Earlier this month, I attended a 10 day in-service training in Parakou, a big city in the north of Benin. It was my first trip out of the south and it took 9 hours in a 20-passenger van. It should have only taken 6, if not for the constant stops whenever anyone saw some snacks they wanted to buy on the side of the road... I have never eaten so much on a road trip, but every time someone bought something they made sure the yovo got to “gout et voir” (taste and see!). It was amazing to see how much the landscape changed along the way, and once I got there, the differences in local languages and even culture made me feel like I’d travelled to another country!
Even though the strangers I travelled with were kind enough to keep me well fed along the way, I experienced one of my most discouraging moments so far while in the van. I had been keeping a sachet noir full of trash from the trip that I intended to dispose of properly. These infamous black plastic bags litter Benin, and refusing them when you make a purchase generally requires putting up a fight and climbing onto the soap box. When the chauffer spotted it, he snatched it up and threw it out the window, despite my protests. Most of the other passengers didn’t notice, as they too had been throwing their wrappers and bottles out the window along the way... He laughed in my face and spoke to me in Gun, saying he didn’t care about dirtying Benin, as long as his van stayed clean. I tried to stay calm and unemotional, explaining to him how I am an environmental volunteer, brought to Benin because some people do care about keeping their country healthy. My work partner jumped in to defend me, and told him I could easily go back to my own country, a land of recycling bins and reusable bags, but I choose to be here because I believe change is possible. His response: “You should get married. Then your opinions will change.” Two weeks later, I’m still not sure how I should have responded to that. All I did was look out the window at the passing piles of trash and try not to yell at him.
After the hustle bustle of in-service training, it was a stark change to get back to village life: slow days, long weeks, and an empty stomach (we had been fed non-stop all week. Glorious things like cheese and bread and salads!). It is nice to be back though, and it really does feel like home here now. December is party month here in Benin, and all my neighbors are preparing for Christmas, the New Year, and also wrapping up any lose ends with funerals… Funerals are the large occasion among the Beninese, and quite a bit of time and money is put into preparing the music, feast, and logistics for a gathering of everyone who ever knew your deceased loved one. Because of my travels and the constant Fête-ing (Fête = party) in village, work has slowed down and my past month has felt rather unproductive... Lucky for me, the world didn’t end, and I get another chance at change in 2013!