Tag Archives: French

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.

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.

Ignorant Traveler

That’s me right now. I feel strange going to Benin.  I’m not even sure how to pronounce it.

Here I am, researching oh so much about Ewan and Nicole...I mean, Benin.

We went to the embassy today, and it was great to meet the ambassador, but I was embarrassed.  I didn’t know the square footage or population size.  I already spoke French well, so I look and sound more prepared than I am.  I knew about some of the languages, but only because of Benin’s ties to Cuba and my mind’s sponge-like properties.

I feel very unprepared for this trip.  Part of that is great; I’m laid back and go with the flow.  I don’t need to know everything, to schedule everything, to be in charge of everything.  But part of that disgusts me. Some travellers discuss the virtues of going with a totally open mind, of being sure “not to over-research.”

Over research?  Is that even possible?  To me it just sounds like an excuse not to do your homework.

I’ve never been somewhere I knew so little about before.  And yet I remember saying that about Cuba.  I was rather prepared for the French exchange in high school, and I deifnitely know more about Egypt than is expected for an American.  But that doesn’t mean I was prepared enough.  In-country I was embarassed and frustrated by my poor Arabic skills, by the fact that I’d only taken one semester of formal Arabic.  I’m not used to not being the best at things like languages, to not knowing all the answers and to not always being right.

So maybe I’m never as prepared as I think.  There are always excuses: Arabic is hard, Cuba is soon, no one does research on Benin. But there are also millions of people who travel every year without studying the language, religion, geography, culture and economic situation of the destination before packing their bags.

Perhaps, its just time I let travel teach me that I don’t always have to be the best, and that being unsure (or heaven forbid: wrong!) is acceptable and even kind of interesting.

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.

Benny-what?

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!

Service-Learning

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