|By Admin1 (admin) on Saturday, April 05, 2003 - 7:34 pm: Edit Post|
Welcome to Dean's Benin Home Page
Welcome to Dean's Benin Home Page
was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Benin from September of 1993 until December of 1995. I worked as a rural community development agent in a small town called Nikki located in the Northeast corner of Benin. The town was over 300 miles from the capital city, Cotonou, and it took me a day and a half to travel to my post by bush taxi.
Living in Nikki was a challenging and unforgettable experience. Not only did I live in impoverished conditions, but I had to learn two new languages ( French and Bariba ), identify and adapt to a new culture, and somehow find a way to aid the community.
Surprisingly, it was relatively easy to adjust to the poverty. When everyone around you is poor, you don't feel all that poor yourself, and realize that poverty is in large part defined by how you measure yourself against your neighbors. My $180 Peace Corps living allowance was significantly more than the average Nikki salary, and I felt quite well off in spite of "substandard" conditions.
I lived in a mud brick house with electricity for 12 hours per day and no running water. I had a small propane stove, a kerosene refrigerator, a small shower, and a latrine a few yards from my back door. I slept under a twin size mosquito net to avoid malaria. I bathed, drank, and washed clothes in well and pump water. Wafer thin, yet lightning fast spiders darted up and down my walls; cockroaches scurried across my floor; and small lizards occasionally scampered down from the rafters in search of food. Though these living conditions were rudimentary, unfamiliar, and initially shocking, I quickly grew used to the hardship without much trouble.
My Peace Corps frustrations stemmed from linguistic and cultural differences, not material deprivation. I suddenly found myself in a foreign culture with strange values, odd customs, and enigmatic rules of etiquette. When I walked outside my house, crowds of people would gather around me, perplexed by my skin color, equally odd behaviors, and weird accent. Many would yell "baature, baature, a man gobi ke;" or, in english, "white man, white man, give me some money." I knew how I wanted to respond: "I believe that outright monetary gifts are not the best way to facilitate the long term sustainable development of your community, but I would be more than happy to help you organize projects with your own resources." Unfortunately, my Bariba skills didn't allow for this degree of clarity, and I usually babbled something like; "Me no money have, came here so together do things with your money, giving money without your help, bad." This inability to communicate clearly and succinctly was extremely aggravating. It made me feel like a child, and forced me to reevaluate my lofty goals for my first year of service. Instead of working on elaborate projects, I decided I needed to spend the bulk of my time simply learning the language. Looking back, I more or less succeeded. I did reach a satisfactory level in Bariba, and became practically fluent in French.
Adapting to cultural differences was also challenging. For example, the Bariba culture viewed property in a communal sense and possessions were shared even with people you barely knew. As a member of their community, relative strangers would come to my door and ask to use my bike, my walkman, my radio, etc. What's more, they would do so in an abrupt and curt tone which my American perspective viewed as rude and presumptive ( yet this abruptness was normal in their culture and unoffensive ). My reaction was split. On one hand, I wanted to be culturally sensitive and adapt to the society's norms. On the other hand, I found it difficult to ignore my conditioned response that these requests were inappropriate. In the end, I compromised, sharing many of my possessions, but excluding certain expensive items such as my bike, camera, and radio.
The Bariba people also had a different perspective on time. Most likely, the hot sun and their simple lifestyle contributed to this perspective, which was characterized by comparatively little concern for punctuality. Few people owned watches, and many did not know the days of the week. People kept track of time through successions of the moon and the arrival of the rains. My project meetings with community leaders were routinely hampered by absenteeism and extreme tardiness. Many of my fellow Peace Corps volunteers identified this different conception of time as one of the most frustrating elements in rural Benin; not only was it personally aggravating, but it slowed work as well. However, after two years I grew accustomed to this slower pace, and learned to work under its constraints. I also began to suspect that Americans are too fanatical about time...
Everyone's heard the popular Peace Corps slogan...
The toughest job you'll ever love.
Here are some statistics on Nikki. 70 percent of the town's 8,000 inhabitants are illiterate and the average monthly salary is $40. 90 percent of the people live without electricity, and 95 percent are without running water. The economy is primarily agricultural; townsfolk grow yams, corn, cotton, and peanuts. Most people live in mud houses with straw roofs, but a few houses are cement reinforced, and fewer still have corrugated tin roofs. About 3 people own old, beat up cars. The other vehicles are either bush taxis or trucks belonging to developmental and governmental agencies.
Let's look at a map!
Nikki sure is far from the coast...
It's hard to believe I lived in Nikki for 10% of my life. I spent two years in a mud house, learned Bariba and French, and lived adjacent to a muslim family with 5 wives and 27 children. They all had great names, such as Sourajou, Issiakow, and Aiesstou. My family, like the townsfolk, were fascinated by my white skin, strange language, and enigmatic behaviors. I was equally enthralled by their cultural peculiarities. In general, I feel like I received so much more than I offered to this wonderful community. The people were incredibly nice and I miss my Beninese friends a great deal.
So what did I offer? Besides my goodwill and openess, I helped build two primary schools, lay a basketball court, renovate a library, and start a chicken farm. I implemented infant growth monitoring programs in 4 villages surrounding Nikki, and taught english in the local high school.