living room, which, despite the work of three different carpenters over a year, still refuses to exclude rainwater from entering. Pull the dinner table back. Take the picture off the wall. Let the water fall. Water, moisture, at the roots of decomposition. Maybe in 30 years it will take away the whole house, but for now, I’ve just got to keep my stuff safe.

The electricity cut. This happens almost every time it rains so it’s not a shock at all. A few minutes, sometimes a few hours later it comes back. Not this time. Would it ever come back? Minutes turned to hours, hours turned to days. Ok, well, three days. 

I remember visiting a friend in a village where they didn’t have electricity.  In front of her house farmers sold cotton and her back yard was a cornfield.  It was serene, pastoral, and quiet. Sometimes oxen would pass in front of her house, pulling another load of cotton, or corn, to the market or to community storeroom. It was I expected the Peace Corps to be. 

Her life seemed easier to me.  In Tchatchou, electricity came and went. I didn’t have a lamp or candles or even much in terms of flashlights. It would fool me. We would have days, sometimes weeks without a single blackout. “Benin has got things figured out,” I thought. Wrong. Bam. Ils ont coupé.  You might remember an enormous blackout in the US in 2003. Traffic jams, public transportation cut, a mass exodus of people leaving Manhattan on foot by way of the Brooklyn bridge. In the US surviving off the grid seems almost impossible. 

Living in Benin has made me realize that electricity, water, cooking fuel, all these things are conveniences that have become necessities. We take them for granted yes, but we end up with expectations that these things should be available when we want them – 24/7.  In Ouidah, life might be considered simple, but when the blackouts start to hit regularly after months of solid electricity, I can’t help but think “maybe it would be better if I just didn’t have the convenience in the first place.” 

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

2. The Color of Yovo

In this post, I will deal with the constant agression white people experience in Benin. First I’d like to offer a few indisputable facts:

Fact 1: White* people are white.

Fact 2: If you think everyone's the same, your visit to Benin will prove otherwise. 

Fact 3: Your “we’re all the same,” “same race,” “same god,” “same family” antics will be quickly destroyed in Benin resulting in one simple and honest conclusion- You are white, Beninese people are black.  This makes you different from one another. 

*=White, in this post refers to all people who are NOT Black.

Warning: This post is real. It’s not imaginary. It might warm your heart. 

Stage 1: Honeymoon.

When you get out of the airport, you'll notice right away that people will call you yovo. I remember being in the market with some friends a week after our arrival. A few children started singing,

“Yovo, yovo bon soir,”

And my two friends, joyfully responding,

“Ça va bien, merci.”

The place was full of ripe fruit, happy Africans, and happy visitors smiling. The kids are so cute, and they’re so interested in you. If they get close, they might brush their hand on your arm hair or play with your big wide curls. Gosh these people are friendly.

Two minutes later the same scenario happens again with different Children. Their mother chimes in.

Five minutes later, kids do it again. The happy song starts to turn hostile. Are those kids taunting you? Is that the only French they know?

Ten minutes later, instead of greeting you at all, a middle-aged pineapple seller greets you with absolutely no notion of manners, shouting “Yovo yovo bon soir,” and you can barely handle it.  What should you do?

Stage 2: Ignorance

Your coping mechanism is to ignore it. It will ago away. They’ll see that I don’t like the greeting, when I don’t respond.

Maybe you’ll be in the market, and a teenager will approach you.

“Yovo yovo bon soir, ça va bien, merci,”

Don’t react. Don’t react, you tell yourself.  Ignore them.  Pretend you don’t hear them or don’t understand.

“Yovo,” the teenager says, as if he had caught up with your though process and wanted to respond.  You don’t say anything. Ignore.  You know greetings are very important in Beninese culture? You’re actually being very rude.


Stage 3: Reaction and/or Violence

A few weeks in Benin have given you the courage.  You’re learning to teach, to be a community development worker. You are to transfer skills to the local community. “I’ll teach them to be polite,” you think, “to make sure they understand that I don’t like being called White.”

There are three ways that this stage can unravel. The confrontation will either be highly philosophical, verbally violent, or non-understanding.

Highly Philosophical: 
“Bonjour Yovo.”
“You know, we whites really don’t like being called yovo.”
“Why not, yovo?”
“Because in our country, it’s very rude to point out that someone is different.”
“But you’re in my country.”
“Well, yeah,”
“And you’re white,”
“Well yeah,”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“It bothers me!” (Begin repetition of argument here)

This conversation becomes cyclical, and the truth of the matter is that being called Yovo just bothers you. You don’t really have a reason why, but shouldn’t you be able to control what people call you? I’ve had this conversation with everyone from children to university professors.

Violently Verbal, more commonly for Children:
“Don’t call me that.”
“You know, white people don’t like being called yovo.”
“Yovo, yovo.”
“That’s really impolite.”
Children laughing, screaming, we pissed of the yovo!
“Stop it!”
Children approach, as if poking a dog to see if he’s still awake, “Yovo.”
“I’m going to beat the crap out of you.”
Depending on the force of the yovo, children will either run screaming, they will laugh at you more, or a parent will come out of nowhere and defend their rude children. 

“Don’t say that, I don’t like it.”
“Please, I’m asking you nicely.”

In this case, the person probably not understand French. Go no further. It’s not worth it.

You quickly learn that you can’t do anything. You are but one person in a sea of Africans, many of whom rarely run into white people. In places where white people are seen often, it’s even worse because they’re so rude, paranoid, and unhappy looking.  The history of them playing a key role in the slave trade doesn’t help either. I see tourists in their short shorts and huge backpacks parading through town, and catch myself saying “Yovo” every now and then. 

Stage 4: Acceptance with bits of violence

At this stage, you will have pretty much relented and accepted your failure to sensibilize the host-country-nationals. 

You move on in your life, do your work, and make sure your friends don’t call you Yovo.

Occasionally moment of outrage at children or rude vendors obviously talking about you will cause verbal violence or philosophical dialogue, but every time this happens, you remember why you gave up.   

It’s because you’re indisputably white.

(A big, “excuse me!” to anyone who is not white that might be reading this. )

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

1. Motorcycles

Life on the Highway

I had never ridden a motorcycle in my life before I came to Benin.  The most dangerous thing I did was to drive without my seatbelt between McDonalds and the Gas Station.  When we received our Benin Welcome Book before leaving, I was confused. I didn’t realize that “moto-taxi” meant “motorcycle-taxi,” and I was puzzled by the idea of wearing a helmet inside a taxi.

Those first few days were shocking. Every time we hopped in a big van and ventured through the city, our vehicle would be surrounded by motorcycles. Traffic was made up of a few cars, a few semi trucks, and thousands of motorcycles. Those motos zoomed around with no regard to which side of the street they should be on, how to pass, or the meaning of a red stoplight. Benin was and is a motorcycle country.

A few days after we arrived, we had “Zemijahn Training” – Zemijahn being the local lingo for moto-taxi. Peace Corps gathered together 20 drivers and paid them to take us around the block. Old volunteers taught us the French to use.

“C’est combien?”
“Deux cent.”
“Ah! C’est cher! Cent cinquant.”

Knowing that it was just an act and he would get paid anyway, the Zemijahn accepted the fake price. We zoomed away and were back in sixty seconds. 

In an effort to prove their intelligence to us, volunteer trainers instilled a fear in us that, for me at least, would never go away. Zems will take advantage of you. They will attack you. They will rob you. They will take advantage of you. The truth is they’re not that bad, but I can’t count how many I’ve become furious. Running out of gas. Talking on their cell phones. I was always sure they were taking advantage of me because I was white. It turns out they do that to everyone. It turns out everyone does that to everyone.

Overtime, my shiny new helmet became scratched and worn, as did my patience for Zemijahns.

They’re ambitious too. If you’re on foot, they’ll heckle and kiss at you until you decide to use them. I remember hearing a story about a volunteer who was standing on the corner with a sack of hot beans, which I imagine she was going to eat. A Zemijahn drove up to her and said, “Tu vas ou?”  She was so angered by his presumptuous approach that she took the hot beans and hit the Zem over the head with them. According to others, she felt no guilt or reproach for her actions. In her opinion he had it coming. I imagine in the Zem’s mind, picking up white people was no longer very lucrative.  

In the north, Zems are pretty easy to deal with. Usually they will give you the right price and you don’t need to negotiate with them. This is definitely not the case in the south. If the Zem realizes you’re not from the area, he might ask you for double, triple, or quadruple the price. 

Waiting in the hot sun for a Zem to pass by. Turning down multiple zems because of their outrageous prices. Stopping for the zem to get gas or to take a call. None of these things I missed when I finished Peace Corps and became an expat.

My organization bought me a moto, which I rolled all over town. That pain disappeared and my life dramatically improved in Benin. I dreaded riding motorcycles before. Now I loved it.
Mom and I on CIAMO's old cruiser

My first attempts at driving a moto were on barren roads with no traffic. A few times we went to the stadium to practice turning corners – essentially driving in circles. Adrien was my teacher, although he had only learned a few months ahead of me.

I just let Adrien drive and sat on the back of the moto for a while, but then the day came. He needed to travel north to get Jacob. I was stuck.  During that time I was constantly embarrassing myself on the road – the engine cutting, forgetting to clutch – but, by the time Adrien got back, I knew how to drive a moto.

I love riding motorcycles. I love the power between my knees. I love the air at my face, I love that motorcycles force you into a community. Africa is inundated with cheap Chinese motorcycles, with names like Sanili, Sayna, Dayun, Dayang. You can buy one for $600 to $1000. They drive very well, but require constant maintenance. Fortunately those parts are also cheap – spark plug $1, breaks $3, etc.

After a year with my organization’s moto, it was beat up. Myself, plus 2 people in the office and Adrien had used it regularly.  It was scratched up, tired, and ready to be passed on to someone in need.  I decided for my last ½ year in Benin, I would travel in style.

So I bought myself a new moto.

I had toyed with buying a car, which I could probably resell for about the price I paid, but I told myself no. I love motos.

The moto I bought is cool. A dark red dayang, less of a cruiser and more of a motocross. I joked with the boys that we would be jumping other cars in traffic. I paid $800 for my new moto, and zoomed home. It was powerful.

Then the rainy season started. 

My work requires almost weekly trips to Cotonou.  Three days after I bought the moto, I took it into the city. As I was finishing my last meeting I looked out the window and thought, “I need to get out of here!”

I ran to my moto, and zoomed out of town trying to escape the rain. Just as I was about 20 minutes from Ouidah, it got me. I continued driving, slowly and cautiously.  I wanted to get home and get out of my soaked clothes.

A car braked in front of me fast. I braked too, and my tires couldn’t handle the slippery pavement. I slid to a halt, toppled over. I bounced off the motorcycle and lifted it up.  A mirror was broken and the front was scratched.  I was ok, but three days after having bought my moto, the bike was already damaged.

Since then, and it has only been 3 weeks, I have been repeatedly soaked while on my motorcycle. The joy of riding in the fresh, open air, is slowly being diminished by the fear that that fresh air will turn into cold rain.

My new, much cooler, but already damaged moto. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

The most difficult challenge is leaving. . .

Peace Corps' advertising can be right on.

I arrived in Benin on July 4th, 2008. I remember the warmth of the heat and humidity. I remember thinking that it was going to rain soon. It didn’t. It was hell, hectic. We didn’t know anything. Baggage tumbled off the plane and onto decaying conveyor belts. We picked up our lives and resigned ourselves into the hands of an organization that would take care of us.

One of Peace Corps’ posters shows a village scene in Africa. A child does a handstand in front of mud huts. “The most difficult challenge is leaving.”

I’ve wanted to leave before, but Benin kept luring me back to her.  Two years in a village, two years in a city. The end has been in sight the whole time, but I’ve managed to push it away. “Almost done” has never been the case until now.

Today is May 21st, 2008. It’s almost three years and 11 months since I arrived In Benin.  I’ve made my decision. I’m taking the challenge head on. I’m leaving.  For me, leaving is a process that starts today and will continue until January 30th, 2013.

The blog is called “The Challenge of Leaving.” It will serve as a mémoire of leaving. I want to relive my life in Benin as a way of saying goodbye. I’ll visit friends, live experiences, and see places one last time. I’ll tell stories no one has heard before. I’ll celebrate Benin and I’ll berate it. That’s how Benin is. Benin brought me into herself, for better or for worse. The things weighing heavily on my memory are more likely to be tragedies than comedies. This is the reality of my life here.  I’m not going to sugarcoat my experience or feelings. I’m going to share the reality of my life and the truths behind the Challenge of Leaving.

-John Mark Feilmeyer