Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Fantasy in C. (Wanderer)


Except for a few exceptions, the past week hasn’t really been full of noteworthy events. I’ve mostly just been resting and finishing with work before the holidays. After the trips into villages we had the arduous task of writing reports. Thirty-five page, single-spaced reports. As much as I was somewhat uninterested by the whole process, it was, at least, a chance for me to actually be useful. I found out I have more computer literacy than my boss, which didn’t really surprise me. On a more interesting note, after running into my Japanese friend on Friday night she invited me to go to Japanese lessons the next morning. So in the local library, with one shelf of books, myself and twenty or so African kids from eight to fifteen years old learned some basic Japanese. It was quite the scene. We then learned how to play Kanpokurri. Essentially you punch two holes into an empty tin can, attach a string through it, put it under your sandals, and have a race weaving through cones. It was probably the highlight of my week. We also celebrated Anna’s birthday at which we had beef for the first time in Allada. The meal cost 500 francs though, about 1,25$, which is a little pricey. For Christmas dinner we’re dishing out 2,50 each so I’m expecting something really special.  


So, given the lack of personal experience stories this time, I’m going to comment on a few noteworthy Béninois realities.


Traffic: At first I thought traffic rolled without any form of organization. I was honestly surprised every intersection we crossed that didn’t have an accident. I have since learned that there are a few fundamental rules. The entire rulebook essentially comes down to two things: the horn, and the break. When you’re on the road people are constantly honking, because this is the way to let other drivers, bikers, pedestrians, and animals be aware of your presence. When you’re approaching an intersection you honk, and if you don’t hear a honk back, you’re free to go through. When you pass you honk, when you go around a corner you honk, and when there’s inevitably traffic coming straight at you, you honk to tell them the get back into their lane, or at least their side of the road. This is especially true outside of the city. On the dirt roads everyone takes the same path, the one with the least potholes and erosion, so going around a corner you have to lay on the horn in case someone is coming straight at you. The only other real rule is that if I am bigger than you, get out of my way. The sixteen wheelers have the right of way, because if there’s a crash, you’ll die and they won’t. If you’re on a moto this may mean going into the bush or ditch to let it go by. As a pedestrian I don’t even have to look anymore. You’re walking down and hear a little horn, take a step to the side, hear a deep one, move out of the way. Beyond these basic rules everything is fair game. And yet, surprisingly, I haven’t seen a crash yet. Everyone knows the rules, and in its own little way, it works. Oh yah last thing, to drive a moto you don’t need a license plate or a driver’s license.


Kids: Ok, kids here are amazing, especially the ones in the villages, they are cute, but that’s not what I’m getting at here. I’ve seen a girl who may have been five, probably four, pick up her little sister; of about two, and by no means thin, throw her on her back and walk for a good couple minutes. When we were driving back from Nianrin, there was a boy of about five years carrying a full size bundle of firewood on his head, and the road went on for at least a kilometer without interruption. His little brother, I’m guessing two and a half, was trying his hardest to keep up with a quarter-size bundle of his own. You see eight-year-old girls carrying water I’d struggle to take in the heat. And what really gets me is the fact that these aren’t chores or time for work, this is life. It’s survival, It’s necessity. In the city it is different, but when you find a nine year old girl (guessing at age) responsible for her two little sisters while her mother is gone to the market, carry, clean, feed etc. You get thinking.


TV: TV here is hilarious. I try to avoid it; feeling there are better things to do, but every once in a while I sit around with someone and watch. There are the basic local news channels, and funny African sitcoms, but what I really find hilarious is the 70s action series. The is the South-American Soap Operas, which seem at least 10 years old as well. But little can beat Starsky and Hutch or ‘L’homme qui tombe à pic’. And due to this, lots of people think that disco is still in style and everyone has a muscle car.

This is all I have for now. I wish everyone some happy holidays and until next time.

Monday, December 15, 2008

And the adventure continues

December 15, 2008

(note that this post was written on multiple occasions)

At the moment I am resting on my bed, after a half day of work and a failed attempt at a nap. I spent the majority of the ladder half of last week reading and trying to get myself back into better health. I greatly enjoyed finishing Catch 22 and am now started on Howards End. Past reading around the house I also spent time wandering around and trying to get more familiar with the town. In the midst on my orienteering of sorts I came across a family in the bush I few hundred meters from my place. There were a few houses there and a few families I guess; however, I spent most of my time talking to a man in his forties named Gerard. He’s pretty chill, lives in a mud house and grows corn and tomatoes. I wound up hanging out over there on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday I was asked to head over a little earlier so that he could show me around town a little on his moto. When I got there he was out but after a little wait, a decent amount of awkwardness, and helping with sorting some of the crop used for ‘huile rouge’ he showed up and we were soon off. We wound up going to an old friend of his’. We essentially chatted, and ate papayas. I was quite content. I also left on my own for a few minutes to look around. In doing so I got swarmed by puppies, and finally managed to get close to one of the fetish trees. Tuesday it was time to head back to work. This time in the village of Nianrin: also located in Toffo. Before going to work I had breakfast as usual, and then I had some bouilli, and a few minutes afterwards we wound up having pate his sheep. So I’d essentially had three meals before ten o’clock. We also met Caroline’s old prof on the way who invited me in to have a Youki Mocha; which Caroline and I passed back and forth (neither one wanting to finish it). We then continued on to work where it was honestly quite similar to the work we had done the past week in Sedge. In the morning we walked around and organized food to feed the crowd at lunch. I had brought my camera on the first day this time but we were located under an open-air building dealio with a metal roof. So, while everything in the background was always bright, the people were all in the shade, thus making things complicated. Worth noting was a guy on his motorcycle with the majority of a tree behind him. Today, the second day there, I also tried some Vin de Palme. On the way back we also stopped at a natural water source… Something to note. Oh yah And without actually driving a got a lesson on how to drive a motocross.

On Thursday I skipped the ‘journée d’activité commune’ in order to go to another village in Kpomasse. We took some minor sideroutes to get there instead of the Route des Esclaves. It was honestly kindof painful; about an hour and a half of motocross with bumps and bends the entire way. About a hundred meters from where we had to be the moto broke down. We had work as usual. I was honestly really not into it. At this point the scene seemed familiar and I just wanted to sleep. Headache, and heat were both factors. At least Caroline was similarly disinterested. We wound up leaving at some point to go get some food (which she essentially made herself). It was super spicy and she laughed as I tried to hold back tears.

I should note that I was supposed to come back the same day for the JAE but we Caroline didn’t really want to do the whole drive back. So we decided to stay the night. I called Jonathan and told him that the moto broke down (neglecting to inform hi that we had got it working again). So, after work we went and checked out the beach at Ouidah. It was stunning. Never-ending sandy beach with palm trees as far as the eye could see. Once again I felt sick but still enjoyed walking around and taking pictures of just about everything. There was also fisherman selling their catch a few hundred meters down. I quite enjoyed walking barefoot on the sand among boats, piles of fish, and nets just about everywhere. I got asked for money a few times when taking pictures but saying that I left my wallet with my shoes worked pretty well. There were also a number of Nigerians going on about how the Shell Oil Company and the Government took their land and make living conditions so harsh that they’d moved to Benin. Caroline came down and picked me up. We then headed to where we would be staying the night. A MP’s house in a village a fair distance away. We got there, ate, and such. There was a young boy she nicknamed Bébé as his older brother Boris who essentially did everything she asked and cleaned all the clothes I had brought with me. It just seems to be how things work here. We spent the night, and being exhausted decided to head out to work a little later the next day. However, a good ten kilometers down the road the bike stalled – and this time it wouldn’t start again. We were in the middle of nowhere. Thankfully a zemidjan came by and had an idea. This was definitely one of those ‘only in African’ moments mixed with a little ‘where there’s a will, there’s a way’. I got on the back of the Zem and Caroline put her bike in neutral. The Zem driver starting driving with his foot on the back of the other bike’s footrest, thus pushing it along. This went on for a few good kilometers. But note, this is on a road with dirt and sand, oncoming motorcycles and the occasional SUV. Every once in a while we’d be loosing traction in some sand so he’d give a good push move to the side or behind and just as Caroline was about to stop he’d rush forwards and start the whole process again. Eventually we got to the mechanic’s house. He proceeded to take of all the sidings as well as the seat, leaving the bike just about naked. The then took apart the carburetor piece by piece with his knock of tools. He cleaned all the pieces with gasoline he took out of the tank. This process took about an hour and once he put everything back together it did start. But once we got our bags and helmets on we went to start it and go just to realize that the battery was dead. So he got it started manually and raced down to get some tools in order to work on this new problem. Another good half an hour later we actually got on our way and showed up to work a good number of hours late. After another long day of work I had the option of taking a cab to Cotonou and then to Allada (by myself) or staying another night. I chose the second option. In the evening I headed down to a couple of houses and wound up helping some kids with math homework while most of the family watched some bad South-American soap opera. It was hilarious there were actually about 20 of them crammed into a room watching. I also managed to get ravaged by mosquitoes in this process: fingers crossed that malaria pills work! One of the Canadians has already caught it. Anyways the next afternoon we were off again to Allada where things have been pretty status quo since. I did get my first shirt made for a whopping 7,50 (material and custom tailored). There is so much else to be said but that’ll be for another time.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


Dec 3
Well I went to work on Monday thirty seconds after walking through the door on was on a motocross I’d never seen with no backpack, a lady I’d never met, going I had no idea where and for god knows how long. Dodging potholes down dirt roads the story began to unfold. I was headed to a village named Sedge in Toffo with Caroline for most of the day. Thankfully we stopped and picked up some water along the way because otherwise I would have had the tough choice in-between dehydration (bad choice) and rural mystery water (worse choice). Like I said I was intending to be at work for an hour, meet some people and be on my way. Not head 24 kilometers (we measured on the way back) out of town into a rural village with no running water to hold a conference with elders, the village chief, the chief of the agglomeration, and numerous other villagers (women, children, young men and the like). Anyways, we weaved through the country roads until we passed through a few villages, some stagnant water and into the village we rolled. We parked the moto beside the others waiting for us and I immediately regretted not having my camera (a sentiment that only grew throughout the day). The image of modern-day motorcycles with dirt houses in the backdrop was quite interesting. We then talked for a while to find a board to post things for our presentation, and got ready. We picked our spot under a big tree and then taking into account the movement of the sun set up benches and such.
We were in Sedje to present our project and begin development. It was the first contact with the village after they had been selected to be part of our program. The information was interesting. They explained who they were, where the financing came from and so on, and then got the history of the village and asked a bunch of questions pertinent to the project. We also traced out the map of the limit of the village, which due to conflict had to be redone the next day (today). Note that this entire day took place in Fon, which I still pretty much understand none of. And apparently the villagers even had their own local variations of the language my supervisors found difficult to understand. So most of this time I gazed around people stalked. In the front row were the chiefs (village and agglomeration) and the elders. Behind were the men of the village, and off to the side were the women and children. I found it somewhat comical to what point this latter section was lacking clothing. The kids were mostly naked or the older ones in underwear and the old women were all nude waist up. Note that all the school age kids and teens were at school. I remember looking around and thinking that every other second I saw something that could wind up on the cover of national geographic. There was a young girl, 14ish, with a stunning face. I wished I could’ve got a photo of her but as I said I didn’t have my camera and the next day she I saw her in the morning but when I could get my camera out she was nowhere to be found. I did mange to get a few photos of her younger sister the second day but the lighting was off compared to the first. I remember the first day I saw her, the younger sister (at this point I didn’t know they were sisters), the manner in which she was sitting somewhat sideways on the ground with the mud houses in the background and the rest of the setting, it was a memorable imag. I awkwardly changed a stare with the older sister for a few seconds. I would have tried to talk to her but I was pretty certain she didn’t speak French and had no idea what I’d say. I walked over to the lagoon at some point too where a few girls were bathing. I felt somewhat awkward and intended to leave them in their privacy but they yelled yovo yovo and started trying to talk to me (once again we didn’t speak a mutual language). The whole nudity thing was just an interesting reality all-round. Coming from somewhere where it is so unthinkable to be naked or for a woman to be topless in public there it was just how things worked. I was having headaches throughout most of this and was honestly feeling terrible about the fact I wasn’t entirely enjoying the experience. This was a situation I had been dreaming about / looking forward to for so long yet once I was there my health just couldn’t let me invest or give myself entirely into the experience.
Anywho after hours of meetings and me following where I could and having Abbas translate once he finally showed up. There was a whole story of him trying to get there in Zem and I’m pretty sure he got lost. Oh right things to add for the first day. When we were driving and school kids swarmed me as we were going through on the motocross.
I’m continuing this entry on Thursday the fourth. Right now I’m preoccupied with the rash on my stomach. I think it’s a rash and not mosquito bites (not 100% sure) but either way the itching is driving me insane right about now. I’ve been putting on aloe Vera every once in a while and put baby powder on the right side to see if it makes a difference. Anyhow trying to look at the positives there were some more interesting thing yesterday. This time we weren’t even on a motocross but a motorcycle that should never be taken off of pavement. Oh right, it had rained in Allada the day before (the Tuesday, I’m now talking about Wednesday and it is Thursday) so there was now stagnant water to swerve through as well. Once we got there it was somewhat similar to the day before but ended at lunch. I did manage to get some photos but the girl I really wanted to get had disappeared, the lighting was terrible, and I was never able to take shots of most of the men. There was an interesting point during which we started talking about religion and Voodun. The elders listed off the seven or eight different version of it practiced in the village: once again all in Fon. Hopefully by the end of my stay I’ll have some idea of what they mean. All in all I was somewhat disappointed on the camera front. Nonetheless I have now been in an African village and hope to repeat the experience many times over. My job seems pretty sweet, I’ll just have to be up for the task.

Things to add? I ate sheep afterwards with my boss, we stopped at some sort of Carrefour / village on the way back and had drinks (I had a sprite). Oh right and I learned that my supervisor is a Princess. Not in the suck it up princess sense, but in the sense that her father is king of her village (with multiple wives and twelve children). However, he initially didn’t want to take power due to his studies / career. In retaliation, they paralyzed him. When I asked my supervisor how she laughed and said “You do realize were in Africa right”. If you aren’t familiar with African realities by this she meant they used Voodun to cripple him. Or at least this is what she, and he, and they, believe happened. While on this topic I should mention scarring. Many people here, at leqst those fro, villqges, have scars on their faces. I originally thought it had to do with which tribe they were from but learned it represents which Voodun fetish they worship (or their parents do). The scars are given at a very young age. There are also women that have small linear scars all over their bodies. Apparently this brings protection. From what exactly, I’m not quite there yet.

By the way Ive been trying and failing to upload photos but there is apparently internet in the office where I work so Ill try there when I can.

Monday, December 1, 2008

update on week 2

Hello all, here is another update for the first of December. Things have mostly been status quo, markets, food, participants, children’s chants and so on. I went to Cotonou this weekend and saw the town, the university, a bunch of Prosper’s friends and my first Voodun Priest, walking around and demanding money. I see such contrasts in Cotonou. On one side I was woken up by prayer calls in the morning and met a bunch of students playing cards under the sun and talking politics. At the same time we went to a few bar’s that could have convinced me I was back in Vancouver, minus the clientele. I also got my hair cut. After showing the barber which cut I would like off of a cart he proceeded to give the exact haircut as he gave everyone else. For 500 francs; however, I can’t really complain, and people here seem to like it even though I find it a little ridiculous.
Also worth noting was the trip on Friday. We went to the town hall of Kpomasse to determine which would be the last village to be part of my work project with the IAMD. Pretty much everything happened in Fon and thankfully Wilfried was there as my personal translator. The road down was the traditional Slave highway. It was along this path that many of the slaves heading to the Americas were taken. There was also a lady outside selling really nice fabric that I somewhat regret not buying. We wound up driving through Ouidah going both ways and thus could’ve debarked and gone to cotonou from there but on request of Edvige, the IAMP’s secretary, we left our bags in Allada. The interstate to Cotonou was ridiculous as always with 11 of us in a van heading down and deeking through motos, overcharged 16 wheelers, other cars, and the occasional cyclist or pedestrian. We got there in record time.
Other things to note… Oh right motorcyclist on his cellphone driving one handed through traffic.
I know this is not a whole lot but I will update again soon.