This one time, I got purple braids… I kept this in for about two weeks.
It’s difficult to write about religion, especially when it’s not your religion. Even more so when it’s a religion that most of your readers know nothing about. How do you explain, how do you illustrate, how do you convey a belief system that is not your own, and that your readers may belittle. I want to discuss Vodun (Voodoo) as it is practiced and as I experience it here in Benin. But I’m worried that doing in doing so, people who read this will see the Beninese as superstitious, backwards, or unintelligent. So in writing this, I’m wary of describing too much or too little, but I’ll try anyway.
I don’t think I’ve done an adequate job of explaining that people believe in Voodoo here. I know I’ve mentioned it, but in talking to a Volunteer’s boyfriend who was visiting, I realize that just saying it doesn’t accurately convey the depth of that statement.
Take, for example, the zangbeto, that dancing haystack spirit. At certain fetes, there are zangbetos that perform. (See my “Voodoo Day” post for more). They dance and perform, and eventually the zangbeto’s helpers/handlers come and layer by layer, uncover the zangbeto costume to demonstrate that there is not a person beneath. Sometimes, they flip the zangbeto over to reveal an object that shows what form the spirit has taken, and a few minutes later, flip it over again to show another object or animal, to show that the spirit has changed forms.
Now, most Westerners watching would spend time trying to figure out where the person is beneath it. Most Westerners don’t believe that there is a spirit animating the haystack costume. Most Westerners would refer to it as a costume.
It would be a mistake to say so in front of a Beninese person.
You probably have in your head an image of the type of Beninese person who believes that there is not a person beneath the costume. You’re probably imagining a villager, a person who is illiterate, who has little exposure to the Western world. In some cases, you might be right. But college educated Beninese also fit into the category of people who deep down to the core of their being believe that it is a spirit. Men and women who have advanced degrees, sometimes from American or European universities, truly believe there is no person underneath.
This is not the way many Christians I know (including myself) “believe” in Creation – it’s what the holy book of the religion says and they say they believe in the Bible, but logically they know that evolution is actually what happened. Beninese believe in Voodoo the way that they believe that the sky is blue.
Another example is Oro, the fetiche in my area. I’m not allowed to see it, but if I was, what I would likely see is a group of (drunk) men with a tool they swing around their heads to make the Oro noise, and machetes. When I say I’m not allowed to see it, I mean Oro kills people. Every year, somewhere in the Plateau region, at least one person dies because they interfered with Oro.
Logically, what actually physically kills people is a man with a machete. But that’s not what kills people. Oro kills people, because the Oro spirit inhabits the person wielding the machete. The person holding the machete is not in charge of his own actions, because it’s Oro. The person holding the machete did not kill anyone. Oro did.
I’m still not sure I’ve conveyed the depth of this belief. But rather than continue, I would like to offer the disclaimer that I have just made rather broad statements about Beninese people. Not every single person believes in Voodoo, and in fact most people only believe in parts of Voodoo traditions. But when people believe in something here, they really truly believe it. They believe in a way that many Americans in my experience don’t believe in anything.
As a last example, the Volunteer who stayed with my host family the year before me told me he had a conversation one night with Papa about superstition. Papa said that Americans believe in lots of superstitions (black cats crossing paths, throwing salt over the shoulders, etc.). The Volunteer replies that Beninese, even educated Beninese, believe in superstitions too. Papa says “oh no, us Catholics don’t believe in things like that.” So the Volunteer started whistling. Papa became uncomfortable and told the Volunteer to stop before something bad happened.
In Benin, whistling at night is said to call out spirits and snakes.
In some cases, it can be frustrating for a Volunteer who wants to enact change in a community, to face beliefs that run so deep. But it’s also hard not to admire people who believe in things so deeply, so completely. Their worldview is not just an academic term; it’s truly a part of every action and every thought. I may not understand it, but I can admire how much their culture is a part of their everyday life. Maybe by the end of my second year, I can not only admire it, but understand it too.
Five hours. That’s how long it took for me to go from my normal, frizzy brownish hair to purple braids. Five hours of pain, ending in me looking somehow both ridiculous and awesome at the same time.
During my post visit during training (two weeks in my now-current village while I was still in training), I got my hair braided, but that consisted of the coiffeuse using only my own hair. While it was painful, people generally loved it, despite the fact that I had to cover my head whenever I was in the sun, because my painfully white scalp was exposed and would burn in about two minutes. But since the memory of the time and pain it took, I have wanted to get my hair tress-ed (a franglais term meaning braided/done). And I’ve always known what color to go for: purple.
At some point in most girls’ lives they have a compulsion to dye their hair a strange color. I never acted on this, because I was a good little girl and knew people wouldn’t take me seriously. But here, having dark purple braids would actually be an advantage for my job. Unless I join a rock band there will never be a time in my life when that is true again, so I went for it.
One of my closest friends in village, Mama Ayomide, is a young woman from Nigeria, who often sells cookies and candy in front of my house. She also works as an occasional coiffeuse, or hairdresser. She does the hair for the women in my concession, and she agreed to do mine as well.
Step one was to buy the weave. My neighbor took me to the market and helped me buy two large packages of purple weave. In my village purple and black are the only colors available, though in cities you can sometimes find other colors like dark blue or blondish. The package advertised “real Japanese synthetics!” It cost about five dollars total.
Step two was to wash my hair vigorously, because you can’t wash your hair when you have weave in.
Step three was to sit down and let Mama Ayomide begin her work. Step three lasted four and a half hours. We sat in front of my concession, while she took small bits of weave, tied them to my head, then braided my hair with the weave. For several hours the neighbor who had taken me to the market also helped, and a deaf woman who is an actual coiffeuse came by to greet us and helped for a bit. Doing just one braid took about three minutes. And doing just one braid is only slightly painful. But when you multiply that by the roughly 150 braids I had on my head by the end of the day, you get a lot of pain.
Finally, the braiding was done. Then they asked me to bring a pot of boiling water, which they explained they would dump on my head. Being fearful of this, I only sort of boiled the water. They dipped the braids in the hot water, apparently to help set the braids in, and then dried them. Sort of. (Synthetic weave holds a lot of water). Then, they took scissors and trimmed away the bits of my hair and weave that were sticking out and frizzing.
The final step was to pack the braids into a ponytail. Once this was done, the ponytail stayed until I had to wear my moto helmet a week and a half later. I took the braids out after two weeks because they were starting to fall a little and I couldn’t stand another day not washing my scalp.
There you have it. Five hours, two packages of weave, three coiffeuses and a neighbor later, and I had purple hair.
While the process was painful, and my hair is now much thinner than it was before tressing, I’m happy I did it. My friends, my neighbors, other teachers, my students, random passers-by all loved it. They saw it as a signal that I love Benin and that I am that most holy of goals for a Peace Corps Volunteer, “bien integree.” It gave me something to talk about with people in village, and made me feel a part of the community. And the five hours of braiding helped me become even closer to Mama Ayomide and my neighbors.
So would I do it again? Yes, but not till the memory of the pain of braiding and the itchiness of the plastic weave fade, and my hair recovers some.
(ps – I’m working on uploading the pictures, I’m going to have to finagle something. I promise it’s not out of a sense of embarassment, since that went out the window the moment I decided to join Peace Corps)
About a month ago, a strange man came to my door. He was from the Beninese national census and wanted to census me (census can be a verb in English, right? I know I’m supposed to teach English but my grammar is shot to pieces after being here a year).
I don’t normally allow men in my house (both because I am often creeped out by men, and because it can cause people to talk and say I’m a loose woman or something along those lines), but my neighbor Florence, who also worked for the census, said I should let him in. So we went inside to sit at the table and talk. He had a long form he filled out by hand.
The first questions were pretty basic; name, birth date (month and year only because lots of villagers don’t know the day), nationality, job. I helped the guy out by writing my name on a scrap paper for him, because no matter how many times I spell my name, Beninese people always think I’m lying about there being two “o”s in my last name.
When he asked my marital status, out of reflex I said “oh, I have a mari. I mean a fiancée.” Which is a lie, but it’s what I say in village so I can cut down on the amount of harassment from men (and sometimes, creepily, one of my male students. ew). So I guess I lied on the census. Oops.
Many of the questions didn’t apply to me because I don’t have kids or other dependents. I saw on the form that there’s a huge section on kids, and if they go to school, if they have immunizations, who cares for them, and so on. There was space for about twenty kids, which is possibly in a large household with multiple wives and/or multiple generations in the compound.
Some of the questions are things I’m fairly certain I wouldn’t be asked on the US census. For example: do you have a radio? tv? computer? air conditioning? running water? a bed? a mattress? a fan? Do you cook on charcoal, wood, or gas? The census taker was concerned I was lying when I said I didn’t have a tv, and offered to help me find one. Most Beninese of a certain income level can’t imagine living without a tv, and really can’t imagine that a white person wouldn’t be able to afford one and wouldn’t want one.
When we finished a few minutes later, he filled out a card for me to prove that I had been census-ed (again, I’m pretty sure that verb doesn’t exist in English, but it should). So now I can prove that I am part of the national statistics for my new country.
…No more teachers’ dirty looks! School is finished for the vacances until late September or early October. Notice I didn’t say “school’s out for summer,” because summer doesn’t exist here. The seasons here in the south are: short hot and rainy; short hot and dry; windy mostly hot and dry; long dry and so hot you want to melt; and long hot and rainy. “Cold” is when it gets below 75 Fahrenheit. So the idea that you get the warm months off is false.
What does a teaching volunteer do during the vacances? Dealing with the vacances can be tough. There are a series of steps to accepting vacances:
- Elation that you don’t have to teach those little monsters.
- Regret that only 30% of your kids passed your class.
- Depression that you didn’t complete more projects before school was out.
- Confusion/boredom now that you don’t have a schedule.
- Start new project to avoid going crazy, and/or help with a camp
- Remember how much you hated some of your students, be happy again that you’re free.
- More boredom/confusion.
- Start War and Peace for the fifth time.
- Travel to other Volunteer’s posts/out of the country.
- Come back to post. Slowly lose mind due to boredom now that project has stalled/failed or camps are over.
- Acceptance of the vacances.
- School starts again.
As for myself, I have quite a few things going on, so I will only go a little crazy, or at least not any crazier than other Volunteers go. I’m visiting my family in South Africa for ten days of safaris and pampering (i.e. I get to eat cheese and all the bathrooms will have running water!), I’m working at a boys’ camp in July, and in August and September I’m helping train the new stage of Volunteers. In between that, I’ll probably be working some days at an orphanage in a neighboring village, doing English review with their middle school kids, and doing other games and activities. And of course, I’ll hang out in village, go for walks and runs, greet people, eat, and maybe start planning lessons for next year and work on my local language skills.
It looks so far like my vacation may be more productive than my school year!
Hello all! I’ve been super busy with the end of the year – I’m finally free! I did have time today to load new photos to my facebook, select photos with explanations to come soon to this blog. Also to come soon – a video of the kids in my English club performing traditional Beninese folktales in English, at our school’s end of the year cultural day!
If you have any particular blog post topics you’d like to see addressed, let me know! When I’m not visiting family in South Africa, working at a boys’ camp, or training the new group of incoming Volunteers, I’ll be fairly free this summer till school starts back up again in October, so I’ll hopefully have more time to reflect and write about things, including the story of how I came to be protected from bad gris-gris (Voodoo magic).
And if there are any new Benin volunteers reading this – we can’t wait to meet you! Kaabo (welcome)!