Tag Archives: Cotonou

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


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


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.


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!

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!

What About Benin?

I’ll be going to France on May 8, and after a week in Paris I’ll go to Benin until June 5.


Benin. It’s a small country in West Africa.  It’s mostly known in history for its sad part in the slave trade as a major departure port.  I’ll be spending some time in Cotonou, as well as the capital of Porto-Novo

The Basics

Map courtesy of the UN website

I’m going through Northeastern University and the Dialogue of Civilizations program.  Instead of taking summer classes, I’m doing this.  I’ll get the normal summer credit for it (8 credits/two classes) and will be graded and such.  It’s like what I did in Egypt, except entirely different. 🙂

French is the official language of Benin, so I’ll be taking some lessons while in Paris and practicing my rather dormant French skills while there.  Many people also speak Fon, of which I know nothing, and Yoruba, a language that found its way to Cuba (and modern Cubañol) via the slave trade.  The country is considered very safe, but is severely lacking when it comes to infrastructure.

For our safety/for the sake of NU’s lawyers, we aren’t allowed to ride on motorbikes and will only be eating from a select few restaurants.  I have malaria pills and got my yellow fever vaccine, whose injection site still kinda hurts.  Blast, yellow fever, you’ve done it again!  I’m waiting with bated breath for my visa to come back (this seems to be a theme with me…) and already scoping out luggage and drawing up packing lists.  Here we go again!


While in Benin, we’ll be meeting up with local NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to learn more about the country, such as development, culture and politics.  We will each be working with a local NGO for a few weeks, ranging from health care to orphanages to micro-enterprise(!) and lending a hand any way we can.  More on this later, since it’s most of the reason I chose this program.

Songhai Center

I’ll be living in the Songhai Center in Cotonou.  There are several of these throughout the country, and they are used for training Beninese people about agriculture and such.  It’s also thoroughly Green with a capital G, with each part of the center helping to fuel another.  Which brings up another point: I’ll be taking chilly rain barrel showers for most of the summer.  Basically, I’m going to refer you to the video contained in the link below, courtesy of BoingBoingTV, because it does a far better job of explaining than me.

Songhai Video link