On our first morning in Benin, a man had come down to the beach, and started shouting at the sea. He railed and railed, seemingly angry at the world and bemoaning his fate, but gradually his speech became softer and it sounded like he was intoning a list. When I heard him mention “Mommy and Daddy” I realised I was eavesdropping on his morning prayers. On later enquiry, I found out this is a common practice of adherents of the popular Celestial Church. It seems a fitting metaphor to describe how our experience of Benin progressed. The second week was calmer and more comprehensible.
Having explained our mission to manager Romuald, we spent the next couple of days next to the pool of Le Jardin Bresilien restaurant a.k.a. the Benin Diaspora Hotel, driving down the road to sleep by the beach at night. The kids were in heaven, swimming and jumping off three diving platforms with some tiny French girls. The price of the swim was worth it for the complimentary wi-fi, though it was patchy at best. Sampson preferred to stick to the sea, although people kept telling him the currents made it far too dangerous to swim in and there was no-one else in there. It’s a good job he’s a dolphin. Seriously, my husband may be ungainly on land but in the water, he’s poetry in motion. Or Flipper.
Ruby spent most of time talking to a sweet but rather clichéd American family who were visiting their Peace Corp daughter. I was trying to write, despite the booming decibel-level of the father and son’s conversation over their lunch and the mother interrupting my flow to tell me all about her daughter’s travails in a remote village and how she’s suffering because “the culture here… has no sense of privacy or allowing you to get on with your work”. Meanwhile Sampson was sweating in the carpark, trying to work out why cooking oil was being returned to the bio-diesel tank, and eventually changing the solenoid.
One evening, an eager young Togolese photographer, whom I was delighted to learn had been christened Sankara Agbeeka, invited himself in for a chat. He introduced us to his bosses, Togolese filmmaker Modeste Abraham Sallah and his French wife, who were here making a documentary on how best to teach children about slavery (see http://www.akwaaba-production.com). They told us they would be returning to film Ouidah’s annual commemoration of slavery on the third Sunday of January; we decided to stick around to see it.
On Wednesday, South Africa went back to school and we didn’t. What I love more than anything else about this journey is how I’ve reclaimed my own time. I do things at my own pace and feel less and less guilty about non-conforming. Today’s priority was finding water. We went on wild goose chase around the village at the bottom of La Route des Esclaves until Sampson found a church that sold cheap potable water. This was great, except I managed to flood the cupboard slightly, as I was too busy preparing a hardboiled egg, tomato and cucumber salad, and separating fighting children to focus on the rising water level in the tank… whoops.
In between writing up her own project distilling horse-whispering wisdom from her favourite Heartland books, Ruby was doing her best to wind up her brother and me. Her put-upon sighing and eye-rolling has reached Olympic levels – she should be getting medals for her performance.
Over lunch we had a Family Conference. It was time to acknowledge we obviously weren’t going to make it right around the coast and across the Sahara by the end of March, as originally planned. It is not advisable to cross the Sahara between March and September because of the extreme heat (up to 50˚C). Changing route was considered, but taking a short cut across Mali isn’t a sensible option right now. We decided we were just going to keep on keeping on.
The good news is that means we can take our time along this stretch and meander into Mauritania by September. The bad news is that means we will be arriving in Europe not in summer, but in winter. The children are thrilled at the thought of a snowy Christmas, me notsomuch. But the stressful thoughts “This might make Ruby very late back to high school, and will my health survive a European winter?” gave way to a sudden euphoria: we can kick back and stop rushing. I realized there was no point worrying because there was nothing to do but go with the flow. On verra. You can’t argue with the breakdowns or how the road unravels, it will be what it will be.
Just breathe, just be. What a joy. Maybe I was finally beginning to get what Emmanuel meant. How he felt the pain in his hip yet always smiled. Go with the flow, don’t fight it, revel in it; love your life, no matter what.
Back at the breezy beach, Sampson and Zola spent next few hours siphoning PRESCO oil off the roof into newly empty tanks, getting Big Reg balanced again. I dispatched an email to our tenants, the wonderfully patient Eckley family, asking them if they were prepared to extend their lease. Ruby was playing with her photos on Dad’s computer and debating the merits of school in SA, England or the truck. I have to admit to wondering wistfully for a moment if any of my friends or relations in UK would consider hosting her…
At this point my Mom phoned to say SHE’S COMING TO GHANA!!! We were so excited we jumped about the truck. She’d booked her plane ticket with the excuse that she must get Ruby’s schoolbooks to her asap. Especially exciting was her 40kg weight allowance; I immediately started writing a wish list.
The next day, after an early morning market jaunt to Ouidah, Big Reg drove down the dirt coast road looking for a place to drop sewage. It was difficult as there were only small gaps between settlements. We trundled along for an hour or so past postcard-idyll fishing villages that you could imagine have been this way for hundreds of years: toddlers playing in the shade of large square huts with thatch and walls of plaited palm leaves, and fishermen treknetting on the beach beyond. The sails reminded me of Phoenician boats of old in Arabian Nights picture books of my childhood.
We found an open spot to park off that looked grassy, but immediately got Big Reg stuck in sand. Within minutes a bunch of guys appeared from nowhere to help us drive out across dry palm fronds. Sweaty Sampson thanked the ringleaders with T-shirts.
Half an hour later, we found another likely spot, but the Big Green Truck did the same thing again, only worse. Sampson went into total hyper mode, and started digging away in the full heat of day. My appeal to just stop and have lunch and think about what to do afterwards – we’re in no rush here, there’s no visa about to expire – fell on deaf ears.
Neighbours Serge and Albert arrived with some planks and the crew of a passing big yellow truck came to investigate what on earth we were doing, but got impatient waiting so I asked them to come back when they’d finished work. In the meantime, Sampson had dug such a hole in front of the back wheel, sand started seeping back in around him and he got stuck. I had to rescue him by digging him out with my bare hands. That brought him back to his senses. “Panic slowly” as Reg always used to say.
I was cross he’d chosen to dwell on the worst case scenario over looking on the bright side and getting calm and practical, for the sake of the children at least. This wasn’t a life-threatening situation, why behave like that? And even if it was, all the more reason to be calm. His behaviour made me feel very alone, angry and vulnerable – I was fed up that our experience of the day had been dominated by his turning a drama into a crisis, when it could have been funny if he’d chosen to see it that way.
That evening I cooked a huge and splendid meal with the wide selection of veg we’d picked up trawling the market plus our very last tin of kidney beans – only to discover that the spinach, which looked exactly the same as a type we’ve eaten many times before, was bitter as all hell. It totally ruined the flavour of the sauce and even the few mouthfuls I ate gave me stomach ache. I went to bed crushed, hungry and feeling very sorry for myself.
The next two days I spent mostly washing clothes. Sampson rigged up a massive line between palm trees and I filled it while they worked inside. He was trying to make up to me for yesterday’s little freak out, by ticking off a list of long overdue little jobs including finally moving the water switch nearer to the shower so the rest of us can reach it. This will be vital for Mom, who’s only 5’2”.
The children did a clear out of their bedrooms. Grumpy Ruby’s penance for perfecting her Grand Defiant Indignant Huff was extra sweeping out of mouse droppings and washing her own pants. Luckily, it was Friday and her chastened demeanour the rest of the day only went to prove she knows exactly how to behave when there’s the prospect of chocolate Treats at the end of it…
The big yellow truck didn’t come back, but as this spot turned out to be the perfect place to be marooned, that ceased to be a problem. Here on the flat open coast, it was ideal to do washing and drying, as it was so windy and cool. As a bonus, that meant no mossies; for the first time since Angola, we were sleeping without suffocating nets. The kids especially suffer because there’s hardly room to hang them in the nose cone, and poor Ruby has grown so tall she can scarcely turn over without getting completely tangled up. It was bliss to be without them.
Sampson made a fisherman friend. He hung out with gentle and kind William, his younger brother Philip and their uncle Prosper for three days. William took him to see his boat, and Sampson watched him escape a near death roll as they brought the catch in, helped them pull the boat up and pick the fish out of the nets. They became close enough to play practical jokes on each other.
One day he visited William’s children and came back with a gigantic 3.5kg fish, which we had to insist on paying him 3000CFA (R60) for. Having sat crouched on ground chatting with him for a while, Sampson went up on roof to fetch the braai grid; on the way down he started shouting that he was being bitten by something inside his shorts. He couldn’t get them off fast enough and I was wetting myself at his hopping around, until something that looked like a millipede fell out of his boxers – and I saw the fangs on it and the wealds on his bum. William told us it’s a “little scorpion” whose bites can be quite nasty. It was very sore for a couple of days; I almost felt guilty for laughing.
This whole week reminded me of a story I heard somewhere, originally set in Malawi I think, which goes something like this:
There was once a Fisherman with a boat. He worked hard every morning, and spent the afternoon lying in the shade. A Tourist came by and said “Why don’t you work harder, make more profit, buy more boats and employ people to work for you?” The Fisherman said “Why would I want to do that?” The Tourist said “Well, then you could retire, lie on the beach in the shade, maybe do a little fishing.” The Fisherman said, “I’m doing that now”.
This story is a beautiful illustration of a favourite expression of my Dad’s: “An elegant sufficiency”. Of course, the reality is not so romantic. William risks death daily, jumping in and out of his rolling boat in heavy seas. He knows he has many years of increasingly hard work ahead of him and chooses to work hard to afford Phillip an education. William wants him to be more than a fisherman, to have more choices than he has.
People in Benin impressed me with their beautiful outfits. At first I thought everyone was just dressed up for the public holidays around the Vodoun festival, but their gorgeous suits were everyday wear: an embroidered tunic top and straight trousers in cotton for the men, coordinated print fabrics as skirts and headdresses for the women, all so effortlessly stylish and cool.
Women were constantly passing with enormous baskets on their heads, walking for miles, taking produce from town to the villages. Or platters not just piled with tomatoes, but with tins of tomato paste. Hard ways to earn a living.
At first I couldn’t work out why no one could understand me when I spoke French. Then we found out from William that everyone along this stretch of coast is from Ghana, and speaks mostly Ewe. This was the first of many reminders of how artificial the borders are along the West African coast, and how very porous. I struggled to get a grip on the Beninois personality, as the vast majority of people we met were not from here.
William taught us Ewean greetings, which have a pleasing Jamaican resonance. You herald someone with an “Afoi” and reply “E mafon”. Strangely, the majority of people passing the truck on the road would greet us with a “Bonsoir”, even in the morning. But as most people go out to fish at 3am, come in at 10am and finish work at 1pm you can’t really blame them.
More interestingly, women would greet me as I was washing with a “Bon travail”. Was it congratulating me on my good work or wishing me well in it? Others used it to greet Sampson as he was fixing up the truck. It did communicate a sense of solidarity with the hard slog.
I certainly did some bon travail on the blog: when I didn’t have my head down over a bucket of washing, I had it down over a smoking laptop. I have been wondering: am I enjoying the trip more because the practice of this blog is forcing me to reflect like this or am I missing what’s happening under my nose because, now I’m behind, I’m sometimes looking back harder than being present? Whatever, it was most unusual, to have Sampson out making friends, and me stuck inside the truck writing in between preparing for the new school year. It doesn’t matter where you are, all that book-covering is still a pain.
The children of Benin were the rudest so far. Protocol apparently demands that you shout “Yovo yovo” repeatedly ad infinitum, with no intent to pursue a conversation, often while standing in the open doorway of the truck, or just passing on your way to school. And back. Every day. (Yovo means white person but without the negative connotations of mlungu.) Were they really more tiring than DRC kids or was it just that I was more tired?
A more surreal intrusion was when a taxi pulled up and an American dot com millionaire called Phillip jumped out with a Beaker puppet (yes, from the Muppets) with whom he’s touring the world and making a film about, even though Disney hasn’t (and is unlikely to) approve use of the character. Talk about money to burn.
The films are dramatisations of children’s books he’s written to explain how other cultures are “essentially the same but different”. He’s already done ‘Beaker in China’ and a Gangnam Style video in Korea. Greying, but with the sensitivity of a bouncy teenager, he invited himself in to the truck; I let Sampson deal with him, while chatting to his more intelligent companion, host Fernando, whom he’d neglected to introduce. Phillip had all the finesse of what I imagine to be Mark Zuckerberg’s interactions with real people.
At the end of the week, we did a show to say thank you to the community for their hospitality. Everyone came out dressed in their best, and William’s younger brother Philip acted as translator and victim-in-chief. They especially loved it when hapless wannabees tried to juggle or make the red cloth disappear. Of course Friday night drunkenness helped. The wind was so strong, our aluminium fire torches overheated, and we had to drop them and restart our Parafina act behind the truck. I was proud of the kids, who are noticeably more confident performers that when we started.
Early on Sunday morning, Sampson’s very first attempt to drive out over the planks while the sand was still cool and holding firm was successful. All that fuss a few days earlier had proved completely unnecessary. Panic slowly.
Back in Ouidah, we found a gathering of people ready to set off on the Commemoration of Slavery march and walk a couple of kilometres down the Route des Esclaves, from the old slave market square to the Zomachi Memorial. Modeste was filming them from the back of a moped. We were swelteringly hot just following them in the truck.
After we’d found somewhere to park, we gatecrashed the ceremony and just caught the speech of the supremely dignified and charismatic Professor Paulin Hountondji (who reminded me of Prof Kole Omotoso of Yebo Gogo fame), declaiming “After slavery there was colonialism, which was still slavery, and now there is STILL slavery – the slavery of our minds. Still we feel whites are superior, we continue to oppress ourselves…”
I was struggling to keep up with his fabulously flowing French, but managed to grasp his point of view that “The Marshall Plan that saved Europe after World War II, the money that funded it came from the work of slaves. It was they who won the war.” It’s an interesting perspective, one that I doubt gets much coverage in current history books. “We must liberate ourselves, BE ourselves, do it for ourselves, not think we are lesser. We need to believe in ourselves.” Bob Marley’s Redemption Song was echoing in my head.
Periodically, since former President Soglo of Benin first proposed it in 1991, there is talk of a Marshall Plan for Africa: http://gulfnews.com/business/opinion/africa-desperately-needs-its-own-marshall-plan-1.1274656 Presumably America won’t be driving this one.
The kids were restless standing sweating under our umbrellas in the heat of the day, so we left. Outside we were accosted by a group at the sewing shop, demanding an explanation for Zola. A young bloke expressed his desire to marry Ruby because “White woman, better… to make pikkin (children).” “Why better?” I asked, “ Surely black is better here, especially in this sun”. “All white people are rich,” he said “There are no poor white people.” We laughed, mirthlessly, but gave up trying to explain. He had only ever seen rich white people – on TV, in films, in magazines, here on holiday – why would he doubt it?
We went back to our first favourite spot on harder sand by the hotel, with its lifesaving breeze. Back to school on Monday, I initiated a new routine to give textbookless Ruby a challenge: our daily beach walk through the cappuccino foam of the warm waves included recitation of times tables and quiz testing. Every tenth wave was bigger – if you didn’t concentrate, you’d get drenched, causing much hilarity.
Zola was struggling a little to adjust to Grade 4 ‘big boy books’, but having fun getting dumped by the breakers in between subjects. To keep Ruby occupied, I was having to improvise around Extension English from last year, and doing twice as much French. Thankfully she was obsessed with her Heartland project. We were enjoying the most amazing melt-in-your-mouth mango for breakfasts, avo salad lunches, and pineapple afternoon snacks and feeling bolstered by all the Vitamin C.
After rewiring the freezer to 24V and fixing the exhaust brake lever, Sampson took the kids down to the village to see Phillip’s new improvised magic tricks. Prosper was busy getting drunk because he had caught a turtle in his nets whose shell was 1.5m tall; the meat was worth 300000CFA (R6000). Officially they’re protected, but how do you defend the life of an endangered animal to a man with a family to feed? Sampson came back very depressed, wishing we had enough spare cash to offer to pay him to let it go.
On the last day Sampson dropped us at the Benin Diaspora Hotel while he went to spend a final morning with William. I’d planned to load a blog but Romuald told me the wi-fi had been down for 2 days – not just in the hotel, but the whole of Ouidah, and possibly the whole of Benin. *Sigh*
While it was immensely frustrating to be delayed again, it was relaxing to just concentrate on the kids. We did school and I played with them in the pool, spending a long time just drifting around cradling Ruby like she was a baby. My big little girl needed the cuddle. Anyway, jumping off even lowest platform gave me the heebie jeebies…
Getting out of Ouidah proved challenging, as the main road out of town was blocked twice by roadworks, but we eventually got back on the coastal highway, which got very beautiful past Lake Ahemé with some staggeringly different scenery – houses on stilts and vibrant green rice paddies.
The Big Green Truck very quickly reached Grand Popo, and we drove along the cobbled road, past all little bars, restaurants and arty places of this tourist village and right onto beach. It was the perfect spot for our evening braai of William’s parting gift. Rasta Thomas shared our fire.
We were woken by the familiar sound of children in beige outfits shouting “Yovo yovo” at us on their way to school. Our morning walk was abruptly curtailed when we came upon a radar tower and two guards with guns on beach. It was a naval base. The navy doesn’t have a harbour?
Benin was back online, so after school, I finally got posting a blog at the Auberge de Grand Popo while the kids went in the pool for price of two pineapple juices. These communication gaps make the sudden swamping of daily trivia arriving in Facebook notifications even more surreal.
In this week, I also received a torrent of sad news: in the first batch, a friend was facing a premature Caesarian, my best friend split from her partner, and another friend’s Dad had committed suicide. Overwhelmed, I struggled to write words of comfort. In the second, a dear friend revealed the reason I hadn’t heard from her was because the week her Mom had died, her niece was found raped and murdered. For a while after that I wasn’t so desperate to get online; the isolation seemed a blessing not a curse.
Googling slave trade history and statistics also had me feeling horribly depressed. I was struggling to get to grips with the Kingdom of Dahomey’s role in the slave trade. Benin’s complicated role as part-victim, part-perpetrator perhaps explains why the privileged descendants of African slave traders who got rich selling their neighbours to Europeans (including former President Kérékou and the wife of present President Boni) prefer tourism sites to concentrate on exotic aspects of the colourful Vodoun religion than spelling out the facts of the slave trade. Not to mention the stigma a slave heritage still bequeaths, and the unwillingness of contemporary Beninois to confront this twisted history.
This is most illuminating, if you have the time to read it: http://www.analuciaaraujo.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/Ethnologies-2011.pdf or if you have less time: http://www.history.ac.uk/ihr/Focus/Slavery/articles/araujo.html#12t
I took a walk along the beach before supper, and watched a wet mist blowing in. A strange procession came past with a full size Egungun, the messenger between the living and dead, covered from head to toe in layers of coloured raffia, gathering followers with an agogo, the traditional handbell I’d seen in the CBAAC exhibition. It seemed to be part of a funeral cortege, as next morning the procession was joined by two coffins in cars, which drove around accompanied by a wailing siren. I was glad I had followed my instinct not to take any photos.
By Friday, Zola was getting full marks in Maths and feeling very chuffed with his progress. Alongside the perennially annoying kids, there were just a couple too many drunks demanding “Cadeaux”, so we decided it was time to go.
Driving out of town on the main road, Sampson spotted an enormous recycled cock and pulled over to take a closer look – well you would, wouldn’t you? We found ourselves outside the Villa Karo, a Finnish-Beninois collaborative Arts Centre, at closing time, 12 o’clock, but the very kind curator was so impressed with our adventure, she let us in quickly to see the Museum.
It was only a tiny room, but crammed with exquisite artefacts and detailed explanations of Benin/Togo/Ghana/Yoruba figures and tropes. There were consistent representations of the sacred twins, Heviosso or Shango, god of thunder and Mami Wata, goddess of water across cultural groups. I discovered that locks symbolise disempowering your enemies, red powder not blood but holiness, and nails are hammered into a figure every time a prayer is answered. It was so good to have been gifted some understanding. More and more of Vodoun’s murky reputation was being demystified and de-fanged. It was most satisfying.
There have been Rasta communities on the outskirts of many towns on our route. On the way out of Grand Popo, it was good to see Lucky Dube immortalized amongst the greats at the Lion Bar.
On to the border; it was time for country number 9.
Drafted late Jan