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RPCV Matt Kopac writes a Badger in Benin
RPCV Matt Kopac writes a Badger in Benin
A Badger in Benin
Matt Kopac '01 is a former member of the Wisconsin Alumni Student Board. After graduation, he joined the Peace Corps — one of ninety-six alumni to serve that organization as overseas volunteers in 2002. Matt was assigned to the town of Djougou in Benin, a nation of 6 million on Africa's west coast. His duties include working with Benin's National Credit Agency to help local entrepreneurs with their accounting and business planning. Matt has also been sending letters back to friends at UW-Madison to tell us what life is like for an alumnus in Africa.
Hello from the UW Alumni Club of Benin! As the first — and until recently only — member of WAA's newest chapter, I elected myself charter president, and under my leadership, I've doubled membership. Barry Allen '01 and I talk fondly of our time at Madison during our chapter meetings at the local bar, and we check scores when we can at the Internet café. We argue up a storm with the representatives of Michigan and Minnesota, and we wear our Wisconsin apparel regularly.
Americans — whether wearing the "Motion W" or not — are a novelty to the people of Benin. Heads turn and voices rise whenever I pass down the street. Most of the time, people simply greet me, and I reciprocate — salutation is of utmost importance to the Beninois — but more often than I care for, the interactions are less congenial. Adults hiss as I pass by, and little kids sing the yovo song in chorus:
Yovo, yovo! Bonsoir. Ça va bien. Merci!
The tune is taunting, and the lyrics translate, roughly, as "Foreigner, foreigner! Good evening. Things are well. Thank you!"
The term yovo is of colonial origin, and by foreigner it implies particularly a Caucasian. It's unbelievable how pervasive use of the word is. When kids say it, most often they're just seeking attention, and the majority of adults don't seem to mean any ill will. After all, in the culture here, people identify each other by their obvious characteristics. People will refer to "the short guy" or "the woman with one arm" or "the guy with the fat wife." So I do my best to smile and wave and keep an open mind when people call me yovo, recognizing the historical context of the term.
Matt and other Peace Corps volunteers work a table at a career fair. Though the Peace Corps's focus is on transferring skills to the people of Benin, Matt's picked up a few skills from the Beninois — like how to live with pit latrines, which he describes as "rustic porto-potties."
But keeping one's own values and self intact while trying to understand and accept another culture can be difficult. For instance, the Beninois attitude toward road safety often leaves me fearing for my life. Accidents that would shock Americans are considered commonplace here.
One day I rode a bush taxi to the town of Ndali with another Peace Corps volunteer, Carrie. About halfway along the journey, we were forced to stop and allow a herd of cattle to cross the street. There were probably about fifty, and they streamed across and essentially surrounded our car. I was amused by the interruption and took out my camera to capture the moment.
As I was putting my camera away, Carrie grabbed my arm and told me to look ahead. A semitrailer was racing down the road toward us. Carrie and another passenger screamed and jumped onto my lap as the truck barreled through the herd — I learned later that it had no brakes. The taxi driver simply got out, checked his car (which had been beaten up pretty badly), then got back in. We drove off like nothing had happened. I guess there is no recourse for something like this here in Benin. I doubt anyone has insurance, and the fact that someone had no brakes I guess is not a huge deal.
What's a bigger deal — at least in some areas of Benin, where it's common — is polygamy. The practice is vehemently touted by its supporters for its practicality. People almost without exception believe that there are four to six times as many women as men in Benin — and without polygamy, they say, many women would be left husbandless. Even when I mention that the world gender ratio is virtually one to one, both men and women alike insist that Benin is an exception, as though it's some hallowed oasis untouched by the world's logic. Now, I haven't seen a recent census, but I'm willing to bet my year's salary — granted, that's just $1,000 — that the balance of the sexes in Benin closely mirrors that of the rest of the world.
I enjoy telling people that polygamy is illegal in the U.S., which seems to carry some weight with them. But then the Beninois often respond with questions about "American polygamy" — their term for cheating on one's spouse. It's acceptable here for men to cheat on their wives (they call it a deuxiéme bureau, or "second office") but not okay for women to do the same. But sexual politics and road safety aside, I've found the toughest aspect of life here to be adjusting to the perception of me as a wealthy American. I have a hard time figuring out how to respond when a Beninois requests money or possessions. I've been told that a request can be a compliment (e.g., "Give me your bike" can mean "I like your bike") or that it can be only a game or an attention-getter. But for the most part, these requests are made in expectation of receiving something. The constant bombardment has put me on an emotional roller coaster.
At first I feel compassionate — after all, one of the major reasons I joined the Peace Corps was to give of myself. But there are days when I walk down the street and hear, "Yovo, donnez-moi cent francs" — Yovo, give me a hundred francs — more times than I can count. I become annoyed and frustrated. I feel overwhelmed by their expectations and by the prospect of accommodating even a small portion of their demands — I've even been asked to pay for the schooling of two children.
But when I reflect, my anger often turns to guilt. I remind myself that the money in my pockets and the value of the clothes on my back are more than many people I encounter can hope for in a lifetime. The Beninois live in a society where there is the opportunity for education, but a scarcity of opportunity for gainful employment. Since their culture is much more community oriented than the U.S., it's only natural to look to friends and family (and, I guess, foreigners) for the leg up that the state doesn't provide.
So guilt leads to perspective, and perspective leads once again to sympathy. I do my best to remain in a state of constant compassion, but it's exhausting and more than I can handle at times. I'm beginning to understand the Peace Corps's emphasis on skills transfer instead of simple giving. But I don't want to give the wrong idea — most of my time in Benin has been marked not by friction but by connection.
I stayed with a Beninois family during my training, and they were very enthusiastic about hosting me. They included me in their Christmas celebrations, inviting me to stay up into the wee hours of the morning, feasting and fêting and dancing to both African and American pop hits. And on New Year's Eve, we all stayed up until midnight, though none of us knew exactly when that was. There was no ball dropping in Times Square, no Dick Clark counting down the seconds, and the family's three clocks each read a different time. The slowest showed 12:03 when we decided that 2002 had arrived, and we all started cheering and ran outside to light sparklers.
I've also bonded with my fellow Peace Corps volunteers. Last December, those of us stationed in northern Benin planned an exodus to the beaches of Grand Popo, the Beninois version of a tourist trap. The cultural highlight of the trip took place one morning after we'd all slept on the beach. As I relaxed on the shoreline and dug my toes into the still-cool sand, I spotted a boat of fishermen on the horizon, navigating their way back to land. The night before, they'd cast their nets into the ocean miles out from shore. Now they were returning to haul in their catch. Soon, the water was dotted with ancient, elegantly carved sea vessels and their crews, and communities of villagers began to line up on the beach to welcome them.
Once on shore, the men of each boat lined up along the ropes that they would use to drag their nets up onto the beach. While one member sounded off African rhythms on a bell, the others heaved in a rhythmic fashion while singing call-and-response tunes.
After casually observing for some time, a few of us decided to lend our scrawny frames to the cause. I bloodied my hands after only ten minutes, until a local woman brought me a towel to protect my palms. She accompanied it with an amused but friendly expression. I'm not sure if we bridged a gap between two worlds or merely reinforced the fact that such a gap exists. I remember thinking how odd it was that what was for me a cultural and ephemeral experience was for these people their livelihood. Nonetheless, they graciously humored us, and I believe actually enjoyed our presence.
It's difficult to overcome preconceived notions — mine about the Beninois and theirs about me. But with time and deeper relationships, I hope to do just that.