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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.