Domestic Servant

While in Benin, we discussed and even met some domestic servants. And by that I mean, adults who had worked as servants for a period of time to work off debt, and children who were “adopted” to help run the house.  It became easier over time to pick out these young girls, by their plain, short hair and extremely reserved demeanor.  They always referred to the women who essentially owned them as their mothers.  They were well-fed and pretty well dressed, but it was clear that they were always on duty: cooking, raising children just a few years younger than themselves, and cleaning.  These domestic servants were often orphans or in debt (or their parents were) and eventually they do attain freedom.  But their existence was highly disturbing and confusing for all of us.

Before going to Egypt, I talked with Phil about a similar conundrum with the carpet makers of Cairo.  Several students would refuse to enter the factories, on the grounds that children make the carpets.  But, as Phil pointed out, they were essentially apprentices, earning their room and board by making carpets.  Many of them had no parents, or had parents too poor to support them.  Compared to being street children, this path had a future.

Sometimes it’s hard to balance our idealism with realism.  We want every child to have a fulfilling life, complete with education, friendship, parental figures, good food, love and playtime. We want them to go on to work that they enjoy, or that at the very least can support them and their families, should they choose to have them.

But that’s not what life is like for most people in the world.  For many people, being an orphan or the child of people in debt means living on the street, begging and stealing, prostitution, jail.  Certainly no education, and few opportunities for lasting happiness.  In that sort of world, it is preferable to work as a child and be able to work your way out of extreme poverty, or to at least have food, clothes and shelter for a while.

I know human rights are immutable. They are all the time, for everyone, always and forever.  They cannot be lessened or taken away for any reason.  When someone or something lessens your rights, they do not take them away from you (you always have them)–they abuse your rights.  And that’s a world that I want, but not one that I live in.  In this world, working at a carpet factory can mean a career and a life off the streets.  It certainly means food and shelter.  Sometimes we have to turn off our western sensibilities of what’s right and wrong, and look for what’s best in the meantime, while we try to create a world where this is no longer an issue.

What is the point of having no child labor, if the child will starve if they don’t work?  In many places in the world, not working doesn’t mean you get to school.  In fact, in many cases, not working means your younger siblings now no longer get to go to school.

What do you think?  Is it okay to settle when it comes to human rights?  It obviously happens all the time, but is it okay for human rights workers to ever say such a thing?  Is our version of human rights really universal?  And, if children’s rights are so important in the US, why haven’t we ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child?

Competing Interests

Reading about employment, financial stimulation, sustainability, micro-credit and general best practices is making my brain dizzy.  And oddly enough, some of the best insight has come from (above) average women who blog about clothes.

The tailor where I had clothing made...and where children work. Stimulating the local economy, or supporting child labour?

We often encourage buying locally made or grown products in order to support local small business.  In the developing world, this means going to a local tailor or a farm like the Songhai Center because you get good, local products and help stimulate the local economy.  But what about the environmental side of things?  What about not being a consumer?  undoubtedly, a factory that produces clothing is more efficient and less detrimental to the environment than all the little sidewalk tailors I saw in Benin.  But what about the loss of culture, from the inevitable westernization of such products?  And what about the empowerment of owning your own business, of saving enough?  But then, they do employ child laborers…of course, in Benin child labour is normal, and not going to work can mean starvation.  The only way to change that is to change the system, not to simply fire all the children.

Sometimes, it just boggles my mind into sad, numb submission to try to balance all the competing concerns.  We all just want to help, but there are way too many ways to do it wrong.

PS why does local=good, anyway?  Is it because we don’t like the business practices of MNCs like Wal-Mart?  Well, these local business had pretty dodgy working conditions too.  The environmental thing?  They probably only have the worst numbers because they’re so darn big, and operating in bulk means that Wal-Mart is actually better for the environment than all those mom and pop shops.  Not that I like Wal-Mart, because I really don’t.  I’m just not so sure why anymore.

What is Service?

Is it okay to be giving service to an organization that is really just a group of women making money?  Yes, they’re not as well off as those in the US, or as our translator.  But they have clothes and food and look pretty healthy and happy.

I’m not going into a poor orphanage and helping them deal with an overwhelming amount of children.  I’m going to a small corporation and trying to tell them how to make more money.  In the US, I would call that consulting.  Does not getting paid for something automatically make it service?  Yes, it’s voluntary, but is it community service?  I came here to learn more about the non-profit world, and specifically to see the hands-on nitty-gritty of micro-finance in the field.  My first lesson?  Micro-credit hasn’t failed, it’s just been hijacked. This is a micro-enterprise, a small, locally-owned (what isn’t in Benin?) business.  This is not a lending organization; it’s not even one of their beneficiaries, since they don’t receive loans.

Is it still volunteer work if you’re getting something in return?  If you’re getting a grant, soft power, induction to an honor society, brownie points for your sorority or college credits, it seems you are being paid–just not in cash.  Of course, reductum ad absurdum, and I’m reminded of that Friends episode when Joey tells Phoebe there’s no such thing as a truly selfless act—you always get recognition, gratitude, or at the very least a nice warm fuzzy feeling inside.

But who says service has to be special, sacred and selfless?  What’s so wrong with being selfish?  How come everyone else can be selfish in their career path, but not lawyers and aid workers?  Just because your life is about improving the world and helping others doesn’t mean you have to be a martyr to do it.  And if you do a good deed, does it really matter what your motives were?  If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, can’t the road to heaven be paved with bad ones?  It doesn’t matter why you helped a little boy learn to read, in the end he’s still farther along in his education for your help.

Foto Friday: Obama Beach

On the road in, about a 20 minute walk from our Hotel, the Chante d'Oiseau
The ubiquitous trash.
The undertoe was pretty strong, so we stayed in the shallow areas, before the breakers.
The day was cloudy but definitely hot, and we were all happy we took advantage of our precious little free time to go to the beach with our new Beninois university friends.
Yovos playing in the surf.

You Know You’re a Yovo if…

  • You think women should probably wear shirts, most of the time
  • You like your roads paved, and with potholes fewer than three feet wide
  • The only thing you knew about Vodoun before Benin came from movies
  • You wear sunscreen and bug spray, have a bug net and carry bottled water everywhere you go
  • You talk about showering more than you actually do it
  • You had never heard of Benin before you decided to go there
  • …but now you can’t wait to go back
  • You don’t wear heels to walk in the mud, but you DO carry your own bag
  • You don’t know how to successfuly carry things on your head
  • You’re afraid to cross the street, never mind get on a motorbike
  • You will probably never attempt to breast feed while carrying something on your head AND riding a motorbike
  • You’ve never authored a “Nigerian Prince” email
  • You refuse to swim in the standing water, and maybe even the ocean water too
  • You eat peanut butter
  • You point and yell (or perhaps whisper) every time you see a Yovo you don’t already know
  • You’ve been kidnapped (in a good-natured, well-meaning sort of way) at least once
  • You’re still annoyed by street harassment
  • You’re taken aback every time people ask if you’re a Christian
  • Your shirt and pants don’t match EXACTLY, and your family does not wear matching clothes
  • Your head has a maximum of two braids at any given time
  • You’re still a little surprised there’s never any cold beer–oh yeah, and you drink “Beninoise”, not “33”
  • People laugh when you eat with your hands
  • You don’t speak Fon, Yoruba, Goun or many of the other local tribal languages
  • When you go home, you’re confused by all the white people, and the fact that everyone speaks English
  • You have an awkward Mean Girls-style moment of assuming every black person you see speaks French
  • You don’t know the end of the yovo song, because no one ever finishes

Yovo, Yovo Bon Soir

That’s the refrain we heard all throughout Benin.  Countryside, city, airport.  Adults, children, wisened old anciens.  We were told we would be greeted with song, and man, they weren’t kidding.

Yovo, Yovo, bon soir!  Merci bien et toi?!”

It loosely translates to “whitey, whitey, good evening!  I’m good thanks, and you?”

As a result of this song, which every Beninois is taught from birth, (the way I learned “Trot Trot to Boston”) almost every Beninois greets us by saying “Bon soir!” even when it’s not evening, encouraging us to respond accordingly.  Even when they’re not running and yelling Yovo, they still sort of are.

Sometimes we would sing it back to confused children, who would erupt in giggles.  I overheard Allegra in a crowded marketplace saying (in english), “Yes I know I’m a Yovo, but I still need to get by!”  It was in that tone that”s halfway between charmed and annoyed.

Many of the little kids say it with wonder or glee.  Some, like at the rural primary school we visited, may never have seen a real live yovo before.  Others, often adults or older children, say it weighted with hope and anticipation: all the yovos they meet are Peace Corps, government or aid/non-profit related.  Sometimes, like at night and said by adult men, there’s a hint of menace in the way it is yelled.

There really is nothing like it in America, except for maybe the pledge of Allegiance or the Star-Spangled Banner.  What else compells every American, regardless of age, region, gender or class, to stand up and say something in unison?  Even ignoring any possible racial implications, we simply don’ tuniversally chant things in unison at a predetermined time.

Like in many other cultures, especially ones that speak romance languages (Benin is officially francophone) color and race are not quite such sensitive subjects.  Of course it’s also important to remember that there are very few light-skinned people in Benin, as well.  There are Lebanese immigrants who mostly own businesses like marches, and Chinese who build all kinds of amazing buildings and are involved in all kinds of trade.  Then there are do-gooders of the religious, governmental and hippie variety.

I wonder if the Lebanese and Chinese hear the shouts of yovo! yovo!  I never saw it happen, but that doesn’t mean much, since I rarely saw Lebanese or Chinese people just strolling the streets.  I wonder if, had we been a more racially diverse group, darker skinned Americans among us would also be called yovo.  I have a feeling it’s sort of like gringo–more a socio-economic issue than one of color.

I love the way our service-learning women used yovo the best.  They referred to the five of us, collectively, as yovo, especially before they knew our names.  They’d joke around when this yovo tried to dance and that yovo tried to sing, or when another tried to lift a bucket of water that they so often carried on their heads.  And they used it when we weren’t there at a party, but some other yovos from our group happened to be, entirely by chance.  As in, there were some other yovos here, but they weren’t our yovos.

By the time we were done in Benin, it got to the point where we started pointing out yovos, out of sheer shock and confusion at seeing ones we didn’t already know.

Tax Man

Trash on the side of the (unpaved) road in Porto-Novo, Benin. This is a relatively small amount of trash, for Benin.

My Friend Across the Aisle Mike pointed out something we often forget about: the benefit of taxes. Love ’em or Hate ’em, they aren’t going away.  The following are some examples of the things we have because of our taxes, things that we assume are basic, things that many other countries have never had.

  • Paved roads
  • Traffic lights
  • Cops who do things
  • The National Guard
  • Firemen, Policemen, Coast Guard et al
  • Stop signs
  • Roads with minimal potholes
  • 911, EMTs and ambulances
  • Free public education through 12th grade
  • A civil code that is updated
  • Public servants and bureaucrats who do their jobs without taking kickbacks
  • A government with a low enough rate of corruption that we’re actually still surprised and outraged when it does happen
  • Prisons with guards on the INSIDE, as well as separate prisons for men, women and children
  • A fully-functioning legal system

Some housekeeping:

I’ll be updating more on this later, but I’m taking part in the 21.5.800 project, which combines self-discipline, writing and yoga!  I figure what else am I doing until co-op starts?  So you’ll see a lot of that product on the site, as well as a better explanation of the project itself.

Most of my posts do not appear on the day they are written, especially when it comes to days of travel, and when I’m in places with poor internet, or when I just have my game together.  As a result, you’ll read about things like Jose Marti airport on the day I’m actually passing through Cotonou Airport in Benin.  And of course, I keep writing about the places I’ve been, long after I come home.  So don’t run away from the blog, there’ll be some changes around here soon!

Jumping Ship

There are many expressions in Cuba, but by far one of the most potent is “Jumping Ship,” and the laden language refers to the act of leaving the island permanently.  Or at least, leaving citizenry.  You see, in the eyes of the Cuban government, either you’re Cuban or you aren’t, and if you go to America without permission or remain outside the country for more than a year and a half without an extension, you have abandoned el Socialismo, y el patria.

The term guzano, or worm, is used to describe those who fled post-Revolution.  And yes, that’s Revolution with a capital R–it always is, in Cuba anyway.

But I don’t think it’s fair to judge all who leave Cuba so harshly.  Many were brought out of the country as children, with virtually no choice in the matter.  And while some of those, like Carlos Eire, refuse to return (at least while Castro’s alive) others, like nuestra Profe (also with a capital P), have gone to great lengths to reconnect with their homelands.

Many Cubans were just looking out for their family.  It’s true: a Revolution is a terrible place to raise a child, capital letter or no.  For many people the age of Cienfuegos, Che and the Brothers Castro, ideals trump all, and maybe they should.  But for many people, there comes a time when family trumps all.

Yes, I’m sure many people slunk away out of greed and anguish at losing what they quite probably acquired at the expense of the masses.  But I think everyone, myself included, should cut some of those who fled (and who choose to flee today) some slack.  More than greed, it was probably just fear.  Fear of a new world, of a government literally run by twenty-somethings and teenagers.  Fear that their children would be taken away (which was a widespread rumour in the early years of the Revolution), and (justified) fear that a foreign power would feel threatened and invade.

These Cubanos, regardless of whether they chose to leave, felt Castro forced their hand and regardless of whether they have chosen to return, something was irrevocanly stolen from them.  I see it in Profe often–out of his own skin in his own homeland.  Several other students have commented on the fervent need he and others like him feel to be as Cuban as they can, to prove that it’s their patria, too.  It must be strange enough being in the white minority, especially when so much of the cultural emphasis is placed on Afro-Cuban culture.

I don’t know that Castro is quite the satan he has been made out to be, or the savior other want him to be.  But I do know that losing one’s family and homeland alters a person forever, and that most people don’t make such decisions lately.  So perhaps some sympathy should be shown toward the heavy hearts that left Cuba.

Jose Marti Airport is the Saddest Place in the World

Airports are a place of great emotion.  Like that scene in Love Actually, there’s an overwhelming amount of love in the hellos and goodbyes.

But Jose Marti is different.

Back in the 1960s, post-Revolution, there was the famous Fish Bowl, shown in the film Memorias de Subdesarollo (Memories of Underdevelopment.)  Those leaving the island had to go through security several hours in advance, leaving them in a glass waiting room, separated from their loved ones for their last precious hours.  For many of these people, that was the last time they ever saw each other alive.

There’s something beautiful about the simplicity of that kind of goodbye, despite its cruelty.  There’s no room for the distraction of words: just smiles, tears, basic sign language and straight emotions, unpolluted by imprecise language.

Fast-forward to 2010.

There is a crush of people waiting just outside the door, all pressing forward to get a glimpse of those they came to pick up.  Neighbors who went away for a cultural or academic reason.  Novios and novias waiting for an athlete to return from yet another trip to a world they may never see themselves.  A father waiting for a daughter he sent to America or Europe when things got rough a few long decades ago.  A grandmother waiting to meet her grown American granddaughter for the first time.

The people saying bon voyage may never be able to leave themselves, may never have left before.

The people leaving may never be able to come back.  If they’re Cubans Jumping Ship, they will have to wait five years before they return.  If they’re Cubano-Americanos, they may have to wait based on American restrictions, although those have been relaxed.  If they’re tourists, students or academics, they have their own restrictions.  And for all of these people, money is a huge issue.

It’s very expensive to go to and from the island.  And you better believe Uncle Sam is paying attention to who’s making that journey and how often.

Everything about Jose Marti Airport in Havana is a reminder of what Cubans and thier loved ones don’t have: mobility, money and options.

The thing about airports is that there are return tickets.  Not always so in the world of Cuba.

Bad Lands

I got Bad Lands for Christmas from my madre, and I’ve been reading it ever since. Tony Wheeler, the founder of LonelyPlanet (of guidebook fame), tours the Axis of Evil and several other surley destinations.  While I’ve only been to one of the whole lot (Cuba, Albania, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, North Korea, Burma, Libya and Saudi Arabia) I hope to visit them all during my life. I feel that he gives each country its due, from accounting for the contextual causes of its “Bad Land” status to the value of its geography and populace.

I’ve yet to finish the book because I’m enjoying it so much that I’m savouring it, but I’ve definitely learned a lot from his style.  I have a hard time letting go of being the encyclopedia (always right) and just being the student (learning in front of people.) I like Tony Wheeler’s style in Bad Lands.  He’s not the man with all the answers; he’s just the man who’s been there.  He mixes history, culture logistcs and insight.  He’s rather frank about everything he doesnt and learns, everywhere he goes and everyone he meets.

Wheeler say when he thinks some piece of info is bogus, and he doesn’t shy away from his opinions (even political ones).  He notates when he learns something from a guide book or local, and when he learns it first hand  He doesn’t pretend to be anything other than an eager traveler with a lot of experience.

I’d love to write books like that someday.