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Thursday, 28 February 2013

Volunteering in Benin: Helping and Discovering a Community from Within

Written by Eloise Stark
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I wake up early to the sounds of prayer drifting from the nearby Church and Mosque, the low chants and songs intermingle into a kind of religious harmony. I know that soon, the chorus of birds will start singing. This was the thing that first struck me about living in Africa, the beautiful sounds of everyday life, no longer hidden under the incessant rumble of traffic. The prayers give way to the birds, then to the sounds of town life as my neighbors wake up, listening to African music as they get ready for work and talking in loud voices, over the sound of the Zem’s (motorbike taxi’s) hurtling along the twisted path, and of street sellers bartering with housewives. I know as the day draws on, my head will be filled with voices, children chattering and laughing at the school where I volunteer, my neighbors', friends' and host family's cheerful, laughing voices over an evening meal, always a communal affair. And then, at night, I’ll hear the sounds of animals waking up, and of the slow funeral processions for those people embarking on a long sleep. I smile, and get up, ready for another day, knowing it’ll be another adventure, like every day I’ve passed since the beginning of my journey to Benin. 

I'm reaching the end of my one month stay in Benin, volunteering for the Charles de Bellaigue association. Every year, they send out 4 French students to run classes in a primary school in Bohicon during the holidays. Bohicon is a small and very poor town, where the quality of the schools and the level of education are both pretty dire. Each of us teaches a class of around 65 students, and though the experience is a thousand times more wonderful then I could ever have hoped for, I admit that I had seriously underestimated how hard it would be. What with the lack of resources and school material, the dilapidation of the classrooms, some without walls, only partitions made from palm leaves and tin roofs onto which the torrential rains make an ear-pounding racket and more than a few leaks, and last of all the fact that many of the children from different tribes barely speak French despite it being the country’s official language, make planning lessons a very creative affair. But we give it our best, we create educational games, we lose our voices calling over the inevitable background noise of 65 7 year olds, we explain things, explain them again and again, and we all try, in our own little way, to make a difference. 

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But at the same time, we realize how powerless we really are. We can make a few kids happy for a while, hopefully teach them some things, maybe even give them ambition, and help them to dream about a future where they’ll have easier lives than their parents. But the poverty around us is deep and heart wrenching. The town of Bohicon resembles a large slum. Aside from the only tarmacked road, along which sit banks with heavily armed guards and the vestiges of colonial buildings, there are only low, improvised huts and a market spreading on for miles. The streets are littered with rubbish, and kids play amongst the mud, trash and broken bottles. Most are prettily dressed in bright, beautiful African fabrics, but lots of children wear rags and tattered hand me downs. Worst of all is seeing them ill. In class, far too often, we’ll see students sleeping on their desks, with a temperature of 39°C and mosquito bites up all up their arms and legs. Malaria rears its ugly head often amongst kids. Most survive. Some never come back. 


This sadness is intermingled with the unstoppable energy of the local associations, fighting to make things better, with the joy and happiness of everyday life, with the color and the kid’s laughter. Every morning, they come looking for their 4 “yovos” (foreigners), they ring the bell at our house, take hold of our arms and legs, and try and teach us their dialect, their games and dances. I’ll never forget these kids that I have come to love like a family. They are amazing, as lively and fun as kids can be, but at the same time as soon as they stop laughing it is easy to forget that they are only children. Life forces them to grow up fast. They might not know how to conjugate a verb, but they’ll recite long traditional tales by heart, they can’t do simple sums except when they’re bartering the price of their elevenses snack at a market stall and when they’re not playing tag boisterously with their friends, they lovingly look after their younger siblings. In the afternoon, when class is over, I often see them working for their parents, dragging tools or stacks of merchandise as tall as they are with their skinny little arms. It makes me want to shout, but there is no one to shout to. Their parents don’t want them to be there… but what can you do? You might feed the soul with books and games, but not the hungry mouths of a family.

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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


Last modified on Friday, 01 March 2013