I never wanted to come to Benin. Of all the countries in which peace corps operates in francophone sub-Saharan Africa, Benin would have been my last choice. But it wasn’t my choice to make – only to accept or decline. And I accepted.
Still, when my parents began talking about a family vacation in Africa, I reverted to my pre-peace corps state of mind: not Benin. If we’re going to have a vacation, let’s have a vacation! They started making plans to go all out for a luxury stay in a more tourist-friendly African country, and I was thrilled. But the more I reflected, the more I could see this wasn’t the right choice, until one day I called home and begged my parents to throw those travel plans out the window and come to Benin.
Having previously gone to great lengths to enumerate the many reasons why Benin would not be the best place for a family vacation, I had to eat my words a bit and re-convince them otherwise. I couldn’t explain why I had changed my mind so completely and suddenly, so I just decided to sugarcoat the whole thing with mellifluous phrases. “Oh, you simply must come!” I imagined myself saying, “It is ever so lovely here!” – words that would have been more fitting for an elegant drama about 19th century English gentry than a scratchy phone call home about 21st century West Africa. No matter – they’d understand once they got here.
I spent Christmas day on the beach in the sleepy town of Grand Popo. My family spent Christmas day on a plane en route to see me. We were finally together on the 26th when I met them at the airport, and it was Christmas day all over again. They had only one week to explore Benin, so we never stayed more than two nights in one place. My mom came up with all different ways to describe what it was like to travel around the country like this: (in order of diminishing positivity) like a competitor on the Amazing Race, like a pioneer, like a refugee. First full day in Benin must have been one of the “refugee” days as we spent the whole darn thing crammed in a taxi for the grueling road trip to my village.
Spending time there enabled my family to finally put faces to all those names I’d talked of and the voices they had heard from time to time in the background of phone calls home. Not surprisingly, the whole Five Americans in the Village at Once reality show was also great fun for the village. Honestly, being there was perfect, but it was also exhausting – the saluer-ing (greeting) and being saluer-ed got a little out of control. Oh and translating, as it turns out, is not my cup of tea. My tendency is to just kinda sum up what people are saying. When my dad told me to explain to the local veterinarian that we were very appreciative of the diligent work he was doing related to the chicken-raising project I had started, I just looked at the vet and said, “Il dit bon travail.” He says good work. It was a relief for me when we packed up a few days later to head north for a short safari in the national park, Pendjari.
It was a good change of pace to be able to sit back, relax, and just look for animals for a few days. Mom was hoping for a leopard sighting, but our guide said they would be difficult to find because they are voodoo spirits. So no leopard. We did see lions, though, toward the end. My younger brother gets the credit for being the first to spot them. My older brother, meanwhile, had been satisfied that after seeing birds, elephants, and “deers” on the first day, we’d encountered all the likely wildlifes in the park and could just as well spend the rest of the time reading at the hotel. Perhaps a book on Russian verb tenses, for example. (He’s more of a language type, you see.) Nonetheless, he traipsed along with the family on all the game drives, entertaining himself by occasionally pretending to be a guide, pointing out random things on the side of the road and exclaiming how fortunate we were to get to see this or that rare creature. “Regardez!” he said as we drove past an empty parked car, “On a la chance aujourd’hui – une voiture… abandonée!” Look! We are lucky today – an abandoned car!
I can’t say how much my family got out of their trip here – you’ll have to ask them – but what I do know is that they took it all in stride. And for one precious week, they were able to know the piece of the world I’ve been trying to describe to them for the past year and a half. The world is vast; one can only hope to meet a very tiny percentage of it during a lifetime. Benin is not high on the “must-see” list for most Americans, nor is it well-known by us for, umm, anything. Maybe that’s why I didn’t want my family to come here at first – maybe that’s why I didn’t want to come here at first. But as I now realize, there is no country one should write off as not worth seeing, no group of people not worth meeting. We each will find that some places and people are harder for us to love than others, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t worth getting to know. And that is something best done in person.
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“How will I ever learn Itcha?” I despaired. Out loud, it was just a question about the local language, but inside, my train of thought was quickly snowballing into a panicked musing on all things presently stressful. Two months in Benin, I was just beginning to adjust to life in the city of Porto Novo, where our peace corps training was being held, and now it was almost time to move again – this time to a village 7 hours north. Pierre, who would be my main work partner there, was with me in Porto Novo. We’d be traveling together so I wouldn’t have to show up at my future home for the first time, all by myself. But this hardly lessened my worry or secret reluctance to leave the relative comfort of my life in Porto Novo. I would no longer have the company of my fellow peace corps trainees, or the tutelage of my bossy host mama. I’d no longer have the blessing of electricity or running water. I wouldn’t even have furniture! Oh! I furrowed my brow and slapped my hands on my face, pulling it into a big frown. You see, I’m distressed. It was all I could honestly hope to convey. Maybe Pierre understood me, maybe he didn’t. He straightened his back and took a deep breath. I braced myself for a lecture, but after a brief pause, he just chuckled and shook his head. “You simply must come,” he said. And he was right.