No Peeps, no chocolate bunnies, no egg hunts or ages-2+ plastic grass… Another holiday in village, another reminder of how bizarre my life is.
Easter, according to my neighbors, is the biggest party in Houeda. Saturday at midnight, there was a procession of children drumming and singing. Sunday afternoon, everyone choked down spaghetti, rather than their preferred nightly dish of sauce with pâte (a hardened mixture of corn flour and water. Think hard cream of wheat, but corn-flavored… I should really do a food blog one of these days). And Sunday evening, the blaring music came. Adults drank, children danced, babies cried, and the yovo took a peek and then stayed inside with a batch of burned cookies and a kitten she high-jacked from her concession family when they weren’t looking (I have mice now, I needed him to make my house smell all cat-y!). The music continued until 6 AM Monday, provided a short break for more singing and screaming of “ALLELUIA!” and then started back up until mid morning...
Meanwhile, down on the farm, my supervisor Moïse (French for “Moses.” This is ironic. You’ll see why.) invited 40 people from his congregation, plus me, to “receive the light.” Moïse is part of a New Age Japanese religion, “Mahikari.” Wiki it.
After two years, I sometimes find it difficult to be shocked by things here… But to see a group of Beninese men, women, and children face north and chant incantations in Japanese, I was humbled by how little I’ve seen or have come to understand about this world.
The ceremony began with ten minutes of chanting in Japanese, bowing, and clapping. I was then introduced to a kind older woman named Jeanne, who asked politely if she could now give me the light of God. I was instructed to close my eyes as she raised her hands over me for another ten minutes. Through later observation, I found that most people passing on the light (those in Jeanne’s position) used this time to check their phones with their free hands. I thought that was funny… Step three, I was instructed to turn around for another ten minutes while Jeanne periodically touched pressure points on my head, neck, and back, politely saying “excuse me, dear Michelle, you will now receive light at point number ___” with each gentle touch. At the end, we bowed and clapped together, thanking god for sharing his light with me… A truly bizarre experience, but it meant a great deal to Moïse for me to finally receive the light of his faith.
Folks back home, you may be confused. You may be wondering what the hell is up with my small African village, full of party-hardy Christians and practitioners of New Age Eastern religions? Valid question.
Benin is historically and culturally noted as the birthplace of voodoo, the traditional animist religion that has spread across West Africa to Haiti and Louisiana, famous for goddesses and infamous for dolls and jinxing. And while it is still the most prominent religion in the rural regions of southern Benin, most people today identify with several religions at once. In fact, it’s an amazing harmony that people have established here, allowing to each their own, hardly scoffing at one who is an animist at heart, but a Catholic on Sundays.
Though the mixing of such starkly different religions can seem incongruous, it’s a testament to all of the changes to which this place and this culture have been subjected – through colonization, through globalization, through the status of a developing country. I remember a conversation I had with my maman when I first moved to village, about the perils of poverty and the prominence of religion here (Have I mentioned this? Faith in god is mentioned quite frequently in conversation, it’s used to market various products, it’s the basis of the local music and film industries, it’s advertised on bumper stickers, license plates, and delivery trucks…). Anyway, she said that “to live here, it’s necessary that you believe in god. Because there is little we can do and it’s god who will take care.”And as most people here live so close to nature and have so few means to control it, it’s impossible to abandon traditional beliefs about the powers of wind and water, for example… But frankly, the benefits that come with joining a church of the missionaries are also understandable. Churches are typically the largest, nicest buildings here. Funds for development so often have spiritual strings attached, and the ceremonies themselves have been strategically tailored to the African ceremonial traditions, incorporating a great deal of song and dance.
And so, no one seems to blame anyone else for their religious choice(s), and they are especially willing to try anything once. It’s an admirable part of this culture, the peaceable religious component, though somewhat of an anomaly here, as it’s still in my opinion a culture very much concerned with homogeneity and definition. I guess the general rule is that as long as you believe in something, you’re good…
Well, that’s all for my monthly story / cultural commentary… Just a few holidays to go until I can properly celebrate them in my own American way! It will be once again sad to miss family birthdays and the 4th of July, but I’ll be happy to make it home in time for the big four – Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year! In the mean time, 2014 is already 33% over, and that’s wild.