It is diffucult to know exactly how to express my experience of preparing to say good-bye to the city of Cotonou and all the people that have made it feel like home. I arrived here in January knowing all of five words in French, and having only one person as a contact to help me find my way. Almost 10 months later, my French is slightly better (still embarrassingly awkward), and I have created a family of both expats and Beninese that I never would have imagined. From my local friends, to Peace Corps Volunteers, to Embassy and USAID staff, I am so incredibly grateful for the friendships I will be taking with me when I leave.
In honor of my final days in country, I have created a list some of the things I will miss dearly. (Note that this list isn’t in order of importance, only in the order that things come to mind.)
1. Community Created by Circumstance
In West Africa, life is challenging in many ways for it’s inhabitants. People make less money, people (especially children) die more frequently from illnesses that could be easily prevented, infrastructure is not built to withstand weather ( note the flooding in the north of Benin that has currently is currently driving hundreds of people to homelessness.) But these challenges cause a certain bond in the community. This is true of my experience in both Ghana and Benin. I remember my first evidence of this was in Ghana, when I would ride on a tro-tro (those shared vans-turned-buses that are built to seat 8 but regularly seat 20). I remember squeezing in between five people, and out of nowhere a baby would be placed on my lap. Of course, I have no idea whose baby it was or how long that baby would be there, but there it was. I wasn’t special in this situation, that was just the way things were. There wasn’t much space, the mother probably already had one child on her lap, so she would pass her other child to someone else who had a lap to spare. This showed me the level of trust that people create in order to make life work. Such a drastic difference to life in America, where that woman easily could have been reported to social services for entrusting her child to a stranger without their permission.
You see evidence of this sense of community everyday in Benin as well. The way people greet each other with sincerity and a smile, and also in more severe, less positive ways. You often here about the ‘mob mentality’ of community justice. If someone is accused of stealing or some other crime, the people will take it upon themselves to make sure that justice is served. Sometimes this includes brutal and violent actions where the criminal is left in bad condition needing serious medical treatment. (This part I won’t necessarily miss.) People here know that they are the answer for their own survival and depend on each other for it. You definitely don’t see that as much in the developed world.
2. Never-Sweater Weather
When I arrived Ghana, the only warm weather clothes I had was my UC Santa Cruz sweatshirt and a zip-up sweater. The only time I have worn either was when I was stuck in an air-conditioned office for too long. While the days here can be sweltering, the evenings here are always perfect for tank tops and skirts. Weekends are often spent at the beach and I’ve enjoyed competing with friends on who can have the most awesome tan. (Don’t worry, I wear sunscreen always!)
3. (Almost) Anything You Want, Just Cheaper!
Want a local beer? That will cost you about a dollar. Jeans at the market? $5. Most things that would sustain the average expat are incredibly well priced compared to the U.S. The main exceptions are actual American products, which can be found at the one large and fancy grocery store in Cotonou, Erevan. There you can buy yourself pint of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream.. for the equivalent of $23.oo USD. But if you want fresh pineapple or a mango (or the chocolate ice cream bar pictured below that you can buy for 25 cents), it’s just small change, and that I will definitely miss.
4. Conversations with People from Around the World
Last week I went to a Lebanese restaurant with a group of friends. We were Americans, Lebanese, Egyptians ,and Nigerians. This was days after the attacks on the Embassy in Libya and I was interested to see what people from other African countries and the Middle East would think. The Egyptian thought that Americans had to much freedom (he was also misinformed and thought that the movie that has brought about so much controversy was funded and supported by the American government.) The Nigerian held only the protesters responsible for their actions as well as the maker of the film. We went back and forth throughout the evening talking about the different perspectives of all parties involved and the larger concepts surrounding American foreign policy and arising conflict in these countries. I remember thinking how rare it was so be able to sit down with people from all over the world and have these kinds of discussions casually over dinner. Of course, not all my international expat experiences are so serious. Who could forget the night the Japanese, French, Beninese, Dutch and Germans united with us over karaoke!
4. The Smells and Sounds of Africa
Many of my friends will disagree on what I am about to say, but there is something truly special about the way West Africa smells. Yes, it is often something of a mixture of body odor, excrement, exhaust from trucks and motos, and burning trash, but is also of the ocean, coconut water, and…more burning trash. But sometimes the burning trash smells like fall leaves (that’s when you know they are burning coconut shells.) Regardless of how disgusting it can be, I will miss it. The sounds of Benin are always chaotic and loud; engines revving in traffic, women calling out to their children, children shouting “Yovo, Yovo!” (that means white person) as you pass by. In quieter moments you hear wind through the palm trees and chickens or other birds. I will miss the horns of the ice cream carts, which sound like the kind of clown noses that squeak, and the French greetings of ‘bonjour’, ‘bonsoir’, and ‘Au Demain’, meaning ‘good day’, ‘good afternoon’, and ‘See you tomorrow.”
6. Being Part of the American Diplomtic Community
Here in Benin, USAID (my employer) is a joint Mission with the U.S. Embassy as well as the Peace Corps Bureau. We share many aspects of our day-to-day work life; things like the cafeteria, and housing pool, as well as all major events. We had a fabulous 4th of July celebration at the Ambassador’s residence, and most recently (and to me, most importantly) staged an event where the American diplomatic community had the opportunity to mean Secretary of State, and one of my personal role models, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Secretary Clinton came to the Ambassador’s residence after attending the funeral for John Atta Mills, the late President of Ghana. She gave a speech, where she acknowledge that the country of Benin was ‘small, but mighty’, and that our hard work had not gone unnoticed. Then she went around and individually shook all of our hands. When she came to me, I said, “Madame Secretary, it is an honor!” Her response? Warmly, she said, “No, the honor is mine.” That may be one of my all time favorite moments of living and working in Benin. Below is a picture of yours truly and my Embassy buddy, Claire, shortly after meeting the Hillary (can’t you see we are glowing with excitement!)
I know that I could make this list go on to 100, but I also know I have expressed in previous blogs what I have come to love about this ‘small, but mighty’ country. More than anything I will of course miss my friends. Peace Corps has become my social backdrop, and one volunteer in particular has become my very best friend. Also nick-named my ‘Soulmate,’ Andrea Leiser and I joke that it was the fates that brought us together. We met on her birthday, when a group of voluteers went to the beach to celebrate. We were having the basic ‘getting to know you’ conversations, asking questions like ‘what did you study?’ and ‘How do you like Benin?’ as we sat on the edge of the shore where the waves would just barely touch our feet. Then, out of no where, this monster of a wave pummeled us. For most people it would be incredibly awkward, as there were legs, arms, and who knows what else entangled between me, and this stranger I had just met a hour before. But Andrea just both cracked up, laughing until we cried. So it was the waves of Africa that forged our friendship. The rest is pretty much history, we have both had incredibly challenging moments over this past year, and I know I am incredibly grateful that was around for them (I have a feeling she would say the same.)
I will end this post by saying that words cannot express how glad I am that I took the risk in the beginning on 2012, and jumped on a bus with a visa and fingers crossed that I would make life work here in Cotonou. While I have had many frustrating and uncomfortable moments, the benefit of living and working here has far outweighed the cost. I will miss you Cotonou, but I must move on to the next adventure. My last African blog post will be from Niger, where I will spend the next week learning about one more African country before heading to home sweet, America! Much love to all my dear readers, I am so grateful to have had you with me on this amazing journey. Niger, here I come!