Definitions of Friendship

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.





Election Day Conversations

Before the Presidential election, a Republican-leaning Peace Corps Volunteer confided to a group of other PCVs that he hoped Obama would win “because I don’t want to be in West Africa if Obama loses.”

Thankfully for him, President Obama will retain his position as the second most recognized American in Africa (the first being Akon).

I have written already in a letter to my family about the number of different Obama-related merchandise available here, but in case that part didn’t make it on the blog, here’s a quick rundown: Obama Beer (not delicious), Obama underwear (I’ve seen many children wearing Obama briefs, but have yet to confirm the existence of adult sizes), Obama cookies, and what appears to be either a Nigerian or Chinese women’s clothing manufacturer with a penchant for putting “Obama” on the chest or rear end of women and girls. This is in addition to the shirts that actually mention who Obama is, such as my neighbor who has a shirt with a picture of Obama and the words “President of United State of America.” Yes, just the one state. My host family in Porto-Novo also had a poster of him that hung in the bathroom. It was oddly comforting to know our President was watching over me, but just odd that it was in the shower and bathroom.

I mention all this to demonstrate how popular he is here, though some people don’t connect him with the President of the United States. My neighbor with the shirt, for example, just looked confused when I pointed to the shirt and said “that’s my President.” “Oh is he a real person?” she replied. There is also a lot of confusion here over whether or not he is American. People know he’s African, some even know tha his father was Kenyan, but some Beninese have a hard time understanding that he is an American citizen too – insert joke about “birther” movement here. Rather than being a conspiracy theory though, this stems more from the beliefs about ethnicity and bloodlines. If you are from a certain ethnicity, you are first a member of your ethnic group and then a citizen of your country. If your father was of one group, you are of that group too. In Benin, your ethnicity is an integral part of your identity, and your ethnicity comes from your father. They cannot imagine that Barack Obama doesn’t see himself as primarily Kenyan.

But ethnicity and citizenship are not the only interesting conversation topics concerning the re-elected President I’ve had in Benin. During the election, I had many conversations with the other teachers at my school about the election, who was winning, why Ohio was important, and whether or not white people actually voted for a black man. The accountant/treasurer of the school told me he supported Romney because “Obama didn’t give enough aid to Africa.” I almost didn’t have the heart to tell him that under a Romney presidency Benin would likely see a decrease in direct foreign aid. People were also constantly amazed that there were policy reasons Americans might not support Obama – mostly they assumed that it was racism.

The day of the election, many PCVs went to workstations, or to the American Cultural Center in Cotonou to watch the returns. Since it wouldn’t be called until at least 5am and I have a 9am class on Wednesdays, I stayed in Daagbe, though with strict instructions to my boyfriend to call me with updates after most of the East Coast closed polls, after Ohio/Florida/Wisconsin/Colorado got called, or whenever there were important updates. This resulted in calls to me at 11pm, midnight, 3am, 5am and 6:15am when Romney made his concession speech.

All of this was worth the loss of sleep.

The morning following the election, many Beninese friends, coworkers and acquaintances congratulated me. I was relieved because it means I can continue to describe where I’m from as “near Chez Obama.” It also gave me something to use as a warm-up in class: “What country is Madame from?” (answers ranged from Togo to France to blank stares until I told them – for the fourth time). “Who is the president of America?” When I explained (in French) that Obama had won re-election, my students started cheering and chanting “Obama!” It was easily the most excited they’ve been to start class, which makes me think I may need to spice up my lesson plans a little. My neighbor also celebrated with me by showing me the recording he had saved on his computer of the2009 Inauguration Speech, which he played for me (in English without French dubbed over!) as his way of celebrating.

The results of the election also resulted in some interesting conversations about women in politics. Many Beninese told me that Obama won because of Michelle, which I was in no position to deny. A few teachers then began a conversation about politicians’ wives, and how they can make or break a politician’s career. I asked what they thought of having a woman as president, and threw out the example of a female African head of state, Ellen Sirleaf-Johnson. One teacher looked pensive and said “well, it would be difficult, but that might not be a bad idea. Women aren’t susceptible to corruption. If a man is offered a bribe, he’ll take it, but a woman might think twice.” I was so happy he didn’t dismiss the idea of a woman president that I didn’t bother correcting him that women can be just as greedy as men.

Now that the election is over, I will have fewer interesting conversations about my togan– the Goun word for President of a country (loosely translated it’s big chief, but is a word only used for a head of state). But I don’t expect that the conversations will stop.

There’s always interest in the first African President of the United States, whether he’s signing something with the number 666 (as reported in a Nigerian paper, which means my neighbor thinks he’s an agent of Satan) or just continuing to unwittingly lend his name to sparkly women’s clothing. Agree or disagree with his politics, having Obama as my President makes for interesting conversations here in Benin.


Short Stories from Benin

There are many things that happen here that I’d like to share, but that don’t fit readily into a blog post. So forgive the scattered nature of this post, but here is a random assortment of stories and observations from my life in Daagbe.


–              One day I was showing the petites in my concession my photo album.

One of them knew French and was translating for the others into Yoruba, a language of which I know a grand total of zero words. I got to a photo of my two sisters, Anne and Amy, and me taken at the top of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. You can see the Eiffel tower in the background. The petites took one look at it and said: “oh that’s Gbozoume. That’s definitely Gbozoume.” For reference, Gbozoume is a village just to the south of me, where my postmateMaeghan lives. While it may be on the main road, whereas Daagbe is not, it is in no way the Paris of theOueme-Plateau region.


–              Whenever I go to the market on market days, I have a “student” there

who helps me discouter. She is the cousin of my host family from village, and speaks no French. She is interested to learn English, however, and always greets me in very excited English. She can also count to ten, though she gets confused around six or seven. But she makes up for it when she gets to ten by shouting “TeNN-Y!”. While I can’t always explain to her what I’m looking for in the marche, since I don’t know the Goun for “insecticide for the house” or “bleach,” we get by with pointing and motions and occasional help from passers-by.

–              Food: I’ve been cooking dinners for myself for the most part, since

people don’t eat dinner until way after dark and I like to be inside by then. I often make pasta, either with tomato sauce with cooked greens when I feel I need some iron in my diet, or peanut curry sauce, sometimes with a hardboiled egg for protein. I also make a good dish with sweet potatoes, which have a starchier and more solid consistency here so you can treat them almost exactly like potatoes. I “roast” the sweet potatoes by putting them in a frying pan and putting a pot lid on top of it. If I get pork I like to throw that in too, though pork is a little too expensive to eat every day. It costs 500fcfa (about a dollar) for enough for one person. As for lunch, I generally get beans and rice, or beans and gari, a yam flour, at my school or the primary school across from my house. And when it comes to breakfast, I must have (instant) coffee with my oatmeal or bread or beans. Business school didn’t get me addicted to coffee but Africa did.

–              Going to Cotonou: When I want to get to the workstation/the Peace

Corps office in Cotonou,  there are a few steps to take. First, you have to reserve a spot in the workstation bunk beds ahead of time, unless you’re staying in the medical unit. Assuming you reserved your spot (always always call to confirm – ask me how I know that not calling is a mistake), on the day you want to leave Daagbe, you walk or take a zem or catch a ride from a nice stranger to the main road in Ketoukpe. Catching a ride from a stranger is much less scary than in the US. Once at the main road you wait for a taxi that isn’t too full.

How will you recognize a taxi? It will likely be a broken-down-to-the-point-of –collapsing Pugeut, full of people who don’t look like family. Or it will be a minibus “tro-tro”. You flag it down by putting your hand out and waving it. Then you discouter the price. It will be much easier if you can discouter or at least open negotiations in Goun/Fon. The taxi will then take you to Dantokpa market, the largest in Benin. When you get out there, zems may recognize your white skin + helmet which means you are a Peace Corps Volunteer, and will take you to the Peace Corps office. And thus, for about 2 hours of your time (if the taxi didn’t break down or get stopped by police to pay bribes) and about $3, you made it to the Cotonou workstation, and their glorious internet, eSPN, and hot showers!

–              Reactions for children in Daagbe, on seeing me: “Yovo! Yovo!”

“Aaaaahhh!!! [i.e. dear God what is that monster???]” “Melissa!” (the name of the Volunteer I replaced), “Melissia!” “Katherine!” “Kat-ay!” “Madame!” “Bon SOIR! Bon SOIR!” “Give me money!” “Give me your bike!” “[something in a language I don’t understand]” “Where are you going?” “pick me up by my ears!” (note – this last one is for the kids in my concession and whose mothers sell things outside my house. I pick them up under their arms, but it looks like they’re hanging by their ears. This is endlessly amusing to them).

–              Songs I have heard on my neighbors’ radios: “Waterfalls” by TLC,

“the Macarena,” opera, Contemporary Christian (in English), anything by Lil Wayne, “Let’s Get It On” (heard on a Sunday morning), a Spanish song everyone here is obsessed with but one nobody understands because nobody knows Spanish, lots of traditional songs, lots of salsa/merengue, Celine Dion, “No Scrubs” by Destiny’s Child, “Chop My Money” (question: has this song made it to the US? Is it from the US?Because I think drunk club-goers in the States would appreciate it), anything by Akon, “Billie Jean.”