Sunday, August 9, 2009

Back in the US

We are back in the US via a safe border crossing from Benin to Nigeria, a couple nights stay in Lagos, and an eleven hour lay over in London.

I am starting grad school at Notre Dame on Aug 16 (masters in International Peace Studies) and Ray will start his internship year in Maryland on Sept 1.

Im hoping to get photos from the trip up in the next couple of weeks. So please check back in!


crazy rides

Mounting on the back of a moto taxi you are not only trusting your safe arrival to this single driver, but to the thousands of others who will criss cross your path enroute. Cheap motorcycles have taken over the roads of Cotonou, providing the most convenient way to move around the city. You would be hard pressed to find a traditional car taxi- they have all taken on set routes as shared taxis (a car for 4 passengers, magically holds 6).

The moto taxi drivers are distinguished by their yellow shirts, and swarm the streets of Cotonou before day break and speed on into the evening hours (though prices are of course higher). Locally known as zemi-johns, these taxi motos along with thousands of private motos determine the flow of traffic. At a red light they fill up every gap between cars, and rev their engines as the light turns green- all instantly taking off at the same moment, and trusting that the moto in front of them is taking off just as quickly.

But, there are only a few working traffic lights in Cotonou, which means that most intersections are a free for all. And, by the way, the traffic is heavy. Traffic flows down the main streets practically uninterrupted- so, intersecting streets have to work to make their way through the intersection. They wait (not very long) to build up enough mass, see a gap, and as one unit move into the intersection to open up their path.

There is a constant flow entering, circling, and exiting a roundabout, and there arent really regulated turns per say. Motos and cars come at you in practically every direction, all at varying speeds. And, just yesterday our moto taxis found a short cut to our destination by entering the roundabout in one of the exiting lanes. Brilliant.

Safety doesn't seem to be a huge concern. They speed, and even a promise to go slowly proves that their understanding of slow must be different then mine. Nobody wears a helmet, well, except for me and a handful of others. And, gasoline is sold on the curb side in glass jars and bottles of different sizes. The moto pulls up, the attendant places a 'filter' over the gas tank, and pours a bottle or two of gas into the tank, swirling the bottle as it gurgles down. The government has tried to shut these rudimentary curb side gas stations down, but with such high demand, regular gas stations charging an inflated price, and no real way to enforce it, they persist on every street corner.

While I have had enough trouble (or rather, concern) about keeping myself balanced on the back of a moto with their abrupt stops in traffic and bounces when hitting a pothole, most balance much more than just themselves on a moto. Most often you will see a moto driver with a large piece of luggage wedged between himself and his handlebars, and the passenger behind (if a woman she likely has a baby strapped across her back). Ive seen complete families on a moto (2 adults and 3 children), often 3 adults share the moto, and once I even saw 5 adults on a single moto!

Among the items Ive seen transported on a moto, these stand out: a tray of pineapples balanced on the passengers head, a ladder (sideways), several 12 foot long pipes, a door, a full length mirror, a desk, a car bumper, 6 sacks of rice, 3 goats, 1 fridge, 2 fridges (!), 30 10-gallon jugs of gasoline (empty, thankfully). Ive got a good photo of that last one.


Friday, August 7, 2009

"Our President"

Walking around, it is not unusual to see American flags hanging everywhere- on buildings, on the side of the road, and in thewind shields of cars all around this part of West Africa. We have also seen a number of Barak Obama t-shirts, even in remote villages inBurkina Faso! Almost overnight, America and Americans have again become the best friends of Africans.

Granted, I doubt most people here could tell you one thing about Obama and his policies, other than the fact that his father is from Kenya. But, as many people have told us here, 'Obama is our president'. People here even knew about Obama's recent visit to Ghana before we did. I was told that people here stayed up until early in the morning on election night, watching the results come in. When Obama was declared President, people told us, they danced in the streets.

In any case, the world is watching and again, supporting America. Hopefully we, as a country, can use this goodwill to bring about positive things for all people everywhere.


Saturday, August 1, 2009

Balancing Goods

In the village and city alike a dominant means of transporting and selling goods is on top of the head. The bowl or basket is filled far beyond the rim, and may be directly balanced on the head, or a scarf is wrapped in such a way to provide a bit of cushioning.

In the village bundles of firewood (far beyond what Id ever imagined could be carried by one person for a distance), metalic basins filled with potable water from a local well, and bags of sand for construction are a routine sight. Some walk holding one side of the bowl, while others walk with yet more in their hands, and often a baby strapped securely with a scarf to their back.

Most carrying goods on their heads are women, though in the city I have seen men selling goods from their head- though quite light weight goods such as sunglasses, pens, remote controls, or fabric. Women bear the heavier loads, including trays of fruit, either pinneapple, coconuts, banannas, or apples (and they dont go light on how many they pile on). Some carry complete meals on their head, and even tote along a stool to set down their tray on while they prepare your bowl of rice and sauce.

Baskets with a diameter of 2 feet are packed full of baguettes standing on end, while others precariously hold fried fish in a variety of sizes- the key being that the product is visible to the passerby, the potential client. Following just behind a women selling fried fish might be a young girl selling balls of pate (made of corn flour and water, eaten as a staple starch). I met one such 8 year old, Jeremie, whose father died and mother abandonned her. Without anyone to pay for her schooling, she walks the streets for 7 hours a day selling pate that her grandmother makes.

Many of the vendors have a set route and regular clients, who expect the mobile sale of cleaning or beauty care products. Last night the lady that we buy water from was having her nails done by a woman who arrived with all of her supplies on her head. Some sell clothes on hangers that dangle from a tray on their head, quite an impressive way to display a number of outfits all at once.

When traveling, our bus or taxi-van would stop in a random town and immediately our vehicle would be surrounded by women selling goods in baskets on their heads- bread, fried dough balls, cookies, banannas, fish, crabs... and it was all easily within arms reach from our windows. And at times their were men too, their products were normally cold drinks or grilled meat on a tray that they would plop down and swiftly cut up into bite size pieces in a matter of seconds. Cant say we tried the last one (the swarm of flies was a deterent).

Basically, anything you can imagine might be sold by a mobile vendor.


Friday, July 31, 2009

The Engagement

Yep, that's right, we are engaged.

We were in Burkina Faso, in the Sahel region (it borders the Sahara desert) in a village called Oursi. After sleeping out under the stars on a large sand dune with only our mosquito nets and a mat to sleep on, we woke up at 5:30 am to watch the sunrise.

The sun came up and Karin was furiously taking pictures of practically everything as I was down on one knee on the top of the sand dune, patiently waiting for her to turn around. About twenty minutes later, she turned around (ok, it was probably thirty seconds, but it felt like a while).

When she turned, she said 'really'? 'really'? I said, 'Karin Alexandra'... and she again said 'really'? 'really'?

I said 'Karin, why don't you just come over here.' Then finally she came over and I proposed. She said yes, and we sat and watched the rest of the sunrise alone for another hour or so.

Telling people our good news has been a bit more difficult. Our phone was broken and there was no internet for miles. Eventually we borrowed someones phone and called our parents. Several days later, we got to an internet and could email a few people. But we are still trying to tell our friends and family!

A friend of ours told us to be prepared to answer the same questions about the wedding for the next 30,000 conversations. So, I'll preempt at least a couple of those by saying that we don't have a place or date yet, and wont until September at least!


And now for Karin's take on things...

We were up in Oursi, a village in northern Burkina, north of Gorom Gorom- a city famous in West Africa for a colorful market- colorful because people come in on camels and donkeys from Mali, Niger and surrounding villages in the desert, all dressed in their colorful clothes and head coverings. Oursi also has a very colorful market that draws those same venders and shoppers.

Our last night in Oursi, we slept out on the sand dunes. Now, these sand dunes dont really compare to the sahara, but they are the biggest dunes in Burkina and close to the border with Mali, so very much the sahel, hot and dry, and ever so sandy. We had a mat and a couple of sheets as our mattress, and had a mosquito net held up by 4 sticks dug into the ground. Luckily it wasnt too windy that night, and so the mosquito net stayed up most of the night.

We slept relatively well, and woke up with the sunrise at 5.30 am, and watched it from there a bit, and then walked up to the top of the biggest dune, and watched as the sun slowly rose.

I was taking photos, quite distracted. And when I turned around Ray was down on one knee... all I remember sayin was 'really, really, reallly!' He was like Karin just come over here... he proposed, and I accepted. The ring is a basic handcrafted silver ring that he bought in Togo at an artisanal store (I can now pinpoint the time he must have bought it).

We spent the rest of the day at the Oursi market and then on transport back to a place with running water, electricity, and internet...

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Mercy Ship

Docked in the port of Cotonou is a ship that will be here for a while, 9 months in fact. Its not delivering any cargo, but instead takes aboard ordinary Beninise in order to perform free, basic surgeries.

Mercy Ship is a Christian, US based aid organization. All of the doctors, nurses, and other staff on the ship volunteer their time. They each pay a monthly fee to be there, but it usually is paid for by their church or another sponsoring organization. One of our friends here in Benin works as a translator on the ship, and he and several of the crew gave us a tour one afternoon.

When they get ready to go to a country, Mercy Ship sends out advance teams to do pre screenings of possible patients. Sometimes, the teams have to go deep into the villages, and they are always building awareness about the organization so that people will trust them and come to the ship.

Most of the surgeries are basic ones. Here in Benin, we were told of one of the most common procedures. For many women who do not receive pre natal care, after having a child, they will have continuous bleeding. Because of the bleeding, their husbands will often leave the women, and they will be ostracized in the community. A simple, low risk surgery can stop the bleeding and allow them to reenter the community.

Even though it is a Christian organization, Mercy Ship treats all people, regardless of religion. And, its not just nurses and doctors who volunteer. On the ship they need cooks, cleaning staff, translators, mechanics, and many other kinds of volunteers. They also have different teams that go out into the country, building schools and homes.

In order to dock in a country, the host government agrees to provide a docking place and water to the ship for free. It also agrees not to charge the ship any taxes. The volunteers live on the ship, which has game rooms, a small school, jungle gym, free internet and computers, and even a Starbucks. Volunteers can serve for several months, or, as in the case of a man we met on the ship, 21 years.


Monday, July 27, 2009

Facial Scars

The faces of many here in Benin, Togo, and Burkina Faso are scarred; scars that distinguish one's tribal association and sometimes even social rank. The placement, number, and length of the scars each have significance. The scars are often below or beside the eyes, and some even run the entire length of the face from hairline to chin. A particular scar in Burkina Faso that falls from the corner of the eye is meant to show that this person cried alot as a child.

The scars are given at a young age, and are made to heal in such a way that the scars are more visible. While visiting a particularly remote village in the sahel of Burkina Faso (arriving on camel), I noticed a child who had dozens of short scars across her forehead- apparently the scarring resulted from a blood letting that is thought to remedy some problem she had in her head. Here this scarring, both for medicinal and tribal purposes, and female circumcision is done by the same woman and with the same knife. HIV/AIDS could easily be transmitted.

We learned that scarring and female circumcision was made illegal in Burkina in the last decade. And yet today there are children, even babies, who are visibly scarred (and who knows how many with their genitals mutilated). If a woman is caught performing female circumcision she is thrown in jail. The legal situation isnt all that clear though, because apparently the government has had some leniency with scars made strictly for tribal purposes- they arent ready to stop tradition.

But scarring for beautification is not accepted by the law. One woman had what looked like a basic leaf etched into both cheeks, others have the area around their mouthes covered in short repeated lines. This is beautiful, and not necessarily a sign of tribe affiliation.

Back in Benin we talked with friends in Cotonou- why are some and yet others not scarred? They explained that the tradition lives strongly in the rural areas, and is gradually loosing ground in the cities. Some young parents do not want to scar the faces of their children, and deal with pressure and trouble when returning to their family's village with their unscarred children.

Can you imagine having your social rank boldly, and permanently, etched into your face?


Friday, July 24, 2009

Being a Minority

This probably wont be a news flash for any of you, but having whiteskin in Africa makes me a minority here.

So what? Well, first of all, its not something I am used to. BeforeI go deeper into this subject, I want to say that there are many waysto be a minority, and race is only one of them. But, based on my experiences here, this post will be about being a racial minority.

It isn't always easy or comfortable being a minorty. Let me tell you about some of our experiences here.

Being white, people call you Yovo, or blanche, both of which mean 'white person'. These are not necessarily meant to be deroggatory names, but consistently being called 'white person', instead of Ray, isn't very fun. I feel that it takes away a part of who I am and lumps me together with all the other white people in this world. For better or worse, I cannot exist separatly from my race.

Kids in the streets consistently sing a song about Yovo's every time they see us. Our friends know of our arrival several minutes before we get to their door because they hear the children singing the yovo song. Walking in the city, we are constantly asked to buy something or to give someone money.

Let me be clear- I am not trying to get any sympathy here. In fact, every conversation we have had with regular Africans is a pleasant andenjoyable experience. But, when it comes to anyone involved in the tourism industry or in commerce, we always have to be on guard.

When we do come to a store, we are often given a ridiculously high price, because we are white, or a foreigner, or both. People assume that because we are white we dont know the real price or we are willing to spend the larger amount. Any taxi or bus ride also inevitably ends up in a fight, because we are charged more than the other passengers. How can someone, with a straight face, tell us that the ride cost 1000 CFA when we know the price is only 500, and ourAfrican friend paid the lower prices?

In addition, people come and greet you in a friendly manner. Many times, this nice conversation quickly turns into a sales pitch or someone who insists on being our 'guide', only to ask for a tip later. Or, the conversation moves to someone asking us to help get them to the States.

Here I have the priveledge that I can easily leave Africa and return to Maryland. If I am a racial minority back home, in my church or in my city in the States for example, I can easily go somewhere else where Whites make up a majority of the population.

Soon I will be back home and will once again get into a routine whereI rarely, if ever, experience racism or being a racial minority. But what about all those other Americans who experience racism or some of the other difficulties of being a racial minority in their own home, which they cannot escape?


Going places without internet...

Hey everyone!

Sorry about the long delay. We have been desperatly trying to get to internet for almost a week now. Several places we stayed had no electricity, and two other places that had internet actually lost their connection. Anyway, we should be well connected from here on out. Karin just posted below. Thanks for continuing to follow us!


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

La Lutte- the fight

We made it to Burkina Faso's capital city of Ouagadougou a little over a week ago, complete with a 5am start time accompanied by a nonstop downpour, a 45 min taxi ride to the border with a flat tire some where along the way, 2 hours waiting for customs at the border, and finally a 5 hour bus ride along not so well kept roads... and without much of an option, I officially made my public peeing debut at the border, but I was savy enough to have worn a skirt this time (all the Togolese women wear skirts, and simply squat along side the road, not revealing too much-- normally on these long bus rides I hide away in the bushes). I tried to take care of business as quickly as possible, avoiding eye contact with the motos wizzing by.

Before crossing the border to Burkina we spent 5 days in the northern Togolese city of Kara, staying with the family of a Togolese friend of Ray's back in the US (David Lembo). In many villages around Kara there is an annual week long rite of passage for boys of a particular tribe, known as 'La Lutte' (the fight)-- wrestling matches that take place 4 at a time in a grass field in front of hundreds of cheering, singing, and dancing spectators. To marry you must 'fight' (even if you only ever loose) and once you have married you are no longer allowed to participate. The wrestling matches take place between boys of the same village, as matches between villages would only bring war, we were told.

We were told La Lutte would begin at 6am, but arrived only to find out it would be closer to 9, or maybe 10, because the President was expected to attend. The dirt road down to where the matches were to take place was lined with women wearing identical outfits covered with the President's face, clapping and singing for hours in anticipation. A heavy police and military presence tried to keep the crowd contained, as groups of people moved around the field singing and dancing (some wearing masks, and others covered in a white powder) in celebration for their fighters.

I lost interest in the actual wrestling matches (which entailed one man flipping over or pinning down his opponent to large cheers from the crowd) after seeing about 5 sets of 4 simultaneous matches in a grass/mud field, each which quickly followed the one before it. What was interesting was the sheer number of boys/soon to be men lined up on opposing hillsides ready for their turn.

We left before the crowds, and were soon on our way to the border town of Dapeong for our last couple of nights in Togo before heading to Burkina (and my public peeing).


Saturday, July 11, 2009

My Turn to Preach

Back in Benin, several weeks ago, Leopold informed me one Saturday night that I would be preaching the next day. I could preach on whatever I wanted (there is no set text for the day in the church) and I could go for over an hour if I wanted. So, the qustion was: what to preach on.

Almost every sermon I heard in Benin seemed right in line with the Prosperity gospel. In Africa, it goes something like this: You need to be a better Christian. You need to pray harder, go to church more, stop stealing from that neighbor of yours, and give more money to the church. Once you do this, then and only then, will God make you sucessful. You will get a job, get a lot more money, and life will be good.

I didn't want to preach that, because I don't think that is the Gospel- it certainly isn't good news and I can't find that message in the Bible. So, instead, I went with love and grace. God loves us no matter what, and it is not our works that save us but it is God that saves us.

Karin translated from English to French, and a Benisese friend Bruno translated into the local language (Fon). Since this is the biggest city in Benin, not everyone is an ethnic Fon, but because it is a poorer neighborhood, not everyone speaks French (which is the language used in schools and businesses). With the translating, the sermon lasted a little over 30 minutes.

After I finished, Leopold decided to give a brief summary. He repeated the main message of God's never failing love and of God's free grace. But then he added how, if we were really Christians, we would stop sinning and God would love us more. And with that, the whole message I preached was lost.

Before I left I told them that the next time I was here, I would preach to them in French. They all clapped for that. I then told them that the next time Karin would translate the message into Fon. They stood and cheered for that. Good luck on learning Fon, Karin!


Thursday, July 9, 2009

Togo Bingo

Along the road to Kara, Togo- our current destination- Karin and I decided to play a little bingo.

For two hours, we each got points for calling out either: A broken down truck on the side of the road, or a person peeing in public. One point for each one, and minus one for a bad call. And, if you saw a lion you got 15 points.

By the end of the trip, Karin barely edged me out, scoring 33 to my 29. She tried to count broken down bicycles at the end (because she saw several) but I wasn't having any of it. Neither of us thought to call out our own van which got a flat tire (not surprisingly since the road is littered with holes, some nearly a foot deep).

Oh, and by the way, no one saw any lions- maybe because we were too busy looking out for broken down trucks and people peeing. Oh well.


Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Around Togo

It is our 8th day here in Togo, and we have already made our way north to the city of Kara (by way of several less than comfortable van rides).

We began in the capital city of Lome where we visited several UN offices to get an idea of what their work looks like here. A fellow Juniata alum from Cameroon was the director of the UN Regional Center for Peace and Disarmament some years back. We spent some hours reading in the Center's library and spoke with UN staff. In general, the office deals with arms control throughout Africa on a political level. We also spoke with a World Health Organization project manager and learned that their focus is on remedying the malnutrition of children. We are planning to visit some of their projects on the ground in the north.

From Lome we traveled to Kpalime, a small city in an area known for its mountains. We spent a day hiking with a botanical guide around Kluto, who showed us coffee trees, coco trees (that produce the beans we make chocoalte from), mango and avocado trees... and most interestingly a carnivorous plant that upon touching it with your finger closes its leaves to catch the presumed bug that has just landed on it. We luckily found shelter in our guide's village just before a tremendous rain strom came through, with lightening that was red (at least thats how I saw it) and thunder louder than any we had heard before. After nearly two hours of solid downpour, and thinking we may have to spend the night in the village, a taxi came driving through despite the rain and brought us back to the bottom of the mountain.

We also hiked up Mt.Agou- Togo's highest point at 986 meters. It was a five hour journey to the top and back, through dense forest, corn fields planted on a steep incline, two mountainside villages, and under the shade of the large banana tree branches. The view from the top was mediocre, but the view from the highest village is one to appreciate. We walked on narrow paths, past mud brick homes built on terraces, up and down steep inclines that would quickly get anyone in shape. Our legs were trembling when we finally got to the bottom, and honestly my calves are still a bit tender.

We then made our way here to Kara by way of one night in Atakpame. Here we were very warmly greeted by the family of a Togolese friend of Ray's from seminary. We spent the day visiting the Tamberman villages (I may be spelling this wrong). They are a people who still live in a remote part of the mountainous countryside of the North in homes constructed uniquely of materials they find around them. Their homes are small fortresses with multiple levels, traditionally built in a particular way to defend against intruders or dangerous animals (which have all been killed off at this point anyway).

We plan to be here through Sunday before we move on north to the city of Dapaong.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

In Togo

We made it across the border this morning, and this time with no need for even a small bribe. Actually, we did tip the guy who pointed us in the right direction (although it was pretty obvious) as we made our way through Benin and then Togo customs officials and got our taxi to wait for us on the other side. Ray and I shared the front seat of the car, and four others squeezed in the back. Thankfully our driver was a cautious one.

We were just sitting on the beach enjoying some fried plantains and yams, watching lots of young guys plalying barefoot soccer. And since our place back in Benin didnt have water for the last 36 hours, we are looking forward to our cold showers tonight...


Tuesday, June 30, 2009

On Our Way

Tomorrow morning we are leaving for the city of Lome in Togo. We will be on the move for the next month, spending a couple of weeks in Togo, Burkina Faso, the north of Benin and finally returning to Cotonou at the end of July. We have several contacts that we are following up with and so should have some good help in navigating our way.

On a quick side note, we spent last Saturday in a couple of villages west of Cotonou. We canoed on the lake where most of the botttled water here comes from and visited the village of Se, known for its pottery. I was very excited to find a potter. We spent some time with Margarette, a potter who rather than using a wheel, literally spins her body around the pot on the ground to give it shape. Ive got photos of her working, along with some 50 kids from the village in the background.

Ive also learned more about witches here in the last couple of weeks. One night a friend screamed as a small lizard crept around her bathroom, so rather than kill it, Ray and I caught it and released it (a harmless reptile, right?). Afterwards our friend asked, but didnt you know that creature is really a witch, who listens to what you say and then uses it against you? I had no idea.

And then while photographing a family I noticed a small child inside their home who didnt move much or talk, but appeared to be about 3 years old. I came to learn that this child is actually from another world, and her mother is waiting to get enough money to do a special cermony where she will get alot of money and the child will return to the other world. And, then I came to find out that the woman across the sand street from their food stand is actually a witch who can steal the money they make selling food by simply pointing her toes at the end of the day. But they can guard against this by putting the coins in salt water.

Witchery and magic are a lived reality here, even for people who believe in one God, be they Christian or Muslim.


Monday, June 29, 2009

The Other Capital

A week ago Karin and I, along with Leopold, visited Porto Novo, the political capital of Benin. Although it is the seat of the congress, the President and most of the government ministries are actually located here in Cotonou, the biggest city in Benin (by far).

The city of Porto Novo itself has a lot of beautiful colonial buildings that are falling into disrepair. We visited a mosque and a Cathedral and the ethnographic museum (giving a history of voodoo) before heading a little north to two villages- where Leopold worked for several years.

Our first stop in the village was an NGO called "Tomorrow's Children". In Benin, like other countries in Africa, there are a tremendous number of orphans and abandoned children. Some of the girls at the center had run away before they were forced into marriage, and other escaped from a day version of slavery.

What happens too frequently here in Benin is that someone comes to the parents in a remote village and offers them money so that these strangers can take the children to the city to go to school and then get a job. The parents unsuspectingly agree, and then never hear from their children again. The kids are then smuggled across the border into Nigeria and sold as child labor. Karin was told by a local human rights NGO that in 2007 alone some 40,000 children suffered this fate.

Sometimes, the police catch the smugglers with a truckload of kids. They then hand the kids over to NGO's- like Tomorrow's Children- in order to raise the kids and give them an education. Unfortunatly, the government offers little or no financial resources for this work.

We met several kids who were from the village and ended up here as a result of this process. Luckily, they were saved from slavery. But, they don't know their age, their last name, or the village where they came from, making it impossible to reunite them with their families.

Our second stop was at a village accessible only by canoe. We went to the hospital, where Leopold had donated mattresses and was going to give some of the women their approved contracts for microfinance loans. Unfortunately the women were not there, but we met with the workers there and talked with them about the difficulties of running this small hospital accessible only by water during the rainy season. Of course, malaria is a huge problem near the water, as most of the people in the village don't have mosquito nets.

For most people here malaria is a reality that is dealt with on a constant basis. People cannot afford the anti-malaria drugs that Karin and I are taking, nor would it be sustainable to be on these drugs year-round. Most have had malaria countless times, and treat it with a combination of modern medicine and herbal remedies.

On our canoe ride back we passed a slightly larger canoe-like boat full of sacks of sand. We watched as a man dove down and popped back up a minute later with a pale of sand. They sell this sand- both for building and for replenishing their sand floors that have flooded with the rains. Even after the rain passes you have to wait for the water level to go down so the flooding recedes, and hope for a sunny day to follow.

Ray (and a little bit of Karin at the end)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Eating in Benin

It costs only 50 cents to buy a good sized, sweet pinneaple here, though it may take some bargaining to arrive at that price. Its so fresh that even the core is tender and sweet. We've been trying to share a pinneaple a day, and sometimes two.  

There is a market just a couple of blocks down the busy road from where we are living that is lined with stalls run by women. They sell small tomatoes carefully aranged in pyramids that go for 40 cents, fried fish ranging in size from sardines to 1/2 pound, fresh and ground spices, and several root vegetables. We have been cooking our meals, but when in a pinch we have resorted to a quick meal along the road- everything fried in a large pot of oil heated by charcoal- yams, sweet potatoes, bananas, plain dough, a bean mixture...

We share our roof top kitchen (which is great for watching street soccer games and impending storms from) with two others living in the building. Edmond from Benin is the assistant to the President of the NGO that runs the place, and Francia is a student of journalism from Gabon. We have some pretty funny exchanges with the two of them as we often prepare and eat dinner together. Most recently I made guacamole with a huge avocado that cost some 30 or 40 cents and tiny limes that were potent- Francia had never seen such a thing and timidly tried it atop some fried potatoes (the closest to corn chips I could think of). Together we made a tomato sauce with those little tomatoes cooked down with onion, ginger, and garlic. We added smoked fish to the sauce and had it atop coucous.  

We often eat at Leopold and Leontine's. There is always a starch, either pasta, rice, or more likely pate (water boiled with corn flour, resulting in a solid soft textured mass that is rather tasteless, but once had a sour taste). The sauce always makes up for the pate's lack of taste as it is bound to be spicey. They use a large rock slab and a second rectangular rock as a mortar and pestel- mashing up tomatoes, ginger, garlic, onion, and peppers into a smooth mixture. We have had chicken a couple of times, but normally the protein has been a boiled egg, fish, crab, or shrimp. We have both been brave by our standards, eating whole tiny fried fish-face, eyeball, tail and all.  

But more than once I think we have disappointed our friends because we didnt eat the skin or fat of the fish/chicken/lamb, leaving behind bones that they would consider still full of "meat." Once at a restaurant in Porto Novo we didnt exactly recognize the part of the meat we had been served, and though the peanuty sauce was tastey, try as we did, we couldnt manage to clean our bones the way Leopold did.  

After lunch one day Leontine was chomping down on this little clump of gray, which I then realized was clay. She had a little plastic bag full of hard clumps of clay that she had bought around the corner- apparently lots of women here eat clay as a supposed source of calcium. She explained that sometimes she just really craves it, which makes me wonder if its a sign of an iron deficiency? I havent seen them eat any red meet and Im not sure what else in her diet may give her the necessary iron.  

Oh- and water! We have been drinking bottled water, avoiding directly drinking the tap water, though we do cook and wash with it. We thought that we had found a really cheap solution to our water drinking and bought some 20 liters of water for less than a dollar- .5 liter bags of water thats locals drink from by biting off a corner and sucking the water out. Turns out its nothing more than tap water, just packaged. Instead I used it to shower with when the water was out one evening.


Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Power of the Usher

We have not always gone to the same church here in Benin.  One Sunday we branched out and visited a Presbyterian Church in Cotonou.  As we arrived, we were greeted by an usher and given a bulletin.   Then, another usher took us to our seat.  Although the church is separatedby sex- men on the left and women on the right- they were expecting us and allowed us to sit together.  We were the only couple sitting side by side in the whole church- roughly five hundred people. We watched as the ushers showed people to their seats.

Not only were the two sides of the church separated by sex, but the ushers seated people by filling all the front rows before continuing on to the next row. This meant that every row was packed with 6 people- with very little personal space. This continued all throughout the service until the church was packed- two hours after the service started.

One of the ushers was on a power trip that day.  He made several women move seats, presumably because they were too close to the male choir members. An argument ensued, but he did not relent.  The women moved to another section.  I watched as people gave the ushers tips for giving them bulletins, seating them, and even retuning their tithing envelopes (there were four offerings at the service- the first being the tithe- and there was a big banner in the front reminding people that everyone NEEDS to tithe).  I bet more people would sign up to usher in the States if they got tips!

We are not sure if the ushers played a role at the end of the service-we left as the service hit the four-hour mark. The announcements were over an hour long, including the introduction of a new baby that took about thirty minutes (the entire family- over one hundred people-paraded in from the back of the church).   

In addition, the pastor spent over thirty minutes guilting individuals to come forward and pledge money for the church to buy a piece of property.  First, he asked that those who would promise 50,000 francs (100 US dollars) come forward.  He waited five minutes, begging people to come forward because ¨the Spirit was calling them to do this¨.   He painfully did this many times, asking for those who would pledge 30,000, 20,000, 10,000, 5,000, etc. He kept saying ¨no pressure, but God wants you to do this¨. No pressure indeed!  It didn’t take me that long to figure out that these were not things I would introduce to my internship congregation back in the USA!

Monday, June 22, 2009

Ouidah continued- The spirit returns

It turns out that I dont really know all that much about voodoo. Hollywood never taught me the complete story. But being here in Benin, the birthplace of voodoo, I am starting to understand this mysterious religion, and I have not seen or heard of anyone poking a doll with needles.

There is a big difference between voodoo and witchcraft (which is also practiced here). Witchcraft, I am told, is all about doing damaging things to other people or animals. Voodoo, on the other hand, has a lot to do with spirits and is meant to try and help people.

In Ouidah, we visited the python temple- an ancient voodoo structure errily located underneath several large trees filled with bats. The outside is not very impressive, but the numerous royal pythons roaming around sure do get your attention! For the voodoo, the pythons represent a god, Dan, and so they use the snakes in ceremonies and put their prayers before them.

Every seven years, the voodoo priests use the temple in order to purify the town. They cleanse the temple and put forward a big jug of water where the people can come and wash themselves clean. On different occasions, women who have trouble becoming pregnant will visit the priests and they will perform some ritual deep in the woods to try and help the woman become more fertile (one example involved scratching a woman's body with a claw).

Sometimes, priests will perform certain acts that take a persons spirit and sends it into a bird, which will then be able to transport them to Europe or somewhere else. For days at a time, I am told, a persons body will be copletely still ("If you saw them, you would think that they are dead", I was told). Eventually, the bird returns, and the persons spirit retuns to the body and the person continues their life as normal. Maybe this is the way I could get my mother to fly (if I actually believed in voodoo)!

In Oudiah, the Gate of Return is paradoxically close to the Gate of No Return. For the voodoo, a person never dies- their spirit is always with us, but cannot communicate with the living after death. This Gate of Return is meant to welcome back the spirits of all those slaves who died away from their families. Now, after being violently taken from their homes, they are back in the land of their ancestors.


Friday, June 19, 2009

The Port of No Return

It is estimated that 1/3 of the slaves that came to the Americas passed through Benin and Nigeria. Ouidah, located along the coast of Benin, was one of the most important slave towns on the entire continent of Africa. An estimated 20,000 slaves left every year from its port and nearby towns at the height of the slave trade in the 19th century. In 1885 the last slave boat left from Ouidah.

We spent last Saturday in this town with a Ouidah local- Ray's French teacher,Tarsasis, and our friend from Cotonou, Leontine. We followed the The Slave Route (Route de Esclaves) from the site of the slave market, where men and women were sold as a commodity in exchange for sugar and weapons, to the beach 3.5km down the sandy road. There were several stages along this route, one involved the Tree of Forgetfulness- a tree planted and blessed with magical powers so that upon circling the tree (men 9 times, women and children 7 times) they would have forgotten their names, their family, their identity, and the life they were leaving.

The next stage is called 'Zomai' and translates as 'where the light is not allowed.' Slaves would spend many months in this room before finally being shipped off-- disoriented, weak and their spirits broken. Those that died inside the room were thrown into a mass grave. The next stage involved circling the Tree of Return, to insure that their souls would find their way back home. Today, the final stage is marked by the Gate of No Return- a simple monument that leads to the beach.

Our visit to Ouidah, and subsequent conversations with our Beninese friends, raised some tough and uncomfortable questions to tackle. Do we, as white Americans, bare a responsibility to individually apologize for the past? And to who? Do we bare this responsibility because of the color of our skin, irregardless of the fact that our families did not participate or directly benefit from the slave trade? As a friend here put it (Im translating and paraphrasing)- 'you [Americans] have reaped the benefits of growing up in a nation that was built by the labor of Africa's strongest. And Africa has suffered.'

The same friend asked if we were proud of our country. Indeed we are, but not of every aspect of its past or recent history. Is it enough to be well educated about the abuses of the past? And to work to not repeat them, whether on an interpersonal or structural level?

Who do you ask for forgiveness? God? What individual would have the right to forgive, if not only symbollically?


Monday, June 15, 2009

Worship and Exorcisms

As part of my seminary experience at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, we spent our whole first year visiting different churches in the Philadelphia area. These included urban and suburban, and many different denominations (Baptist, Lutheran Episcopal, Roman Catholic, AME, etc.).

Coming to Cotonou, the person we had the most contact with was Leopold- a pastor at an evangelical church- with whom we have spent many days and become close friends. He and his wife Leontine are great people- smart, generous, caring, and fun to be around. It has been a joy to know them! What has been a pleasant surprise on this trip is to experience the African evangelical church. We have had the chance to worship with them on several occasions, and even tagged along for an "evangelization" trip. All have been interesting learning experiences.

Let me start by stating the obvious that the style of worship is extremely different from the way many North American Lutherans worship. The "prayer service" held Thursday nights is over two hours long, with a 45 minute sermon. When people at the church pray, they stomp their feet, smack their fist into their hand, and flail their arms. They also shout their prayers- maybe they want to be sure God hears them, and that God knows they really mean it. In any case, you can imagine what a church full of people praying like this all at the same time must be like. They must think I am crazy because I pray by bowing my head and quietly or silently praying.

Sunday worship lasts a bit longer- about three hours. It starts with some singing- which in Africa, means that there is also dancing involved. This is my favorite part! After some healthy amount of time dedicated to individual prayer, its time for the sermon- an even longer message. Ushers walk around and tap people during the sermon that have fallen asleep- after all, they obviously are not praying! Last Sunday, there was even a second sermon that lasted about twenty minutes (it was mainly about marriage and was more practical than biblical- the reason for this second sermon was that a married couple had recently had a baby that was being presented to the church family for the first time. Oh, and the baptism will have to wait until there is a public profession of faith).

During worship, the children sit outside, singing, dancing, praying, and certainly playing, too. After the second sermon, we took an offering for the family and their new child. Then came the church offering, where every donor has to come to the front to drop their francs into the box. It makes it pretty apparent who is not giving that week. After a little more singing and a good amount of praying, the service ended. I still have not seen them do communion.

Our evangelization trip involved going to a neighboring area and inviting people to a prayer service. The prayer service was going as expected, just like the ones held at the church in Akpapkpa, Cotonou, until the very end. At this point, Leopold invited those with any problems to come forward for prayer, and asked me to help. Leopold got started with some exorcisms, and as people were falling over left and right, I was praying and doing pastoral care with a woman who came forward whose husband beats her and cheats on her (Karin translated- she does a good bit of that!). Luckily, no one came to me saying that they had an evil spirit inside of them. I prayed with several others who were sick while the screaming and exorcisms continued, and then we finished with a song. Not your typical North American Lutheran experience!

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Photographing Akpakpa

There is a particular part of the city of Cotonou called Akpakpa (pronounced Ah-papa) that sits right along the sea and is home to some of the poorest in the city. Their houses range from humble concrete structures to little more than tin roofed shacks, most built directly on the sand. Wells are spotted throughout the dense quarter, providing relatively fresh (though questionabley clean) water just a foot below the sand. The narrow streets accomodate both vehicle and pedestrian traffic, and are often flooded if not littered with major puddles. Lining these sand packed streets are homes, store fronts, and stalls selling a range of fried goods, rice and pate with fish and a red sauce, and of course pinneapples and mangos.

It is the people that live in this place that are the focus of the documentary that I am working on. Some are fishermen, some are mothers who carry their goods on their head and walk the streets all day, some sit perched over a fire and sell food, some buy used cloth and sew new clothes from it, some drive moto taxis around the city, and yet others are still in school or have hopes to continue their education.

I have spent some time with several different families learning about their particular situations. While some speak French, many are illiterate and because they did not attend school they do not speak French. Leontine (the wife of the pastor who initially helped situated us) has been helping me with translation from their native language of Fon. This leads me into the various challenges that Ive been facing as I try to apply what I learned about the documentary process at the SALT institute ( this past spring to this situation.

In brief (and maybe of more interest to my classmates)
-how do you photograph a "natural" situation with a translator, this is especially problematic when their is very little space inside any of the homes. And how do you keep the translator from boredom when you want to spend a really long time there.
-how to effectively explain what the goal of photo documentary is when a) people assume you are taking their photo to sell it, b) they pose for photos, c) you want to spend alot more time with them than they would ever expect
-you are the only "yovo" (white person) in the area, and so always draw the attention of a gaggle of kids who want to be photographed as a group, not exactly the kind of photo Im going for
-you are photographing people who have an extensive and complicated social, religious, and political network that you need to navigate

I spent the morning with a particular family, and was able to move past the posing stage, a bit of the show and tell stage, and the initial discomfort with the constant presence of my large camera. I plan to focus on a sevral families, in hopes of capturing a bit of the larger picture.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Let the French Commencer

Monday marked the beginning of my French classes. Since I want to learn as much French as possible, I have signed up for two classes and am exploring the possibility of hiring another tutor. The class in the morning is a one-on-one with an experienced teacher from Benin, and the class in the evening is at the French Cultural center with 5 other students (one from India, Lebanon; etc.). Both are three days a week- Monday, Wednesday and Thursday (Lundi, Mercredi, et Juedi).

I am also reading The Idiots Guide to Learning French, and I have several workbooks that I am using for class. Things are coming along well, and I can form basic sentences, but Karin always laughs because I usually mess up at least one word in every sentence. I am forcing myself to use it more whenever I can. At the place where we are staying, there is a man from Benin and a woman from Gabon with whom I speak French (we are often in the kitchen up on the roof preparing meals at the same time), and I also use French more and more with Pr. Leopold and his wife, Leontine.

By the way, I didnt preach Sunday, but the stories from worship that day are worthy of a separate post on the blog!


Monday, June 8, 2009

When it Rains, it Pours

I was awoken the other night by thunder, thunder so loud that you might have guessed that the clouds had descended and were targetting just our roof. And then the lightening, it was so so bright that with my eyes shut, the window closed and curtain drawn, and my head facing the other direction- I still saw it. And of course, the rain. When it rains here, it rains. The dirt/sand road outside of our window was already flooded. And this went on into the morning hours... when it finally let up huge puddles were left, making some side roads impassable.

So far the rain has only come at night, leaving the rest of the day with bright blue skies and uninterupted sunshine. Which is probably why at 10pm last night it was still 31 degrees out. You can often find a good breeze, which is a welcomed reprieve from the humidity.

It rained again a couple of nights ago after we moved to our new place. This rain was accompanied by a wind that blew most of the rain horizontally in waves. From the security of our balcony it looked like hurricane conditions with trees bending and signs flailing.

This is the rainy season around here, so we are expecting more to come...

Saturday, June 6, 2009

The Move

Upon arriving in Cotonou, Benin, Pastor Leopold had arranged a room for us at the IBB- The Biblical Institute of Benin. This was a short term solution, for only three nights, as we looked for a place to stay for the whole month. The IBB has classrooms, a library, offices for the professors and administrators, and a guest room- where we stayed. Everyone there was very friendly.

Yesterday we moved out to a place a little farther from the center of Cotonou. It is a new apartment complex meant for visiting University students. Since school is out, we are the only ones staying there, along with the guard. We have a room with a bunk bed, two closets, a table and a bathroom. The roof, which at four stories high, towers over almost all the buildings in our area, is finished and has a kitchen with a stove and fridge, along with big sinks to do dishes and laundry (we did a load of laundry by hand this morning). This nice place is costing us only $4 a night.

Today we will head to the main market in Cotonou, which we have heard is the largest in all of West Africa. Tomorrow we will go to church with Pastor Leopold. The prayer service Thursday night lasted over 2 hours, so it will probably be a long one tomorrow! Originally, Leopold wanted me to preach this Sunday, but I am hoping he forgot or changed his mind (besides, was he expecting Karin to translate?) I will let you know how it goes!


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

We have arrived!

We arrived in Nigeria yesterday afternoon, and were greeted at the airport by a friend of ray,s who he has worked with on young adult issues with the World Councilof Churches. It was very reassuring to see a big smile and open arms calling out ray,s name in midst of the chaos as we exited the airport. It took us quite some time through the traffic, on mostly paved roads to arrrive at her aunt and uncle,s home somewhere in the seemingly never ending sprawl that is the city of Lagos. Her family welcomed us, and we ate rice, fried plantains (delicious!), and chicken...and figured out our plans to get to Benin in the morning.

We were in contact with a pastor in Benin that we met through a peace corps volunteer.. we met his cousin (who works in nigeria) this morning and he accompanied us all the way fro, Lagos, across the border and to Coutounu. We are very thankful for his help along the way, we managed the whole trip with only paying one minor bribe. We are set up here to spend the night at a theological school and will look for an apartment or soemthing tomorrow. On tomorrow,s agenda is setting up ray,s french class and setting up contacts for a documentary I hope to make on a particular quarter of the city.

By the way, it is hot here and humid too. Last night our room had AC, though the electricity did cut out in the middle of the night.

more to come...

Saturday, May 30, 2009

the plan

Hi friends and family!

Ray and I are leaving for West Africa tomorrow night and will return in early August. Ray is hoping to learn French and I am excited to put my newly acquired photo documentary skills to the test. We are hoping to each post something weekly.

May 31- leave Baltimore for Lagos, Nigeria
June 1- Arrive in Lagos
June 2- By bus to Benin.
Month of June in Benin (Ray studying french and Karin photographing)
Travel around Benin, Togo, and possibly Burkina Faso for the next month
Aug 6- Return to Baltimore