Thursday, January 31, 2013

Porn + Politics = Ready for a Vacation


While Peace Corps predicts the first three months in site to be the loneliest and most challenging, I fared pretty well with the “integration period.” Now, as life in Benin becomes more routine and less exotic, I think I’m hitting a 7th-month slump… Here’s a 2-days-in-the-life story from last week to exhibit how some days, I’m pushed right up to the edge.

I’m working on some grant applications for my upcoming girls’ camp, so I needed to print some paperwork. Finding the appropriate technology to do so in village is often difficult, but after asking around all morning, I located two equipped boutiques. I waited a half hour at the first one, while the dinosaur of a computer tried to recognize my USB key. After no luck, I took my key and headed to option #2…
Upon arrival, the owner of the shop greeted me by saying “What do you want? If you’re just here to say hello, I don’t want that. What did you bring me?” Despite the rudeness of this greeting (which is extremely out of character for the Beninese, who are generally very welcoming and hospitable), the part that bugged me most was the last question: “What did you bring me?” I’ve recently decided this to be my least favorite phrase here in Benin, trumping even “give me money,” “are you married?” and the yovo song. Being my father’s daughter (and therefore an enthusiastic proponent of quality customer service!), I was tempted to say “screw you, jackass!” and walk away. But also being in  village, with limited printing options and a reputation to uphold as a Peace Corps volunteer, I forced myself to say “I have brought you good health... And I want to print something.” The first answer is a generally accepted response to the question-from-hell, but peoples’ faces still fall like they don’t believe the yovo doesn’t have money or presents for them. Whatever.
I waited another long while before my USB came up, only to see that attempt #1 had in fact recognized my USB after all… at least enough to corrupt all the old files and replace them with porn. My virus ridden key was polluted with folders entitled “dirty,” “XXX,” and “Porn!!!” warranting many odd looks from the already judgmental proprietor. And it didn’t help that the folder I kept trying / failing to open was entitled “Girls” – as in girls’ camp, girls’ club, etc. A sense of humor and an appreciation for the ironic are all too important in this life I’m living... So I admitted defeat and trudged home, only to be accosted by the village drunkard, who followed me half way home repeating “What do you have for me? Give me something. Yovo, yovo, why don’t you want to give me a present? You are selfish...”

Day two, I headed out early for a 9 AM meeting with the mayor. At 1:15, he showed up. This is, unfortunately, typical for the Beninese, though I suppose I expected the Mayor’s office to run differently? When he did finally get there, he spent the majority of our meeting scolding me for having lived in his commune for so long and not yet having stopped by to greet him (even though “stopping by” is a half hour, 1000 CFA zem ride away – far and expensive by village standards). As if he would have had time for me! Not only was he 4 hours late for a scheduled meeting, the meeting itself was a circus… People kept coming in and out of his office, asking questions, pushing their own agendas, or just saying “I heard you had a yovo in your office and wanted to greet her…”­­ He also received over 20 calls and texts, answering them all in my presence (again, not out of character for Benin). I calmly but sternly asked him if this was typical of a professional workplace in Benin. His response: “There’s no problem! I’m listening to you!” all the while looking at his phone. Interactions like that make me feel like two years will never be enough to contribute to the development of Benin, let alone finish a sentence with the mayor.

Icing on the cake that day: when I got home, my zem driver raised the price upon arrival (one always agrees on the price and destination before getting on the zem! Raising the price once you get there is NOT ok, and Beninese people won’t put up with that – when it happens, it’s plain and clear prejudice). He said “you’re white; you can give me more than that.” I told him how bad that was of him to do, but he continued to bother me. I was so fed up and tired from the bullshit of the day that I forfeited my principles, tossed him an extra 200 CFA, and walked away. He called after me: “My dear, are you married?”

Aside from the many culture clashes I’ve been having lately, this is also the longest period of time I have ever gone without seeing kin… Thankfully, the ‘rents are on their way! Starting tonight, I will be taking a 12 day vacation to show Benin to my parents. I’m hoping their visit will give me a break from routine and some fresh eyes to appreciate the good things about Benin once again. The agenda includes a visit to my village, a tour of Pendjari Wildlife Park, and a marathon in Parakou. This will be a lot of new territory for me as well, so I’ll be sure to update about our adventures in the coming weeks! 

No comments:

Post a Comment