Friday, January 11, 2013

Holidays and Harmattan

I spent December 24th – 27th at the beach in Grand Popo (the beach town was named by Portuguese explorers and means “Giant Poop.” But really it’s a very beautiful place…). Several volunteers met up to take a few days to finally act like tourists. We stayed at hotel Lion Bar, self-proclaimed “Happy Reggae Place Forever.” The hotel was essentially a tikki bar, next to which we pitched tents on the beach. Perfect way to spend my non-Christmas feeling Christmas!

"Happy Reggae Place Forever"

Breakfast view. Corona commercial?

When I returned to village, the following week was all about preparing for what Beninese consider to be the real holiday of the season – the new year! On the eve of the 31st, the singing and drumming started, and children dressed up, covering their body head-to-toe in clothing, complete with homemade masks. Kids went door to door with their tam-tams, dancing in return for candy or money. Beninese Halloween! (But way cooler, because kids dance and sing and play drums incredibly well here, which is far more impressive than saying “trick or treat” from under some WalMart mask). I passed out Girl Scout cookies (shout out thank you to Uncle Tom for the care package!!!) and sat outside with my concession family until midnight, when everyone cheered with Beninoise (beer) and Sodabi (local moonshine), yelling “Alleluia! 2013!” We turned on Beninese music videos, most of them about Jesus, and Maman and Tannyi (aunt) prayed passionately for health and prosperity and many other things I didn’t understand, as usual. But I was glad to be included.

In Benin, the grand celebrations take place on New Year’s Day. I woke up early, ready to witness some partying, but the village was quiet and empty… Finally, I was told everyone was busy preparing a feast, and I too should be cooking my meal to share! My close-mate (volunteer who lives closest), Zoe, came over and we scraped together some mac and cheese (my go-to when people expect me to share American food with them) and curried couscous with lentils… In the afternoon, we came together with our international feast in front of us. New Years day is like Halloween for adults, as neighbors circulate to taste each other’s food and share drinks. We agreed to start with the Americans’ contributions, and Zoe and I were entertained by my Beninese friends and neighbors, chatting curiously amongst themselves and straining to finish their plates of bizarre-tasting food. When it was time for the Beninese portion of the meal, however, it became clear that it was no easier for us: I was teary-eyed and sniffling from the spicy sauce, and Zoe was picking out pieces of fish from her pâte... We all laughed about it and congratulated each other on the meal. Culture exchange: success. Afterward, I followed tradition and made the rounds to visit my farm friends and host family, sharing in the Beninese cuisine and drinks.

New Years Day with the concession family

But the fête didn’t stop there! January 2 is meant for resting, finishing leftovers, visiting the people you didn’t quite get to, and one final evening dance party, which was my favorite part to see! Most of Houeda gathered in the public space outside my concession to watch men with tam-tams and cowbells. At the beginning of the ceremony, prayers were chanted, and the instruments and money jar were doused with sodabi and gin, as per tradition. Children were then allowed to come in the circle and show their dance moves. Adults later got in on the fun, and respected men danced with bull tails in hand, apparently a practice started by ancient kings of Benin. When a dancer performs well, it is custom to put coins on their forehead, which they then contribute to the musicians’ money jar. The party continued until midnight, and guns were fired to officially end the fête. People kept feting on and off until January 10, vodun day, a national day to recognize traditional religions - blog post on that coming up! The next party season is Easter, and I hear Pentecost is wild, so stay tuned.

Now it’s back to work for the village and me… Though the first “meeting” of the secondary school science teachers was actually an extension of the fête. Several of them are helping me get my environmental club started, so they invited me to dine and drink with them. I was the only woman among 15 men – Benin needs more women in science! Good thing my girls’ club officially started this week (over 100 girls signed up!), and planning for the girls’ camp is underway.

In other news, Harmattan is here. This means it is the dry, windy season. The afternoons are scorching, but it can actually get down to about 70 degrees F in the morning and evening with a nice breeze that rolls through, which is ideal for Michigan blood, but the Beninese are freezing their butts off. I’m still romping around in my sandals and t-shirts, while they’ve busted out the second hand ski jackets and wrapped themselves in multiple layers of tissue (fabric), and I’ve even seen socks! But I’ve been taking advantage of the cool mornings to train for the marathon (less than a month to go!) and expand my garden, since eating that which I’ve grown has been so rewarding. I’m thrilled I get to eat a few salads a week now, and my neighbors are even starting to take an interest in crop diversification and nutrition when they see what see what sort of fresh goodies I bring home from the farm! Also this week, I was able to hop on and host a bike tour of volunteers who are crossing the country ( – great idea and super fun, so I’m looking into setting up a tour of my own, later on this year. More pictures are finally up here

I made  grew this. Yum.


  1. It must be amazing to eat a salad like that that you GREW! Would love to hear what kind of activities you have planned for the girls' club and the environment club. Sounds like you are finding plenty to do there now! I have one question - is a "concession" a house?

  2. The camps and clubs are a lot of information sharing about health and hygiene, protection, and culture... I'll be sure to post in more detail about them at some point. And a concession is indeed a house, or several, that is enclosed by a wall or fence. My concession in particular is 3 houses, shared by only one other family.
    Thanks so much for reading, Barb!

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    Amazing photos!!
    Good luck with your adventure in Benim!
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    Paulo Gonçalves

    I invite you to visit my blog