“We are late. We are late for a very important date.” Maybe it isn’t an important date but it is an important blog letter, and we have plenty to write about but time has been at a premium around here. We have a zone conference every six weeks, and President and Soeur Ayekoue came on Saturday and left this morning, Tuesday. Most of the week was spent in preparation for their visit and the weekend was spent on the visit. As usual we had our ups and downs and our “in Africa you have to be prepared for anything” moments, but we made it and we put President and Soeur Ayekoue on the airplane this morning, so now we are kicked back and relaxing for a while.
The last time the President came, they stayed at a hotel 15 minutes or so away. It was such a hassle running back and forth and trying to get him to where he needed to be on time, so we invited them to stay here in our extra room and they accepted the invitation. That meant we had to upgrade the room. We started out by finding a plumber to put in a hot water heater for the bathroom. That went quite well actually and was done last week. Sister Black also determined that the room had to have new mattresses and proper decorations, bed and breakfast style. We also had a small desk built as well as a small table for suitcases, and we salvaged an easy chair from the storage at the chapel, which we cleaned up, bought new cushions for, and made into a very nice easy chair. When we hung the pictures and put in the finishing touches, the room was beautiful and comfortable and we now have a fine guest room for anyone when the President is not here.
In addition to the room preparations, Soeur Black stressed out a little over meals. Such things always cause a little concern even at home when you are in your own culture, but when you throw in African culture, it add that much more to the stress. It has always been tradition after zone conference for the President to treat the missionaries to a good meal. President Dil had a tradition of going down to a Festival des Glaces, an American Style ice cream parlor/restaurant that the missionaries enjoyed a lot. President Ayekoue is a little more tight fisted than President Dil and suggested that we serve the after-zone-conference meal in our apartment instead of going to the restaurant. Besides worrying about feeding the Ayekoue’s, Soeur Black also had to worry about the zone dinner. Being the resourceful missionaries that we are, we determined to ask two sisters in the branch, Soeur Nadia and Soeur Estelle to prepare a Beninoise meal with a few instructions from us. We knew these women were good cooks but you never know once things are out of your control. First of all, we stressed that it had to be good and not to skimp on anything, and we suggested that grilled chicken and some fresh fruit might be nice. Since this is Soeur Black’s area of expertise, I will let her tell the “rest of the story”.
On Friday, since Nadia and Estelle have no means of transportation except by moto taxi, we offered to take them to buy all of the ingredients they needed for the meal. Thus begins the story of the most unique wedding anniversary we have ever had-–forty two years together–and the day began at St. Michel’s Marche. Of course, we had no idea what was on their list and the first stop was at a chicken marche. Every stall along one path was lined with live chickens all making the noises chickens make along with the smells chickens make. We tried to tell them we had some wonderful frozen chickens in the freezer at home which they could use, but we could not convince them, as “fresh ones are better.” They went directly to one particular stall where a rather large woman was sitting with her chickens, which were all caged in wire pens and round bamboo and reed containers. They began the selection process by pointing at a particular chicken which the lady would grab out of the cage and then Nadia and Estelle felt it all over and it was either rejected or chosen. This whole process took about a half hour and finally 7 of the fattest and best chickens were on the floor waiting their fate, which would come two days later. There was a place directly across from the chicken stall where you could have your chicken killed on the spot and take it home ready for dinner. I was so relieved that they were not planning on using the killing stall as I don’t think I could have eaten them later. We carried the chickens to the pickup and put them in back with their legs tied together with grass reeds. At St. Michel’s they also bought some white dried beans and pineapple. They were not pleased with some of the prices on other things so we went to Tokpa for our next stop.
Tokpa Marche is the largest and most congested marche in Cotonou, and its different areas specialize in different products. We ended up on a little street that was lined on both sides with piles of pineapple. It was not as wild as the watch and dry goods area we were at two weeks ago or the area where we bought the items for the Branch storehouse last week. We told Nadia and Estelle that we would wander around the pineapple while they forged ahead to buy the other things on their list. We bought a few limes, pineapple, a small insulated container, and a light bulb and then waited in the pickup. They finally came and Nadia had about 10 pounds of onions on her head, a couple of sacks in her hands, and Estelle had a cement bag full of items. By this time, some of the seven live chickens had managed to free themselves from the reed string that was binding their legs, so we had chickens running around in the pickup. I don’t think Toyota envisioned their truck as a chicken coop!
Now I had more to worry about – seven live chickens and 10 pounds of onions for dinner on Monday, but at least I wasn’t the one who had to kill the chickens or peel the onions. They also had a bag of tomatoes, piment peppers, and sundry other items. Then there was something more to worry about. How many piments did they buy and would the dinner be hotter than a firecracker? On Monday about 4:30 after zone conference it was time to eat, and I realized that my worrying time was an absolute waste. We began with a white bean cassoulet and cut up hot dogs served with fresh bread. Hot dogs are not my favorite thing but I will have to admit this was absolutely delicious. After the bean cassoulet, they brought out mounds of grilled chicken seasoned to perfection, French fries, and pate rouge. Pate rouge is made of corn flour and seasoned with tomatoes and piment. It is served with a mixture of fresh tomatoes, onions and piment peppers. For desert they served cut up pineapple, bananas and papaya in a grenadine sauce. The whole meal was filled with, “Wow, this is soooo good. Mmmm, delicious, etc.” I think it got an A+ rating from the elders and the Ayekoues and, I know it did from us.
President and Sister Ayekoue flew into Togo this time, and our arrangement was that the Togo couple would bring them to the border and we would meet them there at 1:00 and bring them on to Cotonou, eat an early dinner and then have President Ayekoue to the Branch leadership training meeting scheduled for 5:00. That was simple enough except that before we got 10 miles out of Cotonou, we ran into a traffic jam (both ways) and it took us almost two hours to go 3 or 4 kilometers. We finally arrived at the border two hours late only to find that the Togo contingency still had not arrived. About a half hour later they came and we made the transfer. By then it was almost 4:00, and we still had a two hour drive back to Cotonou. Thankfully in Africa, no one gets too exercised if things don’t start on time. We arrived back at the chapel and started the meeting an hour late.
As soon as President Ayekoue got into the pickup at the border, he announced that we would have to go back to Togo on Sunday and divide the Lome Branch. That was a shock but it didn’t pose any problems, only that I was scheduled to teach a Sunday school class on missionary work and we couldn’t leave until 11:00 after Sunday school. That would get us there in time, however, if we didn’t run into any traffic jams. After the Saturday Night leadership meeting, some of the Ayekoue’s friends from Cote d’Ivoire came over to visit. We invited them to eat with us and finally finished eating about 10:30. Since it was so late, I offered to drive them home. We went down to the pickup only to discover the first flat tire since we arrived. How do you get a tire fixed in Cotonou late on a Saturday night when you have the leave for Togo the next morning? Esther (The Ayekoue’s friend) talked to the neighbor in Fon for a minute then disappeared into the darkness. In just a few minutes she was back with two young men in tow who were offering to fix the tire. It took until after midnight but they got the job done and did it well. We were ready to go. Esther told me they wanted 1,500 cfa for the job (about $3.00 or so) but she talked them down to 1,300. After she left I gave them 2,000 and felt it was the best money we have spent so far on our mission.
Sunday was our Primary program in Sacrament meeting. All the older Primary kids talked. Unfortunately there was not time to sing the songs they had been preparing all year to sing. Neither was there time for President Ayekoue to talk but we started and ended on time! Maybe the songs will come later. The kids did a really good job on their talks. There were 182 people at church and that made for standing room only. Not bad for a branch with 225 members. Afterwards I taught my class while President Ayekoue interviewed and then we headed for Togo as fast as we could. We arrived in time and had a sacrament meeting there also. President Ayekoue took charge and divided the branch and sustained the new Branch Presidency. Frere Dieudonne, one of the long time members over there who went with us to Accra when we were over there in June was also sustained as a second counselor to President Ayekoue in the Mission Presidency. It was really fun to see all of that done and done well with no involvement whatsoever from any pale faces. Riding over and back with President Ayekoue, I really had a chance to get well acquainted with him, and we sure are learning to have a lot of love and respect for him. He was a professor of biology then an educational administrator before going to work for the Church as the Seminary and Institute program supervisor and then was called as mission president. His teaching skill is evident every time he has the opportunity to teach or train. We didn’t get home until almost 10:00 that night and were very tired but it was a rewarding and eventful day. Soeur Black and Soeur Ayekoue stayed home and tended little Happy who was not feeling really well because of some congestion. Soeur Black is learning French and Soeur Ayekoue is trying to learn English so they have something in common (sort of), and they got along fine.
On Monday we held the zone conference. Soeur Ayekoue brought Soeur Black a really nice African dress from Cote d’Ivoire for her birthday that she decided to wear to the conference. She was the hit of the conference. Especially when she offered the opening prayer all in French. Then top that off with the meal described above and all in all it was a very nice day. Today, we had to have the President to the airport before 9:00 so we ate breakfast, took them to the airport and basically collapsed the rest of the day. It’s a good thing President Ayekoue is young. He runs a pretty heavy schedule and doesn’t get to rest like we do. Oh yes. We received another assignment also. In addition to our mini bishop’s storehouse, mini distribution center, and our music program, we are going to start a mini employment center. President Ayekoue wants us to help train the branch members in skills that will help them find and keep a job and also teach entrepreneurship. It is needed and I guess we should be qualified to teach it if we can find the vocabulary in French. All those things should keep us busy for the next while. President Ayekoue isn’t one to let people sit around and rest.