A Different World. . .
In my last post about Adrien’s homeland, there were a lot of little pieces about the experience missing. Since this was such a profound experience for me, I don’t want to leave anything out. Here are few things I missed.
Landscape. I live in a part of Benin that might as well be Iowa, save for the year-round heat. It’s a bit hilly, with a lot of orchards and farms. The soil is some of the best in Benin. Tangueita is nestled in the Atacora Mountains. They are old, tired mountains that look more like piles of gravel than mountains when viewed from a distance. The soil is rocky and not as fertile. They are more likely to grow beans and cotton in the Atacora then the yams and cashews that are grown in the Borgou.
Climate. We are right in the middle of the dust season known as “Harmattan.” Sahara dusts sweep up from the north and rain takes a four month break. The days are warm, but the nights aren’t miserable. In the Atacora it was freezing – some of the coldest air I’ve felt in Benin. I needed a comforter but only had a sheet to cover up at night. Normally I don’t use any covers when I’m sleeping because even when it’s colder, it’s still hot.
Dogs. Adrien’s people eat dog meat. They eat a lot of dog meat. The weird part is that the people in this area are nicer to dogs than anywhere else in Benin. They let the dogs beg and throw them bones while they’re eating. Every household I went to had at least 3 or 4 puppies running around. You can call them to you or approach them without them cowering in fear as they do in my village. No, I didn’t eat dog meat. Adrien and I have an agreement that I won’t make him eat pork if he doesn’t make me eat dog. Eating Sarah is out of the question.
Tchoukatou. This is a quickly brewed drink (3 days) made of fermented millet. I like it a lot. There are many varieties of it from a sweet non-alcoholic brew to a strong alcoholic brew. We have tchoukatou in my village, but here it’s a bit of a taboo for me to drink it. It’s considered a cheap drunk – kind of a sleazy thing to do. Meanwhile, in the Atacora every street corner has a tchoukatou stand. These are often circular buildings. The beverage is served in dried squash bowls. One serving is only 50 francs, and fairly strong in itself. I really enjoy the taste, probably more so than other alcohols in Benin, including the local brands of beer and crappy imported wine. I’d like to learn how to make this before I leave.
The insider. Never in my Beninese experience have I felt like less of an outsider. This is really quite remarkable. I wasn’t doted on for the most part. Just a visitor hanging around. Of course, I don’t speak their language, so maybe they were talking about me nonstop and I didn’t understand anything. In my experience, though, it’s 100% clear when people are talking about you. They stare, they point, they heckle. None of this happened in the Attacora. Especially when I went au champ to meet Adrien’s mother, I was just shuffled around and greeted (if greeted at all) like everyone else (if they could greet in French). I loved it! I suppose Adrien might have prepared them well for my coming, but I think also that they are a shy, very polite people. I spent almost 2 days there and I couldn’t tell you what their word for “white person” is, where as in the south or even in my village, I learned within an hour.
Building. Where I am most buildings are made with cement or mud and covered with a corrugated aluminum roof. In the Attacora this was rare. Most houses were made exclusively of mud brick, and many more were covered with thatched roofs. Many concessions were walled in with mud brick walls and they often had pig pens, chicken houses, and tchoukatou bars built into the same structure.
Polygamy. In Adrien’s family polygamy is the standard. I think there are multiple reasons, but having a big family to work the farm is still logical in his family’s mind. Both of his brothers have a wife on the farm and one or two wives in the city. I don’t like polygamy. It hurts women and is generally chauvinistic, but I was surprised to see how seamlessly it appeared to work for these people. His brothers went back and forth almost every day. In my village, polygamy exists, but it doesn’t seem to matter that much because they don’t spend any time with their wives. Here everyone was sort of clustered together hanging out, women and men, except of course, for when we ate. Then, we were clustered together, the most important guests, Adrien and myself, eating alone and first. On a side note, in discussing this with Adrien, I learned that his one brother had had several wives run away. I can see why Adrien doesn’t want to continue the tradition of polygamy though. His brother has so much, but the huge family coupled with his ongoing illness makes him very poor.