Benin

As part of the Dialogue of Civilizations program at Northeastern University, I took classes in France and Benin in May-June 2010.  I was in France for one week taking language classes and going on site visits, such as to Medecins Sans Frontières and the Beninois Ambassador to France.  I was in Benin for three weeks working with a women’s micro-enterprise collective, acting as a consultant, translating, and writing a grant to increase their capacity.  We also traveled around Benin a bit, seeing Porto-Novo, Cotonou, Abomey, Ganvie, and the Point of No Return.

BBC country profile

The Songhai Center, the sustainable farming model where I lived:

(in French)

Some background (English)

Ganvie: the Stilt Village of Benin

Ganvie: the Stilt Village of Benin

En route to Ganvie. It’s rare for people to write about Ganvie, or really any part of Benin, but when they do it churns my stomach.  Romantic, they write.  Mystical, inviting, the Venice of Africa. None of this is what I saw in Ganvie. We got to the stilt village in the middle of Nokué Lake, not far from Cotonou,  Moving in a pair of long motorboats we passed fish farms and what looked like the invasive species water hyacinth along the way.  Because we were a human services group, someone asked the obvious question of whether the men who brought us there were from the community, and the answer was hand-waved away with a probably.  When we arrived, we got out to find a small, angry monkey chained to a post, setting the tone for our visit. The only monkey I saw in three weeks in Benin.   Reasons given for the existence of the village are varied, from the villagers themselves as well as the internet.  Some claim it started 400 years ago, others say the 16th or 17th century.  The Tofinu people were running from enslavement by either the Fon or Dahomey tribe.  Or was it the Portuguese?  Some claim it’s the only one in the world, or perhaps the biggest. Everything felt uneasy there. A woman screamed at us in a tribal language as we came to a shop.  Throughout the day, children and adults would curse, yell and point at us as they passed on their completely non-mechanized boats.  Even for those who didn’t speak French, it still had a chilling effect.  We found ourselves lowering... read more

If I Wrote for Thought Catalogue, this is what it would look like

Paris is like that first love that will always hold your heart. You two can fall easily back into each other’s arms, where everything comes quickly, lasts long, and feels right. Canada is like that guy from your hometown that you paw around every once in a while just to feel alive, or to remember how it felt when you were sixteen and everything you did with him was new and dangerous. You may go back every once in a while, but honestly sometimes you get more out of not even bothering. Egypt is like your first time: different for everyone. But no matter how you found it, it will always have a grip on you. It will always make your pulse quicken and give your stomach a jolt like an electric shock. You may wander back when you’re not sure what else to do, and while it may welcome you back, it could just as easily chew you up and spit you out. You will always wonder what if, and Egypt will always be there to remind you and tempt you. Benin is like a bad fling: been there, done that, no regrets and no returning. Unless it was for a really good reason… Greece was like finally getting with the most popular guy in school and not really getting it. What’s all the fuss about? I was too tired and busy from the pursuit to even enjoy it. And anyway, shouldn’t he come to me?  Maybe someday it will be time for a reunion… Cuba is that guy your mother wanted you about. Some call it abuse;... read more

Cover Up

Say it’s for respect, say it’s because of religion, say it’s just a rule and don’t ask questions, say it’s arbitrary and sexist.  Just don’t say we need to wear high necklines and low hems so that we are not sexually harassed.  Don’t do it.  Don’t victim blame, don’t lie.  In harassment-heavy countries like Cuba and Egypt, I have seen anecdotally that the amount of clothing is irrelevant.  Cuban guys say piropos to all women, regardless of clothing and almost regardless of age.  White women get slightly more commentary, but no amount of clothing will make me less of a gringa. In Egypt, it has been found that women believe they get harassed less when they cover up more (more being even more than we do in the West, since it includes the abaya, the hijab and the niqab.)  However, these same women actually self-report higher levels of harassment when they are more covered.  It’s just an instance of intense cognitive dissonance, egged on by years of messaging from men, women, harassers and victims alike claiming, as if in some desperate plea for relief, that if only we could wear the right amount and combination of clothing, they would just leave us the hell alone.  But they don’t.  Women in full abaya and hijab get raped in public.  Women in jeans and modest shirts are assaulted all the time. To say that I can stop (or even stem) harassment by changing my clothes is an indictment of women and men alike.  It says men cannot control themselves and thus need to be prevented from seeing that which entices them... read more

Luxury and Insult

Sometimes we forget that the totally normal things we do at home can be seen as totally not okay elsewhere.  Before going to Egypt, we were asked not to go running through Cairo.  For one thing, between the smog, the traffic and the craterous sidewalks, it’s quite dangerous.  And for another, it’s insulting.  Some people ignored this advice and ran anyway.  In their mind, no one has the right to tell them not to exercise.  But in the mind of an Egyptian, running is an ostentatious show of wealth.  For hard-working poor people, the idea that you have so much energy and time that you can exert yourself for fun is downright insulting and bizarre. In Benin, students came to me upset about the behavior of an otherwise excellent student.  He was such a nice guy, such a good friend, that they couldn’t believe his parents had raised him, “that way.”  Confused, I figured out they were referring to his smoking.  Like in the Dominican Republic, very few people can afford cigarettes in Benin.  For someone to smoke them often in public would be akin to flashing expensive watches and purses in an American slum. Whenever traveling, there are special considerations that vegetarians need to take to ensure their health and suitable meal options.  It’s important, though, to remember that vegetarianism (while some people firmly believe it has the moral high ground) is a way of being picky.  This means that additional limitations beyond the lack of meat can often be incredibly difficult to honor, and are generally seen as demanding.  The concept of vegetarianism is upsetting for many... read more
Managing Expectations

Managing Expectations

We crossed the ocean with them.  We flew over the Mediterranean and the Maghreb with them.  We took them in a bus to a boat and now up a dusty dirt road, into a women’s organization in a rural area that was lucky enough to produce a Mama Benz.  Benze as in Mercedes, meaning that this badass woman Mire is constantly on television, and is really rather running the show in Benin’s two major cities. We cram into an area too small for 25 yovos and about 60 partially-inflated soccer balls, nevermind the twenty or so Beninoise women who were recieving us.  As we pump the soccer balls and hear the excited screams of children too poor to go to school but clever enough to know we have soccer balls, a welcoming speech is made.  I almost spit my warm water when I hear this: Thank you so much for coming, and for bringing all of these wonderful soccer balls.  But the river is quite big, and perhaps next time you could bring a boat?” I am too stunned to translate it immediately.  But I do, and good lord are we all alarmed. The list continued.  Money, food, medecine, everything.  But the image of 25 kids splitting a boat into pieces so we could fit it into our checked luggage and then reassemble it in West Africa really showed how much we were misunderstood. Lori handled the rather imperious requests in a polite but assertive way, explaining that we were not an aid organization or in any way charged with the duty of dispersing funds (not true, but for... read more

Choosing a New Place

When I first heard about the Benin trip, and how it had a one-week France component, I was a little bummed.  I had already been to france, I already had that stamp.  But I think a lot changed when I was in Cuba. As the trip got closer, I thought of paris as a comfort, as a home in so many ways.  As a breath of fresh air, the way a weekend at my parents’ house can be.  Now, when I think of bangladesh, I don’t think oh! Now I can say I’ve been to asia.  I don’t think about all the great proximate countries and how to cram them in as cheap as possible.  I think about how hard it will be to experience my first truly blind foreign language experience.  I think about how ill probably be alone, and what will I do for housing.  I think about how they treat women, and wonder whether harassment is prevalent.  When I think about the Dominican Republic, I think of the comforts of Spanish and familiar food.  I think of the proximity to Cuba and Haiti.  I think about how going there three times in a six month period will be such an asset.  Of course, I also hope there will be enough food, and that I wont get sick of spending so much time there. I think a lot, too, about the choices I don’t make.  Latin america isn’t supposed to be my focus area.  Shouldn’t I be in Africa or the Middle East?  Shouldn’t, as a friend suggested, I be running back to Cairo? This is where... read more

My Perfect Souvenir

I try to make the most of what I buy.  I’m generally pretty frugal, with occasional bouts of Target, Old Navy and H&M madness.  I’m also secretly a hoarder.  As in, at almost 22 years of age I still own clothing from middle school.  Now that I finally can’t fit into it all anymore, I’m actually starting to get rid of it. So how does an aspiring minimalist (I can hear the eye rolling from here!) buy good tokens from abroad, especially if she makes it a habit to travel?  Well, here are my guidelines for giving travel gifts to yourself. Give yourself an experience and a memory, instead of a thing. Riding on horseback through the Sahara, Hidalgo-style, at an ungodly hour of the night was one of the bets things ever.  We sang, we laughed, we fought, and we huddled around a great bonfire in galabiyas.  Some scoffed at how much we were spending (I don’t remember how much–apparently it wasn’t too tragic) but it definitely cost me less than all those extravagant dinners some of the scoffers were eating every other night.  I wouldn’t trade that night for the world. Stay away from tchotchkes. They are cheap, expensive and prone to break.  They also mean basically nothing, other than being proof that you went there.  Or to China, where they were made. Buy decorations. I’ve always wanted to be one of those cool adults who have a house full of foreign awesome, like Dan Hanson’s house.  His parents have all this great artwork and sculptures from far away lands, filled with stories and mystery.  How much... read more

Cuban Novio, Cuban Boyfriend

By far, the majority of my traffic centers around these search terms.  That worried me.  It says that there’s a need.  There are these women out there with Cuban boyfriends, or wanting them, and not knowing how to handle it.  What to buy them, how to get one, how to know if they’re cheating, what to feed them, when to believe them.  I didn’t just put those thoughts into people’s heads, they’re all very real search terms I see all the time. Here’s the thing: I’ve never had a novio cubano, for a variety of reasons. If you want to know what it’s like, read Whitney’s series Adventures with a Cuban Boy over at her blog On Love and Other Things.  She has great prose, genuine thoughts and enchanting pictures.  And more importantly, she has the experience. I won’t talk about other people’s experience, but I cant talk about mine.  Here are a few posts I’ve written on the male/female dynamic in Cuba, from the perspective of a young, white American foreigner. I had a hard time with the novio thing in Cuba.  I’m a girl who’s used to having close guy friends, and a few good circles of guys to spend time with.  I’m also used to people finding out I have a boyfriend and respecting that, rather than trying to make me forget or “live in the moment.”  I’ve taken a bit of crap from fellow travelers for disliking some of the attention I get when abroad, but I don’t think anyone should have to put up with harassment, and I think everyone has the capacity to... read more

Ten Things No One Tells You About Study Abroad

You will have at least one nervous breakdown. People don’t really want to hear that much about your trip.  30 seconds or less will do. Other countries are really not that scary.  The people are pretty much just like us–they just dress, talk and act different, and eat different food. Some days, it will suck. This is because it is real life, not an extended vacation.  So laugh and keep moving.  Even if you have to fake it, you probably won’t notice when you stop needing to. You will spend too much money. No matter how carefully you pack, you will have brought too much, and still manage to have left behind something you totally miss It’s harder to adjust to life back home at the end of the trip than life away from home at the beginning. Everyone gets in.  Well, pretty close to it. Everyone lies about how perfect study abroad is.  Study abroad is awesome, but not perfect.  I promise, your friends don’t post pictures, blogs or status updates about feeling overwhelmed, having trouble making friends, or being ridiculously homesick.  No one wants to admit “defeat” especially since everyone else’s time seems so perfect.  But everyone is having their rough days, too. You will, in fact, spend the same amount of time on facebook and watching movies/television as you did back home. Like this:Like... read more

In Defense of Television When Travelling

I often find myself on the wrong side of a lot of debates.  I dislike hand sanitizer, sunscreen and bugspray, in favor of a boosted immune system and not experiencing the negative ramifications of abstaining.  I think we shampoo our hair too often, shelter our kids too much, and give google too hard of a time about censoring itself in China. But by far the dirtiest looks roll in when I watch television while on the road. Everyone is out to separate themselves from the be-fannypacked masses, and flipping on a television is like, as my roommate at the Songhai Centre put it, “Cheating on Africa.” So am I cheating?  And if so, why? For one thing, I defend tv in general, in my home life as well.  I get annoyed by the, “weeeell, I don’t even own a television” crowd.  (PS–lots of people don’t, but they’re not such jerks about it!)  I also don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with television–The West Wing, Mad Men and Newsradio are all brilliant and entertaining shows.  They’re smart, witty and they make me happy.  So what if they come out of the “Idiot Box”?  If you choose to watch awful reality tv, or things that make your brain turn to goo and slide out of your ears (I’m looking at you, The Hills), then that’s your own darn fault, not television’s.  (Of course when it comes to True B lood, I also have an argument In Defense of Camp, but that’s for another day.)  Those shows only run because they get ratings, and we all have the power to effect those ratings.... read more

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