Sunday, November 4, 2012

How to Break Hearts in Benin

In an earlier post, I mentioned how it is the cultural norm for men here to be very forward and persistent when interested in a woman. It is custom for the man to ask the woman out at least three times before she agrees. Just saying “no” means nothing and is even considered a standard part of the courting procedure. If she says yes any earlier, she is considered ­­desperate, easy, and undesirable. Thus, guys don’t give up… Many women deal with such advances on a daily basis, so how does one get rid of an unwanted male suitor in a culturally appropriate manner? Some volunteers have researched the matter, and the necessary process is as follows:

Step 1: Respect your suitor.
The American methods of rejection including ignoring texts/calls, a polite but obvious display of disinterest, or even a frank “’no” are off the table here. The first two won’t work, due to previously mentioned persistence, and the latter is incredibly disrespectful. According to my source, a Beninese couple, disrespecting your suitor can mean your safety is at risk! Not in a violent stalker way, but due to the risk of gris gris, a voodoo curse that your suitor could create to either cause you harm or force you to fall in love with him against your will. (Side note: while the point of this culture-informing entry is not about religion, the mixing of traditional and other religions is widely practiced here, and many religious people also believe in the powers of vodun. The couple who informed me of this is Pentacostal, but still takes gris gris very seriously. Interesting!). So how do you show your suitor you respect him? You meet him in a public place, buy a non-alcoholic beverage for each of you, and calmly explain that you do not wish to date him, incorporating the following steps.

          Step 2: Lie.
Even if you are single and looking, to say you are not interested in this particular suitor will not work. It is disrespectful (danger!) and may encourage further wooing. Therefore, it is necessary to come up with a “more valid” reason that you cannot date this person: “I have a husband,” “I am here to work and not play,” “My bride price is too expensive for you,” etc. To ensure you don’t excite him with a challenge, proceed to step 3.

         Step 3: Give him fear.
Back your lies up with a threat. To complete the above examples: “Said husband will beat you up,” “Peace Corps will send me home if I date you,” “If you continue to pursue me, I will tell the whole town and you will be embarrassed because you can’t afford me,” etc. 

           As far-fetched as some of this may seem, it is not so much the content of what you say, but the way you go about saying it. The cultural protocol is such that even if your lies and threats are unbelievable, he will see that you are doing so in order to politely reject him and spare his feelings.
Interestingly enough, this dating and heart-breaking procedure seems to fit pretty well into what I am learning to be socially acceptable behavior here in Benin, which often includes around many lies and excuses for the sake of preserving someone else’s comfort and self-perception. Sometimes I consider it polite, sometimes two-faced, and often times inefficient... But I suppose it’s not really my judgment to make, as long as I understand my environment and act accordingly. With as much as I’m learning every day, two years might not even be enough for that!

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