Sunday, December 30, 2007

December 2007

With so much going on, and a distinct lack of post-Thanksgiving over-commercialized holiday advertising, December crept up on me. My focus at school was on writing and giving the first set of final exams which, though stressful to write up and nerve-racking to give, turned out pretty well.

Only a few days in, my postmate Heidi left for her long vacation in the states (her first time back since leaving the summer of 2006). Although I missed her, I took it as a good time for me to have a quiet few weeks to get myself together. As the nights and mornings cooled and the Harmatan winds picked up… so did my spirits and my energy. I started talking with colleagues about potential projects in the Spring. I organized the house and ventured further out into the village. I hung up my hammock, ordered a rocking chair, and handled my first dead mouse (it was an accident!). It was a welcomed, boring few weeks. As the holiday approached, news from home was my only reminder of nostalgia. Luckily, the week before Christmas my friend Megan and I fell upon the idea of making everyone who would be together in Natitingou stockings from colorful African tissue. Little did we know what we got ourselves into! Sewing each stocking by hand… names across the top and everything… we must have put in 50 hours each but it was so worth it to drop that little bit of Christmas spirit around… we even made two with jewish stars for our non-christian buddies!

Packing up and leaving Badjoude this time was much more organized than the haphazard departure to Parakou. I arrived in Natitingou and had an incredible visit. We made a side-trip to Boukoumbe, a mountain village where we hiked 3 hours into the hills to spend the night in a Tata Samba (mud hut castle). We also swam in waterfalls, made potato pancakes with real applesauce Christmas morning, visited an orphanage Christmas day, ate pizza and REAL CHEESE (baked brie is a luxury no matter where you are… but pure heaven in Africa), planned for next year’s national spelling bee, and watched Grey’s Anatomy. The only down-side was several people’s illnesses, including my own: first Christmas in Africa followed closely by my first cold... how appropriate!

Now I am heading back to Badjoude to celebrate the New Year au village. Since this is the biggest holiday in Benin I am looking forward to lots of eating and festivities… I cannot believe it is already 2008!

November 2007

November, unlike March, came in like a lion…. and went right out roaring as well. It began with the sudden, unexpected departure of a dear friend of mine. Erin was an amazing girl I was lucky enough to call post-mate for one month. The closest TEFL volunteer, her post was Djougou and a perfect resting spot for any travels. She had been struggling with pain in her legs for weeks (months, really) and finally went down to Cotonou to see if the doctors could discover the cause and help treat it. When the source of the pain couldn’t be discovered after two weeks of testing, they had no choice but to send her home. I think in the end she was at peace with the decision, but we were all very sad to see her go. So far, our little TEFL family had yet to lose anyone and this loss hit hard. To make matters worse, admin decided last minute to only give her a day at post so the only way for many of us to see her before she left was to travel down south to see her off. It was a sad but really touching weekend. Even with the repercussions that would follow, I wouldn’t have changed a thing.

The middle of the month brought a nice respite. I got into the teaching routine, enjoyed my kids, gave quizzes at my house… my terrace packed with eager students always hoping for one more piece of candy when they were done. I added some extra touches to make it feel like home. Hung out with my closest postmate Heidi as she battled a knee injury and needed my house as a recuperating spot (I was happy to oblige!).

As Thanksgiving came closer, I began to see a slight change in the weather. The infamous harmatan wind began gently puffing dust around. All around, fields were set on fire… leaving behind black ash and awkward stalks after their dramatic glow. I was amazed how much closer everything looked without the tall fields blocking the view. Pigs were a new addition to the landscape as well…. dozens of them roaming around freely now that the dry season was here and they could no longer damage crops. It took a couple days for me to get used to the chorus of oinking that would accompany a gang of pigs running through my yard!

As the end of the month approached, I got more and more excited. All the talk of my cousin Emilie and her fiancé Rowan coming to visit was finally going to become a reality. Unfortunately, they did not make it in time for Thanksgiving day… doubly sad since this year it happened to fall on Emilie’s very special 30th birthday! I was lucky enough, however, to have some good friends over to salvage the day for me with a turkey hand cut-outs, spaghetti, and lots of sangria! We even went around and said what we were thankful for… the recurring answer being: friends the feel like family.
True to her promise, Emilie fought hell AND high water to make it to my doorstep. Three cancelled/delayed flights and a 9 hour night taxi ride later, she and Rowan rolled up to my little house in Badjoude. I cannot express how it felt to see real family… THIS family… one of my “sisters.” All the stress of the last few weeks, the uncertainty of the last few months, the joys and travails of living here came crashing together and tumbling down. We hugged and I just felt BETTER. Not to mention the pre-cooked turkey and honey ham that by some miracle (and Rowan’s genius) made it intact to my kitchen. We started cooking right after they arrived at 10 pm and stayed up until 3 am eating and talking.

Since they arrived so much later than was planned, we only had the next afternoon to visit Badjoude before heading off to Parakou for my training which started bright and early the next morning. Though it was a whirlwind, I couldn’t have asked for a better visit. They saw everyone in village who was important to me, got to taste several local dishes and drinks, and Em documented everything on their digital camera. So fun! At 4 pm we piled into a bush taxi and started our 4 hour trip to Parakou… where we arrived happy but exhausted, and covered head to toe by red dirt kicked up by the taxi on the 40 k road before you hit paved highway. The orange tint it gave my skin, matched with my short stature, made me look disturbingly like an oompa-loompa.

The rest of the week was spent going to sessions all day and squeezing in time with Em and Rowan during lunch and dinner. It was tiring but definitely worth it. It was a sad day for me when I watched them jump on motos and ride off to their bus-stop in the early morning. The sadness I felt from that and worrying about my dad was lifted a little when I received the good news that his cancer surgery had gone well. When I finally made it back to Badjoude I was exhausted, physically and emotionally, and looking forward to a few good weeks of nothing to get myself organized and well-rested.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

October 2007

Whipping Fête ~ October 26 – 28

Lucky me that one of the most interesting festivals in Benin (and I’m not biased at allll) happens in my little village at the end of every October. It is called ‘la fête de chicotte’ – the Whipping Fête.

I know much more about it since having interviewed two village wisemen about it several days ago for an article I’m writing for PC. I will try to figure out how to make link to that article but don’t hold your breath!

Though I’ve learned a lot since, back in the last week of October I had little more than a vague collection of facts surrounding the event: largest Lokpa celebration, during which young men whip each other, a sort of ‘rite of passage’ in order to attain manhood in the eyes of the community. Oh yah and there would be lots of drinking.

Happily, my house became “Whipping Fête central” where I welcomed nearly 20 volunteers over the two days, including the first volunteer in Badjoudé – a village hero, and rightly so – Annie! She came at just the right time in my service, when I felt comfortable and familiar enough with Badjoudé to want to learn more. She introduced me to different important people, gave me tips about the house and general living, and gave me a lot more insight into Lokpa culture in general, and the Fête in particular.

With her help we hosted quite the event: ordered drinks from the bar and two large barrels of the local brew Chouc-chouc (a cross between beer and cider, in my opinion, and made from millet) to offer visitors and dancers throughout the two nights of festivities. We also made appropriate visits to the village King (yep, had no idea Badjoudé had one of those!) and mayor. She even spoke with local police and border patrol, and organized a bus and 5 guides for us to go see the festivities in a nearby village just across the Togo border the day after Badjoudé’s celebration. It was a crazy and amazing two days.

The fête itself is so hard to describe to someone who was not there. I know I will fail miserably in trying to do so but I hope to get a few pictures up to give a better idea. The morning of Badjoudé’s, always the first of the season with the surrounding village’s festivities happening throughout the following week, we awoke just before sunrise. Luckily, my house is just a stone-throw’s away from the action so we lazily made our way up to the main road and waited. Just as the sun came up over the trees we started to hear the drums and whistles in the distance. More spectators came to join our crowd and within a few minutes we could make out two mobs of people dancing, blowing whistles, and singing their way towards each other from opposite directions on the long dirt road. They were two of Badjoudé’s quartiers (neighborhoods), rivals, and there was going to be a rumble!

When the two groups finally met in front of us, there was much battle crying and boasting. Then, all at once, everyone turned and stampeded into a nearby field. What had just moments before been a calm clearing of waist-high grasses rustling in the wind, was instantly transformed into a battle field. The best way I can think of to describe the mood is “cheerful chaos.”

At first, looking into the field you would have no idea what was going on: there are so many people, whips flying, the deafening din of hundreds of whistles and raised voices, white powder being thrown around… I got doused by an enthusiastic spectator and was pleasantly surprised to discover it was baby powder. Saved me a shower and I smelled baby fresh the rest of the day!

Eventually, your eyes adjust to the commotion and you begin to see that there are dozens of matches going on at the same time. For each match there are two competitors armed with a whip in one hand and a long club for blocking in the other. In between them stands a “referee” who blows a whistle to let them know when it is their turn to make a hit or to defend. Each fighter gets two consecutive chances to try and hit their opponent. All of the competitors are shirtless, so when someone makes a solid hit, even with the surrounding ruckus, there is no mistaking the sound of whip on flesh. WWWWHAP! And you wince because you know that’s going to leave a mark! Talk too long with any Lokpa man, especially when he’s had his daily share of chouc-chouc, and he’ll soon be lifting his shirt or sleeve to give you a tour of his “battle scars.” They are so proud!

What surprised me about this event, and still surprises me reading back through my description, is how NOT barbaric it actually is. I first thought my mind would reject the battling as foreign but in the end my expectations were reversed. It turned out I was not as shocked by the whipping and more surprised by the free-for-all atmosphere of the spectators. People are screaming, dancing, singing, dressed in every which way. The men who have already undergone the ceremony are the craziest: decked out in anything imaginable… the only staple being some item of women’s clothing. A general outfit might be a cut-off jean skirt, flashy red bra, elmo stuffed animal tied to the waist, plastic bags around the ankles, and a small animal scull attached to a headdress on top of a tinsel wig.

My sociology major mind did not miss the irony of hundreds of flashy, cross-dressing men in a country which officially denies the existence of homosexuality. (I’ve had several curious people ask me about the “phenomenon” and then shake their heads disbelievingly, concluding it is must be an “American” or “European” thing). I had guessed this tradition of dressing in women’s clothes must be a modern add-on but my wise men informants told me that it has been a part of the customs since the beginning. It is a way for men to demonstrate the strength and security of their masculinity. Uh-huh.

After a sufficient amount of battling has taken place the two groups merge with spectators into a big dancing circle and then eventually dance their way up the main road to the center of town to merge and battle with other neighborhoods. After a morning of following different groups, everyone crashes for the afternoon repos (nap time!) and then reemerges lazily for celebrating that lasts well into the night. Our group happily took the rest time, then got up around 2 to go greet the king and thank him for permitting us to attend the festival. As is customary during any holiday, we were welcomed with chouc and food (little fried bean cakes) and then sat around making small talk with each other and the king’s family under the shade of two ancient baobabs.

The whole day seemed like a dream, a bright sunny morning illuminating an incredible cultural experience… made personal by the fact it was MY village: MY students running around (and some of them proudly whipping), dancing next to MY neighbors, MY Papa holding court over the first battle, etc etc I’m sure the dreamlike effect was not at all dampened by the continuous supply of chouc which I was obligated to drink in order to be polite to our hosts!

The next day we got up early again and piled into a bus to head over to Kemerida, which Annie promised was worth the trip. We were not disappointed. This village’s Whipping Fête turned out to be an interesting contrast to Badjoudé’s. Theirs was organized, each little neighborhood having a personal ceremony and tiny courtyard battles. In fact we divided ourselves into small groups of three or four so as not to overwhelm these more intimate events. Here we could actually see what was going on; the protocol, each step of the ceremony which the day before seemed incomprehensible. They had official sites for each “tournament round” bringing together more and more groups until the final “play-offs” neatly held inside a huge stadium-like circle. There were even Red Cross officials on-hand to handle injuries… it felt very much like a soccer tournament, screaming “soccer moms” on the side-lines and all!

When all my visitors eventually packed up and headed on their way I was exhausted, the house was a wreck, and there were lesson plans to write, but I wouldn’t have changed a thing. That weekend, more than anything that had happened yet, made me feel like I had ARRIVED.