Friday, January 25, 2013

Transportation In The City

When I talk to the volunteers throughout Benin I always hear lots of crazy travel stories. Waiting hours for a taxi to leave. A Bull (very much alive) riding on the back of a moto. Locals riding on the top of the taxi. 11 People in a small car... it goes on and on.

Down here in the city taxi's are much more tame? Instead of live animals on the back of a motorcycle I am more likely to see a refrigerator or a couch. I never have to wait more than 10 minutes for my taxi to leave for Cotonou (the perk of traveling between the country's capital and it's biggest city). AND I rarely if ever see live animals or people on top of any sort of vehicle. In the city I seem to get more reliable and maybe even safer transportation than those who live out in the bush. (Safer – but not by any sort of American standard). That being said travel is still an experience no matter the style.

Types of Transportation In Benin

The most common form of public transportation. The name of this motorcycle taxi translates in Fon to “take me there fast!” Ze mi translates to “take me” in all of the local Fon based languages. You can tell a Zem by the uniform.. but be aware that this uniform differs based on the city you are in. In Porto Novo the Zem driver wheres blue... in Cotonou yellow.. in other cities you will find another color (or color combination). The uniforms are always identified by their number on the back, signifying they are in fact a part of the Zem union and are authorized to get you there fast. Make sure you discuss the price with the Zem before you go.. there are no fixed prices. Just the normal agreed upon price that people pay based on the gas price and some form of general consensus. Porto → Cotonou 2000cfa

Opportunistic Taxi
This person is not really a taxi.. they might be just a person with a car going to Cotonou for a day, or they might be a household Chauffeur. Either way this person is driving to Cotonou, and they find it worth their while to pay the small fee to park their car in the taxi station and fill up with passengers for the trip. You can tell these cars because they are relatively new and clean, they don't squish you in like sardines, and they don't get stopped at the pre-appointed gendarme bribe locations. Hey if you are driving there anyway.. why not make some money out of it? Porto → Cotonou 800cfa

Vrai 6 Place
In the US this would be a 5 passenger car... and we include the driver. In Benin this is a 6 passenger car... and the driver doesn't count. Four in the back and two at the driver side passenger. These Taxi's are the most expensive type of taxi because of their small size. I don't really understand the logic here since they are also the most uncomfortable. This car is usually falling apart.. has produce and other goods magically strapped to the roof.. is somehow not weighed down to the point of scraping the street AND will get stopped at every gendarme checkpoint.. also the car might break down once or twice. *Children are not part of this head count.. they do not pay fare and you can have any number of children sitting in laps in this car. Porto → Cotonou 800cfa

9 Person Peugeot
In my opinion this is the most common type of taxi. It is kind of like a station wagon but kind of not. This vehicle has an extra seat (a real seat not made up by the driver) in the back. In Benin this seat can fit 3. Tuning your 6 Place taxi into a 9 Place experience. As with the 6 place.. this car is falling apart.. usually looks as though it is about to tip over based on the top load... and gets stopped at every bribe point. Same also goes for the likely hood of car troubles and the number of children who might also be sharing the ride with you. The 9 place taxi is slightly cheaper than the 6 place. Porto → Cotonou 600cfa

My favorite form of city to city transportation the trotro is a van with bench style seating installed. Allowing it to hold around 20 people give or take. This is the cheapest form of transportation. It is also the most comfortable because you can slide your helmet or bag under the seat, and because the bench is flat and lacks squishy cushions you don't feel nearly as crammed in. The passengers are “generally” friendlier AND I can usually pick up a trotro in the market in my village which means I don't have to pay the 200cfa to get to the taxi “station.” Unlike with a taxi however, you do have to pay a little extra if you wish to strap bags to the top of the van. The tro for some reason.. does not get stopped at all of the gendarme check points. Porto → Cotonou 500cfa

There are different bus lines and there are different prices. The bus is not for travel to and from Cotonou. The bus is for traveling further distances (in my case anywhere north). Generally it is worth it to pay slightly more for the air conditioned buses that have assigned seats. The cheaper non-air conditioned buses can (and very well might) over book the seats... and have traveling salesmen trying to sell their cure all soaps walking up and down the bus for the entire ride. These buses are your typical tour buses like you see in the States.

I am sure there are other forms of travel in the north or in small villages that I have yet to be made aware of due to the fact that I live so close to a city and have reliable transportation available to me. I did one day see a city bus go by (only once) it was empty and I never saw it again.

No matter how you travel.. there is never a lack in interesting sights or sounds.. and occasionally the conversation isn't all that bad. Sometimes there are fights.. sometimes it is peaceful... mostly it is crowded. I have even started to keep a notebook of interesting things that I see when traveling in Benin – but I will save that for another day.


Saturday, January 19, 2013

People Are Strange - When You're a Stranger


Doors are stressful.

In Benin, if you are home you keep your door open. If you close your door.. well there is a whole list of reasons why your door might be closed.. none of them are particularly good. As an American volunteer this makes for many stressful scenarios.

If you are at home with your door closed.. it means you are mean and anti-social... or you or sick.. or it is the night and you are sleeping.. or it may mean that you have someone in your house that you shouldn't. -wink wink- Which is all well and good when you have multiple people living in your house, and someone is there to greet guests at all times.

It also doesn't help that as an American volunteer I am being watched very closely by all of my neighbors.. so if I don't open my door at the same time as the day before.. people really do start to worry. 

My personal opinion is that this “open door policy” stems from a history of living in houses that don't have doors. Now that many people live in more modern houses.. everyone has doors even the mud huts.. their ideas behind using these doors in much different than ours. Everyone has a curtain in their doorway. This curtain serves the purpose of a door more so than the actual door does. A door is for locking up your household belongings when no one is home. The curtain is for the rest of the day. In America we use doors for privacy, and for keeping people out.

Beninese people don't knock on doors. People say “ko ko ko” which is a verbal knocking to which you reply “mae mae mae” signifying yes I am here. I haven't yet understood the reason for having such a response.. since without the response the person stopping by will still just walk in the house anyway. Or sometimes they walk in.. and then say ko ko ko.

Maybe we are anti-social. However, these cultural ideas about having your door open or closed create problems for the volunteer. In America we believe in Privacy.

As a volunteer, who lives alone, I need to shut my door.. way more often then my neighbors would like. I shut my door when I am sleeping (at night or during the day), when I am showering (because believe it or not I don't want people entering my house while I am naked), when I am in the back doing laundry or washing dishes, when I exercise.. and sometimes when I am in fact feeling anti-social.

I try my best to keep my door open as often as possible in order to be culturally sensitive.. but I find this stressful both when it is shut and when it is open. For example, when I want to take a nap in the middle of the afternoon, I have trouble sleeping, because I know that if my neighbors come home they are going to think that I am sick and start to worry about me. On the other hand, if I am in my kitchen in the back of my house, cooking my lunch or dinner, it is not uncommon to then find my 4 year old neighbor (who in her own right is not malicious and is an absolute doll baby) sitting on my couch playing with my things (I did start keeping some kid friendly things out in the front room to counter this.. until adults with kids thought that it was ok to then take these things). Or I might end up with visitors expecting me to feed them because they stopped by.. and then I am a “horrible person” because I didn't anticipate said surprise visit and cook for 5, and yes you do get verbally called a horrible person for this. So where do you draw the line?

We are told to be careful about who we let in our house.. and yet we live in a culture where people think it is ok to enter freely without “really” asking. So how to you get them to leave without being super offensive?

It bothers me when a person assumes its ok to walk into my house, when I am not letting them in, if I am in the bathroom or the kitchen I can't always hear the whispered ko ko kos. I make a point not to let anyone come in past my living room, but some people think they are entitled. It bothers me even more when someone comes in my house, and starts cleaning, or going through my things in order to then claim them (this was a huge problem with American food items before I got my shelves in the kitchen and had things stacked up on my living room floor). Unfortunately, for me I guess, it bothers me the most when my neighbors are worried about my health or think that I am avoiding them.

Another culturally interesting thing about doors that I noticed is that at 7am neighbors think it is ok to tap on my door to ask me something and then later in the day complain that I didn't answer (well that is because I was asleep you you don't know how to properly knock) and yet when it gets dark and I close my door, because it is dark out and there are bugs and I don't really want people coming in my house at night (a lot of volunteers do this).. no one will knock because they all assume I am asleep.. at 8pm.. even thought my living room lights are on. I have even been told by people that they drove over to visit me in the evening.. but my door was closed so they assumed I was asleep.

For now I have just settled with the fact that my neighbors think I sleep A LOT. I shut my door during the afternoon “repose” to wash dishes.. exercise.. and shower. I shut my door when it gets dark, because that is the smart thing to do. I also don't open my door in the morning until after I have washed my clothes, and gotten ready for the day. Occasionally, if I go out for the day and no one actually sees me leave (which is rare), I come home to worried neighbors who thought I was sick and locked up in my house all day.. which is also what sometimes happens if I keep my door shut for too long in the afternoon.

What I really need to do is get some porch furniture made (right now I have to bring my living room chairs in and out), and spend more of my day sitting on the front porch, maybe then people won't feel the need to walk into my house just because my door is open (even though they are the ones who told me to keep it open).

Honestly though.
Sometimes you just need to be left alone.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

National Day of Vodun

January 10th was the National Day of Vodun (Voodoo).

Benin is the birthplace of the religion that we know as Voodoo, believed to be one of the oldest religions in the world.. the Voodoo here is not like the Voodoo that we generally think of in the states when someone mentions it. There are no “voodoo dolls” and no curses.

During our pre-service training, a Vodun Priestess came to speak to us for a culture session. She explained that when people were shipped to America and the Caribbean as slaves.. they brought their Voodoo with them. However, because of the distance from its heart (here in Benin) and because of the bad things that happened during the voyage and life in America.. the religion went sour. Hence the fact that is no longer the same religion as it was when it left the continent. In Benin Voodoo (locally called Vodun) is a religion of good and good things. It is acknowledged hat bad magic does exist, however, this is not Vodun. The bad magic often misrepresented as Vodun is sorcery or witchcraft. Being called a sorcerer or a practitioner of witchcraft is a very very bad thing. (This may have happened to some friends and I at a buvette a few weeks ago.. there was yelling and screaming.. and we got out of there ASAP when we realized that the fighting was being “caused” because of our “sorcery”) Voudun is meant to protect you against bad things and evil spirits. If you would like to read more about the Voodoo of Benin you can do that on wikipedia.

Vodun is the most widely practiced religion in Benin. Most people practice Vodun, even those who claim their first religion as Muslim or Catholic. Vodun is very much a part of culture and way of life in Benin. When a person tells you they don't “believe” in Vodun.. most likely they believe it very much, they just are trying to tell you that they do not practice it. For most of the 1900s the practice of Vodun was banned (mostly under communist regime). With democracy came freedom to practice Vodun as was as other animist religions in the north of the country. In the 1990s the people of Benin were granted Vodun Day as a National holiday in honor of their religion and to honor the rich culture of what was once the kingdom of Dahomey.. and also as a feteing equivalent to the national holidays allowed for Catholic and Muslim citizens.


To be completely honest – when I was invited to a fete for Vodun Day – I was excited for the cultural opportunity BUT very nervous about the various potential animal sacrifices I might have to sit through (or cry through). Knowing that chicken sacrifice is a big part of the Vodun Day fete.. and that our local Vodun priest has absolutely no aversion to the animal sacrifices I thought this might just be a sure thing. But that is half of why I'm here right? For the cultural experience? Luckily we made it through the whole day without the loss of any small animals (to my knowledge). Sigh of relief.

Early in the morning (Zoe early not real world early) we headed over to the home of the man who invited us (a local Vodun Priest). We were given our first beers of the day – yay breakfast – and then waited for the rest of his crew to show up. At which point we all loaded up on to the moto entourage and went to the local President of Vodun's house. This is where we sat around in a large room and watched the ceremonies that were taken place in Ouidah on a very small television screen until it was time to head over to the fete. Which by the way turned out to be taking place only a 5 minute walk away from chez moi. Oh well.. we got to show up with the VIP party.. I guess I can deal with getting up early for that.

When we got to the fete, taking place on the front lawn of the mayor's office... we were sat on the stage with all of the honored guests... a King.. Village Chiefs.. Vodun priests.. the whole lot. So now I can say I have sat on a stage with a king. Cool.

The actual fete reminded me of what it must be like to sit on the judging table at the end of a parade. Group of worshipers for different gods came up to the front of the stage and sang songs.. danced dances.. many of them had their deity with them to dance along. There were Zangbetos and other Vodun characters (for lack of a better word) wandering around the fete throughout the day. My favorite was the Vodun dressed in an outfit made entirely of neckties. After lots of singing and dancing there was a pause in the festivities so that all of the important people could get a chance to speak to the audience. And then the dancing and singing continued. At one point a group of men who had preformed the singing (and dancing) of the national anthem noticed the yovo's sitting on the stage and started singing yovo yovo until we got up and danced... the whole crowd was cheering for us.. thank you Africa. This whole event lasted about 4 hours. (My camera died about half way through – Africa has gotten to it – it no longer charges correctly.)

Once the public fete was over we went BACK to the Presidents house to have some pate for dinner.. and more drinks.. the mandatory photo opp for everyone to have a picture with the yovos... and then we headed home before it got dark.

We were all invited back for the second day of Vodun Fete... no fete actually lasts the prescribed number of days in this county. I think it was New Years Day for a whole week after the New Year. Unfortunately, we all had programs for Friday. I am sure it would have been a lot of fun (and they were going to give us t-shirts for day 2 too). We can do that next year now that we know!

Just Another Surreal Day,

Saturday, January 5, 2013

If You Don't Have Anything Nice to Say...

There is a famous quote in the Peace Corps. It is a quote by JFK in reference to the 1961 dropped postcard incident (you can read about it here if you would like) which almost ended Peace Corps before we even got on our feet.

Keep in touch... but not by postcard!”

The understanding in Peace Corps is that there is letter talk and there is postcard talk. Letters are closed off and are meant for the eyes of the recipient.. but nothing can stop anyone from reading the back of your postcard while it is in transit. Because of technology and access to information it is more important than ever for Peace Corps Volunteers who are viewed as Ambassadors in their country of service to be careful what they say and where they say it. You never know who will be checking up on you. Google translates everything. In place of letters most volunteers send e-mails.. in place of postcards we have blogs. Not only do we send out the postcard to friends and family back home. We are openly offering for it to be read by anyone who so chooses to do so.

On a positive note this be careful what you say rule – makes me sound like a very cheery person most of the time.

A few things have happened recently that reminded me why this is important:

Firstly, Someone I know in Benin Googled me on their smart phone. Yes, if you have the money you can do that here too.. but it is very slow. I mean, I know people have Googled me at home. Friends, prospective employers, strangers... For some reason, in Africa, you just feel a little more separated and safe from being Googled. I guess not. I know what happens when I Google myself.. so at least I know there is nothing negative to come of it.

The second thing, and more culturally shocking: At the office I had someone start sounding out the notes I had written in English in my notebook.. he was reading my notebook from the other side of the room (literally). While I know to use sense when writing my blog posts.. for many reasons. I was kind of thrown back by the fact that I was having my personal notes read by someone who wasn't even sitting near me!! Of course it wasn't anything bad.. but it was good to know that it was happening.

I have also had people I know pick up personal letters on my table in my living room.. and start sounding out the words. I understand that they don't know what it says.. and that for them it is just a way for practicing their English. To me it is a major breech of privacy. Especially since they then expect me to provide them with a translation. Just one of the many cultural differences I face here in Benin. Privacy, private time, this is not yours it is mine -- these are not concepts here. 

Mostly I am just rambling because I don't have anything nice to say this week -- 
It's all good -- I survived!


PS -- I had said back in September I would revisit my TOP 10 things I miss about Benin post when I finished my integration period. I personally feel like that makes for a very boring blog post. However, I made a link thingy on the right of the page. That is where those updates will go from now on. It was kind of funny how some of the things that left the Top 10 in September made it back for the January review. If you want you can check that out here

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Happy New Year!!!

All through the night on New Years Eve there was drumming in the villages... bands playing.. and gun shots as people rang in 2013. That being said, the real fete was today not last night... and besides the drumming happens on most nights whether it is a holiday or not. So while everyone at home was partying it up everyone here was taking it easy and preparing for today's celebrations.

Here in Benin the BIG holiday is not the Eve of the New Year.. it is New Years Day!

The only party that I was invited to was in Cotonou and I didn't want to do all of that traveling on New Years day.. or be in a big city on the holiday. I also didn't want to have to spend a night away from my post. I wanted to experience New Years in a village. Unfortunately, as I just said, I wasn't invited to any local parties :-/ SO I went to the village of one of my close-mates and feted with her and her concession family.

On New Years day in Benin everyone cooks food, and shares it with their neighbors. It is kind of like a neighborhood pot luck. I made a curried lentil and cous cous dish, and the volunteer I was visiting made a macaroni and cheese. We sat down with her concession family and it was a really great cultural exchange... the local villagers were not a fan of our American foods but they did their best to pretend. When they served us their dishes it became apparent to us that the family was discussing that we preferred our food to theirs (something we had also been discussing about them). When we asked them what we were laughing at.. they tried to play it off that they were laughing about something else.. but they didn't cover it up very well.

Normally Beninese people think it is strange that we don't absolutely love Beninese food. However, by eating our food first, I think that they made a comparison -- realizing that they didn't like our food either, and that it is really just a cultural difference. We shared some of America with them, and they gained understanding of cultural differences. (Now I am blogging about it to you in America and have therefore hit 2 of my 3 PC goals – on a holiday!)

Over all, the New Years Fete seems to be pretty laid back. Lots of people sitting around, eating, and enjoying the company of family and neighbors. Nothing like the crazy New Years parties we have at home. 


In 2012 I started off the year working at Adventure Aquarium – with all of the awesome people there. I was Invited to serve in the Peace Corps. I moved to West Africa. I successfully completed Peace Corps Pre-Service Training (thank goodness that's over) and my first In-Service Training. I learned to speak french (and started learning Goun). AND I met many many amazing people in Benin both fellow volunteers and also host country nationals.

This new year marks what is going to be my only full calendar year (can you believe that) working here in Benin. Which means it is really time for me to start getting things done! I am practically a quarter way through my service.. and I really hope that by the time training comes around in April I finally feel like I have something to show for it.

As I think and reflect it is truly crazy how many changes have happened in this past year.. lots of successes.. almost as many failures. All experiences the good and the bad were definitely learning experiences – which makes me grateful for everything that has happened this year – and excited to see what Benin is planning to bring me in 2013.

I wish everyone a happy and successful New Year!

Kudo Hwe,