Author Archives: Jennifer

A Visit To The Sacred Forest

When Adam and I learned where we would be living in Benin (near Porto Novo), we were handed a packet of information with a map of our commune (kind of like a county), job descriptions and a consultant’s report about the population, environment and economy. It’s rare to come by such comprehensive, professionally prepared information about your Peace Corps hometown, so I devoured this report as quickly as my French comprehension allowed. Being who I am, I started by studying the map and then I dove into the section on geology.

The area we live in is wrinkled into a series of broad, shallow valleys and wide, low ridges. The river valleys are laced with slow-flowing rivers with interwoven channels and stretches of wetland. I read through the details about ferruginous and hydromorphic soils, clay and peat deposits, and then came to a little bulleted text saying that our river valleys are home to 49 sacred forest islands, protected because they harbor the notorious Vodoun spirit named Oro.

I already heard a lot about Oro because he’s quite threatening and mysterious: he and his followers come out at night and perform secret ceremonies meant to chase away evil spirits. Before Benin was colonized, Oro functioned as society’s police force. Thieves, murderers and other bad people had to pay for their actions even though there wasn’t a judicial system like there is now. Only initiated men are allowed to see Oro. Women must stay out of sight, on pain of death. Fortunately, Oro is only active for a few weeks in August or September (depending on where you live), and word of his schedule is spread in advance (if only a few hours). Also, his entourage makes quite a racket, so he’s avoidable.

There are a couple other types of Vodoun spirits who are often out and about around here, viewable to all: Zangbeto and Egun (or Egungun). Zangbeto looks like a haystack and Egun looks like a person. In both cases, the spirits seem a lot like a person wearing a costume, but any identifiable features are covered up. However, followers claim that they have called forth spirits to inhabit the costumes, and that there are no people underneath. It’s not abnormal to come across small buildings that house these spirits. In the case of Zangbeto, the haystack often sits clearly visible through barred windows or doors. I can only speculate about Oro, but I’m guessing his outfits are stored on the sacred islands and that he’s a person dressed up for ceremonies.

A spirit’s house that we passed on our walk.

A spirit’s house that we passed on our walk.

Despite the intrigue surrounding Oro, I was most interested in the ecological value of his forest islands. In my Peace Corps training manuals, I had read that sacred lands like this serve the secondary purposes of protecting ecosystems and their functions. For instance, the forests and wetlands along a river valley might be reserved for ceremonial uses, with the result that they are left intact to filter water and provide feeding and nesting habitat for wildlife. In this way, the community maintains a reliable source of clean drinking water, wood (logging is permitted in some forests) and plant materials, although these aren’t the primary objectives of preserving the forest. Sacred lands can also conserve biodiversity because they are places where many types of plants are cultivated for medicinal and religious uses.

I knew that I wouldn’t be setting foot in Oro’s forests, but I tried to learn a bit more by asking around. Unfortunately, I didn’t get too far. Most people either don’t know, or don’t really find the topic of religious forests very interesting, because they’re so common and embedded into life here. Although Vodoun is a strong presence in our area, traditional practices have eroded as more people have adopted Christianity and modern medicine and have gained access to better education. However, a few weeks ago, Adam and I went with a local non-profit organization on a neighborhood walk to see an area that the organization is hoping to develop for eco-tourism. I had asked the non-profit’s leader about sacred forests before, and he mentioned to me that we would pass by one during this walk.

That day, we headed out from the mayor’s office, past the youth center and through the grounds of an elementary school. There, not even half an hour into our walk, and no more than fifty feet past the school, my guide turns to me, points, and says, “There it is. The sacred forest.”

There it was, right behind the elementary school, on a patch of land not much bigger than the city lot containing my childhood home. Not quite the vast expanse of dense woods I had imagined. I noticed a wall of vegetation enclosing a line of large, evenly spaced trees of different species. My guide laughed and wagged his finger at me. “Don’t ever go in there,” he said. “Oro is in there. Do you know what happens if a woman sees Oro?!” He laughed and walked on. Hilarious.

The sacred forest.

The sacred forest.

I stared skeptically at the forest. It seemed so average. There it was, right on the edge of town, where anybody could find it. Here in our town in Benin, a patch of forest to house an idol is on par with the storefront churches I passed by all the time in Harlem, or the local synagogue down the street from my childhood home. The believers revere it, and the nonbelievers pass by without thinking about it. I wondered how often little kids dared to sneak in and peek at Oro.

A few hundred yards further down the road, we came to an enormous tree whose buttressed roots sheltered this guy. This particular tree species is very uncommon in southern Benin, but this one is protected by its religious association.

3_Statue by tree4_Statue by treeAnd pretty soon after, we looped down to the waterfront where we photographed this ominous display.

5_Doll head by riverNobody batted an eyelash as we crowded around to take photographs, nor did anyone really explain the items. (“It’s religious. This is an important spot on the water.”) We rested a bit, did some shots of palm liquor (it was 10 in the morning, but that’s hospitality), and continued on. Soon we arrived at a collection of ceremonial statuary.

The statue building.

The statue building.

7_Statue close-up 19_Statue close-up 3 8_Statue close-up 2During our walk—from the unremarkable sacred land, to the unremarked-upon sacred strangeness—I had been struggling to sort it all out in my mind. Truth be told, Vodoun is just as ho-hum as any other religion. Shrines, fetishes and statues are everywhere. I can buy ceremonial goods at my local market for less than a few dollars. The other week, Adam and I bought an altar for communicating with our ancestors. We knew it was a ritual object, but we weren’t sure what sort, and we thought it would make a good souvenir to put in our garden. We haggled over its price just as we would for a pile of tomatoes (end result: $2.25). Then we carried it around the market for an hour and the only reaction we got was a vendor who demanded to know why we hadn’t bought one from her stall.

A sacred forest obviously has a rightful place in the middle of town, and it can still have ecological significance if it’s located there. The danger is that if the religious uses lose status, then the land can be appropriated for some other use. If that happens, the secondary functions are easily lost because no one is thinking about them. And on top of that, a walk through town becomes far less interesting.

Making Gari

A sack and a bowl of pressed manioc, being sifted through screen to make gari.

A sack and a bowl of pressed manioc, being sifted through screen to make gari.

I had another manioc adventure a few weeks ago, when I had the opportunity to participate as a cooperative I work with made gari, which is dried, powdered manioc. It’s one of my favorite Beninese foods.

The first step is to have the manioc mashed, which the group paid to have done elsewhere, so I didn’t see that step. We started with large sacks packed full of the smashed manioc, which we broke up into chunks and then sifted through screens.

The woody cores and other remainders on a spare screen. These were fed to the chickens and goats. The sifted manioc is flaky and light.

After sifting the fine powder went over the fire into a big metal pan, where it was toasted until thoroughly dry.

After sifting the fine powder went over the fire into a big metal pan, where it was toasted until thoroughly dry.

The last step was to put the toasted powder on plastic in the sun. I couldn’t quite figure out what this step accomplished… maybe it was just cooling off?

This is the area where we worked, which is a large courtyard within the cooperative president’s family compound. Most of the day, nobody was willing to be photographed (hence the headless photos), but I was allowed to take this non-close-up shot.

For eating, gari is sprinkled on beans or rice and mixed in with the sauce. Sometimes it is moistened with a little palm oil first, which makes it extra tasty. Yum!

Festa Bedju (2)

Our host family getting ready to go home after party day in Sao Jorge (our town). The pot on Adam's head is leftovers we sent home with them!

Our host family getting ready to go home after party day in Sao Jorge (our town). The pot on Adam’s head is leftovers we sent home with them!

Adam at about 7am, starting his pot of beans.

For our town’s festa day, Adam and I hosted a giant party at our house. We bought a few kilos of freshly butchered pig, mountains of kale, enough beans to feed an army, twice as much booze as seemed advisable, and made as many cakes as time allowed. From 6am to 6pm we were in action prepping, serving and hosting our former language instructors, other volunteers, and friends from town who passed by. In the evening, we headed down the hill to see the live bands. Despite my best efforts to stay awake, I had to throw in the towel at 5am, and I missed seeing Ze Espanhol, who came on stage at about 6am.

We had a lot of beans, and a lot of kale.

We had a lot of beans, and a lot of kale.

The county government freshly whitewashed all the walls and the church steps, where these kids messed around with drums as the stage was set up.

It's not all just music, food, and booze. The parties are in celebration of patron saints, so there are religious processions and special Masses, too. Here's the procession coming past our house.

It’s not all just music, food, and booze. The parties are in celebration of patron saints, so there are religious processions and special Masses, too. Here’s the procession coming past our house.

Thank goodness for our host mom and host aunt, who helped host. (Truthfully, they ran things and I helped!)

Cooking.

Cutting up the pork.

I missed Ze, but I managed to stay awake long enough to catch Amarildo.

Festa Bedju (1)

 

Adam with our host mom and host dad and our host half-sister, at their house during our host community's festa.

Adam with our host mom and host dad and our host half-sister, at their house during our host community’s festa.

Making dumplings with our host family. Yum.

Making dumplings with our host family. Yum.

It’s festa (party) season in Cape Verde—the time of year when every town holds a giant street party in celebration of itself and its patron saint, and every household opens its doors to friends and family who come from all over the island to visit and celebrate. Every household cooks up a giant pot of food, stocks up on drinks and feeds everyone who passes through. The county government organizes free live music on stage in the middle of town and for the bigger parties, a big tent with a DJ. Plus, community organizations hold parties in other locations throughout town. The revelry lasts for several days without end: high schoolers stay up all night with their parents listening to the music, men young and old think nothing of going 36 or 48 hours without sleeping, and women cook up batch after batch of pork and beans and katxupa around the clock. Festa bedju literally means “old party,” but in practice it’s just a great party. I wish I were there to celebrate once more, so in honor of the season, I thought I’d share some pictures of last year’s parties.

You have to be careful how much you eat at each house, without offending the host, since you're going to have to eat at every house. Everyone knows how it is, but that's no excuse for refusing the food!

At our favorite language teacher’s house. You have to be careful how much you eat at each house, without offending the host, since you’re going to have to eat at every house. Everyone knows how it is, but that’s no excuse for refusing the food!

Hello, New Neighbors!

Since I posted this, Peace Corps has changed the location of the CED training site, so the new trainees won’t be living so close by. I hope you still enjoy the tour of our town!

Over the past few weeks Peace Corps has been sending letters of invitation to the next cohort of Benin trainees, who will start their service this July. It just so happens that Adam and I live in the town where the Community Economic Development program will hold training, so we’re going to have about a dozen American neighbors for our last few months in Benin!

In the months leading up to our departure from the States, I had so many questions and no idea what to expect, and it stunk! Family and friends were all asking me perfectly reasonable questions for which I had no answers. Where would I live? Would I have electricity? Internet access? Telephone? Not only did I feel like a broken record saying “We’ll have to wait and see” over and over, but I was really curious about the very basics.

To give the new people an idea of where they’re headed (and hopefully to entertain the rest of you readers who want to know more about where Adam and I live), this post is a tour of our town. I don’t know about any host family arrangements or specific training sites, but at least I can give an idea of life in our town.

IMG_2168

Our carrefour (intersection) on a typical weekday morning.

I’m not supposed to put the name of our site on our blog, but I can say that it’s a town of about 20,000 people on the outskirts of Porto Novo (nope, not that one). It’s the chef ville d’arrondissement—basically, the county seat—so it’s the center of the action. Still, there’s not a whole ton of stuff to do besides ride bikes or relax at a buvette (open-air bar). Our town doesn’t have any internet cafes, but trainees can get their own cellphones shortly after arriving in country, and can find time to go out and buy a USB internet key within a few weeks. (It’s also a great activity for practicing French!)

Two local languages are spoken here. Gun predominates in the center of town. Studying Fon is helpful preparation for speaking Gun, though it’s not exactly the same. In the rural outskirts people speak Tɔli. It’s hit or miss whether people speak French, but there’s almost always someone around to translate. Catholicism, Celestial Christianity, and Vodun are the predominant religions here, and there are also several mosques.

IMG_0569

Celestial Christian churches are small and numerous. And the kids running over to get a peek at me are pretty typical, too.

Our town has a market day every fourth day. (If you hold out your hand with fingers outstretched, your thumb and pinky are the market days.) We have a big market, so you can get almost everything here—tomatoes, greens, onions, ginger, garlic, salt, pepper, fish, crabs, fabric, clothing, flip-flops, pineapples, oranges, bananas, avocados, sweet potatoes, oatmeal, powdered milk, couscous, pasta, eggs, soap, cosmetics, beads, jewelry, Vodun necessities, fried dough balls, palm oil, peanut oil, flour, sugar, baskets, batteries, pens, bungee cords, bike inner tubes, cigarettes, cats, chickens, manicures, hair extensions (DIY or full service), and on and on. For things like chocolate, coffee, “French vegetables” (carrots, cabbage, eggplant, lettuce), and foreign condiments (soy sauce, mustard, fish sauce), you have to go to a supermarket in Porto Novo. At the Porto Novo supermarkets you can also buy cheese, ice cream, American candy, cereal, and pretty good wine, but these will break your budget if you buy them often.

2_market_stall

This is a typical market stall. Other women–and kids–walk around selling things from trays balanced on top of their heads.

The market is hectic, loud, and crowded, but it’s not huge, and you can learn your way around in one visit. Once you make friends with a few sellers, marketing gets to be a little more fun and social, and you don’t have to work as hard to obtain reasonable prices. If you forget that it’s market day, you’ll be reminded by the thick stream of bicycles and motos heading through town heavily loaded with livestock. Some of the fixed storefronts in town close down on market day, while others put additional merchandise on display. On off-days, the market area has a few sellers with the very basics.

Most of the sellers at the market are women, but this is the bike guy. He’s really nice and he’s got all the stuff you need for your bike.

Most of the sellers at the market are women, but this is the bike guy. He’s really nice and he’s got all the stuff you need to keep your bike rolling smoothly.

The route connecting Porto Novo with the Nigerian border cuts right through the center of town, so it’s easy to flag down a zemi (taxi moto) to visit trainees from the other program sectors (Rural Community Health, Teaching English as a Foreign Language, Environmental Action). The ride to any of these places costs less than $0.75, which is easily affordable on the living allowance you get during training. If you like to cycle, you could also bike to any of the other training sites within a half hour. Trainees all get bikes as soon as they go to live with their host families (after about three days in country).

IMG_8844

The road leading to the town where Environmental Action trainees will live.

Another scene from the same road.

Another scene from the same road.

Once you get away from the main road, our town quickly transitions into a rural landscape of cows, goats, oil palms, corn, manioc, peanuts, and Vodun shrines. Agriculture is the main occupation here, and the fringes of town are green, quiet, and calm. In contrast to the crazy motorcycles and busy commerce of the town center, the activity out here consists of people hoeing, herding, and chopping. There is a fairly dense network of large roads, so you’re never too far from a direct route back into the center of town and it’s hard to get truly lost. But you can also pretty easily feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.

Oil palm plantations are cool, green, and lovely to travel through.

Oil palm groves are cool, green, and lovely to travel through.

IMG_9404

Lots of cows, but never any milk or cheese.

IMG_0441

There are many wetland areas throughout our region, and the water is only a few kilometers away from the center of town… a good destination for an early morning run.

Traffic on our town’s central road is hectic in the morning, with hordes of taxis and trucks heading between Nigeria and Porto Novo and on to Cotonou. It quiets down during the midday heat while everyone rests indoors. Then at night, the place comes back to life. Crossing the road during the evening rush could take you a solid ten minutes. A bit later, things mellow out a bit and the carrefour repopulates as stalls open up selling grilled meat, fruit, beans, corn, and fried dough.

IMG_8868

People drive in on their motos and gather in clusters to shoot the breeze. There are a couple of TV stalls where people watch soap operas. Or you can sit at a table in the town park and drink a beer.

IMG_9821

It’s usually men who are out relaxing at night and the women who are selling food at the stands, but I get away with going out with Adam.

It’s easy to find something to eat from a street vendor as long as you look at the right time. Between the hours of 9 am and 1 pm, and then from 5 pm on, you can find vanzu with gari or a plate of pâte (blanc/corn or noir/yam) or akassa (rice and bean mixture) with sauce (de legume or de tomate), fried plantains, eggs, or fish. We have a bakery that cranks out baguettes at all hours. Women sell the bread right in front of the bakery and walk around town selling it from baskets balanced on their heads. With your bread you can get delicious fish-based or tomato-based spreads, smashed avocado and onion mixture, or margarine. We also have a few spaghetti omelet stands. Any of these meals will run you about one dollar. Most Peace Corps Volunteers avoid the local specialty, an okra-and-leafy-green-based sauce called krin-krin which has the consistency of thin rubber cement (to put it delicately).

IMG_8274

A spaghetti omelet is a plate of spaghetti topped with scrambled egg mixed with onion and hot pepper. A side of bread is optional.

Recently the food scene in our town got a million times better with the opening of a FanMilk depot. I’m gonna go there and say it’s the best snack Benin has to offer—due in no small part to the fact that it’s frozen.

Trainees live with host families, which is mostly wonderful though sometimes awkward. Households around here are organized in big fenced compounds called concessions. Some concessions have groups of apartments rented by unrelated families, and some are home to family groups. Some have a single house, some have multiple standalone structures, and some have a row of apartment blocks. Buildings range from mud-brick single-room structures to complicated mansions with tiled façades. Concessions might be enclosed by cinder block walls and metal gates, or they might have a live tree fence with an entrance gap. If there’s no running water, the concession will have a well. In my opinion, the nicest concession features are payotes (thatched gazebos) and shade trees. Concession yards are bare dirt, and keeping their yards and street fronts swept clean is a constant chore for the little girls in the household.

A street in our neighborhood.

A street in our neighborhood.

Host families tend to be among the more well-to-do members of the community, so during training you might find yourself living more comfortably than the typical Peace Corps stereotype would have you imagine. (It’s a crap shoot whether that holds after training, but volunteers tend to have the upper end of conditions wherever they are.) Peace Corps requires that trainees have a private bedroom with a locking door and screened windows, and they provide a table and chair, mosquito net, water filter, locking trunk to store valuables, and some other little goodies to help you get settled. Electricity is the norm in our town center, and running water is common but certainly not a given. When Adam and I stayed in town briefly for our site visit, our bedroom opened onto a breezy balcony and we had our own private bathroom with a flushing toilet and running water. Our family was fantastic, so I have my fingers crossed that they will be hosting a new trainee!

Peace Corps changes the training program every year partly in response to feedback from volunteers and mandates from Washington, and I am not involved in training so I don’t have much information about this year’s plans. (In fact, this is the first year trainees will be staying in our town.) So take this with a grain of salt! Last year we attended training on Monday through Friday from 9 to 5, with a half-day on Saturday. The first part of training focused on language, with occasional sessions on health, safety and security, and culture. Language classes were small—two to five people—and they were held at a classmate’s house (a fun way to get to know other host families) or a central location, depending on our group’s choice. The last month of training focused on technical content.

Language is frustrating but extremely rewarding.

Language is frustrating but rewarding, too.

The other sessions were held at a central location with trainees from all the sectors together. Training includes presentations, field trips, group work, and a little trial by fire. To me, the culture sessions were the best part of training. We had a fashion show, a demonstration of uses for all sorts of Beninese items from the market (such twigs for cleaning teeth, herbs, homemade laundry soap), an iron chef competition, and a session on music and dance. I liked these sessions because they were more casual and they gave me a chance to practice language in an interesting and applied setting.

Hope that gives you some idea of what you’re heading into. See you all soon!!

My Favorite Dish

IMG_1963It doesn’t look like much, but this is my favorite Beninese food lately: vanzu beans with sauce and gari. Vanzu are big, perfectly spherical white beans that cook down to a creamy mush. They are delicious. There’s a woman in town who always has a big pot of these for sale. I eat them every chance I get.