The Urban Field of Benin (Au Terrain Urbain du Bénin)
Maurice, Alidé’s loan officer, and I ventured into neighborhoods even dirtier and more fly stricken to visit Alide’s clients. On Monday we visited the most intense location ever – the lake country. It reminded me a little of New Orleans. The houses were built on mud and some directly over the lake, the log slats spaced almost wide enough for a foot to fall through. The area was muddy with lots of flies and very poor. We interviewed one of the few male borrowers, Moise Dossa. He was a happy, attractive man wearing robes of flowing colors. In his bare feet, he led us into the church. M translated my French into Fon; and Moise talked about how he had been forced to quit fishing due to a stomach or lung problem (cancer?) and had sold nets and logs with the help of an Alidé loan. He offered me a beer. It looked a little dirty at the edges, but it was impossible to decline. I could feel my stomach bubble suspiciously as I started to drink it. When we went outside, I tried to ditch it, but Moise admonished me in Fon, Maurice in French as if it was a cardinal sin. We took his photo in a pirogue, a small distinctly shaped boat.
Time to leave. Most of the village had assembled, and I met the priest. But before we could go, I had to finish my beer. I tried to farm it out, but everyone simply watched me. I finally finished it, and tipsily mounted M’s motorcycle, and we zoomed down the road filled with muddy sad pits and kids yelling YAVO (foreigner) furiously at me as I went by.
Maurice and I entered a house not far from the lake, and were soon blinded by the smoke, which came from fish being grilled over huge black pots. The fish had to be imported due to the lake’s pollution, and the women were cooking hundreds of fish along with the help of at least 15 children who were surrounding the pots helping and staring at me. Flies were pervasive, and the host pulled up three chairs for the borrower, Maurice, and I. At the conclusion of the interview, we needed to show Daniel, one of the borrowers, in the lake at his place of business as opposed to at home. (He had finished fishing early in the morning). The three of us trooped down to the lake, Daniel with his basket, net, and oar, to get on a pirogue. The lakeshore was littered with mountains of trash. Pigs, chickens, goats, and birds scavenged through it. Daniel offered to buy me some bananas by the lakeshore, but I declined as politely as I could. When we went to a café to do his interview, I asked him if he had a problem with fish yields due to pollution, which he seemed to deny. However, a lot of the smoked fish were imported according to M, so either Daniel was in denial or I couldn’t understand his French well enough.
M and I stopped by a client’s hair salon business where he had an identification verification to follow up. The lady’s husband sat in a chair, she was attaching light blond hair extensions to the hair of a woman sitting in the chair, who was nursing. As M talked, she turned on him all of a sudden, yelling in Fon. I had no idea what was happening, but abruptly M stopped, grabbed my arm, and said, “We’re leaving!”
“Wouldn’t tell me the date of her birthday!” He exclaimed as we got on his moto. “I don’t make the rules, the Microfinance Minister does!”
“Why was she so mad?” I asked.
“Forgot to call to say I was coming,” he said.
“Maurice!!” Her husband was running after us.
“Stop,” I said. Her husband ran up to us, handed over the identity papers.
“I don’t make the rules. . .” stammered Maurice, obviously upset, her husband was agreeing, saying he was sorry.
As we zoomed off on Maurice’s Roughrider moto, I eschewed the American shoulder pat in favor of a crisp French, “ça va?”
We stopped by another hair extension store. “Kiva?” I asked.
“Cherie,” (my darling) he answered happily.
A woman in bright yellow African pagnes (flowing outfit) stepped to the door. Unlike the normal pagne, this one plunged drastically low, and she wore purple lipstick and blue eyeshadow. She gave M beer, but I asked for a Coke, dehydrated as always.
“Do you have one my color?” I said, joking; indicating the hair extensions on the walls, some light but none as light as mine.
“Is she serious?” She asked M. “Does she want to look?”
I shook my head, sipping my Coke.
On Mange (We eat)
Maurice and I sat in the restaurant near his house where he knew everyone. In Benin, lunch breaks last from 12:30 to 3pm. To try to do something during this lunch break is a mistake. The first hour people usually eat, afterwards they sleep. Lights go off in offices, people bust out their sleeping cloths, and Alidé locks their doors. Before being seated, Maurice and I greeted people by shaking hands with a snap at the end. I got some fried igname (like French fries, but harder) and a light doughy pastry with spicy pepper dip. It tasted really good and was 100 CFA; cheap, I thought, and converted it to about 40 US cents. The other day I bought a loaf of bread that I have been eating for dinner and breakfast everyday for the grand total of 1 dollar, so at least I haven’t been spending money on food. Maurice got slippery-looking pate (ground igname flour) and a fish head with spicy pepper sauce.
At the field office
I am sitting in V’s office, Christmas music blasting in French and German. Like the Head Alidé office, this one is furnished with monk-like simplicity – not an extra decoration in sight. It is painted blue, with cardboard boxes holding Alidé’s records, a bulletin board, 2 computers, one fan, a faded yellow and blue shade over the window to keep out the tropical heat. The soaring music of “Ave Maria” makes me feel like I am in a Cathedral instead of this small room. Every morning mostly female borrowers wait in a covered area just outside where trainings are held. There is also a direct entrance to the counter where loans are dispensed at certain times.
I also got to meet some of the groups of borrowers who came to Alidé for consultations.
Sarah Lawson is a KF6 fellow in Cotonou, Benin . She is working at Alidé./>