Erik left to go back to the States on Friday.. I have been insanely lonely since then. It will be good to get back to work tomorrow and back to normal.
Anyway he agreed to write a post wrapping up his thoughts on his visit here in Benin.
For 24 hours I have been back in the United States. I am clean, comfortable and well-fed. Now that I've gotten those first steps out of the way, I have had a chance to look back and review the past few weeks spent in Benin. I greatly enjoyed my visit, spending time with Zoe, and seeing another part of the world.
I could tell you about all the cool things we did, but I decided that instead of recapping the events of my journey, it would be more meaningful to share a few of my personal reflections. In all my travels, Benin has proven to be one of the most thought-provoking places I have ever been. Their way of life - their culture, their world-view - is in many ways drastically different than our own. Ultimately, as human beings, we all have the same basic wants and needs: food, shelter, and a good life for our family. However, there is great variety in the means by which we achieve these basic goals. I am grateful to have been able to visit Benin and for the opportunity to reflect on their way of life.
In general, I found the people of Benin to be very warm and friendly, welcoming us to their home, excited to share their beautiful country with us. During my time in Zoe's village, I found the community quite charming. Everyone says, "hello, how are you? Welcome." People spend most of the day sitting outside enjoying each others company. Even in the market, women will sit side by side selling the same thing as friends, not competitors. Although they have very little relative to Americans, what these people lack in possessions and technology they make up for with a connectedness that does not exist in most "American villages." It's like a giant family - everyone is looking out for each other. I would often walk alone through the village just to feel like a part of it.
I enjoyed the village life a lot, and it was cool walking amongst goats, sheep, cows and chickens everywhere we went, but the main thing I disliked about the village was EVERYONE'S incessant need to point out that I am white. Almost everyone we passed would call out to us "Yovo Yovo!" At first I kind of liked it. It was like being a celebrity; but by the end of the trip I became frustrated and really just wanted to pull some people out of their ignorance and explain that we are the same and what they're doing is rude. I tried to remind myself that I am to them what a purple person would be to me. I chalked their heckling up to curiosity more than anything else.
The food was also very different, but I liked most of what I tried. The religions were very different as well, Voodoo in particular, and it was sometimes difficult to take certain beliefs seriously (specifically those regarding sorcery), but I suppose fervently believing in something completely irrational is part of all religions, ours included. Benin would be a great place to conduct an ethnography, particularly one linguistic in nature. There are so many interesting languages spoken, and it would be neat to look further into how the local dialects reflect the peoples' perspective and outlook. Even though I could understand next-to-nothing, I enjoyed listening nonetheless.
One interesting thing that struck me is that the Beninese are insanely comfortable being uncomfortable. They seem to love prolonged stares and awkward silences. In the "Tro" taxis (cargo vans gutted and fitted with benches to fit 30 people), you are tightly sandwiched between 5 other people, your feet almost instantly lose circulation, everyone is sweating on each other, 10 people are screaming on their phones or to each other, and I was the only person on the bus that seemed to mind at all. As a side note, I must say, those taxis have to be the world's most uncomfortable mode of transportation, but I doubt that anyone in the country is aware.
[Note from Zoe: I made a point to ensure Erik had only the most comfortable taxi rides possible – It can get way worse than that]
In a nut-shell, Benin is a country rich with natural beauty, pleasant people, and interesting culture. I am definitely not going to take as much for granted now that I'm back, and I am truly grateful for all that I have - hot showers, food variety, air conditioning, education, healthcare, etc. Still, I find myself wondering just how good some of our amenities are for the soul. Although the more impoverished citizens of Benin will pester tourists for money and food, they still seem happy with their lot. Without the common stresses of first-world life (9-5's, car payments, schedule juggling), people can focus more on those basic wants and needs mentioned earlier. They can wake up with the sun, cook a fresh, plastic-free non-processed meal, and work on the farm or at the loom, using their hands to create their livelihood. They're not connected to the ramblings of their peers on social media, or the depressing stories in the news. They work a little, the eat a little, they relax a little, and they are content. This lifestyle may seem almost lazy to a college-educated American worker, but lazy would not be the right word for it; I think 'easy' would be a better word for it. And while (when applied to work) that word carries negative connotations in our culture, there, taking it easy on the job is viewed in a positive light - and they be the right ones after all.
We desperately seek to impose our western sentiment that "development" ought to be the chief goal of any given society, and that societies should strive for progress through hard work and innovation, but the more I see of the rest of the world, the less convinced I find myself of the merits of this philosophy. The people in Benin are happy, they're healthy, and they appreciate the time they get to spend with one another. Likewise, I appreciate the time I spent with them. Being in Benin has reinforced within me some deep realizations that can only be achieved by traveling around the world, and I would enjoy spending more time there some day if the opportunity arises. A la prochiane! - Erik
Oh.. I also wanted to mention. Erik seems to have made more friends here in two weeks than I have made in the past 10 months (no surprise there we all know he is the social half of this whole). All day today – while I just felt like sitting around in my pajamas.. eating chocolate.. watching Remember the Titans.. and being left alone. People kept showing up at my house asking to see Erik. Not to mention the number of people who called to make sure he made it home safe. He is pretty awesome like that.. <3
Lots of Love and Happy Mothers Day!