At work I share an office with Julian, a man who fully embraces the Beninese habit of making very brief phone calls simply to greet his friends and family. Conforming to Beninese custom, these greetings comprise a series of inquiries about spouse, parents, children, household, work, animals, crops, health, journeys, and more.
In some communities it’s rude not to pose a litany of such questions before starting a conversation, and it makes sense as a way of keeping up with your neighbors lives and the community news. We live in a large town, so not everyone knows each other, and here it’s more common to append a simple ‘Bonne’ (Good) onto whatever the subject happens to be doing. This produces normal salutations most of the time, like Bonne Route (Good Trip), Bon Travail (Good Work), Bon Appétit (Good Meal). But there are some funny ones, too—Bonne Assis (Good Sitting), Bon Sport (Good Sports, for when you’re out running), Bonne Digestion (that’s a direct translation, for when someone’s sitting in front of an empty plate).
Also typically Beninese, Julian punctuates long silences with greetings as well. The other morning I was at my desk for a few hours. During this time, Julian worked steadily on his computer, stopping every once in a while to place a phone call or check in on me. Our desks sit at ninety-degree angles a few strides away from each other, so he can easily look up and keep tabs on me.
Coworker: Jennifer, Jennifer Lopez. It’s going well?
Jennifer (not Lopez): It’s going, thanks. And you?
Coworker: I’m good.
…a few minutes later…
Coworker: Jennifer, you are there? (Another typical Beninese greeting.)
Jennifer: Yes. How are you?
Coworker: It’s going.
…a few minutes later…
Coworker: Jennifer, Jennifer Lopez. Good sitting.
Coworker: And Adam? He’s there?
Jennifer: Yes, he’s well. And your wife?
Coworker: She’s fine, thanks.
…a few minutes later…
Coworker: Jen-NI-fer. (People often sing-song my name when they have nothing in particular to say.) How are you?
Jennifer: Good, thanks, and you?
Coworker: Good. And Adam?
Jennifer: He’s fine.
Coworker: And your house?
Jennifer: It’s fine.
Coworker: And in the US? Your family?
Jennifer: They’re good, thanks. I talked to my mom yesterday.
Coworker: That’s good, that’s good… and Obama?
This was followed by a short pause, and then we both laughed out loud. But the question actually led to an interesting discussion of the upcoming US elections and what is the optimal term length for a president. (Boni Yayi, the Beninese president, gets a maximum of two, five-year terms.) It echoed a well-informed interest in American politics that many Beninese hold, as well as a particular affection for Obama that manifests itself in all sorts of ways. Porto Novo has Obama Bar and Obama VIP Lounge. There is Obama Beach in Cotonou (which I’m told is operated by a Nigerian named Prince William… ha!). I have purchased Obama playing cards (made in China), and if I wanted one I could get an ‘Obama Girl’ shirt (apparently there is no such thing as an ‘Obama Boy’ though, so Adam’s out of luck). Plastic cargo bags with Obama’s face? Not hard to find. And there is Obama Beer.
Well, more accurately, there are lots of posters and ads for Obama beer, but it’s not normally served at bars. The other day I went with some coworkers after work to get lunch at a buvette (open-air bar where food is usually served). Men would definitely order beer at mid-day, but most of my coworkers are female, and I wanted to see what they did, so I asked for a bottle of water. (Besides, I had deliberately dehydrated myself before heading out for field work in the equatorial sun, to avoid having to pee somewhere awkward, so I desperately needed water.) Turns out everyone but me got beer. The most popular brand here is La Beninoise—The Beninese. When the drinks came around, this led to questions.
Coworker: Jennifer, you don’t like drinking beer?
Jennifer: Yes, I drink beer, but today I’m really thirsty and I needed water. Next time, I’ll get a beer.
Coworker 2: No, Jennifer doesn’t like La Beninoise. She only drinks Obama Beer.
Jennifer: Ha ha, no, I haven’t had Obama Beer yet. I really want to try some.
Coworkers, All: What?! No. That’s what you drink in America. That’s the beer Americans drink!
And this remains an ongoing joke between me and my coworkers. So, while Obama and his policies are much discussed and mostly admired here in Benin, there are some misconceptions about how we Americans brand our Commander in Chief.
Adam and I are staying at the Peace Corps Workstation tonight and tomorrow to watch the election returns on television. I haven’t seen American news in over a year, and I think the elections are always a fun TV event, so it’ll be fun. But I also need to pay close attention to the state-by-state breakdown and the political analysis so I can discuss it when we return to site—I am sure I will get lots of questions.