Monday, May 23, 2011

home = yenu (in Bariba)

Many of you may have wondered over the holiday season what a typical home in Kerou looks like. In the States we all travelled to grandma’s house to celebrate the holidays, or some of us stayed at home to be with the new family we’d just started.

A typical home here in Kerou is quite different from a one in the States, for many reasons. First, let’s start with the make-up of the household. There is usually one “Poppa.” He is the king of the castle and literally whatever he says goes. There is no real arguing with him. If he says jump, who say how high and how many times. Typically there is one main wife, who would have been the first, and their children. They live in the main house of the courtyard. More than likely, if he can afford it, he has a few children with her. If he’s a well-to-do man he’s invited her parents, as well as his own, to live in one or two room houses that are connected to the same courtyard. Remember, these houses usually do not have bathrooms, nor do they have kitchens. As shown in one of my earlier photos, a kitchens usually consists of three rocks over a fire to hold a cauldren. Most of the houses are made of mud with cement over top of the mud. This isn’t the best construction material as termites LOVE to eat mud and can usually eat through the cement to get to it. But, alas, c’est comme ca. (It’s like that.)

Usually after a few years with the Poppa’s first wife, if he’s finalcially stable enough, and not a Chrstian, for the most part, the Poppa will find another wife. She is usually much younger than he and of the ripe age to have more children. In some instances i’ve seen him marry someone 20 years younger. She had ambition to become a successful woman in the community and unfortunately one of the only ways to do that is to marry someone with clout.

So, now we have one family, let’s call them the “Idrissou’s” and there are the grandparents from both sides, if they’re still alive, the life expectancy here isn’t much higher than 50, a few sisters from either side of the family and their children if their father is absent. (note: men don’t usually support other men as men are to support themselves and as many members of their family who need it, the females and children, that is.) Then he has all of his own children, as well. This can lead to households up to 20 people. Now, don’t think that the Poppa is the only one making any money. For the most part, women do what they can to donate to the cause. Unfortunately most women in Kerou don’t have an education further than sixth grade. Therefore, their aide extends to selling things in the market, becoming a seamstress, and/or if they’re young/pretty enough becoming a bar waitress which usually leads to a bit of prostitution. If there are boys around the house who are of age to go work in the fields, or help out with Poppa’s business, perhaps he’s a mechanic, merchant, or farmer, they are required to do so. It’s not easy for one man to support 20 people. I know I have to use money that i’ve saved from America to help myself and i’m just one guy.

Typically, when a man takes a wife, and he is financially stable enough, he moves into his own house/consession. And, in theory, starts his own concession. (A concession is a group of houses/apartments with a surrounding fence of some sort. In these houses/apartments is where he houses his extended family) In the house there is usually a main salon, with one of two rooms extending off of that. There are no hallswalls, typically between rooms, just doors that lead into other rooms. Most of the time there is only one doorway leading out of the house and that leads into the courtyard. The courtyard is really like a big living space. Because of the extreme temperature, there is usually a large shade tree in the courtyard, underwhich daily life almost always takes place: cooking, dish washing, bathing (if you’re a baby), reading, studying, talking, and just plain old loungin’ around. Trust me, being under a shady tree is the most enjoyable place in Kerou. Yes, it’s stifling hot, but that’s because of the sun. There’s usually a breeze, so when you’ve found an escape from the sun with a breeze, you’re very much so in luck. Under a mango tree right at the end of the hot season might be one of the best places in Benin: you’re out of the sun and you have the most delicious fruit in the world hanging in front of you. Not so bad.

In Kerou, many of the residents are related somehow, literally everyone is a cousin. Big events are quite literally a third of the residents of Kerou. Big family events are things like baptisms, funerals, marriages, and New Years. Men who are financially stable enough are expected to have big parties, kill lots of goats and chickens and provide meals for all of his family and friends. During holidays children from poor families put on their best clothing and walk around from concession to concession dancing and begging for money. In Muslims communities those who have are expected to give to those who haven’t. It’s a community that tries to help others out when it can. Which is a really cool thing. In America we’re reluctant to help others around us sometimes because we feel like we’re getting scammed, we don’t know them, or it’s just not in our nature. Don’t get me wrong, we love to donate, but i feel like it’s sometimes to those who are outside of our community. That being said, this is where faith-based communities really come together. It’s the same here. Those of the same faith help each other out whenever possible.

There are many things about family life in Kerou that are completely different, from the family structure to where you live/eat/bathe. The idea that women aren’t seen has having a career-focused future, to children worked on the farm. But, there are a lot of things that span our two cultures, as well: family support, sharing holidays, and knowing where you call home. I miss mine and am eager to be apart of it once again.

I miss you all deeply and will be in MY HOME very soon.

A Functioning Democracy in Africa

There’s been a lot of upheaval around the world, especially regarding elections. Cote d’Ivoire was engulfed in a multi-month quasi-civil war, Libya has its citizens rising up declaring their desire for a democracy, the same with Egypt. That being said, there are many countries in Africa where democracies flourish, Benin is one of those countries.

As with many things in this country, the election was slow to start and took awhile to actually get up and running. One of the main culprits was a lack of voter registration. The literacy rate in Benin is rather low, and the rate of those with actual identification cards is even lower. This means that registration is impossible for some, difficult for most, The president, Dr. Thomas Yayi Boni, postponed the election to allow the Beninese citizenry to go and get their identification cards after many information campaigns headed be local election officials all over the country. In Kerou, there were lines of interested Beninois that stretched for “blocks” of people who were trying to get their voter registration cards. Ingeniously, the government declared that these registration cards would double as citizen identification cards.

After weeks of postponing and hemming and hawing around, the elections finally took place. In Benin campaigning can only begin two weeks before the election actually takes places. Unfortunately, the voting date got pushed back three or four times. So, the two-week campaign season turned into a month. All throughout the country posters supporting candidates such as Abdoulaye Bio Tchane, Salifou Issa, incumbent Yayi Boni, and Akuavi Marie-Elise Christiana Gbedo proclaiming their unique visions for the future and how they’ll be the ones to take Benin there.

Historically, there are normally two rounds of elections. The first round is for all of the candidates, this year there were 14. After the first round, things are usually whittled down to the top two candidates, who face in a run-off. They usually find some of the candidates who haven’t made it to the second round and create alliances. Then the non-second rounders throw their support behind the second rounders in hopes of garnering influence from the winning candidate and hopefully a position in the new president’s administration. A candidate must get more than 50% percent of the vote to win. This normally doesn’t happen in the first round, with some candidates getting up to 30% and thus needing the support of the other candidates. If during the first round a candidate gets the necessary 50%, there will not be a second round.

This year we had such an event. Yayi Boni, the incumbent, got 54% of the vote in the first round. This is not a regular occurrence and garnered some attention from those of whom did not get enough votes. There were some protests in and around the capital, Porto Novo, and Cotonou, populated by people expressing their discontent with someone from the north; Yayi Boni is Bariba and from the same area and people who have taken me in. Yayi Boni has thus been sworn in as the president of the Republic of Benin.

It was exciting to see how a democracy functions in a culture that is so completely different from my own. In America, it’s taboo to speak of politics and for whom you’ll be voting. Here, you’re encouraged to talk about your feelings and political leanings, as long as they coincide with your heritage and tradition: Muslims are to vote for Muslims, Christians for Christians, Fon for Fon and Bariba for Bariba, et cetera. Having a dissenting view is looked down upon and might evince upbraiding from those closest to you. But, is that really so different from America? Oh, how I’ve been chided by family members for being a liberal. But, I’m surely allowed to vote for whomever I please without fear of reprisal. I’m not so sure that’s the case for my neighbors.

Elections are tricky things. Everyone has an idea about how the country should be led. Everyone is passionate about their feelings. In a democracy there is nothing more important than an election. We’ve seen that sometimes this passion can lead to violence and upheaval, but we’ve also been witness to how democracies are supposed to function: people vote, leaders listen, and the country moves forward. I’m glad Benin is one of those countries.