Tag Archives: friendship

Sunday Afternoon at Home


On our front porch with our neighbors and, on the far right, two Peace Corps friends.


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?


         {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.

Greetings From Benin On Election Day

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.

Jennifer: Thanks.

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.

Bon Voting!

Speaking In Public, Dancing In Public

Batuku has been a consistent presence in me and Adam’s Peace Corps experience from the start. Batuku is thought to be the oldest Cape Verdean musical genre. It is performed by women seated in a semicircle, with homemade drums on their laps, and a dancer or two standing before the group. (Sometimes men participate as well.) The singing is in a call and response format. For most of the song, the dancer stands in place and shuffles her feet in time with the music. Toward the end of the song, she starts shaking her butt, while holding her upper and lower body rigidly in place. Batuku started with drumming and dance brought to the islands by continental Africans. The Portuguese government and the Catholic church tried to suppress it because it was seen as “African.” Nowadays, it’s extremely popular—most towns have a group, which is usually formed as an arm of a community association. I had heard about Batuku before I came to Cape Verde and I was very curious. I didn’t have to wait long to see it; only a couple weeks into PST I caught a performance in the Assomada town square. But truth be told, I was underwhelmed at first.

I started to gain appreciation for Batuku during homestay. Our Pre-service training required Small Enterprise Development volunteers to develop a small community project. Through a community meeting, Adam and I learned that the Batuku group wanted help improving its organizational management, with the ultimate goal of making money through performances and CD sales. Through the project, we developed friendships with the batukaderas and I saw the social significance of Batuku groups. The women invited us to their practices and to a baby shower, where I saw the music performed with passion and joy.

At the baby shower. For celebrations, people often dance to Batuku with a bottle of wine on their head… I don’t know what it means.

The group played at our dispidida (going-away party), and I very quickly learned that there is no way I can escape being ‘invited’ to da kutornu (dance). Which is fine, because Batuku is way more fun when you’re a participant, rather than a mere spectator.

This was in front of my largest audience yet, at Parents’ Day.

Don’t be mistaken. They are laughing at me, not with me. It’s a constant.

After Adam and I got to site we became acquainted with a local community association that is focused, among other areas, on growing tourism-related business in town. Adam and I had already seen that many tourists—domestic and foreign—pass through our town, but that local residents don’t benefit much from the traffic. Cape Verdeans come here to relax in the waterfalls during the rainy season, and they stop to eat and drink. The vast majority of international visitors, however, drive through town in buses to visit the National Botanic Garden as part of volta di ilha (‘round the island) tours that rapidly pass through a handful of major attractions. To me and Adam, it seemed that the tours lacked opportunities for the tourists to interact with and learn about the local culture and people. We started to think about ways that we could work with the community association.

Then we had a visit from the Batuku group from our homestay town, and a project idea fell into our laps. The group came to our town to celebrate their second anniversary. Their visit is a story unto itself, in which forty women—from schoolchildren to grandmothers—arrived in an open bed truck with all the makings of a feast, right down to the napkins and birthday cake.

Singing Happy Birthday to the group.

After eating, we walked to the botanic garden, where the women were going to see the sights and play a few songs. As we entered the garden, we saw a tourist bus loading up to depart. The tourists were intrigued by our drumming, singing, reveling parade. Their guide got excited as she realized this opportunity to explain and demonstrate the musical form of Batuku. That evening, Adam and I talked about how cool it would be if our town’s Batuku groups could earn a little money by performing at the Botanic Garden, as part of the group tour packages.

Walking to the botanic garden.

Pretty soon, we learned that Peace Corps Cape Verde would be closing, and we decided to advance the Batuku project as a secondary project. We pitched the idea to the community association president, and he linked us up with the Batuku group. We had hoped that the group members would have a central role in negotiating the project, but in the end time constraints and formalities meant that Adam and I did much of the groundwork. Adam and I consulted with them continually as the project advanced. We located an interested tourism agency, and the next step is for the association president to negotiate details.

The project got some attention recently at a tourism forum hosted by our local camara (county government). The theme of the forum was “Partnerships and Synergies for Touristic Development of [Our Town].” In the midst of feeling nostalgic about leaving, I was happy for the chance to present my and Adam’s community project publicly. Naively, I formatted a few snapshots to act as a backdrop while I spoke, and outlined important points in my notebook. As the forum opened, I realized that I was to present at the end of a program that included the National Minister of Tourism, the Director of Tourism for Santiago Island, two Master’s candidates in Tourism, and the conselho’s (county’s) head of tourism. Yikes!

In the end, it went fine. I followed my notes and stuck to simple vocabulary. There were a lot of familiar faces in the room, and despite being at the end of the program, people were smiling and engaged. In Cape Verde, questions do not follow each presentation. Instead, the speakers form a panel after all the talks are over, and audience members take turns commenting. The panelists take notes and reply with short speeches that address individual comments and synthesize themes. It’s a type of public speaking that I have no practice in doing, but… Surely you can guess where this goes? Yup, I was expected to participate in the panel, too.

My mind betrayed me during the comment period, wandering back to the first formal meetings Adam and I attended during our service. My palms used to sweat just from the pressure of introducing ourselves! I would list vocabulary words to look up later and scribble furiously to note their context, including who said what and their tone. But mostly I paid attention, recorded who said what, and how I could respond. There were a number of really interesting discussion points, but I kept it basic and stuck to a few generic sentences, considering that I was surrounded by more qualified experts.

During the lanxi (snack) after the forum, a few people congratulated me on a presentation well done, and complimented our project. I hope that the association is able to reach an agreement with the tour agencies, and that the story I presented planted an idea in someone’s mind!

Tenpu Sta Poku (Time Is Short)

Adam and I are into the final countdown in Cape Verde: we leave for Benin in less than one month.


I’m incredibly excited to see what Benin is like, what our new host community is like, what our jobs are like (we don’t know any details yet, just that we’ll be in the Community Economic Development program). This time I’m eager to learn new languages (we’ll learn French and I think also a local language). On the other hand, the reality of leaving is setting in, and I’m sad. I have pre-emptive sodadi for the people and places that I’ve come to know here: our neighbors, our friends, our routines, our mountains.

Though I’ve prohibited myself from thinking in ‘what-ifs,’ I can’t help but think that if we stayed here another year, we could apply all we have learned and that things things would get a whole lot more interesting as we moved along with our primary project. And that life in general would get a whole lot easier as we applied our experience and improved our language. A couple of things—both negative and positive—have happened in the past couple of weeks to make me sad that we’re leaving.

Adam and I went to Santo Antao on vacation last week (photos, photos, photos, photos!), and on our first day back in town we visited our elementary school to touch base with the principal and see the garden. Most of the garden was empty and that the gota gota (drip irrigation) equipment was not yet installed in some new sections. These things are understandable, and there are good reasons for them—the irrigation technician has been too busy to spend an entire day at the school, and the school staff is planning to plant everything at once once the new sections are hooked up. These are normal wrinkles, but they show me that there is a place for me and Adam on this project. The fact is, the garden project is a lot of work for the principal and teachers, and on top of that they’re trying to do new and different things. We have the time, the ideas, and the experience to help, and I’m disappointed that we can’t.

Since we got back from Santo Antao, the technician and several other community members volunteered a day to install the drip system. It’s still a work in progress due to some equipment issues, but we’re making headway.

On a happier note, we went out visiting last weekend and got to stop for a couple of hours at a particular neighbor’s house for the first time. For whatever reason, we hadn’t had the chance to stop in before, though we’ve meant to. We got to talking about some of Cape Verde’s traditional foods, and either Adam or I mentioned that we hadn’t yet tried kamoka, which is roasted, ground corn that you can eat in lots of different ways—in coffee, yogurt, with corn meal, and more. (To be honest, I lose track.) Our neighbor’s son silently stepped out and returned a few minutes later with a bag of kamoka for us to bring home (homemade from the family’s own corn). Wonderful! Next thing we know, grandmom steps out without a work and returns shortly with a bag of ovu di tera (chicken eggs from free-ranging chickens). In the space of ten minutes, Adam and I were pretty much set for the week’s breakfasts. (Since then, I’ve been given eggs at least three other times. We haven’t had serious rain for months, and all the fields are picked clean, so I guess eggs are the month of May’s fixon kongu.)

An example of the bounty. It’s really amazing how much food we are given. And how seldom we leave anyone’s house empty-handed.

This hospitality and generosity also makes me sad to leave, but in a much nicer way. Our week away in Santo Antão, including our time visiting other Volunteers’ sites, made me come home with fresh eyes. I have slowed down this past week and tried not to take anything good for granted. I’m trying to stop and chat longer, spend more time people watching in town, and visit more.

To help me remember my year here and the people I have met I’ve been collecting seeds from friends and family (and wild tomato seeds), and I’ll plant them back home in the States.

Saving tomatinho that I collected while hiking: wild mini-tomatoes—very tart and delicious.

I’m also trying to figure out how to transport my rock collection. Heh.

Rock photos are pretty, but they make lousy paperweights.

Amidst all this, I’m incredibly excited that we’ll be welcoming a group of students from North Star Academy (where Adam worked before joining Peace Corps) for a week-long visit to Cape Verde. The students will be studying food security, building a tire garden in our satellite elementary school, and learning about the culture of Cape Verde. They are top students and awesome kids, and it’s going to be a fantastic trip! Preparing for their trip has me busy, but I’ve enjoyed running around work and town to organize things. In order to plan the best trip I can, I’ve been trying to see our town through the eyes of the students and teachers who will be coming. In this way I’ve started to remember my first impressions, and I’m trying to savor things while I can.

For a long while I felt like an outsider here. Despite (perhaps because of?) the morabeza, I am still a guest. Lately, however, I recognize that I have a unique role in our community, and that people do consider me a neighbor, even if I’m a temporary one. People call dibs on the papayas from the trees in my yard. They shout for me on the way past my house to go work in their fields. They tease me about being lazy when I don’t show up for aerobics class. Casual conversation here often consists of simply guessing at where a person is going… more and more, the woman who sells candies by the chapel—who keeps track of pretty much all of my comings and goings—is getting it right about me.

It’s Bean A Good Year

Lately, Adam and I have received a whole lot of beans.

A “grocery” haul from my friend Joanna.

Most people who live in our region have non-irrigated family plots where they plant corn, beans, and squash during the rainy season (beginning in July). The harvest season here officially kicked off with Corn Eating Day on November 1st. In honor of that occasion, our neighbors began picking midju verde (fresh corn). During the couple of weeks before and after that day, we awoke to corn on our doorstep, arrived home in the evening to corn on our doorstep, helped pick corn, and ate grilled and boiled corn.

Zenia works with me, and has to walk past our house to get to one of her plots. I’ve gone to help her a couple times.

At the time, I naively thought the outpouring of corn was a unique event inspired mostly by the festa (holiday/party). That was silly.

In traditional dryland agriculture here corn is planted along with several types of beans. Each of the bean varieties ripens in turn; depending on a particular year’s rainfall, one bean or the other will perform well. This year, sapatinho failed completely, because there were too many large, consecutive storms. On the heels of corn came bongolon (black eyed pea), followed by vaj (green bean), mbonje (lima bean), and fijon kongu (pigeon pea).

Pigeon peas, before and after.

Right now, the tasty and delicious kongu verde (fresh pigeon peas) are ripe on the bushes. I’m told it’s been a good year for kongu (more or less), and believe me, our neighbors are not stingy! This is a pretty normal conversation for me to have on the street these days:

JEN: Good morning. Happy New Year! How are you?

NEIGHBOR: Happy New Year! How are you? Where is Adam?

J: I’m great. Just heading to Joanna’s. Adam is at home.

N: Do you like kongu verde?

J: Yes, they are delicious.

N: OK, I’m going to give you some. When can you come to my house to get them?

I’m exaggerating, but only slightly. These days, if I’m out and about, I often end up toting a bag of beans.

The leaves and pods of pigeon peas are sticky and they make your fingers black. If they are perfectly ripe, a little twist opens the pod neatly.

Luckily, I’m not lying when I say that these beans are delicious. I rarely, if ever, ate pigeon peas back in the States. If I did, they came from a can, and it was an experimental recipe. Cape Verdeans say that the way to cook pigeon peas is to pinta aroz (paint the rice) with them, or make a caldo (stew) of boiled kongu and sautéed meat. At our house, Adam prepared pigeon pea pesto with spaghetti. Yum. He made plenty to share.

Five or six pounds of pigeon peas, made into pesto.

If any readers out there know American recipes for pigeon peas, particularly fresh ones, please share in the comments or send me an email. People always ask if we have fijon kongu in America. I would love to tell them about a traditional American preparation.

I’ll be sad when the harvest peters out. It feels really good to know that our neighbors want to supply us with fresh, tasty produce. I’ve had a lot of fun (and learned a lot) helping with agriculture, and shelling beans is a nice way to pass time with friends. Most importantly, both of these things have given me activities to do with people, helping me to get over the hump of being acquaintances to being friends.

After an afternoon picking beans. For some reason, people think the sticky hands are hilarious.

For now, we have a little while to go until the beans are spent, and I’m anticipating the surprise of whatever crop is next.