Little Beninese Things

An Update

Hello from month 9 in Benin! I didn’t actually notice when this marker passed but it presented a great opportunity to reflect on this whole experience so far. Some volunteers from my cohort said it came quicker than expected and some felt like it’s already been 2 years. For me, I feel like time has passed pretty appropriately: I feel like I’ve been here for 9 months. May was excruciatingly long and probably the most emotionally challenging month I’ve experienced in Peace Corps so far. On the other hand, June has already flown by and I expect the rest of the summer will do the same. Between a summer camp in July, leading diversity and inclusion sessions for the new training cohort, a potential vacation, and some projects in Dogbo, it feels like a sprint to September right now. We’re also getting into the height of rainy season, which brings the constant threat of coming home soaking wet or of moto accidents on muddy dirt roads. Weather forecasts are neither available nor useful, so asking people Tu penses qu’il va pleuvoir? (Do you think it’s going to rain?) has officially replaced hourly weather updates. All in all, I’m feeling good about this summer, even if it inevitably comes with lots of stressful rainstorms and squished taxi rides.

Little Beninese Things

I wish I updated this blog more regularly but it’s really become more of a check-in. At the same time, I want to share as much of Benin as I can. It can be awkward discussing my experience here with someone who doesn’t have the whole context, so I wanted to explain different aspects of Beninese culture that have been important to understand over the last 9 months. Benin isn’t a tourist hub in Africa as opposed to countries like South Africa, Ghana, or Morocco. A lot of volunteers never heard of the country before receiving an offer to serve here and nearly no one from home had ever heard of it either. Foreign presence here is mostly French or Belgian, since Benin is a former French colony, but there’s also a decent amount of Lebanese, Germans, Japanese and Chinese. The American presence is pretty much dominated by Peace Corps volunteers. Our experience of living in Benin is totally different from a lot of expats who mainly live in Cotonou, the capital. For all of these reasons I feel really lucky to share Benin with everyone reading at home because of the country’s deep cultural history, its historical connections to the United States, and just because it’s been chez moi for the last 9 months!

Culture Shock

As you can imagine, experiencing culture shock is basically in the job description of a Peace Corps volunteer. According to my mom, I adapt easily to new places and in my experience traveling so far, I’ve never experienced intense culture shock on arrival. Instead I’ve found the well-known frustrations of it to come on slowly, over the course of months when cultural differences make projects take longer to plan, or something happens that doesn’t make any sense, or I don’t know if someone is complimenting me or dissing me.

Saluer means to greet in French and greeting people is probably 20% of what I do when I’m in Dogbo, both in French and Adja, my local language. The culture of greeting here is serious business and is one of the first things they taught us in training. If you want to talk to someone you have to go through a long line of greetings first:

Person 1: How are you?

Person 2: I’m fine

Person 1: Did you wake up well?

Person 2: Yes 

Person 1: How is your husband?

Person 2: He’s fine

Person 1: And your kids?

Person 2: They’re fine

Person 1: And work?

Person 2: That’s going well

And then you can maybe start to talk about what you originally wanted to talk about. For people you know well, you would go through something like the line of greetings above. It’s almost unfathomable to start any kind of social interaction or financial transaction without at least bonjour/bonsoir, ça va? The alternative is being impolite. The list of potential greetings is even longer than this-I’ve counted 17 different ways to say how are you in Adja. All of them reflect a very Beninese concept of togetherness (On est ensemble “we are together” is basically the national motto).

On Names

No one calls each other by their name here. I didn’t learn my next-door neighbor’s name until I lived with her for 3 months. It makes it easier to get past the awkward trying-to-remember-everyone’s-name thing that Westerners love to do.

Instead the general rule is this:
Women under 30 → Tata/Dada (sister)

Women over 30 → Maman 

Almost all men → Grand frère (big brother)

Old men → Oncle (uncle)

Kids → Petit(e)s (Little ones)

Me → Tata Carly (or Yovo, when outside of my neighborhood)

Professional settings here follow the same line of thinking. At my host organization, everyone is called by their title. My boss Bernadette is called Presidente, my direct work partner Toussaint is called Coordinateur, and the accountant, Celestine, is called Comptable. As you can see, naming is very direct and matter-of-fact based much more titles, relationships, or physical features than someone’s first name. As such, yovo is a word for “white person” or “foreigner” that is often the subject of debate among volunteers. I actually had a hard time articulating how I feel about it but thankfully Noah, another volunteer, brilliantly wrote about the complexities in how Americans respond to this word (his blog is what I wish my blog was).

Understanding Beninese culture has been one of the most important aspects of integration, managing culture clash, and planning successful projects. I feel really lucky to have a lot of people to help me with this challenge. Peace Corps trained us well in our first 3 months and staff is always an available resource, language lessons with Cyrille often turn into culture lessons, and the experience of other fellow volunteers can be invaluable.


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