A Day in the Life of a Project and other tales

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

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Flag of Benin  ,
Sunday, April 17, 2005

This morning I woke up early, felt as though I hadn't really ever fallen asleep. Stephen shifted in the bunk above, causing my bed to creak and shake. I sighed, closed my eyes and tried to shut out the sounds and follow my breath, regain my sommeil. A few minutes later my watch alarm beeped my eyes open again, and I reached over to turn it off. 6:45 a.m. Too early. I contemplated telling Ibourahima I couldn't come today. A lump of fatigue lodged in my throat. I forced myself out of bed, woke up Stephen who wanted to get an early start to Nattitingou, and went to wash my face, get dressed, and eat something in the 15 minutes before I would have to climb onto a moto and go.

I sat like a zombie at the breakfast table, staring at the bookshelves, eating my little muffin cake, waiting. Waiting for the sound of a moto that would signal me to officially start the day. The cake turned to paste in my mouth, and I drank some water. Stephen came in to ask me for change to pay for his stay, and I got up to get it for him, missing the moto's roar at the same time. Patrice, the guard, came in to get me, and I went outside.

Ibé sat all bundled up in his yellow brown coat and surgical mask (to block pollution) on his moto patiently waiting as I sludged out of the gate. "You still have sleep in your eyes," he said, and I smiled in return.

"Yes. I couldn't sleep last night. Too many people were coming in and out of the room. The bass of the music was going boom, boom, boom," I replied.

I pulled on my sweatshirt and helmet and climbed onto the motorcycle. We took off, chatting a bit as we drove out of town. Just before we hit the first gendarme stop just outside of Parakou, the temperature of the air changed dramatically. The chill of the countryside. I crossed my arms to my chest and hunched a little closer to Ibourahima.

We were silent, taken in by the cold and the beauty of the morning. The sun was rising to our right. The landscape was a sea of browns and yellows, pale greens and dull reds. There was a haze in the air, and when we passed through the villages, I could smell the cooking fires. The smoke stung my eyes. Old and young women sat on the sides of the road stirring giant pots - marmites - with big wooden paddles. Others put pestle to mortar, pounding yams for the morning meal. Sometimes I put my visor down to block the pollution when big trucks passed by.

I saw Ibé looking off to the left, and I asked him why. He was looking out for a pond off in the distance. "There are two on this route," he said. "Remember the one I showed you last week?"

I did. He had said that he would love to start a garden project during the dry season with some women who live near the ponds. During the hot season vegetables are hard to come by. The women would be able to sell them at double or triple the price and have a good income during the worst period of the year.

Ibé began to slow down, and I shook myself out of my thoughts. I saw the pink church off to the right and knew that we had arrived in Kakara. We pulled off the road and parked in the courtyard. Not a courtyard that you would imagine. A Beninese courtyard. Mud brick houses to the left and right. Two goats - one that was very very pregnant - butting heads. Some chickens running around. A young girl bent over sweeping the dirt, the swish swish of her broom, a collection of skinny reeds bound together with a piece of torn cloth, lifting dirt into the air. Dirty, naked children giggling and chasing one another. Some old machine parts lay on the ground to the left under a mango tree. Cooking pots. Mortars. Buckets. Firewood.

We arrived at 8 a.m., and none of the women were there. Back in October, they would be waiting at the table for us, but today, the table had not even been set up outside. The women all seemed to have lost their momentum to do the moringa project and accounting sessions since we all took a break so that they could harvest the cotton. The cotton that still sat in fluffy piles on the side of the road, in fields, next to houses. The price of cotton had dropped, and as a result, production had not yet begun for the year. The government had been negotiating between the gins and the farmers about subsidies and prices. The gins couldn't pay the farmers as much because they would not be able to make as much on the world market. The farmers, however, didn't want to sell for less than usual, as it is their main source of income for the year. Thus, the cotton sat waiting, and the gins had already begun losing money as a result of production being delayed.

Ibé and I walked toward the market to find the women. We found one woman on the side of the road gathering pate (the white paste) into patties and putting them into a bowl. We sat down on a bench nearby and waited for her to finish. As soon as she did, she left to go get her notebooks for our accounting session and to look for the other women.

I told Ibé to tell me a story to keep me from falling asleep. He laughed and said, "That's for children."

I said, "No, we tell children stories so that they will fall asleep. Me, I need a story to keep me awake!"

I watched the weaver birds flitting in and out of their nests in a tall tree across the road. When I had been with Maman Rayane to Ibourahima's parents' house in N'Dali, she had told me that a house that had weaver birds was a joyful house, but that when the joy left the house, the birds did as well. Ibé's parents' house had tons of weaver birds in their trees.

We began to talk about names, and Ibé told me he was a Bariba prince (one of hundreds, I assure you), and that he had a prince name. He told me about his naming ceremony.

He was ten years old for the ceremony, but the age isn't significant. A prince or princess could be anywhere from 6 to 80 to go through the naming ceremony, but the younger the better, according to Ibé. He was not the only one getting named that day. Many of his brothers and sisters, as well as children from other families, were getting named on the same day in the little village of Sérou near Sinendé. The Wazam, or barber, shaved Ibé's head bald, except for a little tuft of hair in the front where a widow's peak might be. He walked on all fours across the yard to where an old old woman called Kirikou sat. "Kirikou is the gardien of the power of the king," he said. "She is in direct contact with certain fetishes who the king adores, and the king must pass through her to communicate with these spirits."

Kirikou touched Ibé's head and said some blessings while chewing a kola nut. After the blessings, she announced to the public that Ibé would now be called Zimé and put a bit of the chewed kola on his tuft of hair. Then, Ibé proceeded on all fours to another person who explained the significance of Zimé, naming the people in Ibé's family who had been named Zimé before him and their glories and failures. The person incited Ibé to do better than those who passed before him and not to commit their same errors. At the end, the wazam shaved off the tuft of hair. "Before doing this ceremony, you should never have completely shaved your head," Ibé explained. "But after the ceremony, you can."

Ibourabima said that most people are called by their prince name after the ceremony but that he wasn't because his parents hadn't put it on his birth certificate and didn't want to confuse the authorities at schools and such. He would be called Ibourahima rather than Zimé, and this always upset him a bit. He preferred Zimé to Ibourahima. As a result, he and his wife consulted their parents as to what their son Rayane's prince name should be before they filled out the paperwork for the birth certificate. Rayane's prince name, Gounou, is already on there, and he can be called by it after the ceremony.

One of the women walked by again clutching a bag carrying her notebook, and we followed her back to the courtyard where the moto sat. We stopped to look at the small moringa field behind the house. The fence had burned down in a brush fire, and the moringa plants were nothing more than sticks in the ground. Anything that might grow on them would be quickly eaten by goats or other animals, so the women had stopped watering the plants until the fence could be fixed. Ibourahima and I sighed and groaned in frustration. The women had not repaired the fence and seemed not to be in a hurry to do so.

Moringa is a highly nutritious tree that grows very fast and can be harvested within the first six weeks. Its leaves can be transformed into a powder that contains an enormous amount of protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, and other vitamins and minerals. Other parts of the tree can be used as well. Our project included introducing this plant into the community by way of the woman's group in hopes of combatting malnutrition and generating income for the women.

The president of the woman's group pulled a table and benches outside, and we sat down to wait a little more. When at least three women were there, we decided to get started on the second part of our project. Ibourahima started to review the last lessons with them. They were learning an accounting technique for illiterates that uses small pictures of the bills and coins combined with some simple tally marks to keep track of earnings and expenses. The women had been very excited and motivated about this project in October, but getting started again was rough. Perhaps they were depressed about the cotton problems.

During most of the lesson, I sat listening to Ibé and the women talk in Bariba. When the practice part of the lesson began, I threw some money onto the table and indicated to one of the women that she should note it down in her notebook. She sought the appropriate columns, using the pictures at the top, and made the tally marks. I corrected her, and then, we began the process again. Not long after we had begun the lesson, it was time to leave. We had to be in Warikpa by 10:30 at the latest. I gave the women my special clap to congratulate them on the work they did, and we climbed back on the moto again to head over to Warikpa, two villages away.

In Warkipa, much of the same routine happened. We waited for the women to finish their morning work and join us under the mango tree for the lesson. As the women sat working with Ibourahima, I watched the scene around us. Children sat on the dirt nearby playing with rope-like reeds and singing. Sometimes one of them, a little boy, would waddle up to his mother and tug on her crying until she popped her breast out of the top of her blouse for him to suck, all the while listening to lesson. A very dirty child slept in the lap of another woman as she hunched over the table to work.

An old woman sat next to the tree trunk across from me. She was making yarn in the traditional way. In one hand, she held a stick that had cotton on it, and I immediately figured out why cotton candy is named as such. A part of me wished I could pull some of the cotton off and pop it into my mouth. On the ground in front of her was a small spindle with a fat top on one end. The top sits on a bowl with thread wound around the bottom of a long stick. The whole apparatus looked like the Jewish dredle (is that the name?) game piece. She used this stick to make the thread. She dipped her fingers into a bowl of ash nearby. Her nimble fingers spun, and the thread wound up and down the spindle stick before she wrapped it around the ball at the bottom. Then she began again, taking some white fluff from the cotton candy stick at the top and working it between her fingers, up and down like a dance, before massaging it onto the spindle stick below.

One of her eyes didn't work properly. Her face was wrinkly. She wore a pink blouse and an orange headscarf with ends that hung down like a gypsy's. She had gold earrings and one gold bracelet on each arm. A black necklace hung off-center on her neck. She pursed her lips in concentration as her rough hands worked up and down, testing the thread every once in a while to see if she had done good work.

With a gleam in her eye, she called me over to give it a shot. She showed me how to dip my fingers in the ash, and I tried. And failed. I laughed, along with the rest of the women and Ibourahima, as she took the thread that I had made and easily broke it. Ibourahima said, "She wants to show you what you made isn't strong enough." Thanks for pointing out the obvious. You try it next time, buster.

The women of Warikpa had also suffered with their moringa field. The field had flooded because it was too close to a small watering hole that grew into a pond when the rains came, but the women had stopped taking care of the field even after the flood subsided. They, too, seemed to lack motivation.

Ibourahima and I left Warikpa discouraged, wondering whether or not we would ever be able to get the women on track again. We rode back to Parakou in silence for the most part. The sun had begun to heat up the day, and by now, I was fully awake. The straw-covered mud huts, naked children, and Fulani cow herders colored the landscape on the way home.


Note: I wrote this back in January during one of my visits to the villages. Just to give an update. The project has continued to be discouraging. We are still doing all we can to boost the women's motivation level, but it hasn't been easy. On another note, the cotton farmers finally managed to sell their cotton, for the most part; however, some private gins decided not to buy this year, including the one in N'Dali. My neighbor who works at the cotton gin said that the production would have started so late that the gin would have ended up losing money in the end. In fact, it wasn't worth the cost of getting the gin up to full production power for the short amount of time that they would have to produce the cotton, and then, they wouldn't make much money anyway due to the drop in prices in the market. A journalist recently wrote an article specifically about the cotton industry in Benin and published it in one of the major economist/financial magazines in the states (the name escapes me). For those who want more info, the article is very interesting and would be worth a quick search on the internet.
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