That’s the refrain we heard all throughout Benin. Countryside, city, airport. Adults, children, wisened old anciens. We were told we would be greeted with song, and man, they weren’t kidding.
Yovo, Yovo, bon soir! Merci bien et toi?!”
It loosely translates to “whitey, whitey, good evening! I’m good thanks, and you?”
As a result of this song, which every Beninois is taught from birth, (the way I learned “Trot Trot to Boston”) almost every Beninois greets us by saying “Bon soir!” even when it’s not evening, encouraging us to respond accordingly. Even when they’re not running and yelling Yovo, they still sort of are.
Sometimes we would sing it back to confused children, who would erupt in giggles. I overheard Allegra in a crowded marketplace saying (in english), “Yes I know I’m a Yovo, but I still need to get by!” It was in that tone that”s halfway between charmed and annoyed.
Many of the little kids say it with wonder or glee. Some, like at the rural primary school we visited, may never have seen a real live yovo before. Others, often adults or older children, say it weighted with hope and anticipation: all the yovos they meet are Peace Corps, government or aid/non-profit related. Sometimes, like at night and said by adult men, there’s a hint of menace in the way it is yelled.
There really is nothing like it in America, except for maybe the pledge of Allegiance or the Star-Spangled Banner. What else compells every American, regardless of age, region, gender or class, to stand up and say something in unison? Even ignoring any possible racial implications, we simply don’ tuniversally chant things in unison at a predetermined time.
Like in many other cultures, especially ones that speak romance languages (Benin is officially francophone) color and race are not quite such sensitive subjects. Of course it’s also important to remember that there are very few light-skinned people in Benin, as well. There are Lebanese immigrants who mostly own businesses like marches, and Chinese who build all kinds of amazing buildings and are involved in all kinds of trade. Then there are do-gooders of the religious, governmental and hippie variety.
I wonder if the Lebanese and Chinese hear the shouts of yovo! yovo! I never saw it happen, but that doesn’t mean much, since I rarely saw Lebanese or Chinese people just strolling the streets. I wonder if, had we been a more racially diverse group, darker skinned Americans among us would also be called yovo. I have a feeling it’s sort of like gringo–more a socio-economic issue than one of color.
I love the way our service-learning women used yovo the best. They referred to the five of us, collectively, as yovo, especially before they knew our names. They’d joke around when this yovo tried to dance and that yovo tried to sing, or when another tried to lift a bucket of water that they so often carried on their heads. And they used it when we weren’t there at a party, but some other yovos from our group happened to be, entirely by chance. As in, there were some other yovos here, but they weren’t our yovos.
By the time we were done in Benin, it got to the point where we started pointing out yovos, out of sheer shock and confusion at seeing ones we didn’t already know.