Wednesday, November 30, 2011

My Very African Thanksgiving

My friend Dave and I weaved ourselves through Marché St. Michel. Heat beat down through the metal roofing making the market mamas even feistier and more difficult than usual. In broken French they asked, “What do you want?” and we said “Todo todo,” the word for turkey in Fon.

We found one quickly. He was beautiful, shiny feathers, large, with an illustrious chin flapping from his beak. We looked at others, but in the end, this one would be our thanksgiving dinner. He would be named America.

Dave had to stay in the city, but fortunately, Carla needed a ride back to Ouidah. America, now stuffed in a cement sack half his size, warmed my back. He was the original turkey sandwich, between myself and Carla, on the back of my motorcycle.  Just his head rested outside of bag, his face catching the hot afternoon wind rolling off of my shoulders.

 Upon arrival in Ouidah, we jumped off the motorcycle and presented Adrien with the turkey. “It’s old,” he said. I cursed myself for not knowing the difference between an old and young turkey while Adrien snipped off the cords that tied America’s wings and feet together. He stepped out of his sack, fluffed his feathers into full glory and approached is new wife, Lucy, who had all too eagerly been awaiting the arrival of a male turkey in my household. This eagerness was all too evident when, seconds out of the shopping bag, America mounted Lucy, and the poult-making began.

The next days passed all too quickly for dear old America. In addition to a lot of intimate time with Lucy, he wandered around the yard, eating, bothering the other animals, and assuming his position as the largest and prettiest bird in the yard. The ducks would not mess with him, nor would the chickens. The dogs would coyly approach him, and back off as his hissing and gobbling became more furious.  Lucy counted the days with eggs, all while fluffing up her feathers to keep his attention. 

And then the fatal day came. I sat in front of my work computer, surfing youtube. I found it – how to slaughter a turkey.  I watched the video over and over. I made Jacob sit down and watch it twice. He explained it to Adrien. The fattened factory farm turkeys were two times the size of America, but we assumed the process was the same. The deed was done that night.  America was no more.
Jacob posing with America on the Eve of Thanksgiving
America spent his post-life day swimming in a bath of rosemary, sage, and salt. A makeshift spit-oven was created. Lydia and I dug a foot deep hole in the ground. We placed cinderblocks around the hole, and placed a metal basin that would rest in between the fire and America.

At 7 o’clock I woke up and realized that I had slept in! I wanted to start the fire much earlier! All day, I spent sitting around the fire watching the bird cook. Tirelessly I turned the bird on the spit, adding water to the basin to conserve some of the drippings. On and on the day went until 5 o’clock when my guests agreed that it was time to eat.

Lydia carved the turkey. Oh no – red. We were sure the juices were dripping cleanly, but it’s a turkey and there’s a lot of meat to be cooked. She carved off for us to start eating and Adrien set up a make shift grill to cook the rest of it quickly.
Lydia and I posing in front of our spit oven. 

Nancy Mashing Potatoes.
We had it all – sweet potatoes, stuffing, buttery mashed potatoes, beans, and a fruit salad.  Thanksgiving has a spirit unparalleled by other American holidays. No one expects anything, but to eat. And everyone helps. This is my fourth thanksgiving in Benin, and I’m amazed by how easy it is to recreate that environment, even when I’m not with family.  Wherever you are, you can recreate it.

You might have to raise and or kill a turkey.
You might have to roast it on a spit.

Although his flavor was great, America was tough. But who could complain? It was Thanksgiving.  

America lives on in Lucy.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Turkeys Roasting on an Open Fire. . .

A few weeks ago I wrote an e-mail to Lynne Rossetto Kasper to ask her what to do about my Thanksgiving turkey. A few days later, I received a call from her and this last weekend (November 19th) the show aired.

Check out the show at or specifically the podcast here.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Me and Pope Benny

This afternoon, Pope Benedict XIV will arrive in Cotonou, Benin. Tomorrow, Friday, he will visit Ouidah! It's funny being on the outskirts of all this, since there was a time in my life so dedicated to putting on religious events.

Anyway, no I'm not involved. I may be on the streets, so watch coverage of his visit. I shouldn't be too hard to find.

Fortunately, I stick out.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Me and My Poultry. . .

So now that I’m no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer, my life has changed in some very drastic ways.  I can ride a motorcycle, I was able to pick my own house, have Adrien his brother Jacob live with me, and best of all, have poultry!

Yes, that’s right, among the many things that Peace Corps regulates, it’s the ownership of poultry. I think this is a direct result of the Bird Flu, but even that isn’t so clear. Sure, I may have dabbled in poultry before –  Adrien kept some Guinea fowl in front of my old house in village.  But, now that I’m on my own, it’s no holds bar poultry raising.  

Mr. and Mrs. Duck. This is actually the second female, the first one
ironically drowned in yet to be finished/covered septic tank. 

It started with ducks.  I don’t know why, but this was my first choice.  I felt like ducks just seemed right for me. They're not noisy. They like water.  Adrien likes to say “When I’m having a hard day, I can just look at the ducks and it all goes away."  It also all goes away with the chickens he bought, and the rabbits, and the two dogs.

But in the end there was really just one bird I wanted.

A turkey.

The original idea was to buy a turkey a few months in advance of Thanksgiving to be eaten at the fete. I don’t know what I was thinking. How could I live side by side with a Turkey and then kill it for dinner?  
Even still, as one of my last PCV friends left me behind, I decided to pass on her name to the turkey. So, Lucy the turkey, is probably going to get the Thanksgiving Day pardon.  Her gobble-gobbling all day long brings peace to my hectic life. For me, she's the bird that makes it all go away. 

Lucy is the queen of the yard. She puts all the other birds in their
places, and no one eats until she's done. 

 Shoot. I need to get another turkey! Thanksgiving is coming.

This is Chef. I have no reason to post a picture of Chef in this blogpost,
except that he's really cute. Chef keeps trying to eat poultry feed which makes
his poop looks grainy. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Still in Benin. . .

Dear Friends and Family,

This last year has been crazy! You may have noted that my formerly prolific blog posting stopped quickly after I arrived in Ouidah at the International Center for Art and Music in Ouidah (CIAMO) . I started as a Peace Corps Response Volunteer, and now I've become the director! I'm no longer a volunteer, but rather living a simple expat life in Ouidah.

Even still, I have so much to share! After my long vacation from my blog I'm back! I'll be sharing my work at CIAMO as well as my reactions to life here, to help to give you a feel of my everyday experience.

For the time being, check out some of my own creative work and affairs:

Leni and the Songwriters - I filmed and edited a short documentary on our collaboration by internet with our artist in residence at the center.

Life in Ouidah - My colleague Sarah and I taught film making to a group of high school kids. The kids produced videos on just that, life in Ouidah, the city where I live.  Here are a few of my favorites:

At the Heart of Vodun - My friend Wilfrid and I have been working on a blog that documents little by little Vodun (voodoo) ceremonies and music. This is really interesting - Vodun is often misunderstand, and we're hoping to promote a better understanding of it abroad.  Check out the blog - .

Anyway, best to you all, more to come!

John Mark

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Poorest of the Poor. . .

I recently traveled to the opposite end of the country with Adrien to see his family in Tangueita, a city in the far north of Benin. It lies right on the border of the well-known Parc Penjari, one of the few places you can go on Safari in West-Africa.  This was the second time I had gone there to meet his family. Whereas last time I learned a lot more about Adrien’s roots, this time, a year and a whole lot of experience later, the visit was actually more difficult for me.

I like to pride myself in being well adjusted in Africa. I’m obviously a foreigner, but I try to fit in – eating the food and wearing the clothes, and speaking in an African accent. All this, and I’m still 100% American. It’s a compliment when people call me the “Benino-American,” though I know it’s far from true. I think I’m Benino-American until you take me into a field to poop and I can barely stay balanced as I’m squatting. Not to mention when I avoid taking showers, because the outdoors shower is placed such that everyone can see my naked white torso glowing in the sun. These sorts of things seemed quaint and “good experiences” a year ago when I visited Adrien’s family. This year they were hardships.    

I can hardly say that I’m spoiled by living in Ouidah. Constant electricity cuts, cold showers , and getting around on foot still dominate my life, and there’s nothing American about that. But I think living in Ouidah has made me more aware of the enormous class difference between the poorest and the richest in Benin.
When you visit someone in Benin, you should always bring gifts.  You might bring bread or cookies or candy for the children.  When we prepared to leave the city to go au village to greet Adrien’s mother, Adrien wanted to buy none of these things, but rather soap, about 25 cents a bar, something the women in his family can’t always afford.

The hardest part is seeing what the poorest families do to women.  I’ve tried hard not to judge polygamy and polyamory in Benin, but as I near the end of my service, I’m losing control.  Adrien’s oldest brother has four wives and is looking for another. According to Adrien (I don’t understand anything that say), as soon as his brother leaves the house the women start complaining about him, how they want to leave him, how they’re mad at him. 

One of Adrien's Brother's 4 wifes with her Grandmother. 
At one point, they ranted about him for a few hours and he came back, a little tipsy from a celebration he attended, and started talking about how manly he is, how he is going to find another wife, he even joked that Adrien and I could take a few of his because he wants to get rid of them.  He said all this in front of a family with four wives and 13 children.  Many of those children have extended stomachs and herniated belly-buttons and don’t make it to school because they’re needed at home.

Adrien's Brother working in his flour mill. 
I can see polygamy working if it’s a real part of a tradition.  I don’t like it, but it might be acceptable if tradition puts men in such a place where they can only have multiple wives if they are able to care for them.  Unfortunately, a man is more likely to coincidentally get a woman pregnant on the side, and then because of certain cultural practices, the man takes that woman in as a wife, even if she might be better off to stay with her family.

Another wife.
These are all harsh realities about which, I can do little. My reassurance is really Adrien, that with a little bit of my help and a whole lot of his willpower he’s a shining light for his family.  From courageous people like him will come a new generation.  Adrien's people really are the poorest of the poor in the world, and at this point where ever he goes, it's a step in the right direction. 

Adrien with one of his nephews.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


A conversation i had with a very old man on the street.
Man- You're french?
Me-NO. American.
Man- Oh, but you're handsome.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Vodun Festival

January 10th in Benin is a National Holiday celebrating traditional religions. Benin is an especially pluralist country, playing home to a variety of religions. Of course you have the Christians and the Muslims, but there are also many other minority religions that play a huge role in Beninese society. There is, of course, Voudon (Voodoo) which is largely practiced in the south where I live now, and is seated in Ouidah, where both myself and the supreme chief of Voudon live. There are a lot of other little groups too, for example the Celestial Christians that combine traditional religion with Voudon and there are also the Tron, a type of traditional religion that includes some Muslim elements. On top of that you run in to a large variety of others as well, imported from the US or elsewhere – Eckankar, Rasta, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.

It can easily be said that though a majority of Beninese people are Christian or Muslim, but most of them still practice traditional religion on some level. This might be as simple as “gris-gris” charms bought from a talisman to protect their home or family or as complicated as ritual sacrifices. When I attended Catholic Mass in my old village, this was a constant complaint of the priest. This clearly overweight man claimed he didn’t have money to eat, and at the same time, people were spending all their money on charms and rituals.

The January 10th date was chosen, because of its significance to those who are members of Voudon cults. This is the time of the year, if I understand correctly, that they manifest their faith and ask for protection for the coming year. The event takes place in Ouidah, more specifically on the beach. I found myself on the stage of officials sitting behind the U.S. Ambassador to Benin. Our administrator W., was the MC for the entire event, which hosted thousands of Beninese and probably a few hundred Europeans and Americans.
The event consisted of several speeches and unfortunately, the authorities were whisked away before the actual Voudon ceremonies took place. “The mayor is having a reception, want to come?” the Ambassador asked me. “Sure,” I said. I don’t’ think the ambassador realized that it was a sit-down luncheon, at which there was most definitely not a place set for myself, or our administrator who came as well. We ended up eating anyway, and even managed to get a few glasses of champagne.

Throughout the week after, individual family clans have their own events. Many of them have their own Voudon convents where selected Children are raised to speak their secret languages and dance and sing ritual songs. My understanding is that each family has its set of divinities that it is responsible for adoring and preserving. One family with whom I’m pretty close, for example, adores a series of divinities related to fire.

This is really a festive season in Ouidah. The Voudon Festival was accompanied by an International Dance Festival “AGOGO” and an International Film Festival “Quintessence.” It’s been really interesting to see how different events and activities are executed and it has given me a lot of ideas for my work.

A new type of poll dancing.

The delegation of the supreme chief of vudon.
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