Saturday, January 19, 2013

People Are Strange - When You're a Stranger


Doors are stressful.

In Benin, if you are home you keep your door open. If you close your door.. well there is a whole list of reasons why your door might be closed.. none of them are particularly good. As an American volunteer this makes for many stressful scenarios.

If you are at home with your door closed.. it means you are mean and anti-social... or you or sick.. or it is the night and you are sleeping.. or it may mean that you have someone in your house that you shouldn't. -wink wink- Which is all well and good when you have multiple people living in your house, and someone is there to greet guests at all times.

It also doesn't help that as an American volunteer I am being watched very closely by all of my neighbors.. so if I don't open my door at the same time as the day before.. people really do start to worry. 

My personal opinion is that this “open door policy” stems from a history of living in houses that don't have doors. Now that many people live in more modern houses.. everyone has doors even the mud huts.. their ideas behind using these doors in much different than ours. Everyone has a curtain in their doorway. This curtain serves the purpose of a door more so than the actual door does. A door is for locking up your household belongings when no one is home. The curtain is for the rest of the day. In America we use doors for privacy, and for keeping people out.

Beninese people don't knock on doors. People say “ko ko ko” which is a verbal knocking to which you reply “mae mae mae” signifying yes I am here. I haven't yet understood the reason for having such a response.. since without the response the person stopping by will still just walk in the house anyway. Or sometimes they walk in.. and then say ko ko ko.

Maybe we are anti-social. However, these cultural ideas about having your door open or closed create problems for the volunteer. In America we believe in Privacy.

As a volunteer, who lives alone, I need to shut my door.. way more often then my neighbors would like. I shut my door when I am sleeping (at night or during the day), when I am showering (because believe it or not I don't want people entering my house while I am naked), when I am in the back doing laundry or washing dishes, when I exercise.. and sometimes when I am in fact feeling anti-social.

I try my best to keep my door open as often as possible in order to be culturally sensitive.. but I find this stressful both when it is shut and when it is open. For example, when I want to take a nap in the middle of the afternoon, I have trouble sleeping, because I know that if my neighbors come home they are going to think that I am sick and start to worry about me. On the other hand, if I am in my kitchen in the back of my house, cooking my lunch or dinner, it is not uncommon to then find my 4 year old neighbor (who in her own right is not malicious and is an absolute doll baby) sitting on my couch playing with my things (I did start keeping some kid friendly things out in the front room to counter this.. until adults with kids thought that it was ok to then take these things). Or I might end up with visitors expecting me to feed them because they stopped by.. and then I am a “horrible person” because I didn't anticipate said surprise visit and cook for 5, and yes you do get verbally called a horrible person for this. So where do you draw the line?

We are told to be careful about who we let in our house.. and yet we live in a culture where people think it is ok to enter freely without “really” asking. So how to you get them to leave without being super offensive?

It bothers me when a person assumes its ok to walk into my house, when I am not letting them in, if I am in the bathroom or the kitchen I can't always hear the whispered ko ko kos. I make a point not to let anyone come in past my living room, but some people think they are entitled. It bothers me even more when someone comes in my house, and starts cleaning, or going through my things in order to then claim them (this was a huge problem with American food items before I got my shelves in the kitchen and had things stacked up on my living room floor). Unfortunately, for me I guess, it bothers me the most when my neighbors are worried about my health or think that I am avoiding them.

Another culturally interesting thing about doors that I noticed is that at 7am neighbors think it is ok to tap on my door to ask me something and then later in the day complain that I didn't answer (well that is because I was asleep you you don't know how to properly knock) and yet when it gets dark and I close my door, because it is dark out and there are bugs and I don't really want people coming in my house at night (a lot of volunteers do this).. no one will knock because they all assume I am asleep.. at 8pm.. even thought my living room lights are on. I have even been told by people that they drove over to visit me in the evening.. but my door was closed so they assumed I was asleep.

For now I have just settled with the fact that my neighbors think I sleep A LOT. I shut my door during the afternoon “repose” to wash dishes.. exercise.. and shower. I shut my door when it gets dark, because that is the smart thing to do. I also don't open my door in the morning until after I have washed my clothes, and gotten ready for the day. Occasionally, if I go out for the day and no one actually sees me leave (which is rare), I come home to worried neighbors who thought I was sick and locked up in my house all day.. which is also what sometimes happens if I keep my door shut for too long in the afternoon.

What I really need to do is get some porch furniture made (right now I have to bring my living room chairs in and out), and spend more of my day sitting on the front porch, maybe then people won't feel the need to walk into my house just because my door is open (even though they are the ones who told me to keep it open).

Honestly though.
Sometimes you just need to be left alone.


  1. very interesting post--I can see that you being such a private person that this situation would be much harder for you than for someone like me!! we know this from experience...

    1. If you think that this has anything to do with my capacity for privacy then I didn't make my point very well :(

      the problem is more than privacy.. i don't mind when people come in to say hi.. i mind when they start cleaning.. or rearranging my furniture.. or taking my things... or when a child i don't know is all of a sudden standing in my bedroom.

      And people don't come in your house to socialize.. they come in your house to either ask what you are going to give them to eat.. or they stare at you.. and they will stare for as long as you let them. (this is a cultural thing - Beninese people like to sit in silence)

      I live in a glass cage.

  2. Your blog is good-- I wouldn't like to find someone cleaning my house without asking( unless is was a genie!) or moving my stuff either. It must be very very strange to have people just take your things.

  3. I think there is something beautiful going on here as well. There is often wisdom in silence, and these people obviously have an understanding of community and togetherness that is completely different to our own. After your service, you may miss the prospect of a surprise visit from a curious neighbor. Maybe what they really want is to know you.

  4. It would be very interesting to read the blog of someone who came to america. and what they found funny, disturbing etc. but did not tell anyone because they felt it would put them into a bad light. This latest blog makes me look at my environment differently.
    keep the door closed when showering, I would.

  5. This is also a very interesting post -- I think I would have a hard time with this. I also love all the comments; they made me literally laugh out loud and I agree with everyone! Miss you girl<3