Brace Yourselves, It's a biggie
Trip Start Jun 02, 2003
41Trip End Dec 31, 2006
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When I sat down in the taxi and squished next to the woman and baby next to me, I felt something wet. I had sat on the end of the a sarong that had been soaked and wrapped around the baby, a boy of about 1 year old. I gently lifted the end of it up and sat back down, and then, I turned to look over at the boy. The mother said, "Baturé! Baturé!" with a desperate tone and held the baby up for me to see. His eyes were half-open, and his mouth hung down like an empty Christmas stocking. He was obviously very sick, and his mother hoped that, as a white foreigner, I might be able to do something to save him
Mother and son were on the way to a large hospital near Parakou. They had been to the hospital in N'Dali, and the doctor there said he could do nothing and referred them to Parakou. Another passenger and I yelled at the chauffeur to get into the car and get going. This was an emergency. This boy was dying. The other passengers and the chauffeur jumped in, and we took off, speeding down the bumpy road to Parakou. The woman continued to wail, and I tried to comfort her and her little boy, who didn't really react to any touch. I brought out my water bottle to give him a little water, which just sort of dripped down his front unswallowed. The mother pulled on his lower eyelids and then tried to close his eyes and his mouth. The eyes relaxed back open to a half-closed stare, and the mouth resumed its empty stocking openness. The mother continued to cry and hug her child.
Maybe 10K out of N'Dali, the woman told the driver to stop. We were passing by her house, and she wanted to consult with her mother. She jumped out of the taxi, cradling the baby, and ran barefoot across the large dirt "lawn" of the concession to her mother. Then, she ran back, stopping short of the taxi to let another relative examine him. In the end, she didn't get back into the taxi.
After the car doors closed, the men in front said, "That baby has been dead since N'Dali, when she held him up and his eyes opened and his mouth fell." As the taxi drove away, I turned around to look through the back window and watched as the grandmother took the baby from the mother's arms, and the mother stood by the side of the road, defeated
The men in the taxi were angry. "These people always wait till the last minute to take the baby to the hospital! That's why he died!" They cried. "Why do they do this" Why, indeed. This is a pretty common occurrence and one large reason why infant death is so high here. People don't have enough money for medication or medical care, so they wait until the child is on the verge of death before they will take him or her to the hospital.
Depressing. Not a very uplifting way to start my travelogue, I know. But, have no fear; the rest of the entry is not quite as disheartening. I included this story because it is an integral part of my experience in Benin, and the travelogues wouldn't be complete if I didn't include it, as it represents one of the realities of living here. I have seen so much more illness here. I have sat next to my best neighbor, Mama Isbath, and held her hand as she writhed on the floor in pain, crying out to God to save her from the Typhoid fever that was destroying her body. And still she did not let tears wet her face. That would be unacceptable. Now, she is better, thank goodness. She was able to afford the medicine that most cannot. Anyway, hopefully, I will not have to write something like this again. It's funny how we volunteers - foreigners to this culture - talk and think sometimes. We can't wait to experience a funeral, for example, because of the interesting cultural differences and the dancing we will see. We sometimes forget that we may be attending this funeral perhaps because of a horrific illness that has ended someone's life a little too soon and not always because a woman or man lived a glorious life until the ripe old age of 105.
But, before I make you not want to read anymore, let's zip backwards in time a bit to Alfakoara, Parc W, and elephants (or rather, bluebirds)
On my actual birthday (my 26th), I woke up blurry-eyed, sleep-deprived, and stomach crampy and headed to the bucket again. I had food poisoning and was miserable. NOTE: Never drink day-old hibiscus juice that hasn't been refrigerated. I called my wonderful neighbor, Mama Isbath, over to help me. She made me some vegetable bouillon and fed my cat, as I laid in bed and moaned. (Yes, I know, this entry doesn't seem to be getting better, but it does, I promise!)
Then, I heard a familiar voice singing and American accented rendition of Joyeux Anniversaire at the door. Kelley, my friend from Bemberecke, had come to surprise me for my birthday! This made me feel much better, to have a fellow American there to sympathize with me and distract me. Soon after she arrived, three of my neighbors - Mama Nadege, Colette, and Mama Isbath (again) - came to my door and serenade me with a heavily accented "Happy Birthday to you" and then came in to give me gifts. This also helped me cheer up and ignore my stomach cramps. Late that night, the fever broke, and the cramps went away. Thankfully, food poisoning passes within 24 hours.
The rest of the week carried on without any major incidents. Just a small fire - I was engrossed in my grandmother Bittie's memoirs and suddenly smelled smoke. A candle had caught my bookshelf on fire. A small glass of water put it out quickly. No worries. What a birthday week! The weekend, however, more than made up for missed elephants, food poisoning, and a fire.
On my way home from running errands and "saluéing" people (pronounce SAL-OOO-AY-ING; means greeting people, sometimes at their homes, sometimes on the street), I ran into a cheerful Peuhl (Fulani) woman with an enormous, joyful smile on her face
The next day Mama Isbath, her children, Lucrece, one of the midwives in my concession, and I trekked off to the Peuhl camp with Amzat, a Terminale student who would be our translator for the day. He was actually the one who relayed the information about my invitation the day before. We arrived at the camp to discover, in true African fashion, that the wedding festivities would not begin at 2 p.m. as originally planned. They would not begin until later that night. The women brought over some "bouille," a porridge made up of powdered millet, and warm milk fresh from the cow, though boiled first, of course.
We wandered around the camp, which was not very big. We saw women preparing the bride's dowry, which consisted of a large trunk of fabric that she would use to make her clothing, hundreds of casseroles, basins, cooking supplies, and calabashes, a chair and a stool, a gigantic blue jug of some sort (maybe for water storage?), and two large, egg-shaped soap sculptures. One of the sculptures would be for the new bride to use to wash herself. The other would be used to wash her eventual baby. I took tons of photos on my new digital camera, and the Peuhl were fascinated by this technology that allowed them to see themselves and their friends
A Peuhl camp is very interesting. The Peuhl are traditionally cattle herding nomads. They still herd cattle, but now, they mostly stay in small camps that are outside small villages and towns. There are actually dozens of camps just outside of N'Dali. A camp consists of maybe a few mudbrick buildings and a couple of "paillotes," or thatch-roofed pavilion-type things to provide shade outside. In the middle of the camp is a big fire/cooking area. Their houses are small, circular, mudbrick buildings with thatched roofs. They don't have any windows, just one short door. I had to squat to enter the house that I visited. It was decorated inside with streamers made out of old, gold-colored cigarette boxes and colorful wrappers. Very unique. The inside of the house was very well-organized. It was a very small space that was sectioned off somewhat by a low wall and a lofted storage shelf. Under the shelf was a sleeping area. More shelves covered the side opposite the entry, and the small area to the right was for more sleeping mats. I imagine that during the hot season they sleep outdoors under the paillotes.
Eventually, we left the camp, walking back along the red dirt pathways to the dirt road to Nikki. We stopped under some cashew nut trees to pick a few ripened fruits. We ran into some very young cow herders on the road who were eating roasted cashews. They shared them with us
We headed over at about 9 p.m. Our translator couldn't come with us, but fortunately, a Peuhl chauffer was there who spoke French and basically took us under his wing and explained what was going on. Of course, nothing had really begun yet when we arrived. The men sat in a row on mats outside to the left of the cooking fire. The children milled around. The women worked, stirring gigantic pots of bouille over the fire, or stood chatting or nursing babies. We made the rounds salueing people, a very important chore. [NOTE TO FUTURE TRAVELERS TO WEST AFRICA: Do not underestimate the importance of greeting people. I have had people I have never seen before come up to me and get angry telling me that they said hello to me the other day and I ignored them! I probably just didn't think they were talking to me, as I had never met them before.] A while later, a large group of men also officially greeted people by walking around the circle (the cooking fire in the middle) two or three times in a group and bending down on their knees and calling out greetings to each of the large groups of people they passed
I entertained everyone by taking out the digital camera again and showing everyone the pictures I had taken earlier that day. The digital camera was the greatest thing ever because it sort of gave me a carte blanche for taking photos. [Sometimes people refuse to allow tourists to take photos of them without paying money.] I had people begging me to take pictures of them, on the condition that I bring them copies. I have now become an official wedding photographer! I think, in fact, that I will be invited to most ceremonies in this camp from now on. Hooray!
The Peuhl knew that Colette and I had come to see dancing, but the drummers had not yet arrived. Also, the bride-to-be was still "hidden" somewhere in N'Dali, and the representatives of the husband-to-be were apparently en route from their camp near another town about 7K away. They decided to do some dancing for us anyway, so the women all crowded into a circle and began a sing-songy chant of sorts and rhythmic clapping. The young girls and women would take turns hopping into the middle of the circle and dancing. The dance kind of reminded me of Flamenco - lots of rhthmic feet stamping, making the dust rise into the air. Colette jumped in there and did her southern Beninese moves, and then, I hopped in and tried to imitate the Peuhl moves. I don't think I did so horribly, actually! The women and young girls laughed and sang and clapped for us.
This continued on for a while - dancing, photo-taking, attempting to communicate. Colette became tired and was ready to go home. It was about 11 p.m., and the bride still hadn't arrived. We really wanted to see her, but in the end, decided to call it a night. What did we most likely miss? More dancing and drumming by the women. Perhaps a bit of rowdy self-flagellation by the men, who do this as a tradition to celebrate the marriage. Just before we left, one of the kings of N'Dali arrived (there are two kings), and I finally got to meet him. Not as overwhelmingly exciting as I would have imagined, but oh, well. The chauffer and one of the king's men took us back home. I climbed under the covers and listened to the drumming that had finally begun at the camp off in the distance as I fell asleep.
The next morning I woke up early to head back to the camp in hopes of catching the end of the all-night celebration. I still heard the drums in the distance, so I quickly threw on my clothes and my sweatshirt and headed off into the cold, early morning mist. Everything was sort of hazy and very beautiful. The camp was full of tired, red eyes when I arrived. Bio, the French-speaking chauffer, was still there, and he took me to meet the bride, who, once again, was hidden away from all eyes. I couldn't even see her in the darkness of the circular mudhut. She was just a form laying (lying? I'm an English teacher, and I still can't ever remember this one! Pathetic!) in the sleeping area under the lofted shelf.
The woman and the young girls danced again - to the beat of drums this time - as we waited for the bride to come out. Eventually, she did. She was completely covered in a thick, white sheet. I never did get to see her face. On her hands and knees, she was led out of the hut by another completely covered girl, and they sat down on a chair and a stool, respectively. The mother of the bride put a wide, flat calabass on the ground next to the bride; this was for collecting donations of money that the bride would take with her into her new, married life.
The dancing continued, as the bride sat. After about 30 minutes, a couple of old women stood the bride and bridesmaid (?) up and led them SLOWLY, the bridesmaid leading the other, across the camp. Every once in a while, they would stop and stand still for several minutes, as one of the older women called out like a griot in a sing-songy voice. Bio said she was telling the bride's story and the story of her family, where they had come from, etc. A LONG time later (the walk was S-L-O-W!), she made it across the small space, and they brought a moto over for her. They had to pick her up to try to physically force her onto the moto. She fought and fought, kicking her legs, flailing her arms, breathing heavy, doing everything possible not to get onto the moto. She was like Ella, my cat, fighting me when I have to put her in the water to give her a bath. This, too, is tradition, according to Bio. If the bride got on the moto too easily, she would appear to be happy to leave her family behind, and that would be rude. In order to show her appreciation for her family, she also had to be heard wailing and crying as the moto pulled away. I wonder, though, whether these wails and cries and fights are a little less play-acting than they are supposed to be. After all, Peuhl marriages are arranged. The bride is given away, or promised, to her future husband at a VERY early age.
Through the years the future husband will pay his future wife's dowry in the form of gifts to the family, for example, a cow. The bride-to-be's family collects all the items I described above over the years for the bride to take with her. The husband-to-be will also purchase these sorts of items for his future wife. When the new bride's moto pulls into her new camp, she will again be led away to be "hidden" for several days. Four or five days later, she will return to her family's camp carrying with her all the items that her husband has given her that she already has. These, she will store at her family's camp so that they will be readily available to replace any items that are at her husband's camp if they are stolen or happen to break.
If, for some reason, a woman falls in love with a man who is not her agreed-to future husband, the man she loves must go with the man she is supposed to marry to the gendarmes. There, the gendarmes will decide how much money the lover must pay the promised husband to replace the cost of everything the husband might have bought the woman's family over the years as part of her dowry. This can add up to an enormous sum; therefore, this is a rare occurrence.
The wedding was fun and interesting. I had no clue what most of the women were saying to me half the time, but there big smiles and animated gestures were warm, friendly, and welcoming. I felt quite comfortable around this unique group of people.
The following week I ran into the mother of the bride and another woman, who were on their way to the market in N'Dali. I was going home. Someone translated for me that they had left me a small gift to thank me for attending their wedding. When I got home that afternoon, Mama Isbath called over the back wall that separates our washing areas, "Tantie Suzanne! The Peuhls brought you a present! Come over and get it!" I couldn't stop laughing as I carried the large chicken through my living room and back to the back area behind my house. A chicken! I was the recipient and now owner of a live chicken! Right now, the chicken is running around our concession with a piece of cloth tied around it's leg with my name on it! It still makes me smile to think of it. A pet chicken. Should I name it, or will it eventually become my dinner? I'm contemplating whether or not the slaughter of a chicken should become part of my Peace Corps experience or not. I don't know if I could do it.
I am in Cotonou now. I began writing this last weekend in Parakou and have had several problems since then getting it finished and on the web. A quick update: In Parakou, yesterday, a group of us was sitting outside at a restaurant when a Fulani man, tattooed face, machete slung over his shoulder, bad teeth and plastic shoes, slowed down to greet us as he walked by. Erin, a fellow volunteer, called out the one Fulfuldie greeting that she knew, and the next thing we knew, he had come over and begun to give us a lesson. Erin was tired and didn't really want to pay attention, but the man noticed how interested I was and motioned, yelling in Fulfuldie, "Write it down! Write it down!" He was a very serious and excited teacher, using gestures and facial expressions to try to communicate what he wanted me to learn. He would motion the sun going down or crossing the sky to indicate the time of day that I would use one greeting. He counted on his fingers to teach me the numbers. He smiled and gestured "Write it down! Write it down!" Every once in a while, one of us would turn to a couple of Beninese friends down the table to ask for help, a translation, as this Fulani man unsurprisingly didn't speak French beyond a few numbers necessary for cash transactions and a merci. Towards the end of the conversation, he gestured and called out to the waitress to come over because he wanted to pay for his drink. He told me to write down what he was saying. I called down the table to our Beninois friend, "Oh! That must mean, 'I would like to pay!'" The Beninois man smiled and laughed and said, "No, that means, 'Girl, get over here and take your money!'" We all laughed, and I wondered what other not-so-polite things I had learned. The experience on a whole was quite entertaining, though. The man was so eager for me to learn his language. He gestured that I was smart and told one of the men that if I carried on studying like this I could speak Fulfuldie in three months. HAH! I wish! He said that he had taught three white foreigners his language in the same way that he had been teaching me and that they had written everything down. He told me that he lived in a large Peuhl camp near Siraru, a town between N'Dali and Parakou, and that I could find him there at the market on Sundays. Who knows, perhaps I will go there for another lesson someday... Nevertheless, I can't wait to try out my new language skills on my Peuhl friends in N'Dali.
That time won't come for another week or two, yet. I am on a school break, now, but we volunteers have In-Service Training in Porto Novo Monday through Friday. Not much of a school break. Oh, well. I am going to spend this weekend with my host family in Lokossa before heading over to Porto Novo on Monday. Hope that this entry wasn't too long and boring. I know I have rambled enough now.