The Yovo Song Post

To prepare for coming to Benin, I read a lot of volunteer blogs. A recurring theme in them was The Yovo Song; almost all the blogs included some kind of diatribe against it. ‘Yovo’ is the term that southern Beninese use to refer to white people. The Yovo Song (really a chant) goes a few steps further:

         Yovo, yovo, bonsoir!

         Ça va bien?

         Merci!

         {BONUS LINE (rarely heard) : Et chez vous?}

         Yovo, yovo, good evening!

         Is it going well?

         Thank you!

         {BONUS LINE (rarely heard) : And with you?}

Urban legend has it that kids invented the song decades ago to greet white visitors who came to Benin with gifts. As the story goes, it continues to be passed on through generations. Although the blogging volunteers said this song drove them crazy, I had trouble envisioning myself being tormented by singing children. Lo and behold, the Yovo Song phenomenon hit me like a ton of bricks from day one in our town.

I hear ‘yovo’ hundreds, sometimes thousands, of times each day. Every time I leave the house, the bombardment begins. Adults often say ‘yovo’ kind of as a synonym for ‘hello.’ Equally often, they shout it reflexively when I pass by. If I respond, that might be the end of it. But they also might shout ‘Yovo!’ at me again, just for good measure.

          Neighbor: Yovo!

         Me: Bonjour!

         Neighbor: YO-vo!

         Me: Ça va?

         Neighbor: Yo-VO!

         Me: Et la famille?

         Neighbor: YOVOOO!

(I’m tempted to chalk it up to a language barrier, but even people who don’t speak French usually know basic greetings.)

But children love to sing the song. Repeatedly. They are excited because I’m unusual and they want to be acknowledged. Often when I respond with eye contact and a wave or a quick salutation, they dissolve into shy giggles, hide behind each other, or run away. But if it’s a really excited group of the littlest kids—and they can get really excited—they scream at the top of their lungs and jump up and down dance. It’s hysterical, and they keep shouting until I’m out of earshot. The littlest kids don’t know all the words, but that doesn’t stop them. ‘Yovo, yovo, bonsoir! Sa buuuuh nuuuuh? Mmmmmm-mmmmmeh!’

‘Yovo’ isn’t an unfriendly term. Name-calling like this isn’t unique to white people; there’s a tendency here to use titles in place of names for everyone. Many adult women go by ‘mama [their kid’s name],’ or simply ‘mama.’ My coworkers refer to each other by an alphabet soup of job title acronyms. (Since five of them are ‘CPV’ I often haven’t the slightest clue who we’re talking about.) The older men at my job are called ‘doyen,’ a word that respectfully acknowledges their status as senior colleagues. (Except for the light-skinned one, who is ‘yovo.’) The Togolese woman who sells deconstructed tamales at Adam’s workplace is, logically, ‘Togo.’

‘Yovo’ is inclusive. Beninese don’t differentiate much among non-black races: we’re all outsiders together. Access to foreign media and internet are the exception, not the norm, even here in our large town close to the capital. There’s no internet café here; you can’t even buy a newspaper. Our town’s schools have extremely limited resources, so there are no maps of Benin, Africa, other continents, or the world. ‘Yovo’ can refer to anyone with relatively pale skin, just as ‘chinois’ can refer to me, Adam, or any of the three Japanese volunteers who live in our town. Never mind that none of us are Chinese.

Even if ‘yovo’ isn’t derogatory, it is complicated. It goes hand-in-hand with a few other vexing behaviors. In place of greetings, we’re often hit with demands for our money, helmets, bicycles, or pants. In addition, teenagers frequently greet us in falsetto. They talk to each other that way, too, but it can seem really mocking anyway. Responding in a deep bass will get you a blank stare, but high-voicing back sometimes starts a conversation.

There are times when ‘yovo’ is followed by laughter of the ‘at you,’ not the ‘with you,’ variety, and those times are upsetting, but the incessant garden-variety yovo-ing is what really bothers me. It’s dehumanizing to be always called a name. I feel hurt that people call me by a catch-all label even after we become acquainted. I feel offended that the chant never changes from ‘bonsoir,’ even when I’m out running at pre-dawn. I feel disheartened when I say ‘kaalo’ (‘good morning’ in Gun) and only get back ‘yovo.’ It saddens me to always elicit a knee-jerk epithet, rather than a genuine interaction.

At the end of the day, I understand that ‘yovo’ is just the way that people here relate to people like me. It’s what I’m called because it’s what I am. Sure, I live in a concession with Beninese neighbors, shop at the local market, and wear Beninese-style outfits. But I am so conspicuously different it’s laughable: I have a new mountain bike, top-of-the-line helmets for motorcycle and bike, well-made shoes, band-aids, an e-reader.

It’s not only my white skin and possessions that make me a yovo, it’s my behavior, too. Take the way I schedule my time for example. When making plans I prefer to set a specific hour. Beninese people are more comfortable saying ‘in the afternoon.’ Let’s say I make an appointment with the carpenter, and he’s an hour late by my clock. Maybe it’s because he went to do a job in Cotonou for a respected customer, and the old man offers him a beer and wants to talk afterward. I call the carpenter to ask when he’ll arrive. ‘Right now’ is his answer, even though he is a two-hour drive away in Cotonou, because he intends to stop what he’s doing as soon as he politely can and come to my house. I should have taken ‘in the afternoon’ for an answer!

I’m also comparatively uptight about privacy and personal information. If I’m biking through town on my way to a meeting, it’s acceptable for a complete stranger to shout ‘Stop!’ and ask who I am, where I live, where I’m from, where I’m going, what I’ll do there, if I have kids, and more. I’m taken aback that a stranger feels entitled to hold me up and ask all these questions, but I have to remember that I’m the stranger here. If I worry that this will make me late, I shouldn’t, because chance encounters like these cause everyone to show up late from time to time, and it’s acceptable.

One of my biggest reasons for joining the Peace Corps was to experience life in another culture, a process that sounds marvelous but in practice is sometimes rough. I come from a culture that prizes individuality, but that’s not Benin. To accept being called ‘yovo’ feels like a loss of individuality, but it’s a part of Beninese culture and there’s no stopping it. Not every ‘Yovo!’ is an invitation to chat, but it’s not a slur either. So I’m learning to hear ‘yovo’ with Beninese ears.

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