Sam and Katie here,
Today marks our half way point in Benin. Everyday is a new adventure, which brings new stories and encounters with the people we meet. Yesterday our group went to the village of Zoungbomey, which means “In the big forest”. It rained all night long and unlike the U.S., the streets here are made out of dirt. Between avoiding giant pot holes and mini lakes of water, it made driving very difficult. Our driver is driving 14 people around in a white Toyota bus that clinks at any bump in the road. Katie was getting ready to push the van in the mud when our driver got stuck on the way to the village. Luckily, he knew what he was doing and we didn’t have to leave the van. To say the least, our bus driver is a CHAMP! Although a couple of times, Katie and I swore we were in the ditch on the side of the road.
When we finally made it to the village, we were greeted by around 30 children ranging from babies to teenagers. There was a language barrier, but that didn’t stop us from playing soccer, taking pictures, or simply holding hands. We were surprised at how welcomed we were. These kids were so genuinely happy to see us, it was all our group could talk about for the rest of the night. As our van departed the village, the kids chased us until we were out of sight.
Even though we are half way across the world and did not speak their language, our experience reminded us how connected we all are in one way or another. We all crave love, friendship, and connection. Tomorrow we are going to an artisan market and visiting some neighboring farms. We are excited to see what tomorrow has in store for us!
The seven year relationship between Zoungbomey Village (outside Porto Novo) and the Gonzaga-in-Benin Program (and the associated Water Foundation) continues this year. The village has increased its collectively run palm oil business after receiving a new well, pump, and water tower from the Water Foundation. Palm oil profits provided coverage for medical emergencies and have enabled the completion of a village school, allowing all children to attend school for the first time. The village continues to reinvest palm oil revenues to expand production and now wants to expand animal agriculture to include egg and pork production.
Special thanks to our colleague and collaborator Landry Lougbegnon at Centre Afrika Obota and Dr. Susan Norwood with the Water Foundation for helping the village of Zoungbomey to make this project a success.
Below: Testing the pump, fresh water from the tower, tower, and well cover. Thanks to Katrina Van Tassell for tower and well pictures.
Benin’s enchanting market, laid out in seemingly endless lines along both sides of trafficked roads, offers an unimaginable variety not only of varyingly useful goods, but most importantly flamboyant colors, a melange of scents and human live.
The visit to Zoungbomey was unquestionably one of our most anticipated events, as the friendship and services of previous Gonzaga students and professors have left an enormous legacy behind in this village. The tropical weather did not hinder either warm exchanges nor soccer games or conversations with enormously gifted, expressive and welcoming children
Simple gifts for long-lasting friendships: some had spent hours making bracelets for our friends without probably realizing how much they would be appreciated.
One of our stops is the nearby village of Adjarra, where two families make many of the drums for markets in Southern Benin. This year the family we have been visiting for many years made a presentation for us about drum making. This included a demonstration of the “talking drum,” as seen in the video linked below. A talking drum is a two-sided drum with strings that modulate the drum sound. Traditionally, talking drums were used to communicate messages from a village and even relayed “point to point.”
Yesterday we passed through Cotonou and followed a bumpy stretch of road to Ouidah and the “Point of No Return,” a UNESCO site commemorating the African slave trade. This year we added some new detail from an excellent guide who made the tragic business of the 17th-19th century Atlantic slave trade more vivid by showing us some stops on the route from the French, Dutch, English, and Portugese trading posts to the beach, including sites in which slaves were temporarily held in horrible conditions, a mass grave for slaves who died before boarding, and rituals associated with the return of the spirit from foreign lands.
The beach by the “Point of No Return” monument is also the site of an annual gathering for the high priest of Vodunn, which occurs in January each year. This hut is a related site on the beach for followers of “Mama Wata,” the Vodunn goddess of water.
Most of the group at the beach.
Benin has been full of new experiences. One of these new experiences is the language barrier. One of the main languages in Benin is French and I came with only a few terms such as ‘oui’ and ‘merci’. Thus, on the the flight from Paris to Cotonou, I understood little of what other passengers were saying. A few times I heard what I thought was yolo, which in American slang means “you only live once.” I thought this was funny and wondered what it could possibly mean in French. I didn’t think about it get again until yesterday evening when our group walked over to the local market. We heard that same term coming from all directions! Our guide stopped and told us that they were actually saying “Yovo” and that it is the term for white people. It is not meant to be derogatory but an embracement of us being here. There are so few Caucasians in the country that we were stared at as we walked by. Yovo was a an excited greeting by many children waving and cat calls by some adults. I have never been in a culture where I have been singled out in a crowd. It was overwhelming but exciting at the same time. The culture here is so different and it has been a wonderful experience to learn and understand it. I am picking up more French terms as we go so it will be easier to communicate with the locals. Yolo!
Just a quick note for past Benin students who might like to know that Cotonou has a new and luxurious arrival lounge! No more jockeying and crowding in to grab bags.
The Gonzaga-in-Benin 2014 Program meets at Charles de Gaulle airport north of Paris tomorrow for our flight to Cotonou. So much preparation and reading have gone into this year’s program, and I’m grateful for a great group of students organized into three classes (Ethics, Philosophy of Culture, and Broadcast Journalism) and one big “Learning Community”. We’ve read about the history, politics, and culture of Benin, we’ve planned research and service projects, and we’ve traded advice about travel. Now it’s time to start the adventure!
“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?”