Pictures coming soon.
Batoula-Bafounda/Douala, Cameroon, Africa.
Cotonou/Ouidah, Benin, Africa.
We left early, but not as early as we had planned. I jammed things in my bag…So many new clothes made it difficult to fit in a carry-on, and I had brought rubber boots that I never even used while we worked here. The drive was an obnoxious 6 hour ride, dodging potholes and people and overturned trucks and other cars that were dodging potholes from the other direction. The air-conditioning didn’t work, but the windows down made it loud – especially as we passed through denser populations. Motorcycles always add to chaos in the cities. Toll booths give just enough time for women and children to shove handfuls of bananas, bottled water, peppers, and other foods into our windows in hopes to make a sale.
We weren’t able to get lunch, and we had hardly had breakfast. I was dead thirsty; the air wasn’t helping. I could sterilize sink water, but I threw out my plastic bottle I had been saving since I bought a drink in an attempt to reduce the amount of things I had to carry. When we finally reached the airport in Douala, we pushed through the hot and humid air to find the check-in counter. Having a duplicate passport is such a pain. I have to try to hide it as much as possible, especially since I almost got arrested upon arrival. It’s not “illegal” per se – it’s just Cameroon, and bribes can make anything suddenly “illegal” if there’s hope of scoring some foreigner’s money.
My carry-on back was way over weight. On the way to Cameroon, the Benin airline really didn’t seem to care about anything at all. Cameroon, however, is just so damn corrupt – worse than Benin. I was told I had to give up things. I feigned crying and like I didn’t understand French. A poor lady tried to translate for me, but I knew exactly what was going on. It worked, because the guy said angrily “JUST THIS TIME!” and let me through without a bribe and with all of my stuff. It was good, because I had absolutely no Central African Francs (CFA) left to pay for a bribe or for an overweight bag. All I had was 10mil for my exit fee (yes, we have to pay to leave the country – GRR).
Just when I thought I was golden, past customs and past the first security checkpoint, I encountered another checkpoint: the Cameroonian police. I got all angry at them and demanded why they would check my bags a second time. I knew what was coming. The police officer snatched up my nearly full bottle of nice shampoo. It wasn’t a problem on my other flight, but he insisted “no liquids” (neglecting the other liquids and aerosol cans, of course). He looked at me like I was going to take a bribe, but I really just felt like slapping him. I was about to degrade him in French but I knew this might end up putting me in a situation where I would be arrested and need money to pay my way onto my plane. At this point, I was completely alone again. I couldn’t risk anything. I just cursed him under my breath and acted like it was funny that a man with little hair wanted women’s shampoo. I left with the rest of my things and sat in the air-conditioned waiting room for my flight.
It’s funny in other countries how different personal space is. Normally, sitting in a remote corner means you expect privacy. Here, people were just regarding an empty chair as an empty chair. They’d sit right next to me as have no issues with bumping legs or having their bag more in front of me than in front of them. The airline company was much nicer to me than the police, though. I had asked the scanner man a question about the police, but his English was too poor. I asked again in French and, relieved, he answered that the first checkpoints are strictly Cameroonian police and that the airlines (this was Camair) have their own. Weird systems. I guess heightened security is a payoff for slightly nicer accommodations. But this is still Africa. I just hope Aminata knows to get me tonight.
As I sit, I start thinking silly things, documenting my days and trying to be philosophical. I’m realizing how much writing is like plowing snow bank that comes over your head. You can’t see ahead, but you can plan. No one else can get where you’re going until you plow through. Even if you hand over the shovel, someone else won’t necessarily take the same path or at the same speed. If you walk away before its done, voila…a draft. Unfinished and not very purposeful but yet somewhat inspiring despite its incompleteness. I continue thinking about writing while I ride the very empty plane high over Nigeria. I hold my breath for the landing…And we land…And, okay, so everyone just clapped because we landed. Like, stood up, whooped, and clapped. Did they expect us to crash?? Sadly, it is probably likely on a Camair flight. Flying records on African planes aren’t exactly the safest. I’m just glad that’s over with.
Aminata had been waiting when I got my bags and climbed outside, somewhat familiar now with this airport. She said she’d been around, and said something about the driver getting sick. It took a while to pick her out because she was reading and not standing with a sign as before, but she wore bright orange traditional clothes and her pretty face isn’t hard to recognize. She has a very Cameroonian look to her, round features with a flatter forehead and petite nose profile.
We walked from the airport and talked quickly in French as I followed her, but we were angrily drawn back by army police guards. We stood and waited as they brandished their guns and directed each other with motions in the air. After a few minutes, a storm of black cars and important looking people surrounded by police bikes shot out of the gate to the left. Aminata said the president of Benin was just arriving from Canada. We were finally allowed to go, and Aminata commented on how good my French had gotten in just two weeks.
We passed a man and she paid him to take my bag. I got upset until I realized we didn’t have a driver and she had just bought the zems to take us to the taxi area. In other words, he was paid to drive us so this was just part of the deal. We climbed on the back of two motorcycles with my bag balanced and zipped off through the city as we have now done so many times before. She also paid for the taxi. I guess it was part of the program fees. We pulled into the familiar taxi area and fought past throngs of people to find a decent haggled offer back to Ouidah. Motorcycles with goats tied up over the laps of drivers swarmed around a caravan being loaded with goods. A goat was left bleating on the roadside, tied up, while traffic roared past and its people were distracted.
We had a fairly comfortable ride for once after a rough loading time and watching goats flail things while all tied up land crying like kids (ha!). When we got back, Aminata left quickly. The guy had dropped us off right there because we were all from Ouidah. I ate leftovers from my free meal that day and noticed how wiped out everything was, apart from a few food items I had locked in my closet before I left. This was strategy because I knew I’d be broke. There was no wine left, no Ryan. No radio, even, which was his. I quickly indulged in some books and wound down for the night. I couldn’t believe how happy I was to be in this apartment, in this dusty city, in this strange country – here in the same spot with the same people I had hated waking up to Christmas morning just a couple weeks before. Ouidah suddenly felt like home. I was falling into a rhythm here, and loving the people despite all of their peculiarities.
This once scary place – this STILL scary place – suddenly felt like home.
Africa, alone, Benin, Cameroon, Case Western, Cleveland, corruption, culture, Douala, Engineers WIthout Borders, flight, French, hotel, Ouidah, passport, police, solo travel, student, The Humanity Exchange, tour, travel, visa, Zem
Pictures coming soon.
Ouidah & Cotonou, Benin, Africa
Douala, Cameroon, Africa
I got ready this morning and finished packing. I tried to pack so that I had valuables I really wanted, but packed it in a way that I thought would survive police wanting to confiscate it. Everything else that I didn’t need (excessive dresses, gifts for the orphans in Ouidah, cooking food, and extra money) I locked up inside one of the closets. I told Aminata this and asked if I should take the key or not. She said yes, good idea, and I was surprised that she clearly wanted my things to be safe. I guess there’s just a different interpretation of things that are left out. Here, left out means abandoned. Locked up means Don’t touch.
A car pulled up and I believe it was Aminata’s husband. We jumped in and left Ouidah for the airport in Cotonou. I was nervous, but glad to be with people I knew in the trip. Besides, this project was the whole reason why I signed up for everything else. Once at the airport, I was way too early. Aminata hugged me and said I would be fine, just go inside. I was ridiculously nervous to have to deal with customs alone and in French. France is one thing, but Africa… their accent is horrendous and their humor doesn’t usually amuse me. I stood for a very long time before I was finally let inside. Then I waited in line to check in and was denied. I had to sit for an hour before they called me for my flight. I had only a carry-on, so I was able to pass through fairly quickly.
At customs, I showed my passport to the guard. “Where is your visa?” he asked in French. I flipped through the pages and pointed to it. “This is for Benin. Your plane ticket says you are going to Cameroon. Where is that visa?” I hesitated a moment, then frowned. I reached into my bag and pulled out a second passport. “I have two,” I explained to him. “Because I left the USA before my other visa was finished.” Surprisingly, he nodded and waved me through. The next set of guards weren’t so professional, though. They told me repeatedly how “belle” I am. “You’re very pretty, are you married?” one asked. The other grabbed my passport from his hand and said, “Why you leaving me? I say you stay in Cotonou, marry me. No? Why won’t you stay?” The first guard grabbed the paperwork back from the second and looked at it closely. “Kah-lah…Day Volt, ahh, very nice!” I started to walk away, shaking my head and reaching for my passport. “Ahh, come back soon!” “I’ll be back in two weeks!” I said, taking my passport and heading to security.
I went from a casual professional at customs, to funny jokesters at the checkpoint, then straight into the jaws of a dirty security official. As I pushed my bag through the scanner, I kicked off my shoes and turned to the detector. “Attend,” he said, telling me to wait. With a very stern face he said, “Ta robe?” I stared at him blankly. I knew what he said, but I stared because I didn’t believe him. In French, he said, “You have to take off your dress, too.” I didn’t reply. I was both angry at his joke and terrified he was serious. Messing with African officials is never a good thing. He kept repeating himself and I saw a slight smile. “Non,” I refused, waving him off, and marched through the detector. He was cracking up. The other women were just shaking their heads as they ran checks on my bag. Shoot, my toiletries. Everything was in the bag. The alarm went off. There goes my shampoo, I thought. But all the woman did was read the label and shrug. She put it back and I hightailed it out and straight into the open hands of another guard asking for money.
“Pourquoi!?” I asked Why, exasperated. “Je n’ai vraiment RIEN!” I explained that I honestly had nothing. And I didn’t, at least not in his currency. We argued a couple minutes, then I shoved past and into the waiting room. It was at that moment that I realized speaking French was not in my favor. The oblivious, dumb, little girl doesn’t get so much trouble because no one likes dealing with her. I pulled out a book that I had borrowed from the compound and started reading it immediately, ignoring everyone around me and eating a Cliff bar from my bag. The waiting room was a bunch of chairs facing glass windows and two TVs at the front, a mirror image to the waiting room across the hall. For being a capitol city, this airport was extremely small.
I watched a little of the TV while waiting; it was African acting in French and absolutely hilarious. The acting is horrible and the humor is ridiculous. This particular episode had a family joking around with one cousin dressed in a large diaper, cooking yams. The joke was they were trying to get another cousin to eat exuberant amounts of the giant, tasteless tubers grown in that region. Usually they’re smashed into something more edible. I was amused that African TV was making fun of one of its very own staple foods. Then the men started bickering with the women and one man started chasing his wife and beating her with some branches. Domestic violence is not an uncommon thing in this region, so, once again, I was impressed by the African sense of humor and how they will laugh at themselves.
When my plane finally arrived, we were walked to a bus which took us in a loop around to the planes in front of the building. We climbed the stairs like celebrities. I was surprised by how empty the plane was. Boarding didn’t take long, and soon we were in the air. I got a meal and beverages, so I chose wine. The flight attendants were brightly dressed locals with very polite French. As we flew across Nigeria, however, the turbulence got so bad that we had to ascend higher than I probably ever have before. I developed quite a headache, but soon I looked down and could make out a lot of green shores and deltas. I had been nervous about taking an African airline, but seeing Cameroon closing it made me feel better. “Well, after all that trouble,” I thought, “Even if this plane goes down right now, I can say that I at least made it.”
We filed off the plane relatively quickly and were hit by hot, humid air. The terminal sides were open to the outside air unlike at Cotonou, but the airport itself was much larger. I walked for a while before finally arriving at customs. I once again had to pull out my two passports. I was nervous, but the ladies checking our documents didn’t really care. Soon I was off to find my ride outside, glad that all I had was a carry-on and a book bag. I turned my phone on and it automatically switched to a Cameroonian service. I waited until I had woven outside, then I sat down on my suitcase along a wall outside and called the number I had been given for one of our local connections, Guy.
It was nearly impossible to hear him. After a few tries, I established that he was still an hour or so away from the airport. Frustrated, I sat down and guarded my things aggressively until an hour had passed. People were pouring around me with the arrival of each plane. A crowd would form outside to hug people walking out. It resembled a mob and had police trying to contain the crowd. After over an hour, I texted Guy, worried I wouldn’t know who he was. He texted me back after some time, saying “try not to be scared” and “I’m coming as soon as I can”.
Just then, a Cameroonian policewoman started my way. She had just reprimanded some other people who were milling around. She walked up to me and asked, in French, “What are you doing here?” I briefly explained my situation. “Give me your papers,” she said. I pulled out my Yellow Card and, reluctantly, my Cameroonian visa. She had already asked me which flight I came on, so I knew what was next. “Where’s your Beninoise visa?” Slowly, I reached into my bag and pulled out my other passport. Still sitting on my luggage, I passed it up to her. She snatched it up like a teacher stealing a note in class. “What is this??” she asked, so I tried to explain. “No good, no good!” she said. Oh, my god, I thought. This is when I get arrested. “You can’t do this, not in Cameroon!” she scolded me and shook her finger. She had bright red lipstick on and I realized how powerful she was, even in an African country. It was the first woman I’d seen in power since I arrived on the continent. “You can in the US, and I’m American…” I tried. “No good!!” she shouted, then lowered her voice. “No good! You come in Cameroon, you have two passports, you get arrested!” she shoved the passport I used in Benin back into my hand. “Put this away, and don’t ever take it back out! Not until you leave. It doesn’t exist. And you need to leave. Soon.” She walked away to another group of people.
I was shocked that having two passports was going to pose such a risk, and shocked that she was willing to cover me for it. I also didn’t understand why I couldn’t sit along the wall to wait, but I decided not to draw attention to myself by lingering any longer. I got up and pulled my bags back through the lobby of the airport and looked around for a shop or a restroom. Every step of the way, I was being chased down by men I didn’t know, shouting, “Mademoiselle! Mademoiselle!” and asking me to wait so they could help me with things I didn’t ask to have help for. Two men in particular started fighting over my attention. I gruffly retorted, “Non, merci!” and decided to march back outside where the police were keeping things in order. Guy texted me that he was extremely close, so I stood closer to the wall. A male officer offered me a chair amongst the police force. The others asked him why I was there, but he explained after I told him, in French, my situation. Before I knew it, a man who was obviously Guy was standing in the crowd, wearing a Lamarc polo, and waving over at me. I was easy to pick out.
The rest of the evening was spent by Guy and I waiting for the others to arrive on a delayed flight. I was literally at airports all day long for a short international trip. I met a few more people at the airport who were from the village we were visiting in the mountains. Amongst these men was Paul Dennis from the water committee who also teaches at the local school. He tried his English with me, but it was horrible. I told him to stick with French.
When my friends finally arrived, I was relieved that I could now lie and say I flew in from Paris so no one would ask for my Benin visa. How would they know when I actually arrived? We loaded up our van (which had come from Yaounde and was the cause of Guy’s delay). Not only did we have luggage, but enormous crates of equipment for our project. Only Kate H., Ryan, Amy, and Eric arrived today, I was told, so Emily and Kate J. would join us the next day. In other words, I was the only translator for at least 24 hours if not more. Also, because it was so late coming in from the flights, we didn’t have enough time to make the 4-6 hour trip north. It was already almost dark and dark is when the bandits and highway robbers come out, Guy said.
The crammed ride into the city of Douala was not unlike the rides I’d had so far in Benin, but it was the first time to Africa for all of my group members except for Kate H. I told them a lot of stories and they asked a lot of questions on the way to our hotel. When we finally arrived, I was surprised that we each got our own room. I thought our budget was tight. The rooms were the nicest rooms I had seen yet in Africa, so I knew the price was steep. There was a large bed with somewhat clean sheets, a TV, furniture, and a bathroom that was the typical open room where the shower throws water all over the floor. I dumped my things in my room, locked the door behind me, and hurried downstairs to meet the others for dinner. I hadn’t had a real meal all day. The hotel made us chicken dishes, so I requested just rice with sauce and extra fries. They also gave us a drink called Malta, an energy drink by Guinness. Guinness is one of our sponsors and they have a large division in Douala.
I had to take all of the orders and translate until Guy joined us. We insisted he share our drinks and have a meal, thanking him for all of the time he was taking off of work to assist our project and be our guide. We weren’t sure where Paul Dennis and the others went, but we suspect our driver Elvis slept in the van overnight. When we were done eating, we went upstairs and got ready for bed. I was afraid of my sheets, so I slept on the cleanest one and pulled my bath towel over me as a blanket. I refused to touch the pillow case. There was something about Cameroon that I just didn’t like that much, so I was acting more peculiar than usual. It didn’t help when I looked up and saw an enormous cockroach dodge behind the furniture. I took my malaria pill, flipped on TV5, and fell asleep to French humor. I slept miserably between the dry air, the cold temperature at night, and the mosquito that flew into my ear at around 3AM. And thus began the next two weeks of my life.
Africa, alone, Benin, Case Western, Cleveland, colony, culture, Engineers WIthout Borders, ex-patriate, kitten, Le Jardin Secret, moto, Ouidah, Pascal, solo, solo travel, student, The Humanity Exchange, tour, travel, Zem
Pictures coming soon.
Ouidah, Benin, Africa
At last, a free day in Benin. I got up on basically the same schedule, but had the freedom to kick back a little and catch up on work. When Ryan got back from his volunteering, we hopped on his moto and went to the beach. We spent a couple hours at the pool. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a bathing suit and the pool is a little too strict for swimming in my underwear, so I just sat and watched Ryan swim some laps. We ordered some food. I had a large plate of couscous with spicy sauces. It was extremely enjoyable. When we were done, we headed back to the compound to rest a little. “Hey, want to go somewhere nice? “, he asked. “Sure,” I said. “I’ll call Pascal’s and we can go to Le Jardin Secret,” he said. “I took a picture of the menu. Pick what you want and I’ll put in the order.”
I read through the menu and selected the pasta dish, requesting it without any meat. I listened to Ryan order in French and smiled at his casualty with the Frenchman Pascal that he now knew fairly well. I also got a kick out of Ryan ordering my dish, the way he emphasized dinner “pour deux” and how he ordered my dish as not just “and also” or “for the other dinner”, but as “et pour la fille” or “for the girl”. It was like a little African date even though we were just 10-day-old friends. Once the order was in, we sat around until almost nightfall, then dressed in our African garments and hopped on Ryan’s moto.
Our first stop was a wine store. Ryan wanted to get wine for the table and he paid for it in exchange for using my bag to carrying the bottles. I felt a bit like an alcoholic when my schoolbag would clink with the sound of glass. As we paid for the bottles, a sneezing commercial came on the TV. The children standing around probably didn’t understand the French on the commercial much or even the concept of germs and sanitization, but Ryan and I cracked up as the whole room filled with sneezing children. “ACHOO! ACHOO!” they would dramatically imitate the commercial, then giggle amongst each other. Everyone was laughing. You didn’t need words to explain what was going on. We all spoke “sneeze” and humor!
Hopping back on the moto, we left the wine shop for Pascal’s. The restaurant was a unique al fresco experience with a gravel floor. A tiny little kitten poked its head out of a plant and came directly towards my feet. I picked it up and cuddled it. I could feel it wasn’t very clean, and Pascal warned me to wash my hands, but I learned it was his kitten. Ryan pulled out one of the wine bottles while I held the cat and Pascal gave us an appetizer of banana chips to snack on. We were the only ones there, apart from Pascal and the cook in the back. I looked around and saw African art, French magazines, and children’s play things left around for Pascal’s little African girl.
By the time our dinner came out, an older couple sat down at the table beside us. Their French was not very good. Their English was better, but they had a unique accent. Ryan and I sat trying to decide which accent it was when he finally got the courage to ask. “Vwe are frum Holland,” the lady said. “Vwe heard you speekin French. Ah, but you are American!” “I saw you at the pool today, that’ s how I recognize you!” Ryan said, and the couple nodded. We soon engaged in a long conversation about the Digging Delft project I read of in the Netherlands, about George Bush and Texas (where Ryan is originally from), and about language and travel in general. Pascal came back and explained to us that his restaurant would finally appear in travel book listings. We applauded it. He’s a good, quiet, older gentleman and always full with a kind smile. We hope his business does well. His food is great, he uses local help, and his restaurant is charming.
Ryan finally tapped off the wine bottle. Feeling like he had had enough, we went to pay the bill. I was shocked by how cheap it was. Granted, it was expensive for Africa and I didn’t have meat, but it was about as expensive as eating at Chipotle. We said bye to Pascal, to the kitten, and to the Dutch couple. In the parking lot, I turned around to see the kitten had followed me to my feet. It wanted me to stay or take it with me. I laughed and carried him back inside, handing him to Pascal. “I saw you with that cat…figured you would try to steal him!” Pascal joked. He tied the kitten to his table leg and Ryan and I took off down the road. “We need to pay a quick visit to Eud,” he said, taking off towards the welcome sign at the eastern end of Ouidah and circling us back on the highway.
We were flying down the back road, wine in my backpack, wind in our faces, and totally free of a helmet or better shoes than flipflops. The lighting was poor and Ryan had to frequently dodge potholes in the old pavement. “Every time I drive this thing,” he said. “I feel like I’m playing Russian Roulette with my life.” I felt that way about most every day on this continent, especially as we barreled through the dark night. Pulling into La Reine, Eud greeted us and stood, awkwardly holding Ryan’s hand like many African men will do. He then awkwardly danced with me a little, then made us sit so he could buy us some beer. He wouldn’t stop buying us beer. I felt like I was having too much and gave Ryan a look. Ryan told Eud he was said to say goodbye and that he would miss him, but it was time for us to go. We were far too tired. Eud finally agreed to say his last bye, then followed us to the road. Ryan and I got on the moto and took off for the compound. “He was whispering to me whether or not you are married,” Ryan said. “Now that Manon’s gone, he needs a new plan for a Yovo wife.” I rolled my eyes, as always. Back at the compound, we passed out immediately in our sticky hot rooms.
Pictures coming soon.
Ouidah, Benin, Africa
My morning class consisted of intensive verb work and writing. I got ready while Aminata went to the post office, then we both walked to the couturier’s. As we walked out of the apartment, Ryan was walking back in. We hadn’t heard from him for days as it was a shock to see him. Not much else was said because we were on a mission. I dropped off my new fabric and she had a fit that her top was not done. We left towards the center of town before remembering that they needed to mend her dress, so we had to walk back. The people there didn’t speak much other than Fon and I think they were upset by her. She was being rash about her top not being ready and the tailor sleeping and not answering his phone. She always says she is out of credits, too, then ends up making a call later somehow. I’m often suspicious of her cheapskate behavior.
We started to pass a museum and Aminata asked if I wanted to see it. I said sure but it was boring. Then she got to talking to someone and that always goes on forever. When we went to leave, she gave me pamphlets which I thought were for a price but she must have convinced the guy to give them to her. Shortly after we left, we were stopped yet again by someone who talked to her. Then we continued and she saw an art display in the fountain space in town. Of course we had to go see it. It was all abstract and I didn’t like it, and we stood there forever, then Aminata donated a few coins to the children and I was taken aback slightly. “For the children, to do art,” she said, and we continued on our way through town.
We crossed the street when Aminata remembered she had to make photocopies. I stood outside for an unknown but incredibly long length of time. Some poor old lady was selling bread beside me and she had no customers and looked so sad. She was quiet and to herself. She didn’t harass me, didn’t stare at me. She just sat there at patted the sweat off of her chest, occasionally putting her head down to forget about the heat. I asked her how much a baguette was but she hardly spoke French. She picked up a bag and said “cent franc” (about 20 cents), so I gave her five times that and stuffed the bread in my bag so Aminata wouldn’t see it and want it. I went back to the edge of the photocopy store, but the bread lady was still rummaging through her things. I looked up and she made a motion about change and I shook my head and put up my hand to say stop and she nodded. I didn’t want to act like a charity or give people an excuse to expect money from Yovos, but there was a different level of respect I could read from this woman.
When Aminata and I finally left, the lady still hadn’t gotten any customers, but she replied “Bon soir” to Aminata. She looked me right in the eyes and gave me a sincere “merci”. I smiled and nodded in response to her smile, then I followed Amainata down the street. The lady’s bread was good. When I returned, I had a few bites and it was sweet. I should buy my bread from here if I need to buy bread again. It’s just on the main route, not far from one of the only traffic lights.
Walking back in, Ryan was just heading out to buy food. He said someone ate his cereal. After Aminata spoke with him for a while, I quickly muttered I had stashed his food while he was gone and that I had what was left of it. He thanked me, said he was getting more, and asked if I needed anything. I said I had bread so I was fine. We all continued and Aminata and I did a similar lesson, this time ending in tips on my project in Cameroon. It’s my last lesson before Cameroon, giving me a free day tomorrow. Then I’ll just have five days of double lessons when I return in January. It’s hard to believe I’ve survived 2/3 of these long, rigorous days already.
Discussing my upcoming trip to Aminata’s home country of Cameroon, Aminata was getting excited about her mountains and the nearby town of Dschang. Aminata seems to think it will be very cold. I think cold to her is 60 degrees F. I’ll check the Internet but I plan to only bring one suitcase so I can leave some of my things here out of safety. For example, I’ll leave my Euros, West African cash, and credit card. It won’t do me any good until I’m going home anyway. I’m talking like my return is soon, but this next section of my trip is the longest chunk of my stay in Africa. I’ve got quite a time to go… and then I launch right into school. Wow. I’ll start off behind and I have that presentation to do too for my Alaska research trip as well. Not time to think of that yet.
Ryan had to change some lights when we got done with lessons, then we told stories and I showed him some voodoo film. We stood on the balcony so I had to be careful people didn’t think I was filming them. Some little boy was jumping around shouting “YOVO” and nearly wiping out on the pavement below us. Ryan said the kid almost gave himself a concussion once out of the excitement of seeing Ryan on the balcony. We were listening to the French radio just after I’d finished my bread and had some olives. The marmite in the fridge was horrible, like condensed soy sauce, so I appreciated the sweet, plain bread. Then Ryan got a call from Christian, Ryan’s instructor who was at the party. Ryan had forgotten to make photocopies of his lesson schedule, so he took off and asked me to let Christian in if he came before Ryan returned. Christian did arrive soon, so I let him in, made awkward conversation in French, and continued to make my iced tea in the kitchen. It wasn’t long before Ryan returned and they discussed class times. When they were done, Ryan and I left for a quick meal, then came back to get some rest. Dark, African nights are usually spent best sleeping. That is one thing I do appreciate: living in rhythm with the sunrise and sunset. It’s much more natural that way.
Africa, alone, Benin, Cameroon, Case Western, ceremony, Christmas, Cleveland, culture, Engineers WIthout Borders, flight, French, holiday, Native American, Ouidah, shaman, solo, solo travel, student, sustainability, The Humanity Exchange, tour, tradition, travel, voodoo, wastefulness, Zem
Pictures coming soon.
Ouidah, Benin, Africa
Well this Christmas sucks. I’m not Christian, but I enjoy waking up to a cold, snowy morning, watching Christmas shows on TV, listening to Christmas music, and seeing all of the decorations and festivities. This morning, I woke up, drenched in sweat, to an 80-degree F, dusty, empty apartment. There was no music, only a few static TV stations in French, and no snow. The only decoration was the pitiful fake tree I had dragged in from the balcony. Its top was missing, so I replaced it with a paper start I made from scraps and plugged it into the wall beside my bed. There were still cobwebs and spiders in it, but I kept them for company. Under my tree were my sloppily-wrapped gifts, none for me but all to people I hardly even know.
Looking out my window, I could see the people stirring in the shack beside our compound. They did the same things every morning. The men went to work in the car yard next door while the women washed, cleaned, and took care of the children, usually in just a skirt. Most morning, I woke up to shouting in Fon and a radio playing French and African music. The only time the pace changed was if I went out on the porch and waved, or if the father came home and beat his daughter. I tried thinking about what my family was doing right now and realized they were still asleep. In fact, it was only 1 or 2am on the US east coast. I remembered then the note my grandma had sent telling me she would miss me on Christmas and that we would have to “pretend we are Russian and have Christmas in January”. It made me smile because my grandma is Polish, Slovak, Czech, and Hungarian… I don’t think she could ever actually pretend to be Russian without having a fit about it.
I got ready per my normal routine and Aminata was late to my class per her normal routine. I finally got working on my journal updates and, naturally, that is when she managed to arrive. But what does she do? Cooks, of course. With the tomatoes she bought yesterday on the way home and with our food. Our food. And, of course, I wasn’t offered any. I knew she was using our house supplies as well as Ryan’s stored food for his return. I made a note in the back of my mind to lock up the supplies in my closet as soon as she was out of sight.
I knew we were leaving for Brownie’s Christmas dinner at 12:30pm, but I was starving by the end of my lesson. A cup of coffee and a Cliff bar left me unsatisfied after 5 or 6 hours. I wanted to snag a plastic bottle of Beninoise and a bag of cereal, but Aminata decided to sit in the dining room and eat, so I didn’t want her to see. I didn’t want her to realize there was cereal to be had, or to see my beer, ask questions, and later decide to help herself. Not that she would, but I had become extremely paranoid over these last few days guarding my things. Once again, I was suffering through hunger because of the silly complications arising from our cultural and behavioral differences. To distract myself, I took a shower after my lesson and laid down on my bed, curled up in a ball as my stomach panged, and stayed there until 12:30pm.
When the time came, we walked out of the compound and west towards Brownie’s. I’d never been there before, and it was way farther than I had expected. We crossed a few streets and took a few dusty paths with tight corners around houses around which we were weary of oncoming moto traffic. When we finally reached the gate, we swung it open to find a couple small houses, cars, and dogs inside. Within the living room of Brownie’s house, I knew virtually no one. There were a number of other people around, Asian and African, who were new to me. It was hard to remember it is Christmas. I’m sweating in flip-flops and a dress. The walls are covered in African textiles and sparse Christmas decorations. It doesn’t feel like Christmas.
I recognized Brownie and Jean-Marc and Cathy from before. There was Brownie’s African hired driver, some African family members from Brownie’s “adoptions”, and a few new faces besides. I sat down on one of the sofas, kicked off my shoes, and watched the fan spin on the ceiling. I was introduced to Natsuno, a Japanese woman here with the Peace Corps. I learned that Brownie came to Ghana in the 60s when she was a teenager and she never left, she never married, and she rarely goes back to Virginia. She said my blue tailored dress looked like the same cut she wore in 1962.
Talking with Natsuno, we discussed a lot of cultural topics and talked about the different tribes around the world. She invited me to a ceremony that was later in the day and Aminata agreed to make it a conversational lesson for my afternoon class. We sat and waited then for the food to come. I sipped on my drinks: a glass of water on the table, a bottle of beer in one hand, and a glass of wine in the other. We laughed that this sums up life in Africa. When the food finally came, it wasn’t the typical fare. There was Fou Fou, spicy sauces, rice, fish, and a number of other small dishes and spiced relishes. The only recognizable plate was the joke of the party: a dish of good ole American potato salad. As usual, I was so hungry and started eating my food extremely quickly, yet I fill up so fast. I ended up not being able to eat much, but I had some rice, mushrooms, potato salad, and Fou Fou. For dessert, I nibbled on some cookies from a tin, drank some pineapple soda, and picked a dish of peanuts and sweet cracker-like bites. Brownie let me use the Internet to check my e-mail, then we left the party to catch some Zems in the heat and rode them to the east side of town. As always, I had to pay for Aminata’s ride.
We waited a long time in a sitting room before the ceremony even began. There was international TV (from Brazil, Germany, Italy, etc.) spoken over in French. Natsuno ended up falling asleep on the sofa at one point. A local, who is the CIAMO director of music (and quite attractive), joined us to wait. When we were finally called into yet another room to begin the ceremony, this boy helped the old man go through all of the processes. The man had a large tumor on his head which made him appear even more powerful to the ordinary locals. The man began the ceremony and, surprisingly, I was allowed to film it. I filmed as much as I could with my battery draining. We did a series of motions with different foods and objects, muttering words and casting shells. My shells landed in a “la chance” pattern, meaning I have luck with me. I couldn’t decide if that good luck had gotten me by visa and plane ticket, or if I had good luck still to come. I sort of doubted these shells knew my luck, though.
I had attended the ceremony for the purpose of contrasting these local voodoo rituals to that of a native shaman at home but, when they brought in the chickens and pigeons I had been admiring early when we first arrived (and when I remembered Natsuno had bought them earlier), I started breaking down. The guy next to me held them by the feet like some useless handbag as the birds cried and feared for their lives. Considering that nearly every step of the ceremony had involved us handling and object in a certain manner and often eating it, I had a moment of panic that I would have to wring a birds’ neck and eat it raw. I looked at the birds, right in the eyes, and read their thoughts. This was a needless killing, and I could not bear it anymore. I started to cry.
Aminata rushed me out. The ritual man thought I was too hot. I was embarrassed and upset and started to cry more. I didn’t understand how it was so fine for me to mix up an order in blessing the food, or dropping a sugar cube, or completely ducking out of a ceremony…. It added to my frustration that animals would die for something that was so far from stringent. The ceremony felt made up at this point, completely useless. And I was crying harder because I had failed to stay collected. That would not be acceptable at a typical native ceremony, but neither would be filming something sacred. Here, it was no problem. Aminata wrote me off as being a vegetarian, and that was all. I was dismissed and given my good luck to follow me out.
How can so many animals be slaughtered like that? Killing is not the problem, it is just against the native way to waste. For example, the buffalo, so sacred to the Plains, were worshipped and savored by the natives then ruthlessly hunted by the white immigrants. Antlers, hooves, skins, those are all used in native culture. Killing to kill was wrong, and as we passed entire carcasses tossed into the grass, it became clear what would happen to those birds. I thought it was wrong. Aminata agreed with me. I think she was glad I wanted to leave. Killing to kill for the purpose of experiencing a ceremony…. That’s horrible. I respect all living things the same. If anything, humans are the bottom of my totem pole. It makes life challenging when few people live this way, but it is how I choose to live and I believe it is right. Life is not measured by size, duration, appearance, or origin. Life is all the same and I don’t believe in a god who weighs his favors; I don’t believe in one at all.
Talking so passionately in French to Aminata about these things and hearing her equally passionate input made me realize we had very common threads under all of our differences. It was this Christmas that my mind began to open a little more, and I think my tears stirred something in her as well. I was still crying a little, so Aminata took me to a store to take my mind off things. I ended up buying fabric for two more dresses. Who needs to eat? I’ll assure I fit into these things later if I spend my money on dressed instead of food! I plan to go to the couturier’s tomorrow. Aminata was a little shocked by my frivolous spending, but I reminded her that this is an experience for me and this is how I’m choosing to remember it later.
When we got back from our long day, Aminata asked to use my bathroom. I was a little surprised she had so blatantly stopped to ask instead of just using it. I said sure, but then she took a shower and I was dying because she said the other bathroom doesn’t work now. Eventually, Aminata left and I was alone again in the apartment, craving my Frank Sinatra Christmas album and record player at home. On the porch, I swatted away some mosquitos and watched as children milled yet again through the streets with their socks on their arms, banging their drums and begging for money. The only Christmas lights visible were the ones always lighting up Thaty’s. Then, before long, the night became unusually still. This was no Christmas. This was just an ordinary, hot, sticky, mosquito-infested night in voodoo city. I watched as the last bat flew overhead and wished he could come closer and eat the bugs that were biting me on the porch. Accepting that I was not going to ever feel like it was Christmas, I looked at my watch, imagined my family at dinner now, then went back to my room to sleep under my fan and mosquito netting.