Sunday, January 26, 2014

Yovo Factor

Being a white woman in Benin, I stand out. That is a fact. It also means that there are a lot of presumptions about me, for example I probably have a lot of money, and also I probably don't know how anything works in Africa. Hence the fact that when you go into a market, women will point at their produce and shout at you “Yovo, Orange – Yovo, Orange.” Yes thank you, I did know that is an orange, and no I still don't want to buy it.

Being different, especially in a way that makes you visually stand out, in a culture that is completely not your own, sometimes leads to funny scenarios where either A. You are accidentally making a spectacle of yourself; or B. Someone is accidentally making a spectacle of you (because they don't live with the Yovo factor in their own lives)

Sometimes you just want to be invisible – and count the days to America where you can blend in again without people watching your every move.


This week I made a spectacle of myself (as usual) but I thought this would be a funny story to tell. If it is just funny to me, I am sorry. I have been living here too long.

A few weeks ago my fan broke, a certain orange cat was involved, not naming any names.

It is the hot season right now, so after about a week and a half of “I'm not buying another fan, I rarely use it unless I have company and I have less than a year left.” - I broke down and asked my friendly neighborhood electronics salesman how much his fans were. He had 2 and they were both around 20 dollars (estimated equivalence). I told him “Thank you my friend, I will be back tomorrow to buy it,” and he told me “Goodbye, God bless you, See you tomorrow.” He is Nigerian, so I can actually quote him in English for you, which is probably the only reason I just did that.

Anyway, little known to me, the power had gone out in the whole region about an hour before said conversation. Meaning Porto, Misserete, and as far north as Adjohoun (probably further). So I go home relax get ready for the meeting I had in Adjohoun the next day – which didn't really happen either due to the fact that the power was out – or we misunderstood and were really having a meeting about a meeting in the first place.

After lunch, I was thinking to myself, well I told him I would come back today. Seems kind of silly to buy a fan when the power is out, but the power will be back and then I will have a fan.

So, as if to add to the spectacle (that I really should have realized I was about to create), I put on a yovotome clothes (long khaki shorts, and a t-shirt --- I almost always wear tissu dresses but I knew i'd be walking across village with a fan) and walk over to the market to buy my fan. I buy my fan (which happens to be bright red) and proceed to walk the (5 minutes normally) walk back to my house from the market.

First my bread lady stops me, “You need to take a moto” (mostly in hand gestures and local language) - I responded by pointing at my head and lifting the fan up and down. “No helmet, Not heavy.” – She says ok and I go on my way.

Then I am stopped by my fried food lady. “Where are you going with a fan?” – “Home,” I reply. To which she kindly informs me, “You can not use it there is no electricity!” I tell her I know but I just bought the fan and I have to get it home. She gets excited that it is brand new and asks how much I spent on it, I tell her and she is impressed because she bought a similar fan for more. Yovo has redeemed herself in this otherwise ridiculous fan walking scenario. Then of course she tells me to take a moto and the same head pointing and fan lifting ensues. I buy some donuts and keep walking.

This is less than a minute into the normal walk.

The rest of the way I was stopped 10 times buy strangers. “Yovo! there is no electricity you can't use the fan!!” – followed by explanations and “You should really take a moto!” – and so on. *I just want to add that this would not happen to a normal villager who (obviously) knows the power is out - and it would not be assumed they have money for a moto. 

I get home – and 10 minutes later the power comes back on.

This was Tuesday. During the week, I have had multiple friends in village (who didn't see me that day) ask me why on earth I was WALKING through village with a fan. – And I have had strangers come up to me and ask how my fan is doing. -- So yea, people are talking about it.

This place.

Other things that happened to me this week: Being given a soda and asked to go with a friend to a doctors appointment (sitting in the corner of the office drinking a soda – while the doctor keeps giving me funny looks and no one is talking to me), Almost getting trampled to death by a swarm of Marche Mama's (women selling things on their heads in the market) who were running from the police – it reminded me – very literally – of when small creatures scatter in the forest (because something bad is coming) in old cartoons, I had to reschedule a trip to the tailor – because I wasn't dressed quite properly to be changing in an open room, and OF COURSE being left alone with my bread ladies baby in the middle of the market – while she went to get more bread - aka lots of people staring wondering why this white woman is standing and awkwardly holding a 2 month old screaming African baby. 

Sometimes, you just have to laugh at yourself.

1 comment:

  1. One thing you will gain from this experience is the ability to relate to outsiders back in America. To be foreign can be uncomfortable, but hopefully you will able to positively affect the experience of outsiders in your own country when you encounter them socially back home. Great, thought-provoking post! Thank you!