Tuesday, September 8, 2009
When I got back to post after my elongated stint in the medical unit, I had to finish giving out souvenirs and stuff to people around Dogbo that I hadn’t gotten to see yet since coming back from the states (I had only been back at post for 5 days). On the way to the marche here, there is a cabine (where people sell phone credit or where you can use their phone to make calls and pay for the credit that you use—they are just a little one person stall) that I always stop at to buy my BBCom credit. I started going there because the woman sold credit in larger denominations. I could buy a recharge card for 2.500CFA as opposed to a lot of other places around town that sell increments of 500CFA. Every time I want to add credit to one of my phones I have to go and buy a recharge card for whatever amount, scratch off the code, enter it in the phone, and send it. It sometimes can get really annoying to have to buy several 500CFA cards and constantly enter in different codes so I always liked bigger amounts. Now however, I realize having credit is an enabling factor and I buy smaller amounts at a time so that I don’t call someone and spend a ton of credit really quickly. Anyway…that is all somewhat beside the point.
So I used to walk to the marche every day and the woman at this cabine would say hi to me and run through the course of typical Beninese salutations before convincing me to buy credit at her place. She was always extremely friendly and struck me as genuine. I still struggle with this but it was even harder when I first got here to discern who was being nice to you to genuinely be nice and who was in it to see what they can squeeze out of you. In Burkina Faso the PCVs call it “faux types.” Anyways, the maman would always ask me whether or not I go to church and why don’t I go to church and people here don’t really understand the concept of not being overly religious so she never really seemed to grasp my logic (that’s okay…they told us that was coming during training). I used to think she’d given me up for a certain future of fire and brimstone but aside from teasing me about not going to mass she was still nothing but friendly to me. After awhile, whenever I would stop by to buy credit, she would cadeau me (give me as a present) a little sachet of soy cookies that she sells next to the cabine.
I had taken her picture to show my family when I was home and while in the States got a copy of it printed. She was so excited when I took her picture and told her why, that she gave me 3 pieces of gum. She’s really hoping my parents come to visit…wink wink. So when I got back to Dogbo I passed by the cabine to leave the picture with her along with a rosary I had brought back for her, she was so happy that she invited me inside her house. I didn’t even know she lived right in the area until she walked me back behind the cabine. It was a simple mud brick house with cement veneer that was crumbling off. After a year living here I wasn’t entirely surprised to enter the mud house and still see a large tv, dvd player, and stereo. That afternoon turned out to be probably one of my favorite times in Benin. I learned the maman’s name was Michelle Diane for the first time in about 10 months. It doesn’t entirely matter because people don’t really get called by name here—more like “menusier” or “maman Kevin” (furniture maker or Kevin’s mom)—and I still call her ‘maman,’ but it was nice to find out. I met all of her adorable kids—she has 3 and thinks that I should start reproducing myself soon since I’m getting up there in age and I had earlier in the year lied to her about being married with a husband la bas. I met her husband and she and I talked for about 2 hours about anything and everything. It was hands down the best conversation I had had with a Beninese person since coming to Benin.
I hadn’t seen Michelle around the past few weeks because she started a new job at a health center a half an hour away and she stays in that village for the week, coming back to Dogbo only on weekends. So Friday afternoon I decided to stop in to say hi, but what was intended as a 10 minute visit ended up being a 5 hour affair in which I ended up staying to cook a meal with her. One of the little kids around kept trying to touch my arm and Michelle was clearly speaking about it in Aja with one of her friends who had stopped by (she cooks outside so everyone passes by). When I asked her what she had just been talking about she told me that they were pointing out that the kid wanted to touch my skin because it was white. This prompted a discussion between the three of us about the “beauty” of white skin and how Africans LOVE white skin. All over the marches here you can find skin whitening creams that don’t really work and are, I am convinced, actually dangerous to use, and they were just going on and on about how much prettier white skin is than black. I told them that didn’t make sense to me and that I disagreed, and that it was impossible to change your skin color so why waste money on those ridiculous products (leaving MJ out of this). It was interesting to hear them argue their side because it struck me that they really didn’t make any good points as to why white skin is better. Besides…people in Africa aren’t meant to have white skin. The sun here is too strong…there is pigmented skin for a reason. They only laughed when I said that. I asked, since they were so in love with white skin, how they felt about Albinos in Benin. Albinos here don’t seem to have it AS bad as in a place like Tanzania where they were being killed for parts recently under the urging of witch doctors there. But sometimes, life really isn’t too easy for Albinos here either and there are certainly plenty of them. That—I was told—is a different story altogether. Albinos don’t count, apparently, for Michelle and her friend, because their skin is not lovely at all like a white person’s. And that is when I grew exasperated—but in a good way—with that conversation. Another conversational highlight was when I was talking about my family in the US and Michelle asked me if that was anywhere near Angola because she has a brother who lives there. Michelle grew up in Porto Novo and is educated and works in a health center just below the level of a nurse. She only came to Dogbo to get married, and so I found it interesting that even she didn’t have any kind of geographic sense of the world. As a health center worker, it was also interesting to me that she didn’t wash her hands before cooking or eating—and people eat with their hands in Benin. I asked for soap and water so that I could do so and was hoping to lead by example but she told me flat out when I offered her the soap afterwards that it wasn’t necessary for her to wash her hands.
Anyways, I suppose that story was a bit random, but what can you do. I’m putting up a picture of Michelle in her cabine for your viewing pleasure. Please note the spongebob square pants t-shirt the little boy is wearing in the background. Today is my 1 year anniversary of moving to Dogbo! It is pretty unbelievable. Hope all is well at home.