Winter in West Africa

The Hamatan has hit this week. That means it is cold in Benin and the coats and stocking caps are sprouting like weeds in the springtime. Last night I suspect it dropped as low as perhaps 75 and today it probably didn’t break 90 for the first time in a while. The biggest difference, in addition to the winter wear of the locals, is probably the dust in the air, which makes the sunrise quite spectacular and the sunset also. The dust in the air also translates to dust in the house and everywhere else, however. It probably starts out clean from the Sahara Desert but by the time it falls here it has picked up the moto and diesel truck smoke and becomes a real fine black dust that gets on and in everything. It is impossible to keep anything clean.

Chinese Dinner for Elder SchwiegerWe forgot to report on Elder Schwieger’s birthday last week. Between traveling to Togo and planning for two zone conferences, Soeur Black didn’t have time to fix a proper birthday dinner so we took Elder Schwieger and his companion Elder Samatamu out to a fairly decent Chinese restaurant for dinner. As it turned out it was also a going away dinner for Elder Schwieger although we did not know it at the time. For some time now he has been having digestive problems. At first we thought it was probably just the African food adjustment but since it did not go away, we took him for some tests that were sent to the doctor in Accra. As things developed, Doctor Stubbs became convinced that it could possibly be something serious that cannot be treated here so we put him on the airplane on Wednesday to return to Sacramento California and hopefully some competent medical help that can diagnose and correct the problem quickly. We sure hated to lose Elder Schwieger. He has definitely make his mark here in Cotonou in the 8 months he has been here. He came out speaking quite a lot of French and really hit the ground running. I think a little part of all of us left with him when he went. We were glad he got to stay for the zone conference before he left.

We mentioned last week that we went to Togo and picked up President Ayekoue at the airport on Friday. On Sunday morning, Elder and Sister Cardon arrived also. Elder Cardon is a member of the 2nd Quorum of Seventy and first counselor in the Africa West area. On Sunday we attended church in one of the branches in Lome and then had a nice dinner which Soeur Black had prepared at our house. Togo Zone with Elder and Sister CardonThe Cardon’s and President Ayekoue stayed in a hotel the remainder of the time. On Monday we had them and the 10 elders working in Lome to our house for zone conference and a dinner after which we all went to the chapel and held a meeting with the Lome branch members and investigators.

Tuesday morning we picked them up at the hotel and headed for Cotonou, arriving in time to have a meeting with the Branch members and investigators here. Since the meetings were in the afternoon we didn’t have a huge crowd in either city but nevertheless the chapel was full by the time we finished. Cotonou Zone with Elder and Sister CardonOn Wednesday we had another zone conference here in Cotonou during which Soeur Black again fixed an excellent dinner for the missionaries and guests. As soon as that was over, we had to take Elder Schwieger to the airport and then a little later the Cardons and President Ayekoue. Following that, Soeur Black and I returned home and pretty well collapsed. Not totally however, because we had to get Frere Godwin, now known as Elder Douti on his way on Friday.

Setting Apart Elder DoutiElder Douti came to the zone conference and then was set apart by President Ayekoue right afterwards. We were glad we had him as a missionary because he was able to replace Elder Schwieger on Wednesday night and Thursday. Thursday night we had to do some more missionary shuffling and Elder Douti stayed here with us in order to be able to leave early on Friday. If all went well, he should be in the MTC in Ghana now learning how to be a missionary. It was good to see him excited and ready to go. He will be a good missionary. Elder Douti, Yepab GodwinIt was also a little hard to say goodbye, knowing that it is entirely possible that we will not see him again in this life. Nevertheless, as we believe families can be together forever, and knowing that we as members of the church are a family, we are sure that we will see him as well as all the other we have come to love at some point in eternity. I think that may be one of the best things about eternity – not having to say goodbye. I suppose there are a few people in life you don’t mind saying goodbye to, but there are a lot more that you wish you could see from time to time. We have noticed that our mission here is much more rewarding when we can visit families, get acquainted with the people, find out their problems and concerns, play with the children and teach the gospel than when we simply have to do administrative chores.

We got to make one such visit on Friday evening. We have talked about the Briga family before. Charles Briga was the Elder’s quorum president and now is 1st counselor in the Menontin Branch. His wife is not a member but comes most of the time. Both are in the Benin military as a career. I call Brother Charles my Angouleme brother as he joined the Church in France and spent some time in Angouleme where I spent the first half of my mission years ago. Originally he was there for pilot training, but he was washed out so now he is a technician working on radios and such on military aircraft. We are not sure exactly what Soeur Helene does but we know she packs a machine gun and does guard duty at times. Maelle and Myla BrigaThey have two of the cutest little girls you have ever seen. We had an appointment to teach Helene the 2nd discussion on Friday night. Shauna (and the 8th Ward Primary) made some dolls and sent to us at Christmas time so we decided to give the little girls one of the dolls. Maelle, the older girl took the doll first and gave it appropriate love, then Myla, the little 2 year old took it and held on with a death grip. It was really cute. I don’t know if they have ever had a doll before but they knew exactly what to do with it.

We also helped Frere Paul and his wife, Honorine, and two little boys move into their new home on Friday. Frere Paul was the financial clerk in the Cotonou Branch and is now the 2nd Counselor in Menontin Branch. The home is a few miles out of town but Paul says it won’t affect their church activity. He has a moto to ride back and forth and puts his whole family on the moto. I guess we can’t really blame him. A few years ago we moved out of town when our family was small also. We have not regretted the decision. Our house may have been a little nicer but the concept is the same. The Dansou’s have two rooms, concrete floors, a tin roof overhead and a well outside from which they can pull water. No electricity, cabinets, countertops, or other conveniences but they are happy and thrilled to be in their own home. It is larger than the place they moved from and there is no place like home. We have learned the full meaning of that from being in Africa.

Traffic and Drivers

This week we hurried and did all we could in Cotonou then hurried to Togo on Friday morning to be there for the arrival of President Ayekoue Friday afternoon, who was hurrying to be there for the arrival of Elder Craig Cardon from the Area Presidency on Sunday, who is hurrying to make a tour of the mission in three countries in one week. Hurrying isn’t comfortable in Africa, and we seem to be the only ones hurrying so maybe we need to get out of our hurrying mode. Actually we did have a little time on Friday evening and Saturday to visit with President Ayekoue and relax a little, but since this was our first solo trip to Lome we still had plenty to do and probably will each time we visit. Seems like when we are gone for a few days from Cotonou things really pile up and the same is true when we are gone from Lome for a few days.

Actually, there is one time when Africans in general hurry. That is when they are going someplace. When an African gets behind the wheel of a car, life in general shifts into high gear. Soeur Black has absolutely forbidden me to make comments about African drivers and I often have to remind her to practice what she preaches. Going back and forth between Lome and Cotonou can be an experience. The preferred way to travel, since few have cars, is to catch a “taxi.” Taxi’s are generally black or brown Peugeot cars that haul people back and forth on the highway. The fare is divided by the number of passengers, so the more you can put in the car, the less expensive the taxi. As you can imagine, sometimes they are rather full. The quicker the taxi driver can get to the border and unload his passengers, the quicker he can pick up another load to come back so they are always in a hurry. Passing with the slimmest of margins from the oncoming car is okay. Even if the oncoming car has to leave the road at times, that is also okay. If someone is passing it does not necessarily preclude someone else from passing the vehicle that is passing. Another favorite is when the traffic is stopped on one side of the road, it’s okay to go down the other side into the oncoming traffic. Hamatan Sun and Cotonou Marche TrafficThat makes for some dandy traffic jams. Always, the basic driving rule applies – “if there is space, take it.” Nevertheless, we try to be careful and attempt to be “cautiously aggressive” so as to fit in with the flow and we have not had too many close calls and do not normally feel any more unsafe that you might traveling from Blanding to Monticello.

You don’t have to leave town, however, to see some interesting things. Most of the roads in Cotonou are wide enough for at least two lanes of traffic or sometimes three, particularly if you get one wheel sort of up on the curb or the sidewalk. The lanes are not defined, and motos and cars alike go wherever they choose. Some of the streets are divided, and going wherever you choose does not exclude going the wrong way on a divided street or on a one way street. To make things worse, there is a general feeling that using lights at night increases gas consumption so a lot of motos and even some cars do not feel the necessity to spend the extra money for fuel. Traffic lights are a suggestion and are generally obeyed but not always. After the light turns red, there is always time for a few more vehicles and motos before the cross traffic starts. There also seems to be some unwritten rule that as soon as a traffic light changes everyone is required to honk. In fact, honking seems to be the only traffic rule that is generally obeyed by everyone (except me). I have never seen a rule book, but I am quite sure of what it must say. You are required to honk when a light changes, before passing another vehicle, after passing another vehicle, whenever you see a pedestrian trying to cross the road (without regards to how far ahead the pedestrian may be), whenever entering or leaving an intersection, and at any other time you note any possibility of any danger or feel threatened in any way. While this rule is strongly suggested for everyone from the “tinniest” sounding moto horn, for trucks it is absolutely mandatory – especially if your truck has a good loud air horn. We are not talking about a little “toot toot” warning honk but a 5 second minimum HOOOOOONNNNK. No one seems to have figured out yet that when one horn honks it means something but when everyone honks it is meaningless except to make noise. And so the honking goes on.

We thought we had seen about everything but something new occurred this week. We were stopped in approximately the center lane for a traffic light not far from our house. The light stays red for quite a while. There was a car in the right lane behind some motos that kept honking and honking. The moto drivers looked back and finally moved out of the way in front of us so the right lane was free. The car then moved forward, ran the red light, made its way through both lanes of cross traffic while still honking, and made a left hand turn in front of everyone. I guess maybe the driver was in a hurry and he didn’t happen to have a siren. If you have a siren that is a lot better than a horn but I will have to talk about that later if Soeur Black will let me. Next week we will try to have more of substance to discuss.

Learning the Ropes in Lome

Gillis\' last day in TogoThis week was devoted entirely to a quick lesson about the missionary efforts and branch situation in Togo. Elder and Sister Gillis were almost packed and ready to go to Abidjan when we arrived on Sunday; therefore, on Monday we began the daunting task of learning a huge city in two days. They and another Elder needed to update their visas so the first learning experience was at the Togo Embassy.

There are some crucial places to know in Lome besides The Togo Embassy: The American Embassy, Eco Bank, DHL, post office, customs at the airport, Toyota, chapels, missionary apartments and most important, supermarkets. The supermarkets are almost like those at home and even had such things as Tang and Jello. I am not suggesting that they are absolute necessities, but at least the labels looked like home. The isles were even wide enough for a grocery cart!

In Togo there are 8 missionaries (3 from the U.S. and 5 from Africa) with two more American scheduled to arrive on Friday. On Tuesday morning we picked up two of the elders to take them to teach institute at the university and had a little mishap. We have mentioned about the crazy moto drivers in Cotonou, and the Lome drivers are in the same category. On the way to the university a moto driver ran into the back of our pickup. We thought he was going around us and then heard a big thump, turned around and looked and saw a moto lying on the ground. Fortunately no one was hurt but we did lose the rest of the day and the next morning resolving the situation with the police and the insurance company. We were not at fault but ended up giving the moto driver some money to fix his moto so we could be done with it and get on with life! He was very nice and wasn’t blaming anyone but just felt badly about his moto since he used it for his work.

Missionaries in Togo (No snow here)On Wednesday we checked into a hotel for a much needed break and to give the Gillis’ some time to say their goodbyes and finish packing. Our balcony overlooked a tropical scene of palm trees, swimming pool, and beautiful flowering trees with the ocean in the background. It was absolutely beautiful but seemed to be a fairy tale compared to the Africa that we have become so familiar with. I will have to admit that we crashed and didn’t even want to leave to eat dinner so we relaxed and ate cheese, crackers, fruit and yogurt. The next morning we did enjoy the breakfast buffet by the pool with an ocean view. That definitely made up for the night before, as there was everything from omelets to tropical fruit.

We needed to go back to the bank on Thursday morning where I had another experience that we don’t have at home. I stayed in the car while Elder Black went into the bank. Not long after he went inside, a soldier with an AK 47 or something similar knocked on my window and my heart skipped a few beats. Looking at that gun, I felt obliged to roll down the window and try to talk to him. I told him to wait because my husband would soon be back and I could only speak a little French. He just stood to the side, and I thought he was waiting, but when Elder Black came he didn’t even want to talk to him. I decided that he was just protecting us from the beggars and sellers as when one approached, he told him to leave. Whew!

Blaise\'s (Togo Branch President) wifeThe couple’s home in Lome has a full-time guardian who takes care of the yard, washes the pickup and does anything else that is asked of him. We thought that was pretty great as the only guardian we have in Cotonou is ourselves! His name is Blaise and by coincidence we met his wife and baby when we were at the fruit stand of Mama Catherine, also a good member of the church in Lome. Mama CatherineMama Catherine loves the missionaries and they in turn love her as she takes pretty good care of them. All of the missionaries who have worked in Lome have spoken very highly of her.

On Friday before we left Lome with the Gillis’ for Cotonou, we all ate breakfast at the hotel buffet and enjoyed the view and conversation before facing another border crossing. We would like to show you pictures of the border but cameras are not allowed and it is strictly enforced. Sister Southam tried to take a picture once and it got the attention of the police real fast! She almost lost her camera. Surprisingly enough, when Gillis’ left from Cotonou airport, it was calm and their departure for Abidjan went smoothly and on time for once.

This week was an administrative week and we really missed going into the homes of the people here in Cotonou. We feel much more like missionaries when we teach, have home evenings, and fellowship. When serving the Lord, we try to do whatever needs to be done and serve Him with all “our heart, might, mind and strength”.

A New Year in Cotonou

We celebrated New Year 2009 by getting Elder Hubbard on the airplane for Cote d’Ivoire and then going home and going to bed early. We may have been the only ones in Cotonou on that schedule. There were fire crackers going off all night that kept me awake but Soeur Black reported a good night’s rest. Elder Hubbard with Mama Estelle and daughter RocaGetting Elder Hubbard on the airplane was another airport experience. The plane was scheduled to leave at 3:30 so we arrived about 1:30 as required for an international flight only to find out that the flight was projected for about 7:00. Returning at 5:00 for the delayed flight only taught us that perhaps the check-in would begin at 7:00 and that the flight might leave about 9:00. The third time was the charm and I guess Elder Hubbard did finally get away about 9:30. He is going to work in the office as assistant to President Ayekoue. His companion will be Elder Missingbeto, who is a missionary from Cotonou, so we should have some good communication with Abidjan now which has previously been somewhat lacking. He is still wearing the straw hat we bought for him about 6 months ago before he went to Togo. It is a little beat-up, and Elder Black told him that he should auction it off before he goes home. (Red heads do get to wear a hat even if it does look like Sheep Herder Sam’s!)

The Gillis’ from Lome (Togo) are also being transferred to be an office couple in the mission office. Their replacements are scheduled to arrive the end of February. Until then, President Ayekoue has asked that we go back and forth and try to keep up with both countries. I am not quite sure how we are going to do that when we have not been able to keep up with one but we will have to try. Sunday was the time to go to Togo and get a crash course on things there and then bring the Gillis back to Cotonou for another airport experience. Hopefully it will be better than last week’s, but we have learned not to be too optimistic. We will talk about what we learned here in next week’s blog.

Harmatan Sun over CotonouHarmatan has finally arrived but not with same intensity as we were led to believe. Harmatan is a very dry season when dust off the Sahara Desert swirls our way and there is a lot of dust in the air and absolutely no rainfall. On the plus side of this, it is a little cooler. We were told that you couldn’t even see to the end of the block but so far it has only been a little hazy. Maybe it is just getting a slow start this year. Anything that is a little cooler is very welcomed. The natives say that this is in fact the season but that it is just not as intense this year.

Large room of building under constructionWe have been on the great building search for new chapels for the branches. We were driving by a building under construction with a for rent sign on it. This lead us to a demarcher (real estate agent) who began by showing us a very large building which was under construction. It had two large rooms but nothing adequate for class rooms. Mansion Villa to nice for a chapelThen the Lokkossou family in the Menontin branch found an extra luxurious mansion, but it was way too nice and way too expensive. We don’t think the primary children would need a whirlpool tub in the bathroom of the primary room, although they might like it. This was followed by an even more luxurious mansion, which was even more expensive. I did not know that such homes even existed in Cotonou. When we get back from Togo, the search will resume.

About one week before Christmas we noticed that there were chicken coops being set up by the streets all over Cotonou. We soon discovered that it is tradition to have a chicken dinner on Christmas and also on New Year’s. Holiday Chickens for SaleOn one pen there was a sign that the chickens were being sold for 2500 cfa’s, about $5.00. I just bought some real nice frozen grillers at the marcher for 2300 cfa’s which were cleaned and ready to be cooked. Needless to say, there were no fresh chickens being served at the Black household this holiday season. (Some of the elders did say that they would like to learn how to kill, pluck, and clean a chicken, but neither Elder Black nor I volunteered to teach them!)

We have mentioned before that we helped Soeur Estelle when she was sick, and on New Year’s day she brought us a complete Beninese dinner. Our New Year’s dinner invitation to Calavie fell through, so it was very welcomed and very delicious. It consisted of pate rouge, a mixture of corn flour, tomato paste and piment, potatoes with thin slices of meat, a meat dish of chicken and ham plus piment and sparkling grape juice. Estelle is an excellent cook, and we thoroughly enjoyed every bite. President Lokossou and his wife Lucy had also invited us over for New Years but we had to turn them down on account of the invitation that fell through. They rescheduled us for Saturday night so we went over to their home and had another delicious African dinner of vegetables, pate, chicken and pineapple. We didn’t start eating until about 8:00 and finished about 10:00. What a way to start a fast day.