Tuesday, January 29, 2008

marché mama

i took my porto novo class to the marché last weekend, and my cotonou class the weekend before that. the two classes couldn’t be more different, though i had a blast with both.

my cotonou class consisted of only 4 guys, all dressed very well with their brief cases. you’d think they were going to a job interview. they took my “no french, only english” rule very seriously, so as hawkers approached them to sell their wares, anthelme would say, “me, i only speak english. i’m sorry i don’t know french.” totally bewildering the men selling socks and ties off their heads. the guys had a great time and bought me cashews to celebrate a fun afternoon. very sweet.

in porto novo i hit the road with about 11 girls. they also dressed to the nines, excited to get off the school grounds (most of them are boarding students). we did have one guy with us, jonas, who used my camera to take pictures of our excursion. i was hoping he would take pictures of the marché mamas selling their goods (piles of tomatoes, pyramids of cans, baskets of bananas), but those are all common sites to him. who would want a picture? so instead he took pictures of the yovo in the market (me) pointing at items and speaking english. actually, because fewer foreigners live in porto novo, my presence caused quite a commotion, and soon my class had expanded to include random children off the street.

in both cotonou and porto novo, the marché mamas were eager to learn along with the students, once they understood what was going on. at first they would be frustrated we were looking at products, but buying nothing. but that frustration turned to curiosity as they joined in, pointing at garlic, okra and onions, repeating the words in english and laughing at one another.

more pics here.

Monday, January 28, 2008

kinda a big deal

so i danced my feet off last friday. where would i be without salsa? some friends came with me to give it a first try. we actually closed the place down. really, i was the last person on the dance floor with my friend romuald hazoumé, who happens to be quite the famous artist. i knew this already, but he’s never said anything to me about it.

so when romuald offered to drive my friends and me back to my place around midnight (always good to have friends with cars once the sun goes down), i laughed when he responded to ashley’s question, “what do you do?” “i’m just a little well known,” he said. ha! i told him that if he’s going to continue to do shows in new york and dc, (and paris, madrid, the tate modern in london… etc), he needs to learn the phrase, “i’m kinda a big deal” à la will ferrell.

romuald has a studio in porto novo and said i could bring my students by after i get back from ghana. that will be cool.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

strings and things

if my heart were an instrument, i think it would be a mandolin. i can’t quite explain it. i listen to music on bush taxis, and the songs always play at random, so i never know what to expect… and yet every time a song with a mandolin comes on, i actually feel it plucking at my heart strings. it’s a very strange and intimate sensation, such that i feel exposed in the group of strangers that are my fellow passengers. the music hits my ears and suddenly it’s as if everyone in the car knows something about me, something very personal, though they stare straight ahead in dark silence.

night traveling is pretty dark. there are no street lights, so shapes and figures come into view only as the dim headlights of a beat up vehicle (forget halogen) cast faint shadows. that, and the glow of lit wicks soaked in coco butter or kerosene, which light the faces of women selling bread, sugar cane and oranges. the darkness lends itself to introspection, and i come home feeling quaint and relaxed. it’s a far cry from when i used to speed home from class at night, blaring my music and singing at the top of my lungs to keep myself awake and alert on I-97.

sometimes i wonder if the worlds i have lived in will one day mesh together in a way that makes any sense at all.

if not, i suppose a multiple personality disorder could be fun…

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


froid: cold. "il fait froid."

it's cold in cotonou. yesterday's high was 86 and today's high is 85... brrrr! no, seriously! i have actually been wearing a long sleeve shirt the past two days, which is nothing compared to the people wearing wool sweaters and face masks!

fâché: angry. "je suis fâché."

some of you may know that different cultures view time differently. americans are a "time sensitive" culture, meaning we attach significance to hours and minutes. this is evidenced by sayings such as, "time is money." on the other hand, africa is an "event sensitive" culture. so if someone says "i'll be there at 3pm," that really means, "i'll be there whenever i finish what i was doing before 3pm." it's a cultural difference, it's not bad, it's normal, and i know that.

what is NOT normal is to say on sunday, "lets meet monday. i'll call before i come." no show, no phone call. monday and tuesday pass, wednesday night phone call: "can i come tomorrow? i'll be there between 11 and 2." no show, no phone call. thursday and friday pass. "can we meet next monday?" no show, no phone call. this is ridiculous.

what is even MORE ridiculous is to find your class, that you manage and schedule and teach, has been canceled by someone else without asking permission or even calling to let you know. that is enough to send this girl through the roof, which i realize could seem dramatic from the outside... but when it's the only predictable thing in my life?!?! ah, vraiment, je suis fâché!!

football: soccer. "j'aime le football!"

soccer is possibly the most international sport ever. when i was salsa dancing sunday night, the africa cup was on, and more than once my partner would strategically lead me in such a way that he could watch the match. churches schedule mass viewings of games with projectors (which, you have to remember, is quite a scene when projectors are so scarce!). at night i fall asleep the the sounds of neighbors cheering or shouting in anguish. it's a very charged atmosphere.

fin: end.

Friday, January 18, 2008

how many wives does it take to...

if ever you’re short on things to write about, hop in a bush taxi (or bush van, in this case).

yes, wednesday i made my usual trip to and from porto novo to teach an english class at the girls’ school there. on the way back, i was listening to my iPod shuffle, pretty much ignoring the conversation around me (mostly in local languages anyway), other than the obligatory “bon soir” accompanied by a smile each time a new passenger squeezed on board.

the men sitting next to me were speaking so loudly, and in french, that it became impossible to concentrate on whatever song was playing. i pressed pause and eaves dropped. basically, two muslim men were talking about the proper treatment of wives, using both the bible and koran to justify their points. now, i’ve yet to perfect my french, so i’m sure there were various meanings and phrases i missed or misunderstood. but i at least agreed with the man seated across from me, who insisted it was wrong to beat your wife. you tell ‘em mister!

but mister got tired of arguing, at which point his opponent turned to me to ask my opinion. granted, this was all in french. but the conversation went something like this.

“lady. tell me. what should a man do if (insert elaborate story about two men, a woman, and a village)… his wife is unfaithful?”

“well, i suppose the man should go to his religious leader to ask for advice.”

“of course!”

“personally, i am a Christian. i think that if the wife asks to be pardoned, she should be pardoned, as Christ has pardoned us.”

"yes, exactly!”

“if she does not want to be pardoned, i suppose the husband should let her go.”

“yes! yes!”

“but in all things, it is important for the husband to be respectful of the wife (ie: not beat her), and to set an example, since he is the leader in the relationship.”

“eh, heh!” (in africa, this translates to, “right on, sister!”)

at this point, i didn’t really understand what the argument was, since the man was eager to agree with every statement i made. he was also eager to touch my leg. not really sure what to do, i picked up is hand (which he had rested on the hem of my skirt at my knee) and placed it back on his own leg. sure, this kind of thing communicates a message pretty clearly when seated at a bar or someplace in the states, but how would it be received on a bush van? where personal space is non-existent? he seemed to ignore the gesture, but refrained from leg touching, settling for my arm instead.

the conversation continued…

“where do you live, in cotonou or porto novo?”


“where in cotonou?”


“me too! you should give me your number.”

“no, thanks.”

“yes, yes, you should. i will take care of you. you have needs, do you not?”

“i have no need of you, thank you.”

“but you need a man.”

(no response… getting extremely annoyed at this point.)

“you are a missionary. does not the bible say that a woman needs a man? that man and woman are made for each other?”

(ignoring still…)

“listen to me. what does the bible say about how many wives a man can have?”

“i believe a man should take one wife.”


“we agreed that the man is the head of the relationship, yes?”

“yes! yes!”

“and that he should set an example, yes?”


“then what kind of example does the man set if he has many wives? does that mean the woman should take many husbands?”

(he laughs…) “but here in africa, if the woman leaves to visit her village, what is the man to do while she is away? he must have relations or he will grow small.” (he says this while pointing between his legs…)

“this conversation is over.”

he continued to argue his point, but i just shook my head no, making clicking noises in the back of my throat to further express my dissent. i exited the van at the nearest stop and was relieved to jump on the back of a zemi home.

somewhere in the argument about being faithful, the man said, “now i understand why you moved my hand from your leg. you will be only with your husband. even if you travel away from him.” so i guess despite my feeble french, some points did get across, even if they didn’t sink in. oh well… what can you do?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

racoon eyes

i recently uploaded some new pics to my photo gallery, including this one... which is proof of just how dirty one can get after long rides on motos.

of course, it's more noticeable on my pasty skin than my tanner friends here. just imagine what one's lungs could look like after years of moto-ing!

i think i have writer's block. granted, my journal is spilling over with thoughts, so i am writing still... but i'm stumped when it comes to the blog or my (now delinquent) monthly newsletter. getting online only once or twice a week probably doesn't help much, but i'll try to come up with something juicy before the weekend!

Friday, January 11, 2008

vodun dancing

okay... here's some video i took at the vodun fete... if it works!

that voodoo that you do...

january 10 is national vodun holiday in benin. i was eager to see this side of benin's culture... statistics say that benin is 30% christian, 20% islam and 50% "traditional" religion, but most people here would tell you it's 50% christian, 50% islam and 100% vodun. whether people practice vodun or not, everyone believes in it.

so i went to one of the largest vodun fetes in benin yesterday, near porto novo.

these men are dancing to drums that are supposed to induce trances. they are wearing costumes that are supposed to resemble the gods. i'll try to upload video later.

these boys are walking with snakes around their necks, which are vodun spirits.

you can see more pictures here.

it's hard to explain what i saw. benin is the birthplace of vodun, which became voodoo as it moved across the ocean via slavery. it's definitely not what hollywood portrays. i guess the strangest thing was seeing how real vodun is for so many, while feeling totally untouched by its effects. crowds of people would scatter in loud chaos as someone in a trance would chase after them... i didn't move a muscle. to me, it felt more like a costume party.

anyway, i'm glad i went, and it does explain the culture a bit more, but i'm also glad i went with a group of friends that were as unaffected as i was.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

tu es la?

satellite image of my approximate location in cotonou. i think the chances of a cyber stalker flying to benin to seek me out are pretty slim, so i figure this is a safe thing to share. cyber stalkers beware! i have a guard! and i may get a dog...

not to mention, Jesus is my homeboy.

jesus loves salsa

my first weekend in benin... back in august... i went out with my first expat friends (i'll confess i was a little freaked out by them at the time, not knowing how to bridge the local/expat gap, but now i'm so grateful for their friendship!) anyway, we went to some bar with live music, and about half the songs the band played were salsa, and lots of people were dancing. now, since it was my first weekend here, and i was not yet sure how dancing was culturally perceived, i just stood back and watched... but i must say, i was very excited to get a glimpse of the salsa sub-culture.

well now i think it's safe to say i'm part of said sub-culture. (anne marie would be so proud!) after hearing a rumor about salsa lessons at hotel du port on friday nights, we got a small group together (melissa, maureen, kim, rhett, collin and me) to check it out. before heading out, i told madeleine (one of my african mamas) of our plans for the night... she smiled and said (in french), "salsa is the dance of Jesus!"

oh, yes, Jesus loves salsa.

we had a blast. it was so much fun that maureen and i hit the streets to buy shoes. i mean that pretty literally. we actually bought heels from hawkers on the streets. think goodwill times 100. i wish i had pictures.

melissa and rhett and i went back for more on sunday night. i think we're all learning pretty fast, and everyone already knows us (we kinda stand out... and not because of our talent!)

and as if the salsa wasn't enough of a reason to hit hotel du port on fridays and sundays, there is the added bonus that not one guy there has asked for our numbers yet. it's the classiest place i've found in cotonou! i think this will be very good for my mental health. and physical health... salsa is good exercise! more thoughts on divine work outs later...

in the mean time, if you love Jesus, you might just love salsa too. and if you love salsa, you're in good company.

Friday, January 04, 2008

super star

i went through a phase where i thought it was hilARious to throw my arms up in the air like mary catherine gallagher and shout, "super star!!!!"

okay, it was more than a phase. maybe i still do that on occasion...

today i had a moment of internal arm-flailing and superstar-shouting when i read bess' blog. ever get the chance to see yourself through someone else's eyes? and then think, 'huh, that's how i'm perceived?' sometimes it's good, sometimes it's bad... today it made me laugh so hard i thought surely i'd cry or wet my pants.

thanks bess... you're the best friend i never met.