Church yesterday was another experience. On Saturday we had a baptism. Her name is Liza but the is “i” pronounced like and “e”. She is from Liberia, another English speaking country, but was married to a Beninese man. Just after they started to investigate the Church, her husband passed away, so she has had to do it on her own. She is quite a large woman but Soeur Black got her all outfitted in a white suit, and Elder Southam baptized her. Just before meeting started, I was asked to confirm her. I was glad she wanted it done in English. Mary, another English speaker and an investigator whom we have been helping the Elders teach, taught the English speaking Sunday school class from the Book of Mormon. If that is going to continue, we probably should get her baptized. During Priesthood meeting time, I decided to go to the Young Men’s class and see what was going on there. They didn’t have an instructor. One of the boys seemed to be in charge and had everyone open their copies of the Book of Mormon to Alma 32, take turns reading about faith, and asked them to explain in their own words what each verse was saying. I don’t know if that would happen in a quorum at home or not. There is definitely some work to do with Branch organization here, but it is hard to argue with what seems to be working. President Dil told us that you have to remember that the church is only 5-6 years old here, so Church history wise, we are somewhere in the Kirtland period of time. If you read the Doctrine and Covenants and church history and see the struggles the church went through trying to understand something that was new and different to those people, it helps to not get discouraged when things don’t go exactly as they should here. There are 35-40 men in Priesthood meeting each week. There are 8 or 10 people in the branch that have been to the temple, but President Desiree and his wife are the only couple that have been sealed. There is quite a bit of excitement right now in the Branch as a temple excursion is in the planning stages for the next month or so (I have heard several dates but it doesn’t seem to be firmly set yet) where several more couples will be sealed and others intent to do baptisms. Soeur Black and I would love to go also, but so far that seems to be a member, not a missionary, activity. With just a few exceptions, if you have been a member more than a couple of years, you are one of the oldest members in the Branch. On the other hand, going may also present some problems. The bus system here seems to be some overgrown vans called Trotos (may not be the right spelling). They are about the size of the small school buses we have at home but you see 40 or 50 people loaded and tightly packed as possible inside. With no air conditioning that may be a challenge for us Yovos. There is also the problem of crossing two borders, one into Togo and the other into Ghana. Although we now have visas for both, crossing is rather time consuming for a foreigner, whereas West Africans seem to be able to cross quite easily. There are also some very nice buses, but I think they are much more expensive, probably too much for the members.
Last week I mentioned going shopping for food with the Elders and how much I enjoy the diversion. On Monday we did our food shopping once again and added going to Missebo Market to buy fabric. Now you may wonder why the elders had such a thing on their agenda ,as usually men despise this type of activity. (I am speaking from experience here.) There are many excellent tailors and seamstresses here who make traditional or even not-so-traditional clothes very inexpensively. The Elders want to take African outfits home to their families when they leave Cotonou. Most of them have about a year left and are getting a head start on the project. First, we need to explain Missebo again as this part was different than the tie section we went to last week. It seems as if there is some type of organization to what appears to chaos as in one area you may find dozens of shops selling clothes, then another area selling shoes. The same applies to the fabric stalls. We turned off the main road and went by so many little stalls, all of which were selling fabric – embroidered, plain, multi-colored, more multi-colored and even more multi-colored. But the elders wanted to keep going, as down by the river was where the best bargains were to be found. Almost all of the fabric was between $1.00 and $2.00 per yard, and it takes about six yards to make a women’s outfit plus the head wrap and about 4 yards for a man’s outfit called a boomba. (Sounds like you could really jive in something called a boomba!) Afterwards, it was really entertaining as Elder Phillips showed me the fabric he bought for his mother. It is hard to describe in words but I will try. The background is brown, and on the brown are bright yellow chickens, chicken and rooster heads plus the eggs. The chickens are not little chickens either as I am sure that they could be seen about a half a block away. I laughed and teased him but then as I thought about it a little longer, I decided that chickens were a good choice after all. On every road that I have been on in Cotonou, there are chickens roaming free. Most of the hens have a few little chicks following them and every neighborhood has its alarm clock rooster. I am sure that his mom will love it. Elder Hubbard was a little more conservative for his mom so I couldn’t tease him.
On Tuesday we went to teach a family consisting of a father, a mother and two young girls, one about eight and the other about 14. It was a very interesting family as the mother was from Ghana and spoke English but couldn’t read and the father and the girls could read and speak French. They speak to each other in Fon. Elder Hubbard, Dad and I went with Elders Loveless and Crooks so we divided into two teams. They decided that the English group would go into the living room and the French would stay outside in the patio area. It was sweltering hot inside the house so the father told the 14 year old daughter (named Scholastic) to go inside and set up a fan for us. She came out of the bedroom with the fan and started to plug it in, and then pandemonium broke loose. Most plugs here in Cotonou are not grounded and with the humidity that sometimes gets interesting. When she plugged it in, she got the shock of her life, screamed and fell over with the fan on top of her. By this time the fan was broken and she tried to catch herself on the curtain that divided the bedroom from the living room. That pulled the curtain and the wooden valence out of the concrete wall. So in a matter of a few seconds, girl, fan, valence and curtain were all the floor in a small space behind the couch. That, of course, brought us to our feet and everyone into the house to see what in the world was going on. But fortunately within a few minutes the girl was fine, the curtain and valence were back on the wall, but the fan was history. You never know what surprises each day might bring!
We have been out teaching a couple of times this week with Rebecca. Rebecca is a beautiful African girl, about 22 or 23 years old, who joined the church a couple of years ago, making her an “old” member of the Branch. Turns out she is the daughter of the Cotonou equivalent of Larry Miller in Salt Lake. Her father was one of the wealthiest men in Cotonou. He began by selling salvaged car parts and got to the point where he could buy a car. Instead of selling the car, he took it apart and sold the parts, bought another, etc. Within a few years he has amassed a fortune in the car and car parts business. Being rich in Africa meant he could buy more wives, and he had sixteen of them and 32 children. Rebecca’s mother was only 14 when Rebecca was born and then her mother passed away on Rebecca’s 2nd birthday. Her father then sent her to school in France for about 14 years until pressure from within the family required her to come home where she met the missionaries and joined the Church. She hid the fact of her family being wealthy until her father died last fall. Then it came out who she really was. Since then there have been some attempts by some of the family to cut her out of any inheritance since she left her father’s church. Some of her brothers appear to be quite busy trying to drink up all of their inheritance, but Rebecca is just a special young lady. She and Soeur Black have quite a lot in common, both joining the church under adverse family pressure and losing their parents at a young age, so she has wanted to visit quite a lot. She is also busy getting referrals from among her classmates where she goes to school and we had a really good meeting with one of her friends. She says she has some more almost ready for the missionaries. She isn’t afraid to speak up, and when she goes with us she does a lot of the teaching. It is really fun to go teaching with her.
Thursday we had another few seconds of excitement. Pete took two young men who are preparing for a mission to the doctor for their physical. Elder Hubbard, the Southams, Rebecca, and I went to teach a lesson. Afterwards we met at our house for lunch, and when we were just about finished we heard lots of yelling outside. Our neighborhood has been very quiet and peaceful so I could not imagine what was going on. Elder Hubbard, the young men, and the Southams ran outside to see what the excitement was but I decided my curiosity was not that great. There is an internet café across the street from us, and two young men tried to rob it but managed to escape. After talking to our young African friends, we came to the conclusion that they were the luckiest guys in Cotonou. I mentioned before that vigilantes are alive and well here, and we almost got a first-hand look. Stealing is not tolerated by the general public so everyone takes care of each other. Rebecca told us that if they would have been caught by the local people, the most desirable thing would have been a good beating, probably also stripped of their clothes and paraded around the neighborhood, then given to the police. Rebecca told us a while back someone caught stealing was stripped of his clothes, put in an ape cage on the back of a truck and driven all over town. That might be a good idea to consider at home as well. More serious infractions can extract more aggressive vigilante action – a beating followed by a dousing of gasoline and a match. That was enough to really scare me but all three young Africans assured me that stealing from a yovo was something that could extract the maximum penalty and we have absolutely nothing to worry about. I think they are right as we feel safe wherever we go and no one has tried to cheat us from even the smallest amount of change. People here really seem to respect old yovos. (For any who may not have read previous blogs, Yovo is the Fon word for white person.)
That reminds me of another little experience we had last week. Elder Hubbard told us that we were going to see “the old man” so I was expecting to see an old man who could hardly get around, with gray hair and a cane. Boy, was I ever surprised when we arrived at his house only to find out that he seemed to be younger than we are. After the lesson, I gave Elder Hubbard a bad time about this “old man” because that made me “the ancient one”. Two days later, Elder Crooks was talking about an investigator who was really old, about 54 years old. Another thing that takes on a new perspective in my life here in Africa is age. I can remember the time when 64 years old did seem like the time of the “ancients ones,” but now it does not seem to be that old. We are even more grateful here to be enjoying good health so we can withstand the physical challenges that go along with serving in Africa, even if we are the “ancient ones”.
Helping Godwin and Elvis get their medical taken care of for their missions has been an experience in itself. These are two healthy Beninese boys who have never been to a doctor or dentist in their life. The doctor’s exam was quite uneventful except for the blood draw, which also drew a few comments from the prospective missionaries. The dentist was quite another thing. Somehow Elder Southam located a French dentist who has a nice office and equivalent tools to what one would find in the US. While we were waiting to go in, someone came out with their foot all bandaged up. I told them that is what happens when you go to the dentist. Apparently the stories of Elder Lionel, the last missionary to go, having his wisdom teeth extracted without any anesthesia have not been lost on these two boys either. I think when the dentist put them in the chair and tipped them back to examine their teeth, they were expecting the worst. He gave them an examination and found a couple of small cavities each but thinks the wisdom teeth on both are okay. We have to go back on the 12th of June to get that taken care of and then they are ready to send in their papers. We have had quite a bit of fun with this. We pulled out Charlotte’s leatherman and told them that if they needed the teeth removed we could handle it fine. They are really sharp young men. Godwin has been a member a couple of years now and Elvis is just coming up on one year so he is barely eligible to go but he has also been the seminary teacher for the last while and has really learned the gospel. Both of them like to go with the missionaries as often as they can and enjoy teaching the gospel. They will be really great missionaries.
A week or two ago I sent an e-mail to President Dil asking a question about branch things. The response was that I could ask that question when I went to the PFR meeting in Ghana. Not wanting to appear stupid I didn’t ask for an explanation of that. Yesterday we got word that all of the couples are being asked to go to a Physical Facilities meeting in Accra on June 21. We will drive to Togo, pick up the couple there, and go on to Accra the next day in time to go to the Temple. We don’t know all the details yet but we are excited to get to go to the temple and see Ghana. With Southams leaving, the trip to Accra, and being in a new mission with a new mission president, all coming next month, things should be exciting.