After visits to 6 or 7 communities in and around Cotonou, Benin, it's time for us to go. We woke up before the sun came up this morning to catch an early flight to Monrovia, Liberia, only to find out at the airport that flight for the first leg of that journey, Cotonou-Accra, Ghana, was cancelled. No word as to why, but we're in transit limbo here so I've got a chance to blog-a-bit. Sadly, there's no rapidair service to Ghana or Liberia from Cotonou, so at this stage, it's not clear when we will be taking off. TIA!
The last couple of days have been an incredible whirlwind with visits with local RTP staff, urban and rural based play programs, local leaders (like a mayor and a king and the pope of voodoo, NBD), but most importantly kids. Kids from Benin are like kids from anywhere - a little shy at first, but easy to break the ice with (various methods, including sharing your sunglasses, high-fives, taking their picture and showing them the screen, goofy dancing, sacred offerings like caramels or a chiclet, any kind of kickable object - ball shaped or otherwise, have all proven effective), once we were all friends the games could commence, and general silliness coupled with an eventual valuable life-lesson would ensue.
Our first stop was Ouidah. As soon as we left the city we abandoned fairly familiar french for local languages like "Foh", with the exception of an occasional "d'accord" or "merci", Foh is impossible to follow along with... I mean, all native African languages are undecipherable for us, but Foh has a particular subtlety that renders my pathetically uni-lingual jaw agape. The kids in Ouidah formed two circles and we played some limbo and sang some songs. The lessons were based on avoiding peer pressure and being a confident leader. The games were meant to be embarassing, so that the older kids would fall on their butts (in limbo, being short is a massive advantage), and the younger kids would help them up. So when I fell on my butt, some younger kids helped me up... and we all high-fived. Then we danced around like goofballs and laughed at eachother and totally forgot that we don't speak the same language. We were speaking fluent goof-ball, so it didn't matter.
Benin was one of the 5 infamous slave trade ports, and there is a monument on the beach where countless men and women were treated like commodities and shipped off to Europe and North America as slaves. We drove down the slave road where men and women in iron shackles were lead and visited the beach called "the point of no return". As we listened to a short presentation by a man who works at the monument I couldn't help but be ashamed of humanity's most atrocious act. I'm glad we live in a world that learns generation by generation. I'm heartened that humanity tends to progress towards a more "human" ideal.
Next we attended a short women's soccer game (game was short, the young women were mostly average height). Most girls ran the full pitch barefoot in higher-than-ankle grass. It was physical and intense, and the girls were excellent technicians. After the game we watched a skit demonstrating a discussion between parents and an adolescent girl about her sexuality. It was an excellent forum for this demonstration - a captive audience of young teens, some community leaders, and the skit was performed by their peers. The parental roles were parodized by hilarious and oversized outfits (they wore their grandad's clothes, they looked incredible). Fun times were had by all!
Off we went to visit the Voodoo pope. I haven't done any research on who exactly we were to meet, but I will say that his house was... interesting, to say the absolute least. We were a little late, so after waiting for a little while outside in our sock-feet (no shoes in the Voodoo pope's house), we were told that the pope wasn't getting dressed for late people, so we left. I would have just as soon stayed on the soccer pitch.
On day 2 we woke up early and jogged on the beach, had a good breakfast of hardboiled eggs, pineapple juice, croissants with nutella-like chocospread and fruit salad. I had two large coffees with breakfast, but I still passed out hard in the van on the 3 hour drive on the bumpiest roads ever. While asnooze I smacked my head on the window so many times I'm almost certainly concussed, though the blurry groggy brain is also thanks to the anti-malarials we're all on. Hoppin' on goofballs!
We drove through the woodsy jungle for hours, and finally arrived at the King's abode. King Agbomansoatin Kponan of Ahouannonzoun is a the secretary general of Renafo, Benin, and he's also a Voodoo specialist of incurable diseases. We attended a kind of debate, or a forum, about child protection. There were speeches and presentations, thanks to RTP Benin's Jean most of it was translated to english or french... but I still may have nodded off once or twice. The king likes to talk! He's the guy in green garb, below. Yeah that's right, I had an audience with the KING. Take a backseat Lebron, this guy is the real deal.
After his speeches the neighbourhood kids put on a great skit about voodoo culture and staying in school. The king has recently made a judgement so that kids can fast track their voodoo initiation, which used to take up to 3 years, down to a week or two, so that they can concentrate on traditional education. He said that science and voodoo are complementary, so the kids need both in their lives to work and be fully developed. On our drive back we stopped for a really brave midday meal, spicy little whole fish on rice with smashed up peppers and Cocacola. I didn't eat the heads, but they were tasty.
Since we had a few hours to kill, CBC's Scott and Mark and I went into the central market of Cotonou to run around and grab some cool shots. I've been to markets in Beijing, Bamako, and crazy crowded places all over... but this was NUTS. You can buy anything. What do you need? Replacement parts for your Yamaha 125? An inflatable swan? A whisky bottle full of cashews? Textiles in every conceivable colour, shade and design? A goat's head? Sugarcane? A flip-phone? stereo equipment? smoked fish? spices, powders, grains and granulated who-knows-what? Yup, they've got it.
We just got some news... Ghana has granted us Visas for tonight and tomorrow, so we're leaving Benin now and staying overnight in Accra, and flying to Monrovia tomorrow.
My only problem is I have 0 blank pages left in my passport, so it better not be more than a stamp-visa, or I'm staying in the airport overnight. I need a new passport when I get home!
We're off, check back soon!
**UPDATE** Our flight to Accra went to Abidjan instead. I was keen to go to the Ivory Coast, but we decided as a team to go to Monrovia tomorrow... so I'm going swimming.