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Thursday, 28 February 2013

Volunteering in Benin: Helping and Discovering a Community from Within - Page 2

Written by Eloise Stark
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I came to Africa to help, and it’s hard not to be shocked by the terrible things you see, sights that change you forever and make you want to give up every superficial thing in your life and fight for more justice. But just because Africa brings you face to face with some of the harshest realities of the world, does not mean that this is the only thing you’ll discover. Benin is an absolutely beautiful country with a rich and fascinating culture, from the kings and queens of ancient kingdoms which still play a big role in village life, to the voodoo festivals where shamans communicate with the gods of nature through dancing and song, to the beautiful towns and villages where every architectural gem hides a fascinating myth filled with magic and wonder… 

I know I’ll never forget the ruined palace, home to crocodiles and lions, just 5 minutes from the center of Bohicon, nor the lake town of Ganvié, that some call the Venice of Africa. In the 17th century, the tribe of Agbogbé followed their leader in canoes right into the center of the water, where they built this town as a safe haven against the slave raids. The warriors of the kingdom of Dahomey, who frequently took prisoners of war from neighboring tribes to sell as slaves to the Europeans, were forbidden by the gods from touching water. The tribe has lived for three centuries in this haven in the middle of the lake, cut off from sight from the mainland, in wooden huts with wooden floorboards whose cracks show the swirling water beneath. 

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I’ll remember the ochre, dusty streets, and the way the earth has died my feet orange, the market with its hidden wonders and smells of chili and fish and fried banana, I’ll remember the cobbler’s little hut and the basket weaver sitting cross legged amongst bundles of dried grass. I’ll miss the goats and chickens that appear from nowhere and wander around the streets, dodging the traffic. I’ll miss hurtling along the road on the back of a motorbike taxi. And most of all, I’ll miss my new friends who have welcomed me so warmly. The best thing about “Volontourism” is how it allows you to share the life of a community. They have given me far more than I could give them, with their warmth and friendship. Neighbor’s pop round to tell me about the dangers and wonders of Benin. The men tell us a thousand reasons why we should marry Beninese men, the women teach us how to cook, and before long we don’t feel like foreigners any more. This feels like our home and we are linked to people here in a way that you can never be in our western, individualistic society. 

I have enjoyed my experience of volunteering so much it is indescribable, and I can think of no better way to discover a country and society from the inside and to try and help improve the life of a community in the developing world.


©Eloise Stark


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Last modified on Friday, 01 March 2013

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