We are very grateful to President Ayekoue giving us approval to take four days with Marlene, Aaron and Jared to go to the Pendjari National Park in Northern Benin. Our life has been centered along the coast in the large cities of Cotonou and Lome and it seemed so good to leave some of the city madness for a slower pace in the Northern villages of Togo and Benin. We left Lome early Monday morning for this adventure of a lifetime. When driving in Africa there is never a dull moment as you don’t know what you may see in the next minute. Just getting to our motel in Natitingou, there were several wrecked trucks, rows of women carrying sticks on their heads, Tata Somba villages, and even a mountain to ascend, to name a few. Fortunately, over the mountain the trucks were going at a snail’s pace so we did not see any wrecks.
The biggest bonus of being in the mountains was finding a beautiful place for a picnic lunch. Everyone waved as they drove by and it made us so welcome to be there. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all practiced the Golden Rule as stated in Luke 6:31, “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise.” After our lunch we always greeted those we saw with a wave and a smile and got so many in return. After lunch, the next stop was another border crossing, and boy, what a difference between the coastal route and the northern route. We found just one friendly official in a small shack and we breezed right through.
We arrived at the Hotel Tata Somba just at dinnertime. Since it was Marlene’s birthday, we decided to have a nice meal outside by the pool, but when it started to rain, they moved us inside. It was very enjoyable and she even had a nice Happy Birthday sung to her from the hotel workers – in English and in French. We asked about visiting the park and we were assured that we had to have a guide and a 4 wheel drive vehicle and that they could find one for us. We decided to decline the offer anyway and go closer to the park the next day. There was a safari type hotel in the very small village of Totongou and this is where the real adventure began. Each room was built to resemble the round huts of the native Tata Somba people. The running water trickled down from a plastic barrel by each bathroom and the lights were off by 10:00 when the generator was turned off. Anyway, we checked in, left our things there, and drove to the park entrance, bought our tickets, and entered the park without a guide or a 4-wheel drive outfit, both of which we were told were necessity. It is the rainy season in the park so not all of the roads are passable and we were told animal sightings were improbable.
Our first road was a bust and we did not see any animals but we did have enough time before dark to go on another road to the Mare Mali and the first thing we saw was a large family of baboons going down the road in front of us. That pick-up was full of “buck fever” and the excitement began! Aaron and Jared were sitting on the open windows so they could see better and Aaron spotted them first. We were fortunate enough to get some pictures as they were so interested in us. When we reached the Mare Mali there were three hippos in the water. It is fascinating to watch them slowly move in the water, come up for air and spout like a geyser. One even showed us his tonsils!
We had ordered dinner at the hotel and ate a very good chicken dinner under a gazebo outside then retired to our huts. We wanted to leave early the next morning for the park but we found out that the generator is only turned on in the evening so we shared the one flashlight between the two huts. We stopped at the entrance and got some cake for breakfast which pleased the boys. We rounded a corner and surprised some water buffalo but I think that we were the most surprised and they ran before we could snap a picture. This day we saw about three different kinds and sizes of deer or antelope-type animals, the three hippos were still there, wart hogs and various birds. We did not see any elephants and were a little disappointed as there are supposedly 2000 in the park. It was a thrill to be there regardless.
We left the park in the afternoon and went back to Natintingou to the Hotel Tata Somba. This time we were not so anxious to eat a nice dinner so decided to buy some bread and eat leftovers from the ice chest. By then the ice had melted so we were told the only grocery store in town carried ice but that was not true so we asked the lady who sold us bread. She told us that was easy–you just go around the corner, down the street by some tires, and there is a lady around there that sells ice. We found a tailor who took me through some houses to a door and sure enough there was a lady who had a freezer and sold ice for 5 cents a bag. I don’t think a Yovo (white person) had ever been in their compound before as I was quite the novelty. We then bought some bean cakes from another lady and were well received by the boys. In fact, they want me to learn how so I can teach them at home. Back at the hotel, we ate in the hotel room and then crashed.
Thursday was spent driving back to Cotonou and as usual proved to be very interesting. Our first stop was at a Total gas station where the toilet flusher was a bucket. I was just thankful it was not the bush! Once more it was time to enjoy the ride and try to keep from getting lost in some of the potholes. Generally speaking, though, the roads were better than we expected.
We had made arrangements to visit two orphanages on Saturday so Friday was spent getting ready and going to Missebo Marche while Elder Black did administrative things for the mission. We had to visit the 800cfa tie shop first and then on to the fabric and belts. Buying in Missebo is quite an experience as it is almost overwhelming with all of the sellers, people, motos, trucks and cars. Most moto drivers would just as soon hit you as look at you so you just have to keep out of their way. Thanks to the generosity of Julie Lee and her family from Blanding we bought 100 pounds of rice in Missebo, also enough flip flops for everyone in the orphanage and some balls and Frisbees.
The orphanage in Allada is run by some very dedicated Catholic sisters and is home to about 34 little kids from 1 to 12 years old. We stopped there as we passed by on Thursday and told the sisters that we would bring a picnic lunch for everyone on Saturday. It worked out well since Saturday August 1 is Independence day in Benin. When we arrived they were all cleaned up and even had a program ready for us before eating lunch. Two little boys played homemade drums, everyone sang a native song and a few danced, even a sister joined in the dancing. I was so overcome by the warmth and love of these little kids as I was truly seeing an earthly example of being as a child to be able to enter the kingdom of our Heavenly Father. The sisters had all of the kids bring small chairs out and some Muslim mats, and a sandwich was given to each child and then they said a prayer and not one kid ate anything until all had been served. They were so well behaved and polite. The word got out that it was my birthday and it was truly a most memorable one as all the kids and sisters sang me Happy Birthday first in English and then in French.
After lunch the festivities began when Sister Delphine handed out the sandals to each kid. She looked at the sandal then called a kid to come forward with the right sized foot. The kids were allowed to wear them for the day and then she said they would be saved until school started in September. Marlene brought four suitcases full of clothes for the orphans from her ward in Garland and they were well received. The sisters were going to distribute them later. Southams had left some balloons in a closet and Aaron brought a ball pump so we began pumping up balloons. Fortunately, all of the kids got one before they started to pop. Marlene and I were kept busy making balloon hats! Aaron and Jared played soccer with the older boys and Elder Black got a game of dodge ball going. They did not seem to like the Frisbees as much as the ball games.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the sisters who run the orphanage as they give to these kids complete Christ-like love and charity. They teach and discipline the kids under austere living conditions as there is no running water nor electricity. They seem to have plenty of food and are just now putting in gas for cooking instead of charcoal. How would it be to cook for about 40 over charcoal every day? The kids are organized so that they all help with the responsibilities but keeping 34 kids on task is quite a job for three or four sisters.
Our next stop was at the SOS orphanage in Calavie, which is a much different environment as they are funded by a worldwide organization and live in better conditions than most of the people in Benin. We had made arrangements for Aaron and Jared to play basketball there so that was our last stop before returning to Cotonou. Actually the guy that coaches at the orphanage also coaches the Calavie town team so the boys ended up playing with them instead of the younger boys.
Sunday was Fast and Testimony meeting and we attended church in Gbedjromede, the largest of the three branches in Cotonou. The chapel was full and there were many testimonies given, including Elder Black and Marlene. I too have a testimony that I know that through the atonement of Jesus Christ we will have the opportunity to live with Him again if we repent, are baptized, receive the gift of the Holy Ghost and endure to the end. I guess enduring to the end is the biggest challenge as we try to live the commandments and live a Christ-like life. Right now we have a project of enduring to the end of our mission. Just a little over one month to go.