“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,”
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!
Peace Corps Benin