Elephants, Oro, and school strikes: a packed entry

Trip Start Jun 02, 2003
Trip End Dec 31, 2006

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Tuesday, February 1, 2005

I am boiling hot. My face feels like it is on fire, and the fans are not helping much. The hot season seems to be starting already, and I am not looking forward to it.

February has begun, and the school situation is still as frustrating as ever. The strikes supposedly ended a couple of weeks ago, but then, the government, in its sneaky way, figured out another way to gyp the teachers out of some money. The ministers augmented the teachers' salaries to end the strike, but they decided not to pay them for the three months that they had striked. By doing this, the ministers actually gained money in the end. The teachers, of course, decided to strike again, or at least, they talked about it. The government changed its mind, said it was a mistake, and promised to pay the teachers the money the next month. We'll see. Some teachers are still striking right now. The vacataires teachers (those not hired directly by the government) have threatened to strike because they have not been paid at all since the beginning of the year, and they have mostly been working, not striking. Some vacataires have striked. The kids are discouraged and unmotivated. The teachers are discouraged and unmotivated. I am discouraged and unmotivated. Note: This has changed since I began writing this entry in early February. The government has since corrected its error and paid the government hired teachers. They have also paid the vacataires teachers at least two months salary, not much considering these teachers have been teaching since October and have not had a paycheck since July, but they are maintaining their faith that they will eventually be paid.

One day last week, I accidently slept through my alarm and was running late to school. I was on a zemidjan, and I passed tons of students on the way. They were not running to make it on time; they were just moseying along as though class started at 9 a.m. instead of 8 a.m. I arrived, and the teachers were chatting around the tree that substitutes as a Teachers' Lounge. No one was in a hurry. I walked into my class, and students were still coming in late at 8:30 a.m. (and getting detention for it, as well!). This is a regular occurrence now. Both teachers and students appear to have forgotten that school starts at 8. No one really cares. This year is certainly different from last.

The year has not been canceled, though, which means it will be prolonged. It also means that the vacation in February will probably be canceled, and the April break may be shortened. We'll see. My school director told me today, though, that since I have been teaching since the beginning, I could still take the vacations if I desire. My mom always comments that I seem to be on vacation here. Well, the truth is: in Benin, like in France, school vacations abound! We are on vacation a lot. This does not mean that we do not work, however.

Speaking of vacations, though...let me tell you a bit about the last one. Sarah and Jeremy, two friends from the States, came to visit. I waited in the airport on December 27th until every last passenger had exited. I was just beginning to panic, when I Sarah comes through the door, and a mysterious man with a video camera in his face films our reunion. Mystery man was Jeremy, Sarah's boyfriend whom I had never met, and who turned out to be a pretty cool guy (Hi, Jeremy!). Over the next twelve days, I tried to show them as much of Benin as possible. We started off at Ganvie, then moved on to Parc Pendjari.

This was my third time to visit Ganvie, but once again, I went by a different route. This time, Sarah, Jeremy, and I climbed into a dugout canoe with a tour guide and a paddler/poler. We used a square sail to help us cross the lake to the stilt town, and a paddle and a pole took us back to shore after the visit. Ganvie was the same: interesting, a bit sad, full of little kids shouting for presents.

The parks was quite fun. Driving around on top of a Land Cruiser is always entertaining, though, isn't it? This time though - Brace yourselves! - I finally saw an elephant!!! It's about time! He was hiding amongst some trees, and we watched his long trunk shake trees, grab leaves, and shove them into his mouth. He was far away, and for such a large animal, blended in quite well. I am planning to put a "Where's the elephant?" photo on this site sometime soon. Stay tuned. Before the trip ended, we also tracked an old, solo elephant quite a long way. It was very exciting, but did not produce results in the end. Elephant dung and footprints was all we saw of that lone ranger.

We swam in the Falls and visited a Tata Somba on the way back to Natitingou. Then, the next day, we headed to N'Dali in hopes of catching a Fulani wedding. We arrived in N'Dali at night and tried to relax a bit before hiking over to the camp. The moon was full, and we almost didn't really need flashlights for the walk through the fields to the wedding site. This ceremony was quite different from the last one I attended. When we arrived, we were surrounded by men, young and old, who begged us to take their picture. The four of us (Cristy came to the wedding as well) were separated from one another, and I distinctly remember standing on my tiptoes, peering over the blue hats and long poles of the Fulani, and calling out for Sarah, wondering where she had gotten lost to and whether she was okay. Eventually, we found Bio, the chauffeur who speaks French, and he led us to a place where we could sit down and wait for festivities to begin.

The drummers rose from their slumber. The women appeared from who knows where. The people began to dance. Sarah, Jeremy, Cristy, and I stood on the outskirts of a circle that surrounded the dancers in such a way that it was almost dangerous to be close to the center. Every once in a while, a man with a stick would come and pretend to beat the people in order to make the circle larger. Sometimes he made contact. We stood back. The men danced, bending at their waist and stomping their feet on the ground in time to the music. The women held their scarves behind them and took little but forceful, pounding steps, spinning in circles. Smiles on their faces. A group of young girls sang to the music on one side. One by one, Sarah, Cristy, and I took our turns in the circle's center, doing our best to imitate the dance. At one point, I found myself taking part in a little skit. I was supposed to be a new bride, and some man was supposed to be my husband. I was completely confused (and a bit worried as well that it might not simply be a skit). The people gave up, though, trying to explain things to me, and I rejoined my place as a spectator.

We got tired and decided to walk back home to take a nap before coming in the morning to see the bride leave. Unfortunately, though, we didn't make it in time the next day. The bride had left, and the guests were taking their tired eyes back home to rest.

Sarah and Jeremy spent the last week visiting Parakou, watching me teach a couple of classes, meeting all my friends, seeing the sites of Ouidah, and shopping for souvenirs. All good things must come to an end, though, and Jeremy filmed us at the airport again. This time we said goodbye.

Just after Jeremy and Sarah left, though, I went to Ouidah for the voodoo holiday on Monday, January 10th. I thought I would be meeting friends there and staying in a village nearby, but sometimes the gods have something else in mind.

I arrived in Ouidah on Sunday. I decided to go directly to the Voodoo Chief's house to see what time the festivities would be starting the next day. I met some kids outside and greeted them in Fon. The next thing I knew I was being led into the house and back to the kitchen area by one of the Voodoo Chief's daughters, a short, stout woman who looked to be in her 40s. By the way, the Voodoo Chief, who I met during my first rainy season, died last March, but the new one has not yet been selected. I sat in a chair and watched women cooking around me. They gutted fish, chopped tomatoes and onions, stirred pate in giant pots. I made them laugh with my Fon. I learned how to say Happy Holiday "Kudo Hué!"

The daughter asked me where I was staying. I said I didn't know, that I had to find my friends. I joked that maybe I would end up staying on the beach if I didn't find them. She said, no, you'll stay here. Her brother, who is around my age, came in and said they would find a place for me. They told me I could leave my stuff there while I wandered around and looked for my friends.

Ouidah was teeming with tourists at this time. The same weekend as the Voodoo holiday Ouidah hosts a film festival called Quintessence. All the films are free. I saw one that strangely took me back to the United States. It was an old animated film about a young boy, Catfish, who goes off to Chicago to become a famous blues singer/guitarist. I didn't intend to see an American film, but oh well.

I wondered down the Slave route toward the beach, and I came across some voodoo feticheurs. What is a voodoo feticheur? I will do my best to explain this, and you will have to forgive me if I make a mistake. In my understanding, feticheur can signify many things. What I saw was some young women who were being initiated, I think, into the religion. They are feticheurs because they incarnate, or become possessed by, various spirits. When the drumming began, the girls, all dressed in white with necklaces and anklets of cowry shells and cowry shells weaved into their hair, began to dance two by two in a double conga line around a tree. Some men ocassionally joined in, and one of them got a little crazy and caused the crowd to run amuck as he began somersaulting around and into the crowd. The spirit made him act this way, someone told me. Some older women guided the girls in their dancing, correcting their steps. I watched this for a while and then headed back into town and to the house.

I never found my friends and decided to take Daty, the voodoo chief's son, up on his offer to find me a place to stay. It was night, and I didn't want to travel to my friend's house in the next village. Plus, I thought it might be interesting to stick around. It was. Daty told me I would stay at his library. He took me over there to put down my things. He had layed out a foam mattress on the library floor for me. He told me that his friend would be downstairs if I needed anything, and he gave me a key so that I could lock the door. Then, he assigned another of his friends, Clement, to walk me around town. I was in awe of the welcome I was receiving, and I felt a little awkward.

Clement and I wandered through the streets. Periodically, we would come upon movie screens set up in squares where people watched some of the festival's films. We found corn porridge for dinner and then made our way back to the chief's house. The partying had begun.

I sat under a blue tent. Women dressed only in wrappers, their shoulders bare, sat around me. In the center of the tent was a circle of musicians and a dance floor. All the women in the tent began to sing and chant. The drummers and shakers kept the beat. One woman led the singing and dancing in the center of the circle. I was an observer in the background, one of only three tourists that I could tell. This is what I had come for. This is what I had stayed for. The celebration. The music. The mystery.

Sleepiness over took me, and I went back and laid down on my mattress in my comfortable little library. The familiar musty smell of books and the rich darkness lulled me into q deep slumber right away.

The ceremonies began the next day with a delegation of people who walked through the street performing various rituals at different sacred voodoo sites around Ouidah and officially inviting some notable people to the festivities. Daty told me to follow the delegation. I quickly realized that Daty must be a pretty important person because he was being called to and fro by various people to arrange things for the day. He and many other people were dressed in the special fabric that had his father's face printed on it. He wore long robes of white and the special fabric was tied around him like a giant sash. He carried a small sack at all times. I later found out that this is where he put his "magic," the charms that were meant to protect him.

I followed the delegation around to the different sites, but I was unable to see much for the tourists who blocked the view with their cameras and video cameras. I was too embarrassed and shy to shove my way to the front. I felt guilty for these tourists who prevented even the locals from participating in their holiday ceremonies. At one site, I found Clement. From then on, he took me around on Daty's moto. I said that I didn't want to be a bother, and he said that he was mine for the day, that Daty had told him that he should look after me! The delegation eventually ended up at the beach near the Point of No Return. Clement found us some good seats, and we watched as the various important people, including the King of Allada whose attendants spun a huge, colorful umbrella-type thing above him as he walked. We listened to some speeches, and I found some of my Peace Corps friends.

Then, there was dancing. Partiers drunk on Sodabe danced to the beat of the drums in circles spread around the beach. We passed from group to group. One of the most impressive groups was made up of women dressed in glorious white outfits. These women looked very rich. Clement said that they were a bit dangerous as they incarnated the mermaid spirit, the mami-wata. Forgive me, but I have forgotten exactly why this is a bad thing. Perhaps this is a good moment, though, to point out that Clement does not practice voodoo. He is a Catholic whose best friend happens to be one of the most important men in the Voodoo religion. I asked Clement if Daty could be the next chief. He said it is a strong possibility, but that Daty does not want the responsability. He said that Daty may not end up being the chief, though, because when Daty was born, the charletan (fortune teller) said that Daty was an extremely important child who occupied a position even grander than that of his father, the chief. Clement said that this might mean that Daty could not be chosen because if he is already more important than the chief, why would he take a step down in rank and become the chief? Who knows? All of it was a bit confusing to me. The important folks, Daty included, sacrificed a goat, and then, later, Daty called us over to sit with some other special folks to receive drinks and sandwiches.

The ceremony at the beach came to a close, and Clement took me back to rest, promising to return later in the afternoon to take me to see Les Revenants, the spirits who come back from the dead.

Before we made it to the Revenant site, Clement and I met Daty at a restaurant, where a party for the voodoo chief's family was going on. After a quick meal of akassa (slightly fermented pate) and jus (a sauce made of oil, tomatoes, and onions), Clement and I went to see the Revenants. I stood with a group of people in front of a short cement wall to watch the ruckus while Clement watched the moto further away. The Revenants in their wild, colorful costumes danced around the circle. Some of them chased people with sticks, causing children and men to run off at top-speed to escape being beaten. Rarely is anyone ever truly beaten, so I thought. Suddenly, an angry Revenant came running towards me and the group on the wall. The wall was behind me, and people were beside me (plus, I thought the Revenant would never really hurt me). I had nowhere to run! The Revenant jumped up on the wall, and the next thing I knew, the man beside and behind me grabbed me, protecting my head, and shouted to the Revenant, "Pardon! Pardon! You must forgive her!!" I was totally freaked out! the Revenant didn't ever beat me with his stick. He jumped down and chased someone else, and the man let me go and told me not to worry, that it was an angry Revenant. Quite exciting!

That night, I lied down on the foam mattress again and tried to sleep, but I soon heard a loud shouting and laughter on the streets below. I thought it was a group of partying men, until I heard the Wooo, wooo, wooo sound of the Oro! The Oro is like a secret voodoo society that only men can take part in. I don't really know much about the Oro, but I do know that when the Oro is out, everyone else must stay hidden inside with their doors and windows shut. If you see the Oro, they will kill you, supposedly. Actually, in some villages, people are still killed by the Oro. I was a little confused, though, in my library. Except for the woo, woo, woo, it sounded like a bunch of guys having fun. Maybe it wasn't the Oro. Curiosity killed the cat. I decided to open the window a crack to see what I saw. I peaked outside and saw nothing, but suddenly heard, "Yovo!" I knew that was intended for me, so I quickly shut the window, double-checked the lock on the door, and jumped back onto the foam mattress with my heart racing. I wanted so badly to run downstairs to find Daty's friend to ask him what to do, but that would require going down the spiral staircase, which was outside and within full site of the Oro. So, I stayed on the mattress and tried to ignore the Woo, woo, woo sounds and fall asleep.

The next day, after some goodbyes and promises to visit Daty and Clement the next time I was in the South (they said they would come to Cotonou for my birthday), I headed back to Cotonou and back to N'Dali, where animism exists under the surface and not out in the streets.
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