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 (salt.edu) 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...