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Domestic Servant

While in Benin, we discussed and even met some domestic servants. And by that I mean, adults who had worked as servants for a period of time to work off debt, and children who were “adopted” to help run the house.  It became easier over time to pick out these young girls, by their plain, short hair and extremely reserved demeanor.  They always referred to the women who essentially owned them as their mothers.  They were well-fed and pretty well dressed, but it was clear that they were always on duty: cooking, raising children just a few years younger than themselves, and cleaning.  These domestic servants were often orphans or in debt (or their parents were) and eventually they do attain freedom.  But their existence was highly disturbing and confusing for all of us. Before going to Egypt, I talked with Phil about a similar conundrum with the carpet makers of Cairo.  Several students would refuse to enter the factories, on the grounds that children make the carpets.  But, as Phil pointed out, they were essentially apprentices, earning their room and board by making carpets.  Many of them had no parents, or had parents too poor to support them.  Compared to being street children, this path had a future. Sometimes it’s hard to balance our idealism with realism.  We want every child to have a fulfilling life, complete with education, friendship, parental figures, good food, love and playtime. We want them to go on to work that they enjoy, or that at the very least can support them and their families, should they choose to have them. But that’s...

Competing Interests

Reading about employment, financial stimulation, sustainability, micro-credit and general best practices is making my brain dizzy.  And oddly enough, some of the best insight has come from (above) average women who blog about clothes. We often encourage buying locally made or grown products in order to support local small business.  In the developing world, this means going to a local tailor or a farm like the Songhai Center because you get good, local products and help stimulate the local economy.  But what about the environmental side of things?  What about not being a consumer?  undoubtedly, a factory that produces clothing is more efficient and less detrimental to the environment than all the little sidewalk tailors I saw in Benin.  But what about the loss of culture, from the inevitable westernization of such products?  And what about the empowerment of owning your own business, of saving enough?  But then, they do employ child laborers…of course, in Benin child labour is normal, and not going to work can mean starvation.  The only way to change that is to change the system, not to simply fire all the children. Sometimes, it just boggles my mind into sad, numb submission to try to balance all the competing concerns.  We all just want to help, but there are way too many ways to do it wrong. PS why does local=good, anyway?  Is it because we don’t like the business practices of MNCs like Wal-Mart?  Well, these local business had pretty dodgy working conditions too.  The environmental thing?  They probably only have the worst numbers because they’re so darn big, and operating in bulk means...

What is Service?

Is it okay to be giving service to an organization that is really just a group of women making money?  Yes, they’re not as well off as those in the US, or as our translator.  But they have clothes and food and look pretty healthy and happy. I’m not going into a poor orphanage and helping them deal with an overwhelming amount of children.  I’m going to a small corporation and trying to tell them how to make more money.  In the US, I would call that consulting.  Does not getting paid for something automatically make it service?  Yes, it’s voluntary, but is it community service?  I came here to learn more about the non-profit world, and specifically to see the hands-on nitty-gritty of micro-finance in the field.  My first lesson?  Micro-credit hasn’t failed, it’s just been hijacked. This is a micro-enterprise, a small, locally-owned (what isn’t in Benin?) business.  This is not a lending organization; it’s not even one of their beneficiaries, since they don’t receive loans. Is it still volunteer work if you’re getting something in return?  If you’re getting a grant, soft power, induction to an honor society, brownie points for your sorority or college credits, it seems you are being paid–just not in cash.  Of course, reductum ad absurdum, and I’m reminded of that Friends episode when Joey tells Phoebe there’s no such thing as a truly selfless act—you always get recognition, gratitude, or at the very least a nice warm fuzzy feeling inside. But who says service has to be special, sacred and selfless?  What’s so wrong with being selfish?  How come everyone else...

You Know You’re a Yovo if…

You think women should probably wear shirts, most of the time You like your roads paved, and with potholes fewer than three feet wide The only thing you knew about Vodoun before Benin came from movies You wear sunscreen and bug spray, have a bug net and carry bottled water everywhere you go You talk about showering more than you actually do it You had never heard of Benin before you decided to go there …but now you can’t wait to go back You don’t wear heels to walk in the mud, but you DO carry your own bag You don’t know how to successfuly carry things on your head You’re afraid to cross the street, never mind get on a motorbike You will probably never attempt to breast feed while carrying something on your head AND riding a motorbike You’ve never authored a “Nigerian Prince” email You refuse to swim in the standing water, and maybe even the ocean water too You eat peanut butter You point and yell (or perhaps whisper) every time you see a Yovo you don’t already know You’ve been kidnapped (in a good-natured, well-meaning sort of way) at least once You’re still annoyed by street harassment You’re taken aback every time people ask if you’re a Christian Your shirt and pants don’t match EXACTLY, and your family does not wear matching clothes Your head has a maximum of two braids at any given time You’re still a little surprised there’s never any cold beer–oh yeah, and you drink “Beninoise”, not “33” People laugh when you eat with your hands You don’t speak Fon,...

Chango

In Santeria, my orisha is Chango, one of the guerreros or warriors.  His colours are red and white like Santa Barbara, he wields metal weapons and is often depicted with lightning.  He is often thought of as a virile–a Casanova and all that is mean.  Why are those synonymous in Cuba?  Or Anywhere?  But that’s not how I identify with him.  Each orisha has many paths  that they can take, and ways you can be like them.  I like that when syncretized with Catholicism, Chango has some gender–bending, and his tendency to mete out divine justice. I have a strong sense of Justice.  Whatever is good and fair compels me, regardless of how it favors or whether it directly affects me, which sometimes confuses others.  It isn’t as noble as it seems, and can often be annoying, like a compulsion.  You see for me, the absence of truth, facts and fairness is offensive.  Facts and justice are my religion, so it effects me whether the disservice concerns me or not. I greatly dislike situations like this one, where there is no right answer.  The writer in me thrives on ambiguity and grey area, but ethically it makes me uneasy in daily life.  There’s just so much we can’t make sense of, from child labour to servitude that borders on slavery, the attention we receive from men as well as our very presence here. Even if there is no right answer for everyone, I like to at least have my own rules, my own personal sense of what’s best.  that’s the beauty of Chango–he delivers his own swift justice, not...

“Useless” Day

Tuesday illustrated to me why we’re here, and for once I am excited about what we will be doing.  I think a lot of my group misunderstood the situation, which was unfortunate, because learning was lost there. There have been days where we mostly sit and watch the women work, or play with the kids while the women work.  This was not one of those days.  Today, the majority of the women went to the market to sell products, while a smaller group and ourselves sat in the shade.  All day long. We were sitting there because the women only own three large metal bowls, which are used for work, storage, transportation and sales.  When the women go to the market, they bring all the product they have to make it worth their while, meaning that there are no bowls back at the ranch to be used in production. Today we literally lived through a lack of capacity, which left me completely convinced that our plan is the way to go. The Request The women have made it clear that they want machines to grind their raw materials so they can be made into products.  Buying one of these machines is costly, but would save them time and money, as well as bring in profit from those who live nearby and would pay for the use of the machine, they way they pay to use someone else’s now. Buying the machine for the peanuts is the most logical because it also works with the soy.  Also, the machine they currently pay to use instead is significantly farther away.  Furthermore,...

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