Life in Benin is not without its humor. You need to be sure to look at these in sequence. I sent the Caution picture last week. When we went by the next day it was apparent that someone needed the tire so we just couldn’t help but take another picture. The next day the problem had been resolved – at least for the moment. You learn not to run over any palm leaves on the road.
Well another week in Benin and another full slate of cultural experiences although I will have to say that we are experiencing much less culture shock now and are really beginning to appreciate the culture and ways of the Beninese. Not that we are totally over the shock, just more assimilated into it than we were when we arrived.
The branch cleans the chapel on Saturday each week. The cleaning is passed around among the Priesthood, Relief Society, Branch missionaries and the youth. We have been going over most Saturdays to help out and also to become better acquainted with some of the members. This week because of the general conference being on Saturday and Sunday, the cleaning was done on Friday. All the floors are tile and it is quite a job to move all the benches, sweep out all the sand and mop the floors and dust everything. You don’t have to work very hard here to work up a good sweat. If you are not careful, by the time you get it done, it is time to start again. It sure doesn’t take long to track all the sand back in again. Anyway, of Friday we were there with about half a dozen members when one started to hum a hymn. I guess it was the power of suggestion but soon everyone there was humming, whistling, or singing a hymn. They were scattered throughout the building so you could hear all of these hymns coming from everywhere as we worked. It was a neat experience. The members here just love the hymns and love to sing them. You just can’t keep them down. A couple of weeks ago in sacrament meeting, two members sang a hymn as a special number. Before they finished, most all the congregation had joined in the special number. The same was true today in general conference. The Tabernacle Choir added quite a few voices on the familiar hymns they sang.
The conference yesterday and today was really great even if it was a few weeks late. We had to use all of our resources to play the conference. We needed to have it in both French and English but the branch only has one CD player and one TV. On Saturday, we put my computer to good use in the Relief Society room for the English version and used the branch TV and CD player in the chapel for the French and got by fine. Today we had to bring the Southam’s TV over from their apartment and the elders managed to hook it up in tandem with the other TV so we had one in the outer chapel for the overflow. Again, my computer served for the English until about the last half hour when it mysteriously refused to finish the conference so we had to wait until the French was finished and then complete the English session in the chapel. I think the CD drive on the computer may have overheated but I don’t know. It just refused to play anymore. I keep forgetting that we are on the cutting edge of the gospel here. On Saturday, after the afternoon session President Desire stood up and dismissed everyone until Sunday morning. He had forgotten about the Priesthood meeting. We decided to have it next Sunday during Priesthood meeting and then stay for an hour after. I was kind of glad after sitting on our wood benches for 4 hours. It sounded like a good solution to me.
Most every morning when I go out I visit a little with Seraphin, our guard. Earlier this week he told me that his sister had had a baby. The baby was premature and had to be taken C section and his sister was in intensive care. He was quite worried about it. I took him over to see the baby and visit once last week but we were busy and Soeur Black was sick so I just dropped him off and promised that when she got out of intensive care, we would take him again and take time to visit his sister. We decided that today would be a good day to do that so after the conference we came home and ate lunch then braced ourselves and asked him if he wanted to go over to the hospital. We had no idea what to expect. The room his sister was in was up one floor and had as the sum total of furnishings, three beds with a door opening to the walkway outside something like a motel room arrangement. The stairways etc were extremely dirty and unkept but the room itself was better than expected – not clean but acceptable by African standards. His sister was sitting up in bed and appeared to be doing quite well. Seraphin’s mother was there and also his sister’s husband along with the husband’s sister. We were well introduced and well accepted by all although we were taken a little aback when they offered to show us the incision and operation. I don’t think that would have bothered her even a little but we declined as graciously as possible hoping that we weren’t tromping over any cultural norms. Soeur Black diffused the situation somewhat by telling them that she had had our last child C section also so she knew something of what she had been through. They were quite excited about that. It even caught the attention of the other patients in the room.
Without ever asking for money directly, Seraphin has kept me informed in all our conversations, about the financial stress of being in the hospital. It costs 5,000 cfa per day or a little over $10 for the baby in the care unit and 4,000 or about $8.50 per day for the mother. With the cost of the operation and all they now have a bill of about 160,000 cfa that needs to be paid. That would be somewhere near $350.00, or a small fortune for these people. We are thinking of recommending to all our daughters and daughters in law to come over here next time there is a baby expected in order to minimize costs. On the other hand…
We determined to give Seraphin 20,000 to help out the family. He gave it to his sister and we were properly thanked by everyone. They seemed to be really truly grateful. The mother is from a village a long way from Cotonou and only speaks Fon, the native dialect. My total inventory of Fon words thus far is exactly two. (I guess three counting yovo or white people which the children love to call us.) I have learned how to say Abofongea (not the actual spelling but it means hello or how are you) and Adabo (again not actual spelling but meaning goodbye). One highlight of our conversation, such as it was, with Seraphin’s mother was when we got ready to go I said “adabo”. It took two or three tries before she finally got it but when she did she was extremely pleased with my feeble efforts. There are quite obviously no dentists in the village where she lives but she sure seemed like a sweet lady.
When we entered the hospital, we saw people laying on the floor, or on benches. It was dark and dirty, the floors need to be swept and mopped and the walls needed a good scrubbing. My first thought was, ”Oh my lands, don’t they have beds for these poor people to lie down on?” Then it became apparent these people were there so they could be closer to ill relatives. There are no motels around for all the good that would do as these people are so poor that a motel would be entirely out of the question. His sister’s room was shared with two other women and each had an army style cot and some African fabric on the cot for sheets. I would not be surprised if they brought the fabric from home. One more thing about the room, we could not see any sign of a bathroom. I told Pete if I need to go a hospital put me on the next flight for Paris (six hours away), and let Dr. Pierre Lazares take care of me. The Southams have told us, however, that there is a real nice, clean hospital by the American Embassy. (On Monday I learned that the bedding and also the food for the patients are provided by the family.)
Before we left, they offered to let us see the baby so the father of the baby and Serafin’s mother took us down the stairs, across the courtyard to another building. Serafin told Dad that we could see the baby through a window. Now that sounded just like in a nursery at a hospital back home but once again, not so. Seraphin meant a window in the literal sense. We walked to an outside window, knocked and the nurse opened the window and curtain and allowed us to take a quick peek at a very small little baby girl. The nursery looked much cleaner than the above-described hospital room. The nurse was very clean and had her hair covered and latex gloves so there is hope for those little preemie babies. Once again we are counting our many blessings! (Our first medical experience in Cotonou was much more positive as the laboratory we took Elder Carter to for a malaria test was spotless and the needle was in a one-time use sterile package.)
Speaking of medical experiences and malaria, Elder Howard was sick on Friday and was counseled by Dr. (Sister) Dil to get a malaria and other tests. Turned out he had malaria among other things and has been down for a couple of days. I guess malaria is not a big deal if you get it diagnosed and start treating it right away. Just the same, We would prefer not to get it if we have our choice. The Church keeps a doctor on staff for the missionaries and members but he is in Ghana so he is only available to us by e-mail and telephone but it is somewhat comforting to have him there anyway. I worked with Elder Hubbard quite a lot on Friday and Saturday and Charlotte stayed home to get caught up with domestic duties. We could write another long weekly about that but we will have other opportunities and this is getting quite long so I better save that for another time.
On Saturday the Southams needed to get away for a little while as their apartment is like Grand Central Station. Elder Southam has not been feeling too well and needed a little diversion so we drove out to the beach. I think it was good therapy for all of us! The sun was just setting and there was a beautiful misty, hazy sunset. The beach faces south so the sunset was off to our right and the waves were extremely high as they splashed on the sandy beach. We were mesmerized by the constant rhythm of these huge waves. It was so fascinating as we could see an extra large wave coming toward us and thought it would be the biggest one yet and then be surprised that it would die down somewhat before hitting shore. Then a wave that would give no indication of being very big at all would make a humongous splash. We thought we were on very high ground when all of a sudden one of the big unexpected waves caught us off guard and gave us a pretty good soaking. Got us real good. It even got the bottom of my skirt wet! There were a couple of large wooden fishing boats on the beach that are used by the locals for ocean fishing. I know that I would not want to be out on waves like we were watching in one of those boats. It was great to be in a place that was not filled with thousands of people and motos and enjoy the beauties of nature. We may have to try that again. It is not far from our house.
I don’t know if it is possible to burn down a concrete house or not but Soeur Black gave it a try on Sunday. Here is what she wrote about the incident:
We invited two of the Elders over for dinner after church on Sunday, and I started the chicken before we left. I went over to the stove and turned what I thought was off on the stove but instead turned it up to high. When we got back with Elders Niambe and Howard, Seraphin, our guard, was so excited and talking “shotgun” French. He was relating the whole scenario about the smell coming from the apartment, the smoke coming from the pot on the stove and how he got the window opened and turned off the gas. I think I told you about the bars on all of the windows here so it was not an easy task. I had left the window open by the stove with the screen pulled so he managed to get his hand in through the bars and reach the stove controls. Luckily, I had some left-over spaghetti and some rice cooked so I made a rice salad to go with the spaghetti, cut up some fruit and filled everyone up. If nothing else, it entertained the Elders! I think that I will make another effort to find a crock pot. Of course, then the electricity will go off when I need it the most.
We not only had a nice dinner but a nice fragrance to go with it — Essence de poulet brulle (burnt chicken.) We will probably have that around the house for a while. We just hope our clothes don’t smell too bad when we go out. If no one will let us in we will start to get suspicious.
Sunday was election day here. No national elections, just neighborhood kinds of elections but they definitely generated excitement. Beginning early in the week, we began to see campaign rallies about town. Generally the rally consists of a brigade of motos traveling at top speed with the riders blowing whistles, waving signs, littering the road with fliers and whatever to attract attention. All of this built to a crescendo on Friday evening when it seemed like about every turn there was a rally of some kind. We were glad to get home and close the gate before dark and could only imagine what it might be like on Saturday and perhaps even on Sunday for the election. Much to our surprise, Saturday was about the quietest day we have seen and Sunday was even more quiet. It was most amazing. I guess there is a law that you are not allowed to campaign after Friday night and apparently that is one of the laws that is strictly enforced. In fact, we even got close to some of the enforcement. On our way home Saturday afternoon we were stopped for a light on a crowed street when we saw a policeman toting a machine gun and a billy club looking our way and making his way through the motos towards us. He didn’t look any too friendly either. That was enough to make Soeur Black hyperventilate. He walked up to a moto driver just off our left front fender and promptly grabbed the cap off his head and returned to the street corner. The moto driver drove on without his hat and with no argument. After asking some of the natives about that on Sunday, our supposition is that he must have been wearing a campaign cap contrary to the law. We will have to try to remember and not wear any hats with campaign slogans. Another noticeable thing about the Saturday and Sunday law was on Saturday when were out and about, the streets were free of campaign litter. On Friday there were papers everywhere and plastered on buildings, walls, etc. and I have no idea how it was all cleaned up over night.
Monday was transfer day. Elder Niambe was transferred to Ghana and will have to learn English. Elder Carter was transferred to Togo. That takes out our two best French speakers. Elder Niambe is from Ivory Coast and Elder Carter is from Montreal Canada and both English and French are native languages to him. The other companionships were rearranged also so everyone has a new companion now, excepting us and the Southams of course. We kept our same old companions. We will be down to 3 teams of Elders here for awhile and will miss Elders Niambe and Carter, whom we have learned to love and appreciate. Elder Carter is an accomplished singer and his wonderful voice will be greatly missed. His parents were called to be the mission president of the Toulouse France mission so he will stop off there to see them for a few weeks on his way home in about a year.
Soeur Black has contacted a nasty African stomach bug and has been down for a day or two. I have been gone with the Elders some to provide transportation and help them get moved, etc., but other than that we have been sticking pretty close to the house. Gratefully, this week has been pretty good thus far for the water and electricity staying on. The nice thing about our mission is that we can pretty much make our own schedule and come and go as we please. The general conference will be on Saturday and Sunday. We have the disks for French but are worried about the English ones.
Before leaving Elder Niambe needed a new pair of shoes in the worst way. I took him and his companion down to the market place to try to find some. I have learned that there are two times when it pays to not be able to speak French. One is when a policeman approaches and the other is when elders are in the process of negotiating the price on something. As we explained before, at the market place there are no prices on anything. Elder Niambe found a pair that interested him and began the process of determining a price. With him being a native elder, I was quite interested in how that would work. The asking price was 16,000 (about $35) and quickly came down to 10,000. Getting it to go lower was quite a process. They wanted to deal with me probably because I looked easier and richer but since I didn’t speak French, they had to continue with Elder Niambe and his companion. I think we walked away three different times but not so far as to be out of hearing range and be called back for more negotiations. When it was all over, we gave them 5,000 for the shoes. Even after we paid for them, they still were trying to persuade Elder Niambe that I should kick in another 1000 or so because he got such a good deal. It was all just part of the process. Elder Niambe actually felt like he paid too much. The shoes, as most all shoes here, appear to of American or European origin, used but with new soles and polished up to look almost new.
I have been working some with the member here that is in charge of family history. His name is Issac and he has been a member for about 10 years being one of the first that was baptized here in Benin. The branch has a computer not unlike the ones the wards and stakes have in the US. He has done quite a bit on the PAF program and has the family history of a number of the branch members as far as they know it. Without any written records, family history work is almost impossible except for what can be remembered by those who are living. Nevertheless, Issac has persuaded and helped a number of the member to record what they can and has two or three generations on a lot of the branch members. He has done a good job with PAF but doesn’t understand the computer enough to be able to delete old files, fix or move files, etc. I have been working with him on that and we have done a lot. We are getting by and it is fun to do. The African names are interesting. First names you can usually handle but the last names – not even close in most cases. I am glad it seems to be okay here to call members by Brother or Sister and then their first name. Otherwise we would have some work to do.
I mentioned before that being here has changed my perspective of gratitude so much. The many things I mentioned in my prayers as I expressed gratitude for my blessings in Blanding seem like a million miles away. I feel like we have been living a life of abundance and excess. On Saturday we went to visit a family who lives on the edge of the lake in a home like Pete described when they visited Ganvie, the city in the lake. It was made out of small poles and on stilts about three or four feet off the ground. The lake is low right now so you could walk to their home and just avoid a few puddles of water. In another month or so when the rainy season begins, you have to wade through knee deep water to get there. It isn’t cool, clean water either. To get inside, you simply climb up a rickety pole ladder and when inside the floor is just more poles, mostly bamboo kind of woven together. When I say kind of, that is exactly what I mean. I just knew we would all fall through any minute. I don’t think they worry even for a minute about whether or not the power or the water goes off. Besides Zashaie, the man of the house, there were the two Elders, Pete and me, plus at one point 13 kids. Only three kids were his but we yovos seemed to be the best side show around that day and attracted quit a lot of attention from the neighborhood children who seem to roam the houses as they see fit. Furnishings consisted of a wood bench to sit on and a relic buffet that resembled a reject from the dump. Underneath through the bamboo floor you could see a couple of small pigs rooting around. The smell of putrid water, fish, trash, etc was pretty bad. To be honest, I was really glad to get all of us in and back out without the whole thing collapsing.
Zashaie is an investigator who is a fisherman. He showed us his boat which is a large log hollowed out which came from Nigeria on the other side of the lake. It was the most humble abode I have been in but what was so remarkable was how happy he and the kids seem to be. Here material things do not seem to equate with happiness. He is traditionally married to his wife, which is not accepted by the government of Benin, and he is saving his money so he can get married by the state. That is a requirement before he can be baptized. Also the African tradition is one of polygamy, so that can be a bit of a problem, but hopefully not in Zashaie’s case. Polygamy is dying away now and since about 2 years ago, the Benin government doesn’t sanction it anymore. We don’t encourage divorce or abandonment of a spouse. Basically if a person is involved in a polygamist relationship then we just leave it at that and don’t teach them. If older children want to be baptized, they can be but have to be interviewed first by the mission president. The next thing Zashaie did absolutely blew my mind as he wanted to know how he could pay his tithing even before he is baptized. We wanted so badly to tell him not to worry about it but then decided he probably needs the promised blessings as much as anyone we know. Zashaie loves to sing and has been coming to choir practice and even is trying to learn the keyboard. In fact, we met him on our first day in Cotonou. His wife is a member of another church so she hasn’t taken the discussions but was friendly when we met her. She is a very beautiful woman and impeccably dressed. It amazes me that she could keep herself so clean and neat living in that kind of environment. Pete said I was a real trooper as I just went up and down that ladder without even falling off. Of course, I had a good hand from the Elders and Pete!
It has been a busy week in Cotonou so hope we have time to get it all down. We have had several cultural experiences that I think are worthy of an explanation. First, one day when we were teaching with the Elders they decided to take us to a foofoo bar (restaurant). Foofoo is a starchy food staple of life in Benin. It is made by pounding cooked yams beyond the pulp stage. The yams here are at least a foot long and three to four inches wide. They are peeled and boiled and then the action begins! Four ladies stand around a large wooden pot that is about two feet in diameter and each has a wooden pole that is at least four feet long and four to five inches in diameter. They start pounding in perfect rhythm taking their appropriate turn. When it is almost finished the rhythm intensifies and they are about to a perfect 1/8 note rhythm. The finished product is a perfect ball, white in color and about the consistency of roll dough. Each of us received a bowl of foofoo and a bowl of a hot peanut sauce with two hunks of fried cheese in it. I might add that the peanut sauce does not taste like peanut butter as the sauce has hot peppers and tomato sauce in it. You could order meat in your sauce if you wanted but the cheese sounded like a safer bet than the rabbit or the goat meat. There were also a couple other choices but no one had any idea what they were. Much to my surprise, the next step was hand washing time. The waitress brought a bowl, a pitcher of water, soap and a towel to the table, and we all washed our hands. This was just fine so far but then I realized that the appropriate way to eat foofoo was with your hands. The Elders proceeded to show us how this was done. You begin by pinching off a small ball of foofoo, dip it in the sauce and pop it into your mouth. The natives swallow it whole but I couldn’t resist chewing it up first. Surprisingly enough, it tasted really good. For about $2.00 each, including some pop to drink, it made a good meal. I want to learn how to make it as I understand that it can be made from potatoes, also. Incidentally, they brought the water around again after the meal was completed. I was thankful for that.
The Elders are a little better at living “off the street” than we are. They are out of their apartments by 10:00 and pretty much spend from then until 8:00 or 9:00 at night contacting and visiting. We let them try all the new stuff in restaurants that appear clean enough to visit or food purchased from women with baskets on their head and then they tell us what is okay and what is not. Otherwise, we pretty much stick to the “tried and true” at which we are getting quite good at procuring now that we have more experience. Even some of the people at the open air market where we normally go recognize us now and we don’t have to bargain quite so hard for our basic necessities. I am sure we still pay a premium price for things, but we just find it a little hard to try to bargain the price down lower and lower when these people have so little.
On Sunday night all of the missionaries were invited to President Desiree and his wife Vivian’s house for supper. They have two children, Laura (about 14) and Victor (maybe 9 or 10). They were some of the first people baptized in Benin and are the only family in the branch to date that have been sealed in the temple. The President’s sister (who says she is 26 but could pass for a teenager) also lives with them, but she is not a member of the church. They are a really fine family. All the missionaries now consisting of 8 elders and two couples for a total of 12 were invited out to their home. They set all the tables and chairs they could come up with out on the front patio and sat all of us down for a really nice meal. President Desiree is an accountant and probably makes a little better living than some. Even so, that is quite an undertaking for an African family, and I am sure takes a large bite out of their food budget. We have tried to think of a way we could reimburse them some of the cost without giving offense, but given the degree of hospitality it seems to be impossible. When we first arrived, the daughter and sister were cooking outside on two little cone shaped burners that had charcoal inside with pots on top. I felt that they would be great cookers for Dutch ovens. In one they were cooking home- made French fries and the other they were making piment sauce, which sounds rather harmless, but look out with the first taste. She made some boiled bread like things out of cornmeal, and you are supposed to eat them with the piment sauce. That sauce made any Mexican food taste mild. I took a minute amount and just brushed the cornmeal thing across it and that was all I could take. Pete did eat some and really liked it. I can’t remember the name of the cornmeal things but it was boiled in water instead of baked. The cornmeal was mixed with tomato sauce and seasonings and had a real good flavor. Each little loaf was about four or five inches long and about three inches wide. She also made a salad out of macaroni, beets and cooked potatoes and sardines, with an oil and vinegar type dressing. They also served fried chicken followed by popcorn and African oranges. Oranges here are green and are eaten in a very unique way. First, the outside peel is cut away so there is just the white part of the rind left. The top was cut out in a round circle about 1 1/2 inches wide and then you squeeze the orange and suck out the juice. It was a very refreshing way to complete a meal. They also served a drink called beesap. It is made by boiling the dried leaves of a real pretty purple flower. I guess it does not take a lot of the leaves to make a bunch. After it is boiled sugar is added and maybe some flavoring like mint. I really like it and the Elders do , too. In fact, I have a standing order of six bottles per week from Nadia, one of the single girls in the branch. Anyway, the meal was absolutely delicious!
We did get our hair cut on Monday and both Pete and I are a lot lighter headed now. My hair is really short but sure makes the heat more bearable. I was glad to find someone who could give us Western style cuts. The gal was from Ghana and could even speak English. She has been working at the hotel for about 20 years. They washed it before the cut and you can’t imagine how good the cool water running over you sweaty hair felt. It was almost worth the price of the haircut which was about $15. Something like the cost at home or maybe a little more but we were in the nicest hotel in Cotonou so we felt fortunate to get out for that price.
One less happy event happened this last week. On Monday, preparation day, after we came from shopping with the Elders we were in front of the Southam’s apartment unloading groceries and I was teasing a little three year old girl and she darted out in front of a moto and was hit. I was really shaken as it hit her hard and drug her down the road. It hit her on the head and she was bleeding a lot and I was so upset as she was running from my playing with her when it happened. The elders ran up to their apartment and got a first-aid kit, and we put a butterfly on her head and Neosporin on her scrapes. After we got her all fixed up, the man who was a passenger on the moto and the driver came back and handed the mother some money. Boy, did that ever surprise me as I thought they would never be seen again as after the accident they just looked and took off as fast as they could. We went over the next day and gave her some cookies and she was doing fine. When we left she was hanging on tightly to that package of cookies. I was so relieved. It was truly an answer to our prayers. I guess accidents are handled a little different here in Benin than the United States. It doesn’t appear that they have lawyers so it is not a suing society. That is good, but, if you help anyone who has been in an accident, you suddenly become responsible for them. President Dil gave us instructions yesterday that if we are ever involved in an accident we are to drive away and go to the nearest police station. If unable to drive, the instruction is to stay inside the car until the police arrive. We just hope that will be unnecessary instruction and try to drive as carefully as possible. At the same time, we are grateful that we are bigger than the motos that surround us. Mission rules prohibit the use of the motos for missionary transportation because of safety issues. The members, except for the ones who drive a car, use them almost exclusively. Soeur Precious, one of member girls has one bring her from Apacpa (sounds something like a chicken says) which is probably a 15 minute ride and about 3-4 miles. It costs her 250 francs or about 60 cents.
Soeur Black mentioned that President and Sister Dil were here on Wednesday and Thursday. They brought with them the Assistants to the President, Elders Rose and Meggersa. Also the Togo couple, Elder and Sister Gillis. That made quite a large crowd with the 8 elders here and the Southams and Blacks. Elder Rose is from the US but Elder Meggersa is from Ethopia. They are really sharp elders. Elder Meggersa had to learn English for his mission but speaks very well. On Thursday he took charge of the Zone meeting that lasted almost 4 hours. He and Elder Rose also did a lot of the training. Then President and Sister Dil spoke and Charlotte and I were called upon also. After the conference, President Dil took us all out to le Festival des Glaces for Dinner. Glace is ice cream in French. It is a nice clean place that has really good food and also ice cream so the elders were happy as were the adults. President Dil also interviewed us just before we went to dinner. He is being pretty rough on Soeur Black about learning French. He is really insisting that she be able to speak. I think it is great and the pressure is producing results. Already she knows a lot of vocabulary and how to conjugate some verbs. Today she read a scripture in a couple of meetings we went to with the elders. He didn’t leave me comfortable either. I have the task of presenting a half hour training session to the Branch Presidency once each month. I guess if we wanted to be comfortable, we shouldn’t have come to Africa.
As we get more involved, I am impressed more and more with these people and what survivors they are. When you think of the thousands of years these people have existed here and the hundreds of years in their history they were rounded up for slaves and shipped to Europe, the US or used as slaves of warring factions here, it seems somewhat incredible that they are a happy peace loving people. They have so very little of what we normally think of as things that make us happy. Altercations between individuals I am sure exist, but the atmosphere is basically one of live and let live. If you pull out in front of someone, for example, like you often have to do, for the most part they just slow down and go behind you. No honking waving their arms or other infantile behavior like you often see in the U.S. Even though we are Yoho’s (white people) as you walk down the street, you can tell anyone hello and they will greet you back as if you were one of them. They just seem to be very accepting of whatever goes on around them, and not once have we ever felt threatened or unsafe here, day or night. I am speaking for me and not Soeur Black now. She feels a little threatened when the police come up or the Revenant guy gets carried away or when we have to cross the border into Togo. Generally speaking, however, even though Cotonou is a city of some 2 million people, I would feel much more safe walking down the dark streets after dark than I would in Phoenix or Seattle for example. Even so, we try to be in by dark. President Dill says, the streets are dark, the people are dark and it is best not to drive after dark unless you have to. We try to follow that advice whenever possible. The traffic seems to double also about the time it gets dark. I guess that is when everyone is getting off work.
I have already written about the dress but continue to be impressed, especially after washing our own clothes by hand for a while. Soeur Black and I get by pretty well since there is just the two of us, but just imagine a mom with a husband and 2 or 3 kids to keep up with all by hand. It seems like most of the time we visit a home the mother is either in the process of washing clothes or has just hung them on the line to dry. Many times the wash is done from an outside faucet with pans on the ground. Normally they don’t worry about hot water here. I have yet to see a kitchen with a hot water faucet. The water is warm enough just as it comes from the tap. On Sunday the men and boys show up in clean white shirts and ties and the women in some of the most beautiful African dresses you ever saw. They seem to like white, perhaps because it produces such a striking contrast to their dark skin.
Since a lot of people here know English, it is sometimes amusing when they read our name tags. They will read our name tag and then with a smile say, “your name is Black”, “But you are not black, I am black, you are White.” I just tell them that is true but I have had that name for a long time and it is a common name where we came from. It usually opens the door to a good conversation with them.
Now for some of our activities of the last week. On Sunday we went to church as usual, opted for the English Sunday School class again and then went to the primary. We felt right at home there and the kids were learning the same songs as at home only in French. A cute little African girl immediately adopted Charlotte and me and insisted on sitting between us. She was a smart girl and could answer any question asked or sing any song. Charlotte even tried out her French on her and asked her what her name was. It was Eunice. This went on until Primary was over and one of the elders mentioned she went to an English school so I asked her, “Do you speak English?” and she answered a perfect “yes.” We were quite amused that she had not even let on that she spoke much better English than our French. There are probably 15-20 kids in the Junior Primary and about the same in the senior primary so our building is just bulging at the seams.
Monday was Preparation day and the Southams two daughters and their husbands were here so they invited everyone to go out to Ganvie – another cultural experience. Soeur Black chose to stay at the Southams and e-mail but I went with the group to help provide sufficient transportation for everyone. Ganvie is a city of about 30,000 people built out on the lake. It helps somewhat that the lake is only about 6 feet deep but the people just put down poles into the water and build their houses above the water. If you go to the store or to school, you get in your canoe (which is a hollowed out log) and paddle your way there. If you think it is hot and humid on land, you should be out on the warm water lake. I will also leave it to the reader’s imagination where the sewer lagoons are located. The village was established probably 2 or 3 hundred years ago out in the lake in an effort to escape the slave traders and has existed there ever since. We all got in a little motor boat and went about 5 miles out into the lake. Of course they took us to some stores where we were supposed to buy a lot of souvenirs on which I passed except for a little model of one of the boats which I bargained my way into for about 2,000 CFA or about $4.50. – Big Spender. I walked outside the trading post and strolled around as much as I dared considering the structure which separated me from the water below. A young boy came around in a canoe and kept saying something like “bic”, “bic”. I couldn’t figure that one out but figured it must have something to do with wanting a coin. Later on our guide told us that they don’t have anything to write with at the school so the kids ask tourists for pens. What he was asking for was a Bic pen. I gave one of the kids my only Recapture Metals free promotional pen and felt badly I didn’t have a case or two from Costco to give them. Then I made the mistake of giving a couple of cute little girls a 100 franc coin to take their picture. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before I had plenty of other potential subjects for pictures. Luckily everyone got back on the boat and we took off before I got mobbed. On the way out and back, we passed numerous little boats mostly with women going to and from the mainland, paddling all the way. How would you like to have to paddle a canoe 5 miles one way in order to go to the store?
On Tuesday, after a couple of visits with the Elders who needed transportation, we arrived at the Southams to find Elder Carter sick. His companion, Elder Hubbard went with a young man from the branch who is getting ready to serve a mission and Soeur Black and I stayed at the apartment with Elder Carter. Since he had some of the symptoms of malaria, Sister Dil instructed us to take him and get him checked. Seems as though Sister Dil has also affectionately earned the title of Dr. Dil from the missionaries since she attends to physical health while President Dil attends to the spiritual things. Since Elder Southam was still in tourist mode with his children, the lot fell to us to get it done – another cultural experience. I started out at the American Embassy where they gave me the name of a couple of good Doctors. Fortunately we knew the city well enough to find the doctor’s office after we asked directions a couple of times. The receptionist sent us over to a nearby clinic for the test. Surprise!! It was spotlessly clean and sterile. They took a blood sample from the end of Elder Carter’s finger, we paid them about $8 and we called back an hour or so later for the results which turned out negative. Try that in the USA for the same price. By Thursday everything was fine and everyone was back to work.
On Wednesday while Elder Carter and Elder Ellis (in the same apartment were recuperating, Soeur Black and I went with Elders Hubbard and Crooks and made some visits. At lunch time, they went to a little African restaurant where they quite often eat lunch and we ate foofoo for the first time. I will let Charlotte tell you about that culinary delight when she gets time. In the afternoon I went for a few more visits, and Charlotte stayed at home (by herself if you can believe that, how’s that for being comfortable with your surroundings?) and did some house things and fixed a birthday dinner for Elder Loveless who turned 20 on Shauna’s birthday. We had several really good visits but one of the best was to a young man name Dieudonne. Translated literally that would be Godgiven – not an unusual name over here. Also the days of the week are popular. If you have a son born on Tuesday, you just name him Tuesday, etc. Anyway, Dieudonne is a young man of probably about 19 or 20. The missionaries were actually teaching his aunt who lives in the same house and he got hold of some of the brochures they left and showed up at church last Sunday on his own. By Wednesday, he had read everything in the house and all but begged for a copy of the Book of Mormon. We gave him a lesson on the origin of the Book of Mormon and read some scriptures from it, then one of the elders let him keep their personal copy until we could get him his own copy. I keep telling the Elders here they have it so easy. In France many years ago, I would have given my right arm for even one investigator like the ones these Elders teach here all day long.
Today, we set out to find a place to get Charlotte a haircut. She wants to get it cut a little shorter and I am looking a little shaggy myself. Hair cutting over here in a hot climate isn’t much of an art. Basically one size fits all, you just shave it all off. Soeur Black is not quite that far into the culture yet. We are going to try the tourist hotel where we stayed the first night. We understand there is a beauty parlor there that caters more to western styles.
Well we found the hotel and also the airport. That made Charlotte feel better since she now knows where the airport is although it will be a while before we have need of it. We did pass our 1 month mark yesterday but who is counting. Made a hair appointment for Monday and know the city a little better than before. Also found a good clean restaurant and had a nice dinner. I guess today is kind of a down day and we are looking forward to a good weekend.
Today is P-day, Monday, and all of the elders, Southams and Pete went to a city in the middle of the lake, and I decided to stay here and catch up on our e-mails. The electricity is off again so I am writing using the battery and will send it on later. Southam’s apartment has the internet and is very comfortable and I had absolutely no desire to spend a day in the sun and heat that needed a boat ride to get there. Some of the elders had no desire to go either but they had no water so they could not do their laundry anyway. Pete and I got up early and washed most of our clothes until we ran out of clothes pins. I still wish we had Grandma’s wash board! When we move into this apartment, we will have a washing machine. Happy Day! Our apartment had no water on Friday and Saturday but it came on in the middle of the night so at least we could shower before church. We have learned to keep all of our bottles and a large bucket full of water at all times. I used some of reserved water to wash my hair on Saturday night just in case there was none in the morning. There was no water at the church on Saturday either so they had to siphon it out of the reserve tank on the roof for the baptism. That was pretty entertaining in itself. One of the members finally got enough pull on the hose to get a trickle going; it stopped and then they gave him the other end of the hose and finally got enough to fill the font.
After being in Africa for 2 weeks now, I can’t help but notice how much our perspective of life has changed. We express our thanks daily for simple things like water, electricity that keeps the fan and air conditioner working, a pickup that gets us around, a safe place to live, etc. The simple things of life that we take for granted at home are tremendous blessings here. Another blessing is that Pete and I have lost some weight. I don’t have an idea how much but our clothes are getting looser. We may come home looking like one of the elders. Elder Hubbard even had to have some new pants made so he would have a pair he could keep up! Elder Crooke’s belt is a good four inches tighter that when he got here. (Those elders in Blanding are so spoiled.) After we get home in the evenings, all we want is something to drink and eat some fruit and yogurt. Sometimes we settle for water and one of those chocolate-filled biscuit cookies we liked so well in France.
I still don’t feel completely comfortable here, and I had another scare on Saturday. We were on our way to the baptism and when we stopped at a traffic light, two police men walked over to the pick-up and of course, they came to my window. My heart was beating a million times a minute. They wanted to see our papers so I handed them the copies of our passports. They looked them over thoroughly and then wanted to see the truck registration. I gave them the Ghana registration, and they looked at it and then the light changed so they motioned us on. Boy, was I ever relieved! Dad tried to reassure me that the last thing in the world they want to do is provoke an incident with an old American grandma that could involve the American Embassy. They do seem to respect older women here and I am referred to as Mama wherever we go.
When they get back from the city on the lake, we will do our shopping at the marche again. This will be our third time, and I have no reservations whatsoever about going, so I guess Dad is right that we are gradually getting more adjusted to being here.
I think we must be adjusting somewhat to conditions here. It seems like the weekend has produced nothing really out of the ordinary. We did go to a baptism on Saturday afternoon. A young 8 year old boy was baptized and also Annika, an adult who is a student at a University here. Annika is from the Congo. The elders tell us that he lives in a very poor part of town but is very intelligent and has studied the gospel a lot.
Before the baptism, we were at the Southams and charged with the responsibility of bringing a basket of towels and clothing from their apartment where Sister Southam had washed them over to the Chapel. When we pulled up and went to get them out of the back of our pickup to carry them in a young boy came running over and told us to back away. Then he had a friend help him hoist it up on top of his head and away he went into the chapel carrying the basket. Carrying things on your head is the approved way here. You would not believe what they can carry. I have seen women with a large tray completely filled with water and other drinks of all kinds that they are selling. That kind of merchandise is heavy and they carry it like it is nothing just walking around with their hands free. I will try to get some pictures but you have to be a little careful how you just snap pictures of people without their permission. Yesterday we were with the Elders walking to a meeting when a woman with the cutest little girl in a white dress walked by. The little girl wanted to shake hands with us. I did get a picture of that which I will try to send. You can almost always pay someone a few hundred francs to take their picture. I will probably do that as we get braver, but I don’t want them to think the missionaries are just tourists here either.
Church was fun again today. It is impressive how these people dress up and the singing would put any ward in the US to shame. It is just a wonderful friendly atmosphere. We are really looking forward to getting better acquainted with the members. I guess it was general conference there today but we have that here in 3 weeks after the CD’s of the conference arrive. After Church we helped teach a lesson to Mary, a Nigerian investigator being taught in English and then invited a couple of elders over to our place for dinner. They seem to enjoy Charlotte’s cooking.
Soeur Black and I have spent most of the week lost somewhere in Cotonou. One of the problems with having some wheels is that you have to drive them if you are going to get around the City. That presents two problems. One is the Motos, on which I am now revising my estimate of the count to millions. The other is knowing where you are. We have tried unsuccessfully to buy a map of the city. Elder Southam finally came up with an old one that was hanging around his apartment but it doesn’t help a lot. First of all there are almost no street names or numbers. Each area has a neighborhood name of which taxi and moto drivers seem to be aware. The chapel and Southams apartment is in Gbedjdromede. I can’t tell you how to say it but if you leave out the G and the j and say the last e and a long A, you will come close phonetically. Our little house is in Houeyiho. Don’t even try that one phonetically – it won’t work. Those must be Fon names because they aren’t any French I have ever heard before. Once you get to the neighborhood, you are on your own as the only addresses are behind a school, next to a store or across from a post office or internet café. It seems to work out fine and asking directions is not frowned upon but it doesn’t do much for finding your way around. Every once in a while we pass something and recognize that we passed it once before but we can’t remember when and even if we could we didn’t know where we were that time either. We have learned to get from our house to the Chapel and back. Also we have a couple of the main streets and roundabouts identified so we feel a little better.
Now if we could just get the motos to leave us alone. Most everywhere you go your are traveling in a virtual sea of motos, in front, on each side, and behind. There seems to be basically two traffic rules. One is that there is strength in numbers and the other is if there is a space, move into it. The motos are quicker and better at it than I am. The amazing thing is that it seems to work. Everyone is in the same boat so everyone just tries to look out for themselves and in so doing everyone is taken care of. Actually we probably get more than our share of being watched over. I have learned to make the moto drivers my friends and allies. When you make a left turn, for example, you just wait until you get a good brigade of motos on your right and then they will kind of wade into the oncoming traffic and overwhelm it so you can cross without any problem. Honking is fairly constant but it isn’t malicious. It is just to let you know they are around. So far we have only observed two moto accidents. In both cases the victims just gathered themselves up and got back on the moto. Yesterday, coming back from a meeting to which I took the elders, we were coming around a roundabout with the usual moto escort when one driver reached over and put his hand on my fender so he could keep the required inch or two away from my front wheel and away we went around the roundabout. You also have the occasional driver, usually someone rich in an SUV who seems to feel like if he can get past just one more car, he will be in the front of the line of all the cars in Benin. These people are the most irritating. It is going to be a challenge to drive 18 month here without wiping one out but we will give it our best effort. Slow and steady seems to work.
Missionary work wise, it has been a good one in spite of being lost. We have gone with the Elders to 5 or 6 meetings. A couple of them have fallen through but others have been great. A man named Hillary (there seems to be a lot of cross over between what we normally think of as girls or boys names) was invited by Elder Southam when he went to get some copies made and showed up at church on Sunday. He is an accountant at an appliance store and a clean cut good looking guy. He seems to have a great interest in the Church. On meeting last night was with Mama Rose. Her son is one of the missionaries serving from this Branch but she has never been baptized. We had a really good meeting with her. It was our first chance to observe Elder Niambe (he is from Ivory Coast) teach and we were impressed. He not only knows the gospel, he knows how to teach it. Comparing these missionaries to what I remember from my first mission in France, they are miles ahead. I suppose that comes from better training at the MTC than we ever received.
There are a couple of other driving hazards. One is the sand. Our little pickup isn’t 4 wheel drive so it can get trapped in the sand quite easily. The only time it has happened so far, Elders Howard and Niambe who were with us along with some friendly neighborhood natives provided the 4 wheel drive and it worked quite well. The other is the weather. We really haven’t had to deal with that yet. This morning, however, it is blowing and raining with lightning and thunder. We will have to see how that goes. Maybe it will thin out the motos.
Last night we arrived at the hotel in Togo quite early. We are staying at an IBIS hotel (French). It is really nice and clean. Has clean water and a great AC system. Last evening Southams and us went out and ate a nice meal at a nice little restaurant on a patio overlooking the pool, with palm trees and tropical plants everywhere. The grounds are beautiful like the hotel we stayed at in Benin. It is probably not quite as nice but almost. I told the Southams we had been in Africa 8 days now and spent two of them in nice hotels. If we could keep up that ratio it would be nice. Their response was that they had spent 2 night in hotels also and they are almost ready to go home. They are really fun people to be with. We enjoy them a lot and they seem to enjoy our company also.
I better back up to Monday before I get to far along with the Togo trip. Monday was P day so the Southams picked us up in the morning to go do some shopping. We went to the market where Charlotte and I went last week but this time we were a little better prepared and Charlotte was not quite so traumatized. We also hit a couple of small markets that were not bad. One place has a meat market that is downright nice – the equivalent of anything we have at home. We were glad to find a place to buy clean meat even though it is a little pricey. Good hamburger was about $5 per pound. We were happy to see, however, that there were places where we can buy almost anything that would be available in an average small market at home if we are willing to pay the price. Since the Elders were fixing some crepes for lunch we even bought some Nutella to go on them. It was about $10 for a bottle but made the Elders smile.
After shopping, we went to the Southams apartment and with Elders Hubbard and Carter in charge helped fix a nice lunch for everyone. Crepes, plenty of pineapple, mangos and papayas and Charlotte even fixed a bucket of rice pudding for desert. After everyone was full we all went to a cultural event called a Revenon (I don’t know if that is the way it is spelled or not but it doesn’t matter.) It is actually a Voodoo event. The African drums start drumming and then the voodoo men come out dressed in brightly colored costumes and dance. That part was okay and fun to watch, but then they go around asking for money. The idea seems to be that these are spirits and they are supposed to chase away other evil spirits. In order to do this they take a stick or other weapon and chase people, especially the young guys who seemed to enjoy being chased. Being aware of all of this beforehand, Elder Hubbard had made arrangement with the supposed chief of the event for we palefaces to come and watch the event and for an up front payment of some $50 they were supposed to let us take photographs, not bother us, etc. etc. Well, that turned out to only be partially successful. There was a guy there that was supposed to make sure everything was okay with us but first they came by wanting more money. We gave them a few coins. As the crowd grew bigger and the drums got louder, quite a few young men had gathered on the ground in front of us. Without warning one of them attacked the guys right in front of us with a steel sickle kind of a thing. They pretty much ran us under trying to get away and before it was all over one elder had his hand cut quite badly across one knuckle. We retreated behind a members fence after that where we were a little protected. It was colorful and I enjoy the African drums and got some good pictures but in retrospect we probably shouldn’t have been there and won’t go again. The spirit just wasn’t right for much missionary work.
Tuesday morning we had our regular district meeting and then headed off for Togo. It is about a 4 hour drive including about one hour to convince the authorities to let us cross the border from Benin to Togo. Actually it wasn’t too bad. Just a lot of paperwork looking at passports and Visas, recording by hand all the information from the passport, vehicle papers etc. on the Benin side and then going about 100 yards to the Togo side and doing it all again.
Now back to our Togo experience. I already told you about our nice evening at the hotel. We had a really good breakfast there, then the couple who are there in Togo (Brother and Sister Gillis from Alberta Canada) picked us up and took us to their home where we met President and Sister Dil. That was a very enjoyable experience. In their back yard they have a Gazebo kind of thing with a African thatched roof. We sat out there for probably 3 hours and visited with President and Sister Dil. They welcomed us to the mission and gave us a thorough orientation, answering all our questions about missionary work. We talked about everything from African traditions and how they affect membership in the Church to what is expected from the elders and health matters. They also confirmed the rumor that we had heard that when they leave in June, Togo and Benin are going to be put into the Ivory Coast mission. That really makes more sense because now the entire Cape Coast mission is English speaking except for these two countries. Since there is only one city open for missionary work in each country, the eight French speaking elders really just get transferred back and forth and don’t have much to do with the rest of the mission or missionaries. It will be interesting to see what kind of changes a new mission might bring. Ivory coast is further away. Oh, also we were wondering at home about the Church News article that said Togo and Benin were being transferred to Ghana Accra mission. I guess that was the original plan but when President Dil was called as the Cape Coast Mission President and could speak French they scrapped that plan and left them in the Cape Coast mission. It seems like the bottom line is that these two countries are French speaking countries in between two large English speaking countries (Ghana and Nigeria) and nobody knows what to do with us.
After our orientation, President Dil took us all out to lunch, the assistants to the president showed up with our little pickup, and we started the long trip home, including the reverse process at the border. We got home just after dark to find no water. The power and the water go off regularly. The water is still off this morning. We will send a picture of our little pickup and talk more about driving later. Right now we are just glad to have wheels.