“Benin? Where is that?”
This question followed by a puzzled look on the person’s face is usually the expression I get after I tell people I am studying abroad in Benin. I can also predict the next question, “Why?”
Like most people, before last year I had no clue where Benin was. Located on the West Coast of Africa, Benin is a small country tucked away by the South Atlantic Ocean. As of 2013, the national population was just under 10 million. But don’t let the size of this small country fool you. Like most countries in Africa, is it full of diversity, history, and life. Over 30 languages are spoken in this country and it is known as the birth place of Vodoun/Voodoo. As we are learning more and more about Benin through our pre-departure class, I am slowly starting to get a sense of what this country has to offer not only for me and my classmates but also the world.
For me personally, I’ve always had a fascination with cultural anthropology. I attribute this to my immigrant background. Growing up I was always hyperaware of the two cultures I was exposed to and struggled fitting into either one. I escaped this awkwardness by learning about other cultures in hopes of trying to break away from my own decision. As a child, I was interested in African culture because of the stereotypes perpetrated in popular media. Nothing sounded more cool or daring than an African safari. As time passed and I got older, I realized how much racism, misrepresentation and overall ignorance media has placed on Africa. By lumping every country in this vast continent together we fail to recognize the humanity of people. We lack cultural awareness and continue to reinforce racial stereotypes.
I chose to study abroad in Benin over other countries in Africa because I am interested in the relationship between Voodoo and public health. In my senior year of high school, I read a book called Mountains Beyond Mountains written about a global health figure, Paul Farmer. I distinctly remember a chapter regarding Farmer’s experience treating tuberculosis in Haiti, where a different but similar form of Voodoo is practiced. Just like any religion, Voodoo plays a big part in people’s health and health care. This particular case was interesting because Farmer had to find a way to keep the patient invested in taking her TB medication. Not an easy task especially when the patient thinks someone else made her sick or that she can get better by visiting a Voodoo priest. For me to fully understand and experience this unique culture, I first have to visit Benin. In Benin I am hoping to learn more about Voodoo and gain a new perspective. With first hand interactions with the people of Benin, I am hoping to contribute my knowledge to the growing world of public health and make a difference in how health care professionals treat people with different religious backgrounds.
So when people ask me “Why Benin?” the answer is “Why not?”