Tag Archives: yovo

Managing Expectations

Our precious cargo.
Our precious cargo.

We crossed the ocean with them.  We flew over the Mediterranean and the Maghreb with them.  We took them in a bus to a boat and now up a dusty dirt road, into a women’s organization in a rural area that was lucky enough to produce a Mama Benz.  Benze as in Mercedes, meaning that this badass woman Mire is constantly on television, and is really rather running the show in Benin’s two major cities.

We cram into an area too small for 25 yovos and about 60 partially-inflated soccer balls, nevermind the twenty or so Beninoise women who were recieving us.  As we pump the soccer balls and hear the excited screams of children too poor to go to school but clever enough to know we have soccer balls, a welcoming speech is made.  I almost spit my warm water when I hear this:

Thank you so much for coming, and for bringing all of these wonderful soccer balls.  But the river is quite big, and perhaps next time you could bring a boat?”

I am too stunned to translate it immediately.  But I do, and good lord are we all alarmed.

Children wait below the balcony, hoping for a soccer ball.
Children wait below the balcony, hoping for a soccer ball.

The list continued.  Money, food, medecine, everything.  But the image of 25 kids splitting a boat into pieces so we could fit it into our checked luggage and then reassemble it in West Africa really showed how much we were misunderstood.

Lori handled the rather imperious requests in a polite but assertive way, explaining that we were not an aid organization or in any way charged with the duty of dispersing funds (not true, but for their purposes it was, and you best believe they found out we gave other groups grants.)

Whenever someone tells me they have been perfectly clear about their intentions in the developing world, I always pcture myself lugging a massive wooden canoe, haggling with the gate agent about how much it costs to check it.

193No matter how clear you are, there will be expectations.  This is because every white person before us had shown up with money.  This is because in a small country, it doesn’t take long for everyone to find out we have money to spend on certain projects.  This is because our wealth is incomprehensible to many others, in the same way their poverty is incomprehensible to us.  If we have ipods, how can we not have the $60,000 they need to buy a machine?  Don’t we have enough money to not only live in America but to leave it at will, to go to school enough to speak in foreign tongues?

In this respect, I think our Capstone did some irreversible damage to the reputation of gringoes.  We are hardly alone in that, but the precedent is set.  Worse, I think we were all collectively far too naive about the expectations we were walking into.  Just because we were perfectly clear doesn’t mean it came across as we intended it.  If every group is perfectly clear that they are not giving away food or money, but then proceed to do one or both of those things, it is natural for people to assume that, “we’re not giving you food or money,” is gringo for, “just wait a few days and Santa Claus will be here.”

To think that our actions and words are the only ones that contribute to what is expected of us is a rookie mistake.  It is one of those mistakes that I can’t help but feel is the difference between the business mindset and social sciences mindset, for better or for worse.

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.