January 10 is National Voodoo Day in Benin. I got the impression that it was a somewhat arbitrary decision to put it on that particular day, rather that the powers that be (the bureaucrats) wanted a national holiday off to celebrate Vodun. Regardless of its origins, Voodoo Day is a celebration of the Vodun religion in its entirety. Some areas don’t celebrate it at all, while some go all out.

This year, my postmate Maeghan told us that “Voodoo Man” invited the PCVs of our region to fête with him. Voodoo Man, whose real name is Donation, was a close friend of a previous Volunteer, and is also the Secretary of the Vodun religion for Akpo-Missrete, similar to a county. On Voodoo Day, I met another Volunteer at a hotel bar and walked towards Voodoo Man’s house, to which we had somewhat patchy directions. We clearly looked lost, or maybe we just looked white, but some men stopped us to ask if we needed help. When we said where we were going, the man with a motorbike said “I know him! Get on!” In America I would never accept a ride from a stranger, but here it’s normal, for better or worse. He brought us to Voodoo Man’s house, which doubles as a buvette.

Eventually several bigwigs in Vodun came to his house too, and we got on motos, the other Volunteer and I having no idea what was about to happen. All I knew at that point was that Voodoo Man told me to hold his folder, then we were off!

It turned out we went to someone’s house to greet people and watch some of the televised ceremony that was happening in Ouidah, an important city in Vodun. Of course Zoe (the other Volunteer) and I were the only yovos, and the only women invited inside, and of course there was a man with a video camera and a still camera. The video camera captured everything, including long shots of Zoe and myself looking confused and sitting on a couch. Because every good piece of Beninese journalism must include shots of important people sitting and watching the proceedings of whatever ceremony is happening.

After a while we all left and went to the Missrete mayor’s office, which has a large park in front of it, featuring a statue of the outline of Benin. For the day’s festivities, they had set up two large tents, one with a stage and chairs. Voodoo Man seated us on the stage toward the back, where we were able to see most of the proceedings.

If you are ever invited to a Vodun ceremony, there are a few tips you should be aware of. First, always ask if you can take pictures. It’s likely that if you were invited you can take pictures, but some sects or ceremonies are forbidden to outsiders. Second, never ever hint that you might not believe what they are showing you. For example, if you see what looks like a man in a costume, and you are told it is actually a spirit and not a person, you should never say you think it’s actually a man in a costume. This is a bit like spitting on a cross in a cathedral, and will also invite hours of words and actions from everyone involved to try to convince you that you are wrong. Third, when people come up to you while dancing in a costume, if others are putting money on their heads, it is customary to give a few CFA as well, but it doesn’t need to be a lot.

The first few hours there were hundreds of people milling around, most of them in tissue. Zoe and I had worried about dressing formally enough, but we realized that most of the women appeared to be dressed only in bras and pagnes (wrap skirts/dresses that are just giant squares of cloth). Next year we’ll be better prepared. During the first few hours, there were several zangbetos.

Zangbetos are what appear to be dancing haystacks. They are inhabited by spirits. Sometimes you will see a zangbeto go down the street, attended by drummers and musicians and singers and people following for the spectacle. Later in the day they presented the Zangbetos. The point of this is to demonstrate, especially to foreigners, that there isn’t a person under the haystack costume. The zangbeto dances, then stops, and his (her?) helpers remove the top layer. Then more dancing. Then they remove the next layer, and so on until there is nothing left. Often they will also place an item or an animal under the zangbeto before starting this part of the ceremony, and when they get to the last layer, there will be another animal or item, demonstrating that the zangbeto spirit has changed itself into the new item or animal, such as from a pot to a pigeon or dove.

I can try to describe the rest of the day, but to be honest I was often very confused. I don’t know nearly as much as I want to about Vodun, and there wasn’t really anyone to explain to Zoe and me what was going on or why. There was the traditional healer in a skirt made of lots of pagnes tied together. The king of the Tori people was watching from the front row. There were men in costumes with feathers on the shoulder. There were singers, dancers, women with pots on their heads. There were speeches. There was a man (or possibly a fetiche) with a “costume” made of ties. There were gendarmes to keep order. I have some great pictures, some of which I’ll share, but for now I don’t have much of an explanation to go with them. The important people put money on the foreheads of some of the performers.

But I know Voodoo Man now, so I hope to learn. Maybe he can even tell me about Oro. Until then, Voodoo Day is a wonderful, confusing pageant. Like much of my life here.



Each week, each subject meets for a department meeting called AP, or “Animation Pédagogique.” Topics are supposed to be about the school and the subject, so for English we should normally discuss grammar, pronunciation, test creation, how to do a reading activity, how to prepare your files so the school inspector won’t fire you (hint: the file is almost more important than your lesson, unless you are a yovo teacher). But as with much in my life in this country, things get sidetracked.

Typically sidetracked means we talk about how much the other teachers are or aren’t paid, or gossip about colleagues, or complain about the school administration, or once we (they) made plans for opening a private school. One day, however, we somehow got onto the topic of sex and how to get a woman pregnant with a boy baby.

The scene opens in the classroom I typically teach in: crumbling cinderblock (cinderblock here meaning bricks made of sand, cemented together), tin roof, mostly open on two sides, and benches with desks attached set up in seven groups. I am there with five other English teachers, all male. For whatever reason, I show a photo of my boyfriend (fiancée, to people in village) and my family.

To understand this story, you need to know a few things. First, I have two younger sisters. Second, the Volunteer I replaced also had two sisters, no brothers. Third, and if you haven’t guessed this you probably haven’t read anything else I’ve ever written about Benin, the culture here is extremely patriarchal. More on that in a minute.

Cut to me with a photo of my family. One teacher says “Hmm, I think Americans like daughters. Melissa also had two sisters. Americans must like having daughters.” Not caring to get into a discussion on the birds and the bees (if I only knew what I was about to get into), I said something along the lines of “it wasn’t up to my parents, it was God that chose it.” I think I hoped that this would start a conversation about religion, which I usually stay away from here but I thought was better than a talk about sex.

This very quickly becomes a discussion on how you can get your wife/girlfriend/girl-you-randomly-meet (and want to have sex with because it’s your right as a man) pregnant with a boy. Possibilities, according to the English department at CEG Daagbe: certain sexual positions (I neglected to ask which ones); certain days in a woman’s cycle, though nobody could agree which ones it was, but “it’s science”; certain foods you can eat, which again nobody could agree upon.

Somewhere else in the conversation, a teacher remarked that “Melissa though it was strange that men here can have more than one wife but women can’t have more than one husband. Do you think that too?” Wanting to stick up for women everywhere, I said “of course! It’s not fair! If men can be polygamous, women should be able to too,” to which the only response by all five teachers was raucous laughter.

At some point I also found myself trying to explain cheating in America. The point I was hoping to get across is that while it’s not unheard of for American men to cheat on their wives, nobody a) has a second wife, or b) if they do have another woman, it’s considered something shameful. I tried to leave out Wilt Chamberlain, rap lyrics, and the myriad of instances that demonstrate that America doesn’t quite have it’s stuff together on this front.

At this point I need to take a quick detour to rant about the French language. Two of my biggest frustrations with this language are first, that there is no word for “creepy” because the French don’t think anything is creepy, so I am unable to describe men as “creepy.” Second, the word for “wife” and for “woman” is the same: femme. Just let that sink in for a second. They are literally the same word. This meant my attempt to describe cheating in America was somewhat ambiguous if I was actually talking about cheating by taking a second wife, or by having a woman on the side.

My attempts to explain that cheating in America is frowned upon fell on deaf ears. The idea that men might be ashamed of anything, let alone of having a second woman, is like saying that sheep fly. It just doesn’t make sense.

This particular AP meeting, while somewhat uncomfortable, is not at all unusual. In one of my first weeks at my post, the accountant at my school was hitting on me. While he does this all the time, this particular day we got in a conversation about being “serious.” In Beninese French, if you say someone is “serious” it typically means that they are faithful to their partner. To tone down his advances, I showed him a photo of my boyfriend, and said “I am serious.” “No,” he said. “That is not possible. Nobody is serious but God.”

Another example of how nobody here is “serious” happened a few weeks ago, under a mango tree. I was sitting with some women, most of whom didn’t speak any French. When this happens, I bring out my photos, because I know how to say basic things about my family in Goun. They saw the photo of Daniel, and I was asked by the one French speaker “what if he finds another woman/wife?” which most Beninese ask me. I explained that “I am serious, and so is he.” The woman translated in local language for the others, but used the French word “serieux” – there isn’t an equivalent in the local language. The concept of a man being faithful doesn’t exist in the language.

All this means that I’ve got my work cut out for me if I want to encourage women’s rights, and to help girls gain confidence. When it’s assumed that it isn’t possible for men to be faithful, not only do you have health problems, but you have girls who don’t realize that they can say “no.” This is one instance where I actually want to change the culture rather than just adapt to it. This won’t be the last time I blog about women’s rights, because my frustrations, my work, my successes and failures and my understanding of the issues are just beginning.


On February 9, 2013, I ran a half marathon. Kind of on a whim.

Ok, so it wasn’t completely last minute. A religious order (St. Francis de Sales) in Parakou holds a marathon every year, as well as a half marathon, 10k, and a 5k intended for children. This was the 6th annual marathon by the group, which was sponsored by many companies and groups including Bank of Africa, the municipality of Parakou, and Danone (the French name for Dannon). In fact, several PCVs were involved in publicizing the marathon – the week before, one went on national TV to talk about the importance of sports to women and women’s health.

Quick detour before getting to the story of how I tripped across the finish line: during the interview, the Volunteer was asked if men should allow their wives to participate in sports. This was a serious question. Her answer was that it’s a great way for men to exercise with their partners and it fosters health and togetherness for both. Discussing this later with other PCVs, we determined two things. First, that this particular Volunteer should be a diplomat. Second, that the only better answer in terms of encouraging women’s participation in sports would have been to say that exercising helps with fertility.

I had been intending to do the half several months ago, but “training” (re: me running maybe once a week) wasn’t going well so I decided to downgrade to the 10k. Fast forward to the weekend of the marathon. I’m on my way to Parakou, in what was supposed to be a bus but ended up being a tro-tro, or mini-bus/large van, which is one of the more uncomfortable ways to spend 8 hours. With me are three other Volunteers from my region who are going to run as well – except that one had injured her ankle a few days prior and could no longer run the half marathon she had already signed up for. Since we were in a tro-tro and not a bus, we were worried about making it in time for the 5pm deadline to pay. It ended up that I didn’t pay for the 10k I had signed up for, but injured Jen allowed me to run under her spot.

Only problem was, she was signed up for the half. I probably could have gone that evening, or possibly the next morning, and either paid for my spot in the 10k, or asked to downgrade Jen to the 10k, but that seemed like an awful lot of work. Thus, I may have become the first person in history to run a half marathon out of laziness.

The next morning, the marathoners got started at 6am, meaning they left at about 4am. As a side note, I am immensely proud of all the marathoners, all of whom (from the PC contingent at least) finished, some with excellent times. After sleeping on a love seat, I woke at 5 and the other half marathoners and I left for the starting line. There were what seemed like a thousand kids, as well as some adults, and a few other Yovos. We got our tshirts and numbers and waited along the road for the marathoners to pass. Eventually they passed us and somehow everyone lined up, and suddenly, with no warning, people started running.

The beginning was chaos – with so many kids running (with no supervision, obviously, this is Benin), there was lots of pushing, and kids falling, and stampeding. After a kilometer though, the half marathon split off from the 10k and 5k, and suddenly I was gloriously, frighteningly alone.

Most of the course was paved, though some was hard-packed terre rouge (red dirt), and in a few places the sand was thick like a beach. At about 5 places throughout the course there were people handing out orange slices, water bottles or sachets, cookies, or other goodies. Occasionally there were also traditional dancers to encourage the runners. Mostly, though, we were on our own, on city streets sometimes deserted and sometimes clogged with traffic.

Throughout the 21 kilometers, or 13.1 miles, I: got a nosebleed, which a medic truck later gave me tissue for; peed in a field; threw up; considered giving up and going to the buvette instead; chafed till I bled; considered giving up for real; yelled at a zemidjan that got too close; had a long internal monologue about the strangeness of listening to Van Halen’s “Jump” while running in Benin; and made friends with an old Beninese man and a 30-something (I think) Beninese woman.

My two friends and I finished the last 5k together. Every once in a while, one of us would say “On y va?” (“let’s go?”) and we would push ourselves to run until one of us had to stop. I ran the last third of a kilometer, pushing with every last drop of energy and willpower I had, straining… until I cramped literally at the finish line. I crashed into one of the timers, who was nice enough to catch me. Though I finished shortly after the 2.5 hour time limit, they still gave me a participation medal, which I am inordinately proud of.

Crossing that finish line was such an amazing feeling that I can’t wait to share with the girls of my school. Because I decided somewhere around kilometer 14 that I’m coming back next year, to run it with actual training. And I’m bringing girls from my school for the 10k – I want to show them, and the boys, and everyone that girls can “faire du sport” too. I want them to get a medal for crossing a finish line they didn’t think they could cross.