A Bit More on Oro

“You know, in August the fetiche will come out. You’ll have to leave or hide.” Thus, in March, came my first official warning that later in the year Oro will come out.

As my mother wrote in this blog (thanks Mom!), Oro is a fetiche unique to the Oueme-Plateau region of Benin. Oro comes out typically in August or early September, and cannot be seen by women, or men who are not part of the cult. The severity of Oro depends on the village – I have friends who have to stay inside many days during August, September, and October, and any time a member of the cult dies. In Daagbe, Oro comes out during a two week period. During this time, women cannot go out at night. There are also three days when women and non-cult men cannot go out of their homes. If you see Oro and are woman, you will be killed. If you are a man, and they don’t kill you, you will have to join the cult. Oro is also the reason that early August is fence-repairing season around here – you need a strong fence to keep it out. When Oro is out, there is an eerie whistling sound, somewhat like a siren, that you can hear when Oro and the cult members approach.

I have heard many things about Oro. That it starts down here and chases out the bad spirits, and works its way up north, chasing spirits as it goes. As the spirits go there are more and more of them, which is why Oro is more severe north of here. That it is a way for men to take back power from women in Vodun because there are many powerful women priestesses in this region (I have seen no evidence of this one). That it’s just a bunch of drunk men with machetes, which doesn’t make it any less dangerous.

I recently spoke to Voodoo Man, my Vodun priest friend. Apparently, he is the chief of the Oro sect for his village/region. He said the Oro is a jealous woman, which is why women can’t see Oro. “Because there is nothing more dangerous in this world than a jealous woman.”

So there you have it. Mystery solved. Oro is a character from a soap opera. Except that here, jealousy is no laughing matter. In fact, it is a matter of life and death. So while it may seem strange to me, I will not be going out when Oro comes because I’d rather not take chances.

Besides, as I told my neighbor who warned me about Oro in March, “staying in my house all day doesn’t seem too bad, if I know when it is and can buy food ahead of time.”

“Yeah, but you don’t have to be stuck in a small, two-room house with a two-year-old, four-year-old, and eight-year-old,” she replied. Touché, neighbor. Touché.

Anecdotes on Religion

I don’t have official statistics, but Benin has to be one of the most religious countries in the world. It is basically impossible for Beninese to conceive of a person who doesn’t have a religion. In fact, most people hold multiple sets of beliefs, typically some sort of Christian, or Muslim, combined with a usually unspoken but simultaneous belief in Voodoo. While I am a Christian, I do not feel comfortable attending services regularly here, for several reasons. One reason is that traditional Beninese music does not use the Western musical scale, so when villagers try to sing hymns they are painfully out of tune if you are listening with Western ears. Also religious services last a long time, and I felt I got my cultural fill of them during the three months of training where I attended Catholic mass at 7am, in local language. Because I don’t go to church several times a week or even regularly on Sundays, I get many questions about my beliefs.

For example, like all schools, we have a flag-raising ceremony on most Monday mornings. Unlike other schools (according to other teacher PCVs) we always have at least two (Catholic) prayers at the end of the ceremony. The director has also recently added a Muslim recitation of part of the Koran, and had students who laughed at it beaten in front of everyone. This made me hopeful for the future of religious tolerance, if not for the future of avoiding child abuse. Anyway, at the end of the year, the school collected money from all the students and organized a Muslim prayer with the local imam, and a Catholic mass at the school. I was apparently expected to attend along with other teachers. When I stayed at home doing laundry instead, I was asked why I didn’t go. The conversation went something like the following.
Neighbor/Teacher: “ You didn’t go to the mass today.”
Me: “No. I’m not Catholic.”
Neighbor/Teacher: “That’s not a good reason.”
everyone here attends religious services of some sort. Apparently not being a member of the religion isn’t a good enough reason to skip.

Benin is a fatalistic society. What comes will come, and there is no escaping your fate. Incidentally, this is one of the most frustrating aspects of Beninese culture for a PCV, because the idea of entrepreneurship, or trying new ideas to help lift yourself and your family out of poverty, is at odds with a culture of acceptance of fate. With a fatalistic outlook, it is also assumed that there is a greater power directing that fate. Whether it’s God, Allah, Jesus, Segbo-Lissa (one of the most powerful Voodoo fetiches), or Oro, someone is in control.

Typically when asked why I don’t attend church, I will give part or all of the truth: that my church doesn’t exist here in Benin, so I prefer to pray by myself. You can’t go anywhere in my village without tripping over a church of one sect or another, so the idea that there’s a church somewhere that doesn’t have a branch in Benin is astonishing for many people. If I’m feeling combative, or if I want to provoke a discussion, I continue with why I don’t feel comfortable in Beninese churches: my church (a Congregational Church, part of the United Church of Christ or UCC) believes it’s ok to be gay. We march IN the gay pride parade, not against it.

The reactions to this information range from “Oh. Well, we don’t believe in that here,” to engaging me on points of religion and morality and trying to convince me that homosexuality is evil. Most of these arguments are oddly along the same lines that were argued recently in the US Supreme Court against Prop 8/DOMA, namely that gay people can’t have kids and everyone has to have kids. Unlike in the Supreme Court, I can’t point out that there are lots of people who get married who don’t want kids, because that idea makes even less sense to Beninese than letting gay people get married. You have to have kids, that is the reason everyone is alive, goes the reasoning here.

My adventures with religion in West Africa will continue, so this probably won’t be the last you hear of it from me. After all, faith is all around me, it’s unavoidable that I will learn more, engage more, listen more.

Anatomy of a Beninese Fete

Anatomy of a Beninese Fete

Here in Southern Benin, people like to fête. (Note: fête means “party” in French, and when used in Franglais, can be a noun or a verb). Typically, a fete is for a big holiday such as New Year’s, or a funeral or the anniversary of a funeral. It is somewhat unusual to fete for a person who is still living. While obviously all fetes are different, there are some common threads in all fetes.

1. Tents – all decent fetes involve large party tents, with plastic chairs under them. For bigger fetes there may be eight or ten tents, or more. For a big funeral fete, there may be a tent for each child or grandchild of the deceased. When choosing a tent to sit under, you must sit under one with people you know, though those people may leave you alone.

2. MUSIC MUSIC LOUD HURT EARS MUSIC – All Beninese fetes involve music. LOUD music. Typically each tent has at least one set of speakers about six to seven feet high, and a DJ with microphone. Music is typically traditional or Afro-Cuban, particularly for funerals or anniversaries of funerals, but may also include modern African music (recipe: take one part American hip-hop, add one part African beat, douse with Autotune). The DJ and his microphone will also spend time greeting people who walk into the tent, sometimes by name and sometimes by skin color if you look like me. The purpose of this appears to be to let people know when a yovo has entered the tent, and to make important people feel important. At large fetes with multiple tents, each tent has its own speakers and DJ, blasting different music. One upside of the volume is that if you are lost, you can always find a fete from a mile away.

3. Food – All fetes have lots and lots of food. Typically once you sit down, a woman will come around with a plate of food and will serve you. In my region, there is often at least one pork dish, unless it’s a Muslim fete. Once you finish the first plate of food, someone will likely come around with a second plate. And then a third. And then a fourth. None of these plates are of appetizer portions – they are functionally entire meals. This presents a problem for Americans who don’t have the Beninese “second stomach” (I believe all Beninese secretly have a second stomach that is only used at fetes, otherwise there is no logical explanation as to how they are all able to eat so much). The trick is to balance your ability to eat till you throw up with not offending your hosts by refusing food.
If you are a woman and are asked to help serve, that is a signal you are a part of the family. If you do this, and are an American, be aware that people may laugh good-naturedly at you when you try to serve akassa from banana leaves and have a hard time unwrapping them.

4. Drinks – at all fetes except Muslim ones, there is beer. Lots of beer. But also lots of sodas. At most fetes, when you sit down, someone will place five or six drinks in front of each person, beer and soda. It is not uncommon to walk by a fete and see a table with three people and sixteen bottles on the table. In my village, offering 7-Up and Mountain Dew is a way to show that you are well off, since they are only available in Nigeria, so serving them means you have a connection and the means to smuggle it in. At some fetes it is also common to see people offer sodabi, the palm liquor that is popular here. Sodabi is often homemade, so it is important to know and trust the person offering to be sure that it is real sodabi and not fake sodabi with formaldehyde to give it that “real sodabi taste” (I wish I was kidding). It is perfectly normal for women to drink at fetes, but it is also easier as a woman to turn down alcoholic drinks if you wish to do so without offending whoever is offering.

5. Même Tish – Même tissue, or “same fabric,” is an important way to show solidarity at a fete. Families will often wear the same tissue, which makes them easy to identify as members of the fete. Even if you are not wearing the same tissue, it is important to dress well for the fete. Women should wear boombas (tissue shirt with matching pagne), or fancy-style modeles, typically also with headdress. Men should wear bombas (tissue shirt with matching pants), and to be extra fancy, can add a hat. Western clothing should only be worn if you are an annoying 17-25 year old man, or if a group of you have had fancy polo shirts printed with the date and the name of the fete.

6. Sitting – there is lots of sitting. There may or may not also be talking, depending on how close your seat is to the speakers. There may occasionally be dancing, particularly later in the fete. But mostly there will be sitting.

7. Entertainment – there will not be much in the way of entertainment, unless the deceased was an important person in Vodun, or it is a Vodun holiday, in which case there may be fetiche dancers or zangbetos (dancing haystack spirits). If it is an official ceremony of some kind (for example, the labor day fete organized by my school for teachers and admin), there will be long speeches by all of the “grands” or important people, and all speeches will begin with thanking each of them individually. In fact, a fun drinking game to play is to drink every time you hear the phrase “Cheres collegues,” or dear colleagues.

In general, a good way to prepare for a fete is to be ready to sit, eat, drink, and have your ears go temporarily deaf. And to be ready to enjoy being with Beninese friends and cheres collegues.

Market Day

There is no real market in my village, though there are a few places where vendors gather occasionally. To go to the market, I must go to the next village over, Ketoukpe (Kay-touk-pay). In Beninese Market Day Counting, the Ketoukpe market is every five days, but in normal counting, it’s every four days. I don’t always need to go to the market since there are various houses I know in village whose inhabitants sell various food items. But when I do go to the market, it’s always an experience.

First, I have to leave my house. This can be a challenge if it’s during the hot hours of the day (Ok, so all of the hours of the day are hot, but especially noon to three) and the electricity is working, since I have developed an emotional attachment to my fan. When leaving I must bring a somewhat empty bag, sunscreen, and some money.

Upon leaving my house, I have to tell my neighbors where I’m going. Then I have to tell my friends who sell things outside my concession. I have to first greet all of them, then explain that I am going to the market. Then I usually have to find a way to respond to the “bring us presents!” requests. These requests are not unusual, and not only because I am a rich yovo.

It is common in Beninese culture for anyone who leaves the village to bring “agban kan,” or “gifts from a traveler.” Typically it is something small, such as cookies or sugar cane, but if one is traveling far they may be expected to bring things one can’t normally find in village, “les bonnes choses,” or “the good things.” Usually I turn it into a joke when people ask what I’ve brought them – “I brought you good luck!” Occasionally though, I do bring back agban kan, because people are always happy to get a present, and it’s a good way to cement relationships.

Once I leave the immediate area of my concession, I start walking toward the market. On my way I will pass: many children who sometimes know my name and wave; several stands selling gasoline from Nigeria; two buvettes; several fields of palm trees, cassava, corn, and beans; a Catholic church; many palm trees that are now home to Village Weaver birds who are bright yellow and chatter constantly; two public water pumps that often have women and children gathered for water; a tailor’s shop that I no longer frequent because the work was expensive and not well done (but you aren’t allowed to say that because it would be rude to point out to a businessperson why you don’t frequent his or her business, so now it’s awkward and I have to pretend I will come there soon); a mosque; a large trash pile; many people who call out “yovo!” or “Melissa!” or occasionally “Katherine!” or “Madame!”; a new friend who sells fried food.

This walk takes about ten to fifteen minutes. As I approach the market, the noise increases, particularly if it’s market day. There are people selling all sorts of things in covered stalls or sometimes just on trays set on the ground. There are your typical Beninese foodstuffs: tomatoes, onions, garlic, ginger, green leafy vegetables, yams, hot peppers. There are people selling macaroni, margarine, soap, eggs, tomato paste, bread. There are used clothing sellers, plastic flip flop sellers, smoked fish sellers, dried beans and rice sellers, fruit sellers. There are chicken sellers, and occasionally someone selling puppies or kittens. There are people selling prepared food like rice or beans, people selling cold drinks like water or bissap, which I think comes from hibiscus flowers. There are people selling medicine and toothpaste, pens and notebooks, toilet paper and bug spray.

There are also a few Vodun stalls – stalls selling things for traditional voodoo healing. These have all sorts of barks, dried and fresh plants, clay pots, shells, and other things I can’t identify but plan to ask about. Occasionally you can also see dead animals at these stalls, though Ketoukpe is too small to have the dried monkeys that you can see at big markets.

I have a few sellers that I’ve gotten to know and that I like to support. I also have my “student” who sells dried corn. I’ve written about her before, she’s the cousin of my host family in village and while my Gun remains woefully poor and she speaks no French she likes to help me bargain. If I have time I’ll also often get a pedicure from one of the pedicure ladies near my student’s stall. Sometime during my trip to the market I also make time to stop by to greet the money change ladies, who exchange CFA for Nigerian naira. While speaking to them, I also make sure to glare at the zem drivers who hang out by the money changers because they are mean and overcharge so I refuse to use them.

When I’m done with my purchases, I start making my way back home. Sometimes, if I have my moto helmet with me, I can find a free ride part or all the way back. Whether I walk or take a moto, one thing is still the same: I must greet everyone I see, especially if I know them, or if they think they know me. When I eventually make it back home, I am greeted by my friends and neighbors and any children from the primary school who see me. It’s like having a welcoming committee every time I go to the grocery store.