“We thought you were a Muslim from Togo,” the Director of Alidé told me on the way out of the Benin airport.

“Pardon?” I asked, wondering if I had heard correctly.

“You see,” he explained, “Lawson is a common Togolese name, even sometimes a Beninese one, and in West Africa Sarah is usually a Muslim name. So I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect.”

I explained to him that Lawson was originally English in my case. M. Valère Houssou, the Director of the NGO Alidé in Cotonou Benin, is an immediately likeable man. He is a small, fast-moving person, who was recruited to head Alidé when Alidé separated from the French NGO ID (Initiatives Développement).

Alidé means “another path always exists” in Fon, the local language of southern Benin. Alidé believes that another path always exists for the most poor, and aims to help the most marginalized women of the urban areas of Cotonou to move out of poverty. Alidé also stands for Association de Lutte pour la promotion des Initiatives de Développement in French (Association to Promote Development Initiatives), and is an MFI located in the capital of Benin, Cotonou, with 7 locations around the city. 

Benin is a small country in West Africa bordered by Togo to the West, Nigeria to the East, and Niger and Burkina Faso to the north. Its lingua franca is French, followed by Fon and Yoruba. Benin is one of the few countries in the whole of Africa that has had two peaceful transitions of power, and enjoys a close relationship with the United States. President Bush visited last February and has directed a lot of funding towards fighting malaria. Benin has had 18 years of multiparty democracy. Its staple crop is cotton, and GDP per capita is about $1500.  Many people practice Voodoo or an animistic religion, but Christianity and Islam are large minorities.

M. Valère Houssou stopped in a questionable-looking neighborhood not far from the airport. I tried not to feel scared as he said my homestay was near, and M. Vivien Hounkpe, one half of my homestay couple, jumped into the car to lead us into a more secluded alley.

I liked Vivien. He is 37 years old and the director of a smaller Alidé office in Cotonou. He served Valère and I chocolate cookies and Coke before Valère bowed out and I went to bed.

Or tried. I am not yet to get used to the intense heat of West Africa. I lay there in the humidity, thinking I was just not tough enough, and read a lot of Audacity of Hope. Finally, I asked Vivien if he could lend me his fan, and I slept for two hours before Alain picked me up at 7:30 a.m.

*     *     *

 

Alidé is covered in little inspirational quotes such as “One never gives you a dream without the power to achieve it” or “Demand a lot of yourself and little of others. Thus you will save yourself a lot of worry,” which are a good metaphor for the atmosphere of the place: optimistic and hard-working. Alidé is a small office of about 10 employees: the Director General, Valère, the Director of Operations, Alain, and the Internal Auditor, Michel. Landry is the Kiva contact, Rosaline the secretary, Caroline is starting a new program, and a few other young men work here as well as credit agents. There is a small yard in the back. However, the office holds two major attractions for me: air conditioning and Internet. These two attributes allow the 12 hours to be more enjoyable. The office day is structured quite differently in this tropical zone. We work from 8am-12:30pm in the mornings, and then break for lunch and at least an hour long siesta until 3pm. The workday officially ends at 6:30pm, but we usually leave at 8pm. I think the day is set up much more logically than an American workday as I never get any work done mid-afternoon anyway, I just wish it were a little shorter.

Landry is my Kiva contact here, and we are fast becoming friends. Following a morning meeting, Alain and Landry took me out to lunch at Maquis le Yao, or the Underground Woman in French and Fon. We ate rice, French fries, plantains, and fish of the sea. The restaurant was mostly full of men. Landry took me for my first motorcycle ride to change money and get a few groceries. From the start, it was a harrowing one as I ripped my dress getting on and burned my calf on the engine getting off. However, we were successful in all our transactions. As I grabbed some pasta noodles and eggs for dinner, I remarked to Landry that I had never been shopping with two men before (another man insisted on carrying my purchases).

The pollution in Cotonou is frighteningly awful, worse than I saw in China. It careens out of the back of a motorcycle as it slams on its breaks, and it coats the sky in the morning. Many people wear a handkerchief around their mouth, and I think I will have to emulate them because I find it hard to breathe. It is sad the way the environment is completely destroyed – it is rare to see a tree, or grass uncovered by trash. I now understand the impact of the rapid pace of urbanization in developing countries. It may be seen as a step forward for their economies, but the total devastation of the environment not only lowers the beauty of life, but becomes dangerous to the health of the population. I always joked about Hybrids and Priuses before, but watching the gas spewing out of the back of the motorcycle in front of me as I covered my mouth and coughed has made me a true believer in clean energy.

Most of the structures in Cotonou are low-ones, perhaps less than 25 feet tall, and look haphazardly constructed. The Marche Dantokpa of Cotonou, reputedly one of the best markets in West Africa, is simply a collection of topsy-turvy structures along the sides of an intersection.

I am still reeling, and cannot wait for a good night’s sleep tonight. Alidé has given me a spare fan, and I am putting it as close to my face as is humanly possible. 

*     *     *

Another Version of Day 1, Now that I can write about it

I won’t sugercoat it for you. My first night and day here gave new meaning to the term “culture shock.” It was my first time in the developing world where I wasn’t a tourist, and my first time in Africa. My psyche could not withstand the new world, and I quailed before the explosion of unrelenting poverty. I simply could not react to what I saw.

There were no buildings, there were no Westerners, there was trash in the street, motorcycles, and no traffic laws. There were people living on top of each other, and dirt everywhere, and the pollution blotted out the sun. And I was going to be living in the middle of it, and working right off the street with giant potholes, or maybe just giant holes in the sand, with chickens running around. In the face of such poverty, I had a difficult time acting “normally,” I had to pretend to be “professional” and the lack of sleep amplified every difference. The morning looked bleak, and I wrote a lot of agitated e-mails.

A cup of coffee mid-afternoon helped the images sharpen around me a little, and I tried to stop literally stumbling around but I was still slow to process basic facts. I had not slept at all the night previously, covered with sweat and pressed close to the fan I had pleaded for at 3 a.m. after I could not breathe anymore in the room. That was when I broke down, and wished I was home, not so much for homesickness but because of the frustration with the Equatorial mid-night humidity. 

Improvement came in the form of lunch, but then I burned myself on the engine of the motorcycle. By the end of the day, I functioned at maybe a quarter of my usual self, and there were still a few more hours of French left at dinner. I convinced sleep to arrive by tricking myself into seeing the fan as cold waves of air conditioning, and my body slid restlessly into submission. 

 *     *     *

Day 2- Friday

 

Last night I ate at a restaurant with Vivien. We walked down the street and since there was no electricity outside, we ate in the dark. He used a cell phone light to show me my food. We talked a lot about microfinance. Vivien is very passionate about having me in his house. He has spent a lot of time with foreigners and also has told me that I must work hard at Alidé because they have very high expectations for me, a statement which filled me with the fear of disappointment. However, it was nice to eat with him, and it warded off the crushing homesickness that descends with the darkness.

The fan Alidé gave me helped with the heat.

 *     *     * 

This morning I thought, it’s poor. Okay, and moved on a little faster. 

I have my appetite back! For the first time in 2 days, I was actually hungry. As usual I satisfied my cravings with a healthy object – les biscuits chocolats (chocolate cookies). Landry and I went to lunch at the hospital, an unlikely place to eat, but there was a restaurant there and Landry ran into his childhood friend. When Landry introduced to me using my last name too he asked, “Mais, tu es Béninois?” (“But you are from Benin?”) Just trying, I thought, and answered, “Américaine.”

 *      *      *

Day 3- Saturday

Vivien and I started out eating a breakfast of Mielo (a coffee/hot chocolate mix) and sort of soft, but tasty, baguettes. The plan was to head to Porto Novo, a city about an hour away and Benin’s political capital, so we stopped by his parents’ house to borrow their car. The road to his parent’s house is very bad. In terms of appearance, Benin reminds me a little of Haiti. The road traveled from ok (where we live) to very poor, so poor that the sand road is littered with trash and excrement and the “structures” are really just lean-tos of rusty metal. I didn’t talk at all during the ride because I was trying to digest it all, and Vivien kept asking me if I was ok. I was, it’s just that I seem to encounter many situations in Cotonou where I don’t have a clue what to say, which is funny given that you can’t keep me quiet for one second in the States.

In France, people will usually ask me about American pop, or to talk about American culture. Here that happens very little, as people never ask, and I wouldn’t even know where to start explaining. The one American person we can talk about is Barack Obama. Vivien introduces me everywhere as “This is Sarah. She worked for Barack Obama.” This gives me immediate star power, and is totally great. Barack Obama is such a popular figure that I seem to gain immediate social capital from this statement.

We went first to to one of Alidé’s seven agencies, the Santa Rita Agence, where Vivien is the Director. It was very modest, but it had a little guichet (counter) through which to disburse loans. I met one of his friends with whom he studied abroad, and who now does research in sociology and law. He also works to stop the trafficking of children. This was a subject that interested me very much. I always thought I should be a sociology major, but chose international relations because it sounded more impressive. I told him the research he does sounds very important.

I also met the first Alidé agent who spoke a little English, Raoul. Unlike in France, where everyone attempts to speak English with you regardless of their level of proficiency, here everyone speaks French to me. A few people asked me if I could teach them English.

We were on the way to l’enterrement de son pere, or the internment of Gille’s father. Gilles is a loan agent at Alidé- Allada Agence. It reminded me of the first chapter of Camus’s The Stranger. The ceremony was crazy because when we got to the church, hundreds of people were outside along the grounds, just listening, because the church wasn’t big enough for everyone. I wasn’t sure if the Alidé people would be more observant, but they didn’t pay much attention to the service. In fact, there was a great feeling of camaraderie among everyone as representatives of different Alidé agencies got to see each other. Everyone greeted each other very warmly, and most of them are young men. I was happy when Caroline got there (Caroline sits with Landry and I) with her little sister, as I was one of the only women present. I hang out most of the time with African men. It’s a good thing I’m not in the least bit intimidated, because I’m definitely the odd one out. They do try very hard to include me. In most social situations however, everyone speaks Fon with just a sprinkling of French, so I didn’t understand most of the conversation. That was fine with me, as it gave me a chance to relax a little. Every time I start to daydream about home or to reflect on something here, someone says, “ça va, Sarah?” (“you ok?/how’s it going?”) So I realize I have to re-engage, or at least appear to be engaged.

The Alidé men clowned around during the service, and then we got into the car and on motorcycles to go to the party afterwards. Of course I had no idea where were going, due partly to the dullness in my mind created by the tropical heat (oh, camus), and my general incomprehension of the French/Fon that kept floating my way. But I kept gamely spontaneous, and after getting lost a few times, we finally decided to go to a bar because no one had arrived at the party yet. After a few beers, everyone started shaking their shoulders in their chairs and then we all began to dance. They were excited when I tried to dance too.

We went to the party, and it was absolutely huge, as large as the service. There were at least 500 people, if not 700, and the party took over the whole street. There were both a DJ playing African rap and drummers playing traditional music. The servers brought out crates of drinks and then enormous coolers of steaming hot rice and meat, pâte, and fish. Pâte is corn flour, a mushy potato or grit-like substance, and is the staple carbohydrate of Benin. It is served with a spicy red sauce for dipping, and usually with fish and very fishy dark sauce. I haven’t yet learned to like it, but the rice was delicious. I sat with Clement, who works at another Agence, and the heads of the Porto Novo and Allada agencies.

Today I was the only Caucasian person at the whole party and mass. I read that there were 5000 foreigners in Benin, but where they are, who knows? Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen one Asian and two white people. Surprisingly, people don’t really holler much at me, they stare a little blankly, as if disbelieving that I am actually there. Yes, the little children call me “yavo” (white person), but the reaction is wholly better than I had expected.

On the way home the mood turned more somber as we passed Diamond Bank, scene of yesterday’s shooting. Last Friday night in the Dantokpa Market bandits entered and began shooting in the air. They were a well-organized and well-armed group from Nigeria. In April, the same group had tried to rob the same Diamond Bank in the center of Cotonou at Dantokpa Market. They failed, but robbed Diamond Bank in Cameroon and Nigeria. Yesterday they returned to Diamond Bank better-armed and robbed the Bank of about US $786,000 and won a 5-hour firefight with the police and some military back-up. In the panic that followed, 20-100 people were injured by stray bullets and a stampede that took place as people attempted to flee. The bank was targeted because of its high liquidity; the market women, some of whom are Alide clients, deposit their funds directly as they have nowhere else to keep it. The bandits escaped from the harbor in motorboats. As Valere put it, it reminded him of a “Western” or “Rambo.” Everyone here is frustrated by the poor security, and the fact that bandits were allowed to rob banks at least three times and get away with it. Most blame neighboring Nigeria, where the bandits have almost certainly sought safe haven. We watched the events unfold on live camera on the TV at Vivien’s parents house. Landry saw the panic as he passed by on his way home.

Late in the evening we went out with Vivien’s friend, Auguste, and his wife, Lareine. We began by talking about Ouidah, a nearby city which attracts a lot of tourists. We discussed tourism and also the different religions of Benin, namely animism. Vivien pointed to Lareine and said, “her step brother is the highest Voodoo priest in the country. Would you like to meet him?”

“Oui!” I answered. I think that would be fascinating. I tried to explain to them how Voodoo is a misunderstood religion in the U.S. I told them that since it had come to Louisiana, many people thought it was a violent practice and it had a somewhat negative connotation. I decided not to mention human sacrifice. Voodoo is the religion of about 45% of people in Benin. They agreed that I could help build a better reputation for Voodoo when I returned armed with knowledge. However, they emphasized that I would not be told all the secrets, and that I should take care to ask before taking photographs. Vivien added that if I was told not to bring a cell phone to a Voodoo ceremony and I brought one, that my cell phone would start to burn. I didn’t catch whether someone would light it on fire due to my insolence, or whether it would spontaneously burst into flame. 

Lareine also makes traditional African clothing, and she offered to sew me an outfit to take home. We ended dinner with a lesson in Fon. Vivien explained that they were actually speaking three languages at the table – French, Fon, and their village’s language. Auguste decided to teach me hello in Fon.

“ ‘AH-FON-ghan-ji-yah’ means good morning. ”We lo, Ah-do-ghan-ji-ya’ means fine, how are you?”

*    *    * 

 

I remembered striking up a conversation with the French woman standing next to me in the Customs line when I first arrived in Benin. After she complimented me on America’s selection of Barack Obama, I asked if she was staying in Cotonou.

“No!” She replied. “Cotonou is awful! Full of pollution. I would never stay there.”

I told her I would be staying in Cotonou for 3 months.

“Oh, well,” she said, “The people of Benin will make you forget the city of Cotonou.”

(Les Béninois vont vous faire oublier de Cotonou).

A fact which is proving more true every day here. 

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