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)

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