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.