Chango

In Santeria, my orisha is Chango, one of the guerreros or warriors.  His colours are red and white like Santa Barbara, he wields metal weapons and is often depicted with lightning.  He is often thought of as a virile–a Casanova and all that is mean.  Why are those synonymous in Cuba?  Or Anywhere?  But that’s not how I identify with him.  Each orisha has many paths  that they can take, and ways you can be like them.  I like that when syncretized with Catholicism, Chango has some gender–bending, and his tendency to mete out divine justice.

I have a strong sense of Justice.  Whatever is good and fair compels me, regardless of how it favors or whether it directly affects me, which sometimes confuses others.  It isn’t as noble as it seems, and can often be annoying, like a compulsion.  You see for me, the absence of truth, facts and fairness is offensive.  Facts and justice are my religion, so it effects me whether the disservice concerns me or not.

I greatly dislike situations like this one, where there is no right answer.  The writer in me thrives on ambiguity and grey area, but ethically it makes me uneasy in daily life.  There’s just so much we can’t make sense of, from child labour to servitude that borders on slavery, the attention we receive from men as well as our very presence here.

Even if there is no right answer for everyone, I like to at least have my own rules, my own personal sense of what’s best.  that’s the beauty of Chango–he delivers his own swift justice, not anyone else’s.  My fiery Chango is down to its embers when I can neither come to grips with a situation nor make it right.

Things That I Love About Benin

Here is a list of things I love about Benin–both the program I’m on and the country.  I hate to give you all such a skewed idea of my life over here, and I also don’t want to focus too much on the NU specifics, but I’m a creature crafted for analysis, so that’s usually where my brain wanders.  In the interest of fairness, levity and a more well-rounded picture, here are some things I love.

  • Everyone is so friendly. Even moreso than in the American south, everyone we meet says “bon soir!” and is excited to see us.  Children wave and flash the peace sign, and women in the market are patient with our burgeoning Parisian French.
  • The Beninois students. We did a three day exchange with students form Universite d’Abomey,
  • Vodoun and the Cuba connection. I haven’t learned a ton more about vodoun here that i didn’t already learn in Cuba, but I love seeing how it is woven in to their clture, and talking to the university students about it.  Also, I miss Cuba and my Cuba aseres terribly, so its nice o have a little reminder of home
  • French! I love languages, and speaking French makes me happy.  I like helping other people with it, and getting a better understanding of the people I meet because of my language skills.  It’s also great to see what the francophone world outside of Paris looks like.
  • The weather.  I know it’s hot and sticky and furstrating, but it’s great to be back in a warm, comfy climate.  This coming New England winter may be harder for me than the ever were before…
  • The way of life. I love dirt and messiness and wearing the same gross clothes everyday, with worn-in french braids
  • The group. We spend a lot of time telling each other how smart, kind and adorable we all are, which is just refreshing and enjoyable
  • Our leaders. It’s nice to spend a little time being warm, fuzzy and non-competetive.  For those unaware, this trip is a Human Services excursion, whcih is not my major, but is a related field.  I am one of the few political science people here, but there are many international affairs majors as well as psych, journalism, art, sociology and a few others.  I miss the fiery polisci discussions, and I tease the Human Services kids about drum circles, peace signs and the high number of piercings and tattoos on this trip, but it is acutally kinda nice.  We haven’t met Prof. Luongho yet, but Rebecca is a lawyer in human rights law (!) and Lori has a great cross between sarcasm and being a mom.
  • Julie! Our TA, Julie Miller, is great.  We’ve been doing sunset rooftop yoga led by her, and I really think yoga should never be done anywhere BUT a rooftop in Africa at sunset.  She’s a great help both socially and academically, and I think we’ll all miss her when she goes to UC Berkeley for grad school in the fall.
  • The geography.  Palm trees, red earth, lizards running around everywhere, and adorable goats that act like puppies.  This place is great.  Did I mention we went to the beach?  And Obama Beach at that.  More to come!
  • The Songhai Center. More about this later, but it’s up there with the Grameen Bank and bacon on the list of things that rock my socks.

“Useless” Day

Tuesday illustrated to me why we’re here, and for once I am excited about what we will be doing.  I think a lot of my

The women de-shell peanuts after they've been heated over an open fire, making the job easier.

group misunderstood the situation, which was unfortunate, because learning was lost there.

There have been days where we mostly sit and watch the women work, or play with the kids while the women work.  This was not one of those days.  Today, the majority of the women went to the market to sell products, while a smaller group and ourselves sat in the shade.  All day long.

We were sitting there because the women only own three large metal bowls, which are used for work, storage, transportation and sales.  When the women go to the market, they bring all the product they have to make it worth their while, meaning that there are no bowls back at the ranch to be used in production.

Today we literally lived through a lack of capacity, which left me completely convinced that our plan is the way to go.

Rolling the peanut paste (after the oil has been extracted) into sticks that will be fried in peanut oil.

The Request

The women have made it clear that they want machines to grind their raw materials so they can be made into products.  Buying one of these machines is costly, but would save them time and money, as well as bring in profit from those who live nearby and would pay for the use of the machine, they way they pay to use someone else’s now.

Buying the machine for the peanuts is the most logical because it also works with the soy.  Also, the machine they currently pay to use instead is significantly farther away.  Furthermore, peanuts are very cheap to buy and yield two products, one of which is rather lucrative.

The Reality

While it may be great to start with the flashy machine that would bring in the big bucks (2,000 CFA per batch of peanut or soy that someone pays them to have processed, plus a savings of two hours and 1,000 CFA a week to transport themselves via motorbike to the location of the machine they currently use), I don’t think it’s a sound decision.

You need to start from the ground up, and right now the women waste many hours and several days every week waiting for their equipment.  With very little money, we can double the number of bowls and tables they have, allowing for more production and storage.  We can also buy a proper storage container for the corn, freeing up the bowls to be used for work more often than storage.

Drying the galletas (peanut sticks) into a delicious frenzy.

The Linchpin

The piece of this plan that makes me actually proud is the last bit: financial planning.  We cannot give them the machine because we can’t afford it.  But honestly, their current business model cannot accommodate it right now, either.  Instead, we’re going to increase their production and productivity, capitalizing on the workforce that is often unused.  This will in turn build up their revenues, and allow them to continue to work while others make trips to the market and to use the machines.

For the long-term, we are going to work with the women on a better savings plan.  Right now they don’t have an accounting system.  While they do have a group savings, much of that goes to a party at the end of the year.  We plan to separate the party fund from the longterm savings fund, which will be available for the purpose of buying the machine for the peanuts and soy someday.  Additionally, an emergency fund would be beneficial.  We intend to divert the additional money they make from the additional equipment we’re giving them.  That money will go towards buying the machine—they didn’t have it before, so they won’t miss it, and reinvesting their capital will help far more in the long run.

The end result, which we happily munched on. All this could be accomplished quicker and on a grander scale, which is our aim with a few slight tweaks to the model.

Our Accidental Advantage

Sometimes we underestimate the consequential knowledge of which we are the unwitting beneficiaries.  The idea of long-term savings is something we were raised with, as well as the value of a surplus and reinvesting in yourself and your business.  Between our greater years of education and growing up in homes that save for retirement, college funds, vacations and small business, we have been exposed to much more sound financial advice than we realize, and much more than the average Beninoise.  We intend to pass along these ideas, as well as the basic materials that in the end, make a large long-term difference, so that the women don’t have more days like today: waiting in the hot sun for something to happen.

Bass-Ackwards

One of Tuesday’s adventures reminded me of our lecture on the rule of law and post-colonial Africa.  While I know it wasn’t exactly patronage, it was a shining example of why Benin is behind when it shouldn’t be.  Benin had the jump on many other African countries in that it transitioned peacefully (and rather without fanfare) from Marxism-Leninism to a democracy.  Benin was considered rather developed for its region as of 2000, but since has been eclipsed by other countries that started lower, but have a steeper trajectory of development.

The process of getting peanuts and soy crushed into their own respective pastes consumes valuable time and money for the women of the micro-enterprise I work with.  They take a large metal bowl of one of the products with them, and pay 1,000 CFA round-trip for a drive that’s about one hour each way.  Taking multiple batches at a time saves time and money with regard to transportation, but costs them in production by the women who remain on the premises.  This system is a great frustration for the women, who would like to own their own machine.

We were investigated buying them one, as it would save the two-hour, 1,000-CFA trip each week, plus 2,000 CFA per batch that is processed.  Additionally, neighbors would choose to come to them for their own processing needs, rather than traveling so far, bringing in untold additional revenue at 2,000 CFA per batch.  In order to price out the machine, we needed specifics or a picture.  Luckily, they knew that there was a machine nearby.

We set out on our walk for the machine, and arrived approximately sixty seconds later.

One Minute.  There is a machine that they could use that is one minute away.  Of course, the man who owns it simply refuses to use it for peanuts and soy, even though it’s also made for those products.  He only uses it for corn.

It reminded me of patronage and corruption in that a logical, easy solution was not possible for reasons that appear to be arbitrary and/or selfish.  Instead of walking a minute and putting those man-hours and the equipment (1/3 of their buckets) to use in production, they have to expend two hours or labour and equipment use plus 1,000 extra CFA a week.

If I were those women, I would be furious.

A Vendre

We’ve learned in lecture that the NGO (non-governmental organization) sector is prevalent in Benin, but not always productive.  Many NGOs merely consist of a guy and a business card, while others have to spend all their time chasing the funding, to the extent that their original mission is neglected and they aren’t very specialized.  This funding often comes from governments or aid organizations in the west, various organs of the UN, and church groups within Benin.

For the purposes of this summer semester, each group can apply for a grant of up to 200 USD for a project to help build the capacity (increase the efficiency/productivity) of the organization with whom they are volunteering.  While that isn’t a lot of money, it’s a lot in the local currency of CFA—100,000.  It’s also difficult for many people we meet to understand that we are not a major aid organization, but rather a small student group.  As a result, people often treat us like the dollar signs they believe us to be.

Are we the new funding they’re chasing?

It’s irrelevant that we don’t have the deep pockets of the UN (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write…) because so many people believe we do, and act accordingly.  And in a way, aren’t we already altering their activities and taking away from their specialty?  Most of the organizations we’re working with are altering schedules and modifying their way of doing things in order to accommodate our need to volunteer, and our odd time line.

The first day we met the women from the Group Mossava, the micro enterprise (NOT micro-lending) group I am working with, they said hello, informed us of the machines they would like us to buy them, and welcomed us to Benin.

This experience is not unique.

At the orphanage, students were taken around on a tour of the facilities, which turned out to be a tour of things the orphanage needed them to buy.

I worry that we are accidentally becoming like the detrimental aid organizations and aid packages we study.  If we disrupt them and take away from their work and specialization, how are we better than USAID blindly pouring money into the country?  Perhaps our detriment is not on such a grand scale, but if we go on believing that underdeveloped countries exist to fulfill our need for education and our need to volunteer, we will only perpetuate the harms of foreign aid, thereby taking away from the good it can serve.

We’ve learned in lecture that the NGO sector is prevalent in Benin, but not always productive.  Many NGOs consist of just a guy and a business card, while others have to spend all their time chasing the funding, to the extent that their original mission is neglected and they aren’t very specialized.

For the purposes of this summer semester, each group can apply for up to 200 USD for a project to help build the capacity (increase the efficiency/productivity) of their organization.  While that isn’t a lot of money, it’s a lot in CFA—100,000.  It’s also difficult for many people we meet to understand that we are not a major aid organization, but rather a small student group.  As a result, people often treat us like the dollar signs they believe us to be.

Are we the new funding they’re chasing?

It’s irrelevant that we don’t have the deep pockets of the UN (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write…) because so many people believe we do, and act accordingly.  And in a way, aren’t we already altering their activities and taking away from their specialty?  Most of the organizations we’re working with are altering schedules and modifying their way of doing things in order to accommodate our need to volunteer, and our odd timeline.

The first day we met the women from the Group Massova, the micro enterprise (NOT micro-lending) group I am working with, they said hello, informed us of the machines they would like us to buy them, and welcomed us to Benin.

This experience is not unique.

At the orphanage, students were taken around on a tour of the facilities, which turned out to be a tour of things the orphanage needed them to buy.

Does my service learning count?

Many people sue the term micro-funding, micro-lending, micro-finance and micro-enterprise interchangeably, a la communism, socialism, dialectical materialism and Marxism-leninism.  I rather disagree.

What is Service-Learning

Sometimes I get so into what I’m doing that I put the horse WAY before the cart, and forget entirely about step one.  Sometimes even steps one through five, and I think I did that a wee bit with explaining this trip.  It wasn’t until I read a helpful e-mail from my confused father that I realized if he didn’t know what I was doing here, I don’t think anyone else could.  Most people are still wondering what the hell I’m doing in Africa, and where this Benin place is, anyhow, and what’s this service-learning I keep waxing philosophic about.

Service

Service is volunteering one’s time at an organization, be it related to your church, school, workplace or other community.

Learning

Learning is your typical class room education, with objectives, goals, lectures and homework.  Pretty straightforward.

Service-Learning

Obviously, this is a combination of the two.  It’s a great example of Northeastern’s philosophy of Experiential Education.  The field of education and type of service are related, and as the French say, il y a un rapport entre les deux.  The service is supposed to inform the learning, and vice versa.  Classroom discussions are enriched with anecdotes from the field, and volunteering is more useful because of the knowledge gained in the clasroom.

While this has typicaly been used in hands-on, service-oriented fields like Human Services (which is similar to and includes social work), sociology, etc, it has also been used in the medical field and with engineers.

Why is this trip Unique?

Generally, service-learning is localized to one’s community–our international setting is out of the ordinary.  The idea is that a person is helping their own community, where they understand the language, culture, geography, et cetera.  Also, service learning typically lasts for a semester, with students volunteering at their placement for a few hours each week.

The Logistics

Our group is broken up into 5 smaller groups, each of which works for three hours a day (9am to noon) with a local Beninois organization.  The groups are the same every day, and each group sticks with its own organization the entire time.  One group is working at a music school/recording studio that also has an AIDS clinic, another is an orphanage, a third group is working at our very own residence, the Songhai Center, the fourth is at a vocational school for women ages 10-20, and finally I am at a micro-enterprise of a group of women who pool their resources (time, money, childcare) to create four products to sell in the market.

The Schooling

We fit lectures in during afternoons, as well as site visits (like to UNESCO or the US Ambassador to Benin).  In France we had a week of language classes in the morning from 9am to noon, and we have been receiving reading assignments throughout the trip.  We have started picking topics for a research paper due after our return to the states, and we were also graded on our presentations to the Universite d’Abomey students in the city of Cotonou.  Finally, there is the capacity building project, which synthesizes our classroom knowledge about aid, NGOs and evaluating efficiency with our experience in the field with our organization where we volunteer.

Conclusion

I hope this offers you all a little clarity on why I’m here and what the program is all about.  Feel free to leave any questions in the comments!

Henri Navarre!

Henri Navarre, or Henri IV, is everywhere in Paris.  For those of you who are not obsessive history nerds/did not take AP Euro with Dr. Ryan, Henri Navarre was a Protestant nobleman from the Basque region, or Navarra/Navarre (of ETA fame) who eventually became the most beloved king of France.  During the Revolution when the people destroyed the statues on the pont (bridge) of the kings of France, Navarre’s was left untouched.

Henri's wife, La Reine Margot

Henri pragmatically switched religions as needed in order to be king, but stayed true to his Huguenot roots and eventually passed the Edict of Nantes, which ensured religious freedom for all in France.

Flowers laid at the site of Henri's assassination, on the 400th anniversary of his death

Henri’s name is now invoked for civil societies a la the rotary club, and there’s a large statue of him near Pont Neuf.  If you have the time, I highly recommend watching La Reine Margot to learn more about Navarre and the St. Batholomew’s Day Massacre of the Huguenots.

The plaque commemorating Navarre's death

Should We Be Here?

I worry that since we’ve had a discussion on ethics, the issue was opened and then closed.

Unfortunately, the more I learn about this program the more I question our presence here.  Many of our readings discussed the pitfall that service-learning is all about the learning, with service as a secondary concern, or rather an afterthought.  No one in this group denies this when it is phrased as, “but learning is the most important thing,” which they say often, but several people looked uncomfortable when I stated that service is less important to this program.

We are literally service-learning about service-learning.

I didn’t realize that until today when a group was presenting about service-learning, and the many disciplines it is in.  Sociology, human services, nursing, even math.  But there’s something odd about the recursive nature of this program.

We haven’t taken any courses on Benin—its culture, history or language.   We’ve had a few short readings, and one week of language classes.  The language classes were on the large side, had only two levels, and complied with the typically dismal expectations of Americans as language learners.

The American ambassador to Benin responded to a question on Monday about how to handle aid ethically in Benin.  He felt that the problem is not being able to give them enough, because the Beninois always want more aid and never complain about it having imperialist strings attached.  I think, sir, that’s rather not the point.  Everyone wants money, sure, but is it ethical to give it the way we do?

I don’t like that we’re ignorant when we talk to the Beninois students, and that until earlier this week it wasn’t clear what the adjective form of Benin is.  I hear Beninese, Bee-inese and  Beninois.  Isn’t that a little disgusting?  Shouldn’t we at least know what to CALL them before we go in and analyze them for a day or two?  Isn’s a few days too short to make decisions about what to do with funding?

What do you think?  Do we have an obligation to spend more time before we make an analysis, draw a conclusion?  Should we know more than the local language?  Should people know at least the language?  Does it not matter because American tourists “never know anything”?  Is that even acceptable?  Should we be in a different category from tourists?

And now, I wonder that I won’t be labeled as negative and counter-productive if I continue to raise such concerns within the group, especially since that’s something for which I can be docked points.  Not what matters in the grand scheme of things, I know, but it would be nice to talk these things through.  I don’t want to just pull a nutty and yell at all the Human Services majors, but everyone seems so reluctant to venture into much more analytical thought on the matter.

So what do you think, my intelligent, well-intentioned readers?

UPDATE: Since writing this post about a week ago, the issue of ethics has gone from a whispered concern to a major topic of conversation, for almost everyone on the trip.  It’s always nice to be proven wrong when it comes to ethics and analytical thinking.  I’m pleased to say that we (the group, leaders, and organizations we interact with) will be adressing the issue continually for the next two weeks.

de l’Eau

You come in hot and sweaty from a run or yard work.  But there’s no ac.  So you go to grab water, but it’s not safe from

Our sink and the buckets that become our shower.

the tap, filters are  expensive and it takes a lot of time and gas to boil the water.  You go to the store, but you don’t have a lot of money and the water’s hot anyway.  There is no frige to put it in, because the opower ciosts too much, nevermind the cost of the frudge.

So you take a shoer, being careful not to open your mouth.  Then the water runs out, so you use ta cup and a buckey, if you thought to fill it earlier when there was still water.  Of course it’s been stagnant, so there may be mosquitos gathering at it, but it’s what you’ve got.

After you pour the water on yourself, you feel no relief because the water’s hot as the air.  You didn’t use soap because there isn’t any, and that would watse too much water to wash off anyway.  You towel off with a small, harsh rag, which only takes a second because you’re already dry from evaporation.

Our toilet, sans seat. Also, it doesn't really flush...

Being hot sucks.  Summer is hot.  But in Benin there is little relief.  Everyone walks or takes motorbikes everywhere, there are no elevators, and clothing norms necessitate that you be covered in more than just shorts and a tube top.

Therese are just our conditions, in an over-priced hotel run by nuns (awkward..)  The Beninous have no handiwipes or leave-in conditionar, and often no toilet paper to go with their lack of toilet seat.  they can’t afforc to buy all the bottled water we do, or to own enough clothing to switch midday.

And most of all, in three weeks they won’t be in the United States like us.

“This is Why People Believe in God…”

Early morning traffic jam in Cotonou, Benin

“…they think, ‘Please God, make the rain stop!'”

My roommate may be on to something, there…

We woke up our first morning in Benin to a glorious monsoon-like splash for a few hours.  The call to prayer pleasantly lulled me awake, but I wish i had heard it four more times that day.

The rain helped break the heat, but created massive traffic jams and many puddles throughout the Chant d’Oiseau hotel.

The group of 22 of us (plus our TA Julie and profs Lori and Rebeca) are all staying on one floor without strangers, so we wander around the balconies and each other’s rooms, debating brushing our teeth with tap water, or the use of the weird orange tarp on our beds.  (Word on the street is that it’s to protect the bed from rats, but that has been neither confirmed nor denied, and probably never will be.)

Bug net, in the fully upright position

At night my roommate Erin and I tuck ourselves into our forts, AKA beds with bug nets.  We’ve learned to keep chapstick, the alarm clocks and a bottle of water on the INSIDE and have even perfected the art of shutting our lights off from inside our “forts”.

Amid the fairly quiet night, exposing the screeching of bats and scuttling o creatures, we drift off around midnight and get up around  eight or our breakfast of baguette du pain and cafe or du the.

We’ll be going to Porto-Novo on Thusday, bu we’ll be back at the end of our trip again, as the airport is here in Coptonou.  We’ve spent the last few days with students of Abomey University, which was enlightening and fun.  Stay tuned for more updates this week!