Sometimes we fall in love at first sight, and then there are some things we grow to love. For instance, I loved rugby from day one, but it took me a while—too long—to appreciate cheese. Cape Verde, I loved from day one. Benin is a work in progress.
From the very start of our Peace Corps application process, I envisioned myself loving whatever country I ended up in, regardless of where it was. When I pictured the whole trajectory of my experience, I relished the thought of returning home after two years and having reverse homesickness for an otherwise random and obscure country. But the Peace Corps application process is long and mysterious and, at times, frustrating, so by the time we packed up to head to Cape Verde, I was just happy to be going anywhere. Even so, I earnestly put all of my energy and effort into getting off to a good start. Adrenaline and novelty both helped tip the scales in Cape Verde’s favor, but regardless, the country outshone my expectations. Adam and I consider ourselves immensely lucky that we had the chance to live there (and to share the experience with you through this blog!).
I had equally high hopes entering Benin, and my anxieties were diminished because I’d been through this once before. I was optimistic and confident that I would love Benin from the get-go. Still, my energy was a little sapped. Living in a foreign culture is mentally exhausting, particularly during the initial learning curve. A lot of the time, I feel out of place, a step behind, a little childish, or just plain confused. I am more than willing to laugh at myself, and sometimes it’s the perfect icebreaker, but at other times it’s just not enough (or even appropriate). Cultural adjustment is especially difficult when you add language barriers to the mix. (Yes, that’s plural—although French is the official language here, half the population speaks other languages.) In any culture, it’s tricky to get a straight answer to a straight question about manners. In the Peace Corps, even when I do get such advice, I don’t always catch on right away because of my limited vocabulary.
Benin started off rough. There is no escaping the facts: Porto Novo (our training site) is loud and stinky. The roads are owned by motorbikes that produce clouds of noise and exhaust and practically run people over. After the sun goes down, the action picks up, and this can be fun, but it’s inevitably loud. Roving drum circles occasionally wander through the night, stopping at each door for donations. When that’s finally over, it’s pre-dawn and the call to prayer is coming over the loudspeaker. In our host family’s neighborhood, the call was done by an adolescent boy who, to put it bluntly, had a terrible voice.
Another characteristic of Porto Novo that had a strong impact on me was that the homes and business are all built up behind walls. Over the past year, I had gotten accustomed to Cape Verdean neighborhoods where narrow footpaths literally cross people’s thresholds, and where you inevitably receive an invitation to txiga (stop by) as you pass. (Not always genuine, but I had learned when to politely say no… see above about being a fish out of water.) In contrast, Porto Novo is a land of gated compounds. All the household action goes on in interior courtyards that are surrounded by tall walls. It felt closed and unwelcoming to me at first, and that feeling resurfaced in my personal interactions.
I was apprehensive as we approached swearing-in day and our move to site (the big day was September 14th). I knew that Pre-Service Training was a bubble, a melange of American and Host Country culture and not an accurate indicator of real life. Still, Adam and I were assigned to live in a suburb of Porto Novo, and based on the week-long visit we had done during training, it looked like more of the same. I didn’t see when or how I would really get to know Benin, never mind grow to love it.
But here we are, a month into life at our site, and it’s grown on me. Was the first day awesome? No. The second? No. And for that matter, nor were the third or fourth. Yet sometime during the first week I turned a corner. We live in between Benin’s capital city and a Nigerian border crossing, so the center of our town is kind of trafficky and blech. However, a block or so from the road, the landscape quickly transitions to cool, green palm groves with small market gardens in the understory. Here, outside of the town center, households are widely spaced and oftentimes are walled in only partially, and with trees or thatched palms instead of cinderblock and cement. The motos are still present, but there are also ancient one-speed bicycles pedaled by old men in bumbas (the traditional pant and tunic outfit), or women with babies slung on their backs, with a heap of manioc stalks or a sack of seed on the back wheel rack.
Speaking of bikes, one of the great parts of being in Benin is that we have bikes!!! Adam and I have begun to explore our surroundings, and we’re planning some longer rides to visit neighboring volunteers. We’ve also been taking walks around our community, and stopping and talking with our neighbors, who are changing my mind about the warmth, humor, and friendliness of Beninese culture.
Adam and I live in an apartment that is one of eight households in a concession (walled compound). Our apartment has a living room in front, a bedroom in back, and a narrow, half-covered space behind the house where the pit toilet and bathing space are located. It’s a pretty common set-up here. Normally, the kitchen would also be situated in the back alley. For us, that is a little cramped, a little isolated from the living area (Adam likes to talk and hang out while he cooks), and a little close for comfort to the latrine, so we have set up a cooking area in our living room. Home is already feeling really comfortable: we’ve bought some furniture, started an herb garden, gotten a grill… it’s practically Jersey City.