Peace Corps Volunteers, busy as they are, usually have time to reflect on their lives in a way that we wouldn’t while living in the US. And as most of us have blogs, there’s a pressure to come up with grand statements about life and culture and giving – Peace Corps is supposed to be this huge life-changing, world view-altering experience, so we’re supposed to come to new realizations about life.
For the most part, though, I haven’t come up with anything nearly as grand as some people expect of me. Most days I’m just trying to get through the day, to correct my mistakes, and to figure out what I’m going to eat. I can’t say I suddenly realize that even with our different skin colors and cultures and socio-economic statuses that “we’re all human, so we’re all the same!” Maybe I’ll come up with a grand unified theory of life later in my service, but for now, most of my observations are just that: observations. I try not to make too many judgments about what things mean in terms of culture or anything like that because I don’t feel I’ve been here long enough to make pronouncements like that. For example, children are everywhere, and they are loved, but they are also supposed to be seen and not heard, and are treated like tiny adults for the most part. I can’t really say if that says that Beninese culture values children, or if it means they treat children similarly to Puritans, or if it means that the definition of “childhood” is different here. Or maybe it’s just that if Americans were subsistence farming we would adopt similar attitudes because it makes the most economic sense.
So in general, I’ve tried to avoid making too many judgments about life here and what it all means. But lately I’ve started to think a lot about what “friendship” means, and how the definition is different here. So all of the above is to say: take the rest of this post with a shaker full of salt. My ideas will certainly shift and evolve as my service continues, but here are the beginnings of my first grand ideas about what life is like in Benin.
For Americans, “friend” has several definitions. There’s facebook friends: people you knew at one point, maybe were close to, maybe still are, but people you may not see often. There’s acquaintances and coworkers – people you see at work or at parties, who you talk to but probably don’t share anything deeper than where you went on your last vacation or what schools your kid is looking at for college. There’s old friends, who you used to be close to but don’t see for one reason or another – perhaps you don’t have anything in common now, but the memory of your shared experiences still bonds you together. Then there’s your close friends: the ones you can tell anything. The ones you can call at 2am if you go through a breakup. The ones who would bail you out of jail. These are the friends you can share your secrets with – and it is the sharing of secrets and of experiences that makes you “friends.”
In most local languages in Benin (at least in the south), there isn’t really a word for “friend.” The word for “friend” also means “fiancée,” so when I’m in village talking about my boyfriend who I tell people here I’m engaged to, I have to clarify “friend/fiancée who I will marry.” If you use the word as “friend” it means someone so close to you that you have likely taken a blood oath of eternal friendship. For most Beninese instead of “friend” they say “brother” or “sister.” (Note: this can get confusing, since they don’t have a word for “cousin” either – when someone says “brother” they could mean actual brother, child of your father’s other wife, cousin, or friend).
Another way to signal friendship is when you are about to break apart from shaking hands, you snap middle fingers together, which I haven’t quite got the hang of yet. This is not to be confused with the “dirty finger,” the tickling of the palm of someone you want to sleep with.
Etymology aside, the definition of friendship is different here, or at least it is for most Volunteers living here. Friendship is based on spending time with someone, not necessarily on what is said or done during that time. You can sit with someone an entire afternoon and not say much (especially if you don’t share much of any mutual languages, such as when people only speak Goun, or worse for me, only Nagot or Tori or Yoruba), but it would still be considered spending quality time with a friend. Sharing food is also an important part of friendship. Here, you do not need to be able to have deep conversations with people in order to become friends. You simply need to take the time to sit with them.
This is both a wonderful thing and a disheartening thing for me. It is great because it means I can become friends with someone even if we can’t say much to each other. But it is disheartening, because I still have trouble sharing my feelings with friends here. Partially I’m still so concerned with integrating that I don’t want to talk about non-Beninese things, or don’t want to talk about feelings when Beninese don’t generally share them with friends. But sharing fears and emotions is simply not a part of the definition of friendship here, or at least not as far as I have seen. For that I have other American friends here, or letters or phone calls home.
I’m sure my definition of friendship here will evolve over time.
Perhaps I will find someone here my age with whom I can share my thoughts and emotions. But in the meantime, I will be doing a lot of sitting, and a lot of smiling.