Fete Like a Champion

“In Benin, we fete,” I was told. Fete can be translated as “celebrate,” “party,” “hold ceremonies,” “get together,” or “drink and dance.” All of which are appropriate. And in Benin, we certainly do fete.

In a country where the everyday existence for most people is a struggle to get proper nutrition or healthcare or education for their children, where all days are full of work and all blend into each other, fetes are a chance to break out of that monotony and drudgery.
They are a chance to celebrate communities, each other, life, and death. And they are a chance to eat till you want to burst and dance till sweat drips onto the red earth.

As I’ve said before, most fetes follow a similar pattern: There are tables and chairs (especially for the “important” people), lots of food, and lots of drinks and drinking. Usually there are women who go around to each table offering food, and men whose job it is to keep the tables covered in various sodas and beers. There is always music – usually in the form of deafening speakers, sometimes different speakers at each tent playing different music.

“It is necessary to eat!” you are told repeatedly. This is not your average food – usually each meal is served with meat, and you are expected to eat several meals in the space of an hour or so. You’re full? No, it’s not possible, this food is too delicious! It is necessary to eat! Then when you can’t move because your stomach feels like a ripe melon ready to burst, you hear “it is necessary to drink!”
The modus operandi of eating till you can’t eat another bite, then eating some more was described to me by a friend as “manger-fatiguer,”
or “eat-tired.”

There is also sometimes dancing at fetes. This may involve a group of villagers who let the beat take over, or it may be a group of patrons who are showing off their dancing prowess while putting money on the foreheads of dancers and musicians to show their appreciation for their skills.

Most fetes in Benin tend to be related to funerals, or anniversaries of deaths. It may take years for a family to save enough money to throw a proper fete, so it’s not uncommon to have funerals many months after the actual death of a person. It also takes time to organize a tissue (fabric) for the family and important invited guests to purchase and make into outfits they wear to the fete. There are also many church fetes, and fetes for other religious holidays. Wedding fetes are less common in my village, as most couples tend to forgo a ceremony because of the cost. But all fetes are celebrations of life – a life lived, the life that continues the life of the community.

I’ve been to a fair number of fetes, so I have compiled a tip sheet for the adventurous yovo (or other foreigner) who wants to attend a Beninese fete.
1. Before the fete, see if you can get what we PCVs call “meme tish,”
or matching African fabric. You will look like an important part of the celebration, and people will commend your forethought and willingness to adapt to the Beninese context.
2. Other clothing notes: no flip flops. Ladies, either wear the
fanciest modele you have, or a bomba, preferably in a nicer fabric, and with a fulard (head wrap). Fellas, hats are the key to upping the ante of your fete wardrobe.
3. Do not eat before going. If possible, do not eat the day before.
Though it may be ok to eat a couple bites before going in the event that the celebration starts with shots of whiskey or sodabi.
4. Go with at least one Beninese person, who will find you a seat and
introduce you to people, but don’t feel bad if they leave you. They have lots of people they must greet and interact with – be ready to sit and feel awkward in the intervening times, but also be ready to meet random people who come up to talk with you. This is actually the advice I’d give about Benin in general – be open to feeling awkward, and to new experiences and people.
5. Avoid the starchy foods if you can – they fill you up, and if
you’re staying in Benin for any length of time you can get rice or akassa or pate any time. But really good pork, or mutton stew, or roast chicken? It is necessary to eat. An exception to this rule is amiwo, or pate rouge. Eat that all day!
6. Don’t see a bottle opener? No problem. Use the edge of the table.
Or your teeth. Or another bottle. If this seems intimidating, just hold the drink you want and look pathetically at a Beninese person near you. They will come to your rescue.
7. Bring some small money with you, in case a dance troupe or drum
group passes. It’s polite to put money on the forehead of their leader, though it’s not absolutely necessary.
8. Dance. I’ll get to more specific advice on this in a moment, but
many Americans have a hard time dancing in front of other people. They believe they will look foolish, or that they have no sense of rhythm.
The former is not really possible in Benin, unless you trip over a drum kit or something. The latter doesn’t really matter, because nobody will expect you to dance like a Beninese person (they will start yelling and saying “oh my gosh, look at this yovo!” if you do, though). I have never seen a foreigner dance at a fete and then regret it. Not only is it fantastically fun, people will respect you for joining them and no matter how off the beat you were, you will get compliments later.
9. Afraid to dance? All the booze at fetes can help with that. And the
knowledge that unlike in America, dancing drunkenly at a party will not hurt your professional reputation, and in fact it might enhance it.
10. When two old ladies start twerking on you (one front and one
back), just go with it. It turns out dancing with old ladies is a lot of fun and earns you compliments on your dancing prowess.
11. West African dance and music can be quite complex but that
complexity can help a booty-shaking-challenged American. Most traditional West African music is polyrhythmic. That means that the song is simultaneously in 3/4 time and 4/4 time. How does this help you?
Well, if you want to dance like a West African it doesn’t because you have to learn how to move your bottom half in one time signature and your top half in another, which takes time and talent. But if you’re just looking to dance well enough not to embarrass yourself at a fete, this means that you can move pretty much however you want and you’ll likely be on at least one of the beats.
12. Greet everyone who greets you. Again, this is a general rule for
Benin. You never know who might be able to help you on a project, or give you a free ride when there are no zemidjans.
13. Take pictures, but always ask permission, especially of anything
voodoo-related or of professional performers.
14. Make sure you can walk home, or that your ride is not drunk.

With these tips, you, too, can be the champion of Beninese fetes!

Katie Lootens
Peace Corps Benin

Update on Refugees

I have an update on the refugees from the Central African Republic that I spoke about in my last post.

Turns out, my landlord has been ferrying Beninese who were living in the CAR back to Benin. They have nothing now, due to the destruction and violence, so apparently the Beninese government is “taking care of them.” My landlord’s been given two weeks to rest, when they think they’ll have gotten a new group of refugees to Bangui and he’ll start his daily refugee flights all over again.

Please pray, send good karma, or whatever it is you do, for the people in the CAR. In case you’re unsure what’s going on, here’s a slightly outdated (from Jan 11) but still pretty good Q&A on the situation there. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-20798007

Katie Lootens
Peace Corps Benin

Foreigners, Refugees, and other Strangers

There are many foreigners in Benin besides Peace Corps Volunteers. In Cotonou there are many foreign workers, mostly aid workers or people working in embassies. There are also the sailors – Cotonou is a huge port and the entry point for most cars to West Africa. There is a sizeable Lebanese population, who mainly have well-paid jobs such as owning shwarma restaurants and selling cars, and are rumored to also be heavily involved in the drug trade (that information being totally un-fact checked, I should point out.

 

There are also lots of foreigners from Benin’s neighbors. In my village there are many Nigerians, as well as Beninese who spend part or most of their time in Nigeria. With Nigeria being so close, feelings about the country are mixed among Beninese in my area.

Nigeria is seen as the land of opportunity, where there are jobs and money. This is evidenced by the manufactured goods for sale in Daagbé – many of them were made in Nigeria. But Nigeria is also seen as the devil’s land – Nigeria is where the bandits are supposedly from, and the vigilantes.

 

Then there are the Nigeriens (from Niger, the country to the north) and the Burkinabe (those from Burkina Faso, to Benin’s northwest), and the Togolese. Nigeriens tend to sell figs, and sunglasses, and goats – they run most of the slaughterhouses outside of Cotonou. Actually, slaughterhouse is an inaccurate term. They run the fields outside Cotonou where they slaughter cattle, goats and sheep.

 

Most of the foreigners in Benin are here to find jobs. But some are refugees. Every Saturday, PCVs teach an English class for UNHCR refugees, which I am in charge of scheduling. There are usually four to eight students – mostly from Togo, Burkina Faso, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They’ve been living in Benin for several years now and have adopted Beninese culture, though they are quick to note that they don’t want to be here forever. They all hope to move to America or Europe someday.

 

And there are more refugees arriving every day. My landlord is a pilot – apparently he used to be the pilot for Gadhafi, back when Benin was a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship and was one of the countries willing to register the Libyan leader’s plane. He told me that recently he’s been flying to Bangui every day. He picks up refugees fleeing the recent violence in the Central African Republic, lets them off in Cotonou, and returns to do it all again.

 

I don’t know what happens to these refugees when they get here. I don’t know who takes care of them, or how they got out, or what their lives will be like. But I do know that they won’t be the only foreigners in Benin. They may not stand out as much as the yovos like me, or the Chinese. But as “strangers,” (the French word for foreigner has a dual meaning), they’ll have to learn to adapt to Beninese life as I’ve been doing.

 —

Katie Lootens

Peace Corps Benin

Exam Week

The process of writing, administering, grading, recording and returning exams is drawn-out, complicated, and headache-inducing.

There are four exams per year – two per semester. First, about three weeks before the exams are scheduled, the head of the department assigns people to write the exams. At my school, we generally have one teacher write an exam for one grade – this year I’m usually writing the 8th grade exams. At big schools they may have several teachers write exams per grade, and then decide which one is the best. The teachers write the exams by hand.

 

Then, the department head collects the exams and goes over them. He (it’s almost always a “he”) then gives the handwritten exams to the school secretary. It is her job to type, print and photocopy the exams for the entire school. But due to this insane amount of work and the fact that the secretaries usually don’t speak English, many Volunteers offer to type some or all of the English exams. So in my case, I get to correct the mistakes in the handwritten exams, then put it on a USB key and give it to the secretary. Occasionally, I also help her format them, because all exams must be under two pages (one page front and back), and the formalities of which words and headlines must be bold or underlined are intricate. Bureaucracy is important in this country, though anyone who has ever worked for a large organization can probably sympathize.

 

The day of the exam or the day before, the administration and teachers organize all the exam papers by class, and verify that any front/back exams have both a front and a back. Then a teacher takes the exams for one class and goes to that room, where the kids are waiting with bags by the front of the classroom, and two sheets of their own paper where they will write their answers. The students take the exam while the teacher proctors it. I hate this process, because I am not as adept at catching students at cheating as Beninese teachers are.

 

Once all the students are finished, the teacher brings the answer papers back. The students get to keep the question papers, to study later. The teachers take the school’s stamps and stamp the blank space on each page of the answer pages – this ensures that students can’t go back and write things later and argue for a better grade. Then the papers are bundled together. Teachers can come pick up their students’

exams, and must “sign” them out.

 

Then comes the annoying process of grading. Most teachers, when writing the exams, also create a grading rubric with the correct answers. I think that’s for sissies. Also, I don’t usually give my students “presentation” points – as long as I can read it, I’ll grade it. Grading is from the French system, with everything out of 20. Ten is considered passing.

 

This is one of my biggest problems with the Beninese school system. In France, the grading system more or less works because it is almost impossible to get at 20, or even an 18. A 14-16 is roughly equivalent to an A. A 12 is like a B, and a 10-11 is a C. This same system holds true in Benin, but with one crucial difference: exams here are not any harder than they usually are in the US. In other words, if you study hard and pay attention, it should be possible to get 20, and fairly easy to get 15 or 16. Yet, a 12 is still considered very good. And even with these low expectations, only about 65% of my students last year passed, which is about the same as with other teachers.

 

After all the exams are graded, teachers record them in their own grade books. The next class period, they go over all the answers to the exams and hand them back. At the end of the semester, teachers calculate grades one by one with students. You take a class period to do this, calling up each student in turn to calculate in front of them, so that the students can’t claim that the teacher cheated or was biased. Then, the teacher writes this in two different books the administration has. When the teachers for all subjects have finished this, the class’ homeroom teacher calculates the overall grades. This is all done by hand.

 

And with that, the process is over. Teachers and students breathe a sigh of relief. And this is also easier for my school because we have electricity, a computer, a printer and a photocopier at our school – many schools don’t. If you don’t have a headache after reading all this, you haven’t been reading. And you’ll understand why I’m trying to get a copy of a computer program a Volunteer wrote to calculate and print all this automatically.

 

The one thing keeping me going as we head into another series of exams? I only have two more left. I just hope I can make things easier for the other teachers and administrators at my school after I leave.

Things You May Not Have Noticed About America

I was lucky enough to spend the holidays in the US, with my family and my significant other. It was amazing, both to see loved ones and to enjoy all the things that America has to offer. But there are some things that as a de-facto outsider, I noticed that you may not have done so:

1.            Smartphones are now huge. Probably not a surprise, but in the past

year and a half, smartphones became the sizes of small children.

Apparently there is no longer a clear line between phones and tablets.

And while we are on the subject of tablets, apparently iPads are not a fad. I’ll admit, I didn’t call that one. At a fancy restaurant, we ordered our cocktails and wine from their drink list ON AN iPAD. I realize all these may not seem revolutionary, but I was absolutely stunned.

2.            The “are leggings acceptable as pants” debate has been solved.

Apparently, leggings are definitely pants now.

3.            People are incapable of being alone or of being quiet. It is no

longer possible to just sit and be alone and think. If you show a desire to do this, you are socially awkward. And if you stare into the distance a lot and occasionally speak in Goun or French, it’s apparently socially awkward too.

4.            The country was freaking out about a dance that was very, very

normal in my high school. Twerking apparently became a controversy.

But this is what we called “dancing” at my high school.

5.            Children have way too many toys. Kids here in Benin seem way

happier than a lot of American kids, though I wasn’t surrounded by tiny people in America as I am here so my sample size is a little off.

Know what we consider a great toy in Benin? A stick and a tomato tin.

Or a plastic bag, with which you can play “put the plastic bag on my head and see how long I can breathe!” Also, kids in America always wear pants.

6.            Things not filmed in HD look AWFUL in HD. My family is now immune

to this, but I hated watching HD television except sports purposefully filmed in HD. “The Shawshank Redemption” was on TV and it looked like low-rent infomercial you’d see at 3am. You do not have to live like this, people! There are still non-HD stations (I think. I hope.) and you can switch to them when watching something not in HD!

7.            Apparently everyone has Netflix. And Netflix has lots of shows? And

the internet is fast enough to watch them? And you can get internet on your TV? I don’t know, this still confuses me.

8.            You have an astounding variety of foods. And you can eat leftovers

because you have refrigerators. You are very lucky people.