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.