My first few weeks here have been surprisingly ordinary. So far, I’ve only seen a hint of the culture and character of Benin because I’m living in a sheltered world of Peace Corps training. My days are tightly scheduled and almost everything is provided for me by my host family. All I have to do is show up at the right places and times and attempt to communicate in French. (Which was actually challenging enough for the first couple weeks.)
So far, the overwhelming difference between here and Cape Verde is that we live in a city that could swallow up the entire population of Santiago. It is loud and active around the clock. The traffic is busy, crowded, and dominated by motos (motorbikes). But city life is different anywhere, and the size and noise aren’t the real reasons Benin is not like Cape Verde. What really strikes me as different is that homes are all situated in courtyards behind walls; music doesn’t blast out of every door, window, car, and hand-held radio; people shout “Yovo!” (“White person!”) at me instead of “Txiga!” (“Come in!”); and Beninese seem much more reserved than Cape Verdeans. Also, electricity is nearly stable, food is spicy, and the land is flat and lush. You can throw a stone without hitting a stalk of corn.
As I had heard from current Benin Volunteers, the fabric and clothing are awesome here. Beninese people typically dress in custom-made outfits in fabric with colors and patterns that run the gamut. There are florals, geometrics, tie dyes, and lace (fancy stuff studded with eyelets, bedazzles, and embroidery). There are prints with laptops, batteries, light bulbs, cell phones, lamps, horses, chickens, books, diplomas and mortarboards, stars, arrows, buildings, soccer balls, diamond rings, chairs, purses, shoes, airplanes, car grills, and Jesus. Today I saw some kind of print that looked like a cross between a fairy shrimp and a banana. (You can Obama prints, but only in Togo and Burkina Faso.) There are small-scale prints that could almost pass for an American dress shirt, and prints that are meter-scale and asymmetric. There are monotones, warm tones, cool tones, and color schemes from a Crayola carton. It’s amazing and utterly distracting. It’s the motos that mostly put me in danger every time I ride my bike, but the tissue doesn’t help.
So far Adam and I have shopped for tissue only once. This is an act of cut-and-dry budgeting rather than self-control. The tailor and seamstress came to our house to measure us, and we placed orders.
We each wanted to buy one garment, but the fabric comes in six-meter lengths and the sellers won’t always cut it, so we ended up with enough material to get two shirts for Adam, and two complets (outfits) for me. Matching, both. Luckily, it’s normal to dress alike here (at least for small children and special occasions).
And French… Viola! I was completely and utterly dismayed at first because the language barrier seemed insurmountable. Despite having gone through this in Cape Verde, I still felt frustrated and helpless by not knowing French. But nothing beats immersion and eight daily hours of language class to force you into speaking a language. After only a few days at home stay I could greet people and say “How are you?” so I felt better. As I’ve learned to say a few things, I’ve been able to engage in more and more conversation. It’s still difficult, and my vocabulary is tiny, but it’s moving along. Yesterday I was able to follow the gist of the West African soap operas and French evening news. Major victory! Things got even more interesting this past week when we received our site information and started learning a local language called Gun (pronounced “goon”) … in classes taught in French. At points it was hard to focus because I was marveling at the fact that I was learning a third new language … in French.
All told, our trainee class is learning more than a dozen local languages. They all share a basic sentence structure and similar ways of forming tenses, so Beninese people can often communicate effectively despite not speaking the same language. (Maybe this also helps explain how it’s commonplace for people here to speak ten languages.) What’s really interesting for me is that the patterns resemble Cape Verdean Kriolu. It’s pure speculation, but learning Gun makes me wonder if I could be learning the roots of Cape Verde’s language as well. The sad part is that I’m forgetting Kriolu even faster than I’m picking up French and Gun, combined.
Our home for the next year will be in the L’Ouéme region, in a small town of about 20,000 people just outside of Porto Novo. I’ll be working through the agricultural extension office with groups of market gardeners. Adam will be working with an entrepreneur who produces tea. Just like Santiago, our region is full of Volunteers within easy visiting distance. Next week we go to our town for an extended visit, after which we shift from language to technical training for our final month of pre-service training. And then we’re officially Volunteers again!