Ode to West Africa

From the humid coastline and ports to the drier muslim north, West Africa is a wonderful sweep of iconic African land. Traditions reveal themselves in feasts, music, food and their mysterious world of magic and spiritism. Most people identify themselves with countries, for example, they will say that they are Malians or Togolese, suggesting that one success of post-colonial heritage has been national identity in countries where boarders were stupidly drawn by Europeans across longstanding ethnic boundaries. That said, the tragic conflict in Ivory Coast in 2011 and subtle mistrust always present underneath social relations suggests that ethnicity remains hugely significant and never forgotten.
Well, I am not going to write a whole essay on West Africa, there are books on that. Here some of my favorite stuff:

1.Babies

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2. How girls and women carry entire boutiques on the head

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Eggs!!

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These women are walking stores, you stop them and choose. Once we saw two walking together (obviously friends among themselves): one with bras and the other one with panties. On the street.

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Carrying water from the source to the house, typical of this region

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Plastics anyone?

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3. My classes at school. Sometimes in small groups, sometimes treasure hunts, sometimes research, films, sketches, comics, letters, small competitions, sometimes figure-it-out, and when they behaved bad (almost never to be honest)… dictation with my horrible accent

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4. Culture displays

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Voodoo dance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Moving day: on s’en va!

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I think I had already written that the best things here are always hanging from the trees: either a delicious fruit or beautiful clothes!

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Neighbourhood chief

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Villages (Cotonou was not like this)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5. Pagnes and matching dressing for identity purposes

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Choose your design, there are plenty for all tastes and needs

 

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4 sisters: 2 who graduated and the other 2 who attended the ceremony

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Feast of Mary at the school where I worked, where all the teachers and students left the uniforms aside for the day and dressed in the same pagne (different designs though)

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For funerals we also make clothes with the same pagne

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Funerals

 

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First communions – with the godparents

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Identifying your kids in a crowded place might be easier if they are all dressed in the same pagne

 

6. Children

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7. The beach

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on dance

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Tim 4,7)
I fought the most beautiful battles in West Africa and I thank God. Now I go back home in peace.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mali

Mali means “hippopotamus” in the local language.

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Its capital, Bamako, means “river of crocodiles”. True that the Niger river crosses it as the lifeline of the zone, but there are no more crocodiles there.

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The sisters have a veeery big school. Big in size and in dimensions. Their house is big too. Everything is big there so the air will flow as it gets pretty hot.

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School grounds… big

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The bedrooms also have very high roofs and
2 doors for the air to circulate

Bamako is small, brown but still with a lot of vegetations and the sweetest watermelons I have ever tasted in my life. A bit more north we have the Sahel where the Islamist problem is now and then passing Timbuktu are the Sahara sand dunes.

Malians are more reserved than the other West Africans I have met, but when it is about dancing, they don’t hold back! Specially the grandmothers!!

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We all die

Last year was the year of babies. This year has been the year of funerals. We have counted in total 7, just in the past month we have attended two and one is coming for the next week, all of them parents of my colleagues.

Death is quite a symbolic happening here, where cultures mix and spirits are well present (or chased away, the bad ones that is). First of all the person dies and he or she stays at the morgue for about 3 weeks until the family gets around the logistics of the celebrations, and the ones far away find their way to the family home. In those 3 weeks heads are braided and clothes are made because the family chooses a pagne for the celebrations. So all the family and close ones wear the same print of pagne (the local cloth) but each their own different design.

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Then we start with the vigils, usually three: one that will include a mass from the religion the person was, one that is music-food-chatting with the cadaver there in a very nicely decorated bed-table (usually at the family home), and one only for the close ones when they do all the voodoo rites to the casket and cry together.

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Then we have the burial day. There is a mass with the casket, the eulogy is said, and at the end all the family goes to the back and enter the church dancing African style. When they arrive to the casket they dance for the casket. Well, for the person inside the casket. It is their last dance for the person in there. That part is very moving, I always have to hold the tears back when watching the people dance to their moms and dads and sisters and grandmas there. Then the guests do the same but much more briefly, one or two moves and you continue your way back to your sit.

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At the cementery only the very close family goes, so I have never gone to one. But instead, we go to where the party is going to be. And man they are parties! Usually in a school playground, they install carps, chairs, tables, and depending on the economic means of the family you either get a small bag with a sandwich and an orange, or you get a three selection buffet meal with wine and sodabi (local palm alcoholic drink that will burn all your throat at the first sip). Music of course and a real celebration. And all the people wearing the same pagne, it is pretty colorful.

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Now, there are people who defend the big-death-party tradition as a celebration of the life of the deceased person. There are others who think that the family should have used that money instead to either buy medicines for the person if he/she was sick or to come and visit him/her more when he/she was alive. For others it is a matter of showing off, for others is an opportunity to find comfort in their loved ones. Same as back home, human nature when it comes to important life events (deaths, births, marriages or celebrations) same as the African pagnes, come in all shapes and colors.

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But it doesn’t finish there! If you gave a bit of a financial contribution to the family, you will get a souvenir: most likely a plastic bowl or some kind of house/kitchen utensil with the picture and death information of the deceased person. In plastic so no matter how many times you wash it, you will forever see it.

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And then if you are lucky, the family will invite you to see the album and the DVD (if they paid for it) of all those moments. It is a very intimate moment because all the brothers/sisters/the widow/grandchildren are there re-living those moments and gossiping a bit also: “look! Cousin Luc came from Parakou!” “and look at Gilda, she has really gained weight!” “ohhhh look at Marie, how nice of her of having come after 2 days of having given birth” “Uncle Jean has really aged, hasn’t he?” from time to time one or two will drop a tear in re-listening the eulogy or the homily through the video and then when they see you it is like if a super star has appeared on TV: “Looooook!!!!! LOOK!!!! There you are!!!!!! Ahhhhh there you are!!!!! YOU WERE THERE!!” of course I was there.

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Being Mexican, the day of the deaths is my favorite cultural feast. Having taught the class of 1ere this school term, our program was: Bio-ethics and the value of human life. All these funerals and celebrations of deaths and lives have made me reflect on how different and how similar we are. We Mexicans and Canadians don’t dress in the same print of clothes, we don’t do voodoo rites to our deaths, we don’t do dance procession at church or giveaways with the face of our loved ones printed on them. But same as Africans we have a very deep appreciation for the importance of marking a change in the life of a family, of supporting each other in times of sorrow, and of keeping up appearances. Despite secularization, these life events reconnect our physical and social beings with the spiritual bits of ourselves, making us feel more human. At the end of the day no matter how we dress, where we live, what we eat, to which god we pray or to which rhythms we dance to, we all try to live the best of our life and then we all die. All the same

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No electricity

I saw this illustration going around in Facebook and I laughed… it is our life here.

coupure de courante

Wikipedia: “I know it all”
Google: “I have it all”
Facebook: “I know everybody”
Internet: “Without me, you are nothing”
Electricity: “Ha ha… keep talking…”

In Cotonou, economic capital of Benin, right now in rainy season, we have electricity 4 nights a week.Benin, despite all it natural resources, doesn’t produce its own electricity (hint for the intl community: much better idea than building school buildings where there are no qualified teachers for populating them), so it buys “residual electricity” from Ghana, Nigeria and I believe even Togo next door. As its name says it, residual electricity is what the other countries have left. Now, that is not really true because many remote places in those countries don’t have electricity themselves, but I guess it is a way of saying that they sell us what they want.

Sometimes it is not enough so the Benin has to manage it: some neighbourhoods get electricity some hours of the day, other neighbourhood some other hours, some like ours without any important political figures or a lot of complainy expats, 4 nights a week we are completely without electricity and many long hours during the day too.

fete de corriger_en la oscuridadMonica grading exams at candlelight… no, not romantic. At all.

This is really annoying not only because the fan don’t work at night (believe me, I have sweated my weight in transpiration entire nights), but during the days you cannot use computers, at the school the photocopy machine doesn’t work, we cannot charge cellphones, productivity really decreases. Even in the middle of the day, keeping the students awake in this heat with no fans… I want to fall asleep on my table together with them.

Well, funny enough, I would like to continue writing about the electricity situation here, but as if it had heard (or read) me, it was just cut so my modem and computer will soon shut down… I better finish here… for now.

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Malaria and culture

I am writing this recovering from my latest malaria…. Malaria has a pretty bad reputation worldwide and with enough reason: last year it killed around 438,000 people according to the WHO, so I don’t underestimate the illness. But what I want to write about is how the local culture weights into its perception and into its treatment as well.

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You get malaria,(or paludisme), if you are bitten by a female infected mosquito. Those mosquitos wake up at night, so sleeping under a mosquito net is the best way to prevent it, and since it is treatable, anybody who has got it should start treatment as soon as possible. Failure to do so is what heightens the risk of death.
Malaria here in West Africa is almost like a cold in the West: everybody gets it a few times a year. The sympthoms include headaches, fever, weakness and nauseas. “I was down with palu” is a very commonly heard phrase, which means, the person was one week in bed recovering. Same if the treatment is 3 days long, it takes a full week to regain the full strength. It is incredible what a minuscule mosquito can do to us humans!

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This is the campagin poster that you see around for
sleeping under mosquito nets

For the longest time the West thought that access to treatment and to mosquito nets were the key to decreasing malaria deaths. However, I have discovered that it has a lot to do with local beliefs and education (or lack of). For example, in villages and remote areas, if a baby is bitten and starts developing fever, the parents will assume that a bad spirit has possessed the kid and they will bring it to the local witch. The witch will do whatever he or she does, but most likely will not help.

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Day 5-6 with fever of 40 C, the parents decide to organize themselves and go to the closest clinic to see if the “white people medicine” does something, but in most cases it is too late, the kid dies because small babies cannot resist fever of 40 Celsius for all those days. Several babies died in my arms in the rural Ivory Coast community where we were in this same story. So the access and the treatment are there, and the WHO provides it free to isolated communities, but it is up to the people to choose it. However, outside urban centers, there is still A LOT of mistrust of anything coming from “the white people” including the theory that malaria comes from a mosquito bite and has nothing to do with evil spirits.(What do we know about evil spirits?)

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Little by little however (very slowly) the culture is changing and education is spreading about the scientific roots of malaria.

IMG_8104This is the malaria test: One drop of blood where “A” is and after a few minutes: 1 line (T) means no malaria, 2 lines (C) means malaria.

On the bright note, I was quickly diagnosed and sent to bed almost immediately (not that I had energies for anything else) with tablets, no perfusion. What an overwhelming surprise the amount of people who has brought me food! My little fridge is full as it has never been and I have the table and two chairs full of fruits and vegetables of all kinds. They don’t even knock on the door, they leave it by the door (as they know you are most likely sleeping) or if they come in they just to say: “Im leaving this in the kitchen”. One of my colleagues who has a washing machine came to take all my linens and the clothes that I soaked in sweat to wash them in the machine. Even my students would leave a couple of mangoes or a pineapple hanging from my door knob with little notes of: “get well soon madame”, “eat even if you are not hungy to recover your energies and come back to teach us” awwwwwwww.

IMG_8109This is my friend Edith. You can see the perfusion in her hand, so I would go to keep her company at the hospital. Clinics here are quite sober, but also quite permissive, I would lie down with her and we would watch videos in youtube together…

Being sick is different here. And speaking of malaria, I guess these people have endured it since their childhoods so they know perfectly that they need each other to overcome the illness. Or just to get by with it. It is something I would have expected maybe from my close family but never from outsiders. And this week it has brought a great joy to my heart. Solidarity with your neighbor (or your colleague or your friend or your teacher) when sick is something the world can learn from West Africa.

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Gourmand pleasures in West African food

The food in West Africa is GOOD. The geography has blessed the south part of the region with sea access (lots of seafood), tropical weather (lots of fresh fruit and vegetables) and a French heritage.

By default the main dish here will include: 1) your carbs, 2) your sauce, and 3) your meat/fish. And mostly all the food is eaten from the same plate by all the people eating together, and with the hand.

In the Ivory Coast one of the main dishes is the Futu Banane: You cook manioc (which is a root) and banana. Then you “pile” them in the pilon until they become a dough. You add the meat of your preference cooked in the sauce of your preference and voila. It will have the sweetness of the banana, which balances very well the spice of your sauce.

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In Benin its cousin is the Igname Pile. The Igname is a root, and it is also “piled” in the pilon, but it is much harder and it usually takes at least 2 women to do the job. In some places or for party days, you will see 5 or 6 (babies included on the back as the picture shows) in duty. It is very hard! My hands were full of blizters after just trying once.

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Here is some fancy igname pile with peanut sauce. I love peanut sauce.

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People in the Ivory Coast eat a lot of snails. They fry them and add them to the sauce. Or in brochettes. Crabs are not difficult to find either and they are a staple in the region.

Issia (5) Snails at the market

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P1070016This is a pretty bad-ass looking crab don’t you think? I am not even sure it is a crab, the madame insisted it was… me, I just took the picture and left as soon as possible.

Food is very easy to find. It either comes from either the head of somebody no matter where you turn…

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The market…

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Your garden…

aguacates(One night we asked our gardener for ONE avocado for the next morning… and when we open the door the next day this is what we found by it)

Here by the coast fish is everywhere: in lakes, rivers, and the sea. The fishing industry is underdeveloped so it is mostly done in the traditional way. Here Monica tried once but after entangling herself in the net three times in row, she left Salif do it on his own

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It is better to leave it to the experts

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Here the people pulling the net from the sea. They sing a very particular song that tells them how and when to pull. Sometimes there is a kid next to them with the drum keeping the beat.

 

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Fish is mostly eaten grilled or fried (with sauce and your carbs)

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This is Pirron, made of manioc flour, with fish and tomato sauce

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This is fish with legume sauce, fried plantain and a ball of akassa: a fermented corn dough steamed.

Pause in the local foods for a moment and we move on for a moment to the breads. As I said there is an extensive heritage of French, if not cuisine, bakery for sure.

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Baguettes, you can find anywhere and they are 30 cents of Cdn dollar. The sisters provide professional training in bakery of baguettes and sweet bread (boulangerie and pattisserie) given their demand.

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A few of my colleagues and I took a french bakery course last year in the school where I teach with Madame Blanche: she is the queen of bakery. It was fun! and I learned to make brioches, croissantes, puff pastry, five different kind of cakes and crepes, it was fun.

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Here is Mme Blanche explaining the technique. but even more fun is when the school students have their practical exams and I am invited to “judge” when Mme Blance has already eaten too many samples… (here in the picture she is saying: they are all horrible! and writing very low notes)

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Even though myself, I would give them 20/20!

And then we also have the street version of Donkin Donuts:

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A quarter of Cdn dollar will buy you 6, they are so good!

Kitchens are very different here. What amazes me the most is that, most of them don’t have running water or electricity. This is a regular kitchen:

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We cook on gas little tanks what can be done quickly:

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But most is done on charcoal:

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And the resourcefulness of the people here is incredible. So one morning I went 6am to the house of the Mme Yvonne, the lady who runs the school cafeteria. She prepares everything at her home and brings it everyday in coolers to the school. No running water, no electricity and no refrigerators either. And the school has 1000 students and 100 profs/admin staff. Same if not everybody eats cafeteria food, a very good chunk do. And why wouldn’t they? The food is so good and so well prepared! I do. For 75 cents of Canadian dollar I have my very good lunch everyday. Make it 85 cents to include pineapple or lemon juice.

So  here behind the scenes of preparing a Tuesday meal for the school cafeteria:

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The kitchen. Outdoors.

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Many pots cooking good stuff: rice, beans, sauces… all on charcoal

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Mme Yvonne preparing the Kom to steam. The Kom is typical from Togo, it is a dough made of fermented corn. Since there are no steamers here, you fill half of the pot with corn husks , add water, a layer of plastic cloth. Close the pot and voila your african steamer that works to perfection. On charcoal.

Here is a picture of kom:

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And one of my girls eating it at the school…. with the hand:

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Back to Mme Yvonne’s kitchen, here is her assistant rinsing the rice. These women do everything bended on the floor, as if there were no tables in this world, they are incredible: cooking, washing clothes, dishes…

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And when everything is finished, it goes to the coolers to be taken to the school and served to the hungry students:

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Now to finish this deliciuos entry on delicious food, I leave you with the how-to of one of my favorites: ABLO. The ablo are little “cakes” made of rice and wheat flour, sugar, yeast and water. You eat them with fried mini-fish and chili paste. Again the combination of the slightly sweet ablo balances perfectly the very spicy chili paste.

So we start where we should, in the kingdom of Ablo: Come.

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Come is a small city between Cotonou and the Togolaise border. It is famous for the ablo. Almost everybody traveling on that highway stops to buy Ablo. Many women with the ablo baskets and fish come running to the cars to offer their products. It reminds me so much of Mexico…

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So first you mix the ingredients in a bowl. If you are doing a large production like the women in Come, you migh need instead a basin

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The secret of the ablo apparently is in the mixing. My friend says her mom will oblige to their family’s cravings for ablo with the condition that they do the mixing. Wooden spoon is optional.

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Since pampered chef hasn’t arrived yet to Cotonou, they use soda cans as molds. Cut in two with a linen of plastic at the bottom.

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You fill the molds

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While you are filling, you get “the oven” started. Here is another way of steaming if you are doing massive productions. So this oven is a sheet of aluminium bended in a circle with an aluminium bucket inside full of water and a metal grid on top. The wood heats the water, the water evaporates and the steam goes up.

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So you place your sheet of ablos, and then 3 cans of tomato sauce to make a second floor

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You cover and in 15 minutes your ablo is ready to enjoy!

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When you are in Come, you go to a restaurant where you buy your drinks and the women who walk around the streets with the ablo on their heads come to offer you some, followed by a younger girl who has the selection of fish/shrimps to choose from:

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And then they go to look for new clients, leaving you to enjoy a wonderful meal, while their husbands are probably fishing or harvesting the ingredients to making it happen.

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In this area of the world, food is a social affair in all the senses: everybody eats from the same plate, a whole family works to make your meal happen… food at the end of the day, in all the corners of the world, brings people together.

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Bon appetit!

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Togo

Togo is the country next door to Benin to the left. The kingdoms of Benin, back in the days, came actually from Togo. 7.5 million people, small country.

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Former german colony, they left wonderful infrastructure (up to today the bridges that are still there: built by the germans… the roads that are still there: german too) and a big selection of very good beer (contrary to Benin that only has La Beninoise and it is not that good really…)

cerveza castel     cerveza eku

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cerveza beaufort

Beaufort makes me laugh because its billboards are like, at the top of the Everest… in a country where almost no family has a refrigerator at home. You turn around and see nothing like that… still is a good memory of my dear Canada, especially now in wintertime.

In the past 2 months I have crossed twice to Togo: One to the north and the other one to Lome, the capital on the south coast. The northern border is almost a joke… a piece of cord hanging from one side to the other, a sleepy officer and two hens crossing back and forth. Ah! but they reclaim their 20,000 francs for visa and fill all your information by hand in dusty yellow double-linned notebook pages. Need to use the washroom? Literally: behind the tree.

a_camino de ida (7)Togo-Benin border

e_regresoCustoms office

Well, last month we went North of Togo to a celebration and did we celebrate! Drums drums drums non-stop day and night, lots of color and smiles and good food!

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As most homes don’t have running water, your hosts will bring you a pitcher TO YOUR SIT, so you can wash your hands. Since we eat with the hands here, they are always clean!

The North of Togo is semi-arid with a heavy muslim population. The traditional houses are called tatas and they are made of clay with palmtree roofs, very stereotypical. Usually they come together with a topless woman or several naked children running among the goats.

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LOME is the capital city on the south coast. It is small and charming. Well traced (germans, again) and much more organized in all senses than Cotonou (germans? vs french… probably yes)

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Lome street

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The main boulevard is ON the seafront.

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Then we have Togoville, which is about 45 mins from Lome. There is a La Salle school and my friends work there. Togoville is a small town, next to a lake, you have to cross in a pirogue to arrive. My pirogue was called Titanic… I should have taken a picture

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Togoville is the craddle of Togo voodoo, and in the moment you descend your pirogue, the gigantic fetiche greets you welcome

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(That burned grass infront: some kind of sacrifice-offering)

And then as you continue walking around the small town, you find the smaller fetiches greeting you along the way. A bit creepy for an outsider of the voodoo tradition as me.

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Well, the school is fetiche-free and super big! They have with no doubt the biggest sport facilities around, and they share them with the community during the weekends. There is a boarding home for boys and another for girls who come from other places to study to this school. Here the 2 kids (15 years old and look at that height!) who were my welcome committee:

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Togoville is also well known by its Marian Sanctuary (where voodoo and catholicism meet): Notre Dame du Lac – a beautiful church with a shrine there for Mary overseeing the lake. Did I mention that Togo means “By the lake” (this lake).

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And sad as I was to leave beautiful Togo behind, I was consoled by the inevitable stop at Come (a Beninoise city between Lome and Cotonou) famous for its ablo… to eat ablo. But ablo and other food charms in another post.

 

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Resilience and the value of human life

For my friends who speak Spanish, here is a very good documentary (20 mins) from the rural mission in Duekoue, Ivory Coast where I first arrived last year. It is a good reminder of resilience and the value of human life.

Thank you to Padre Carlos, my dear friend and my accomplice there, who sent it to me as soon as it was ready. I miss our coffees together.

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Comings and goings

This year I’m not living with the nuns anymore which is nice. I go out more and I cook my own food. I was lazy about walking 20 mins there and back, but it has been very nice! In the mornings I fully wake up while I see the mamas (babies on the back and everything) setting the tables for whatever they sell on the road.

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Boiling up the cutlery to start the day with clean spoons

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Madmoiselle having breakfastMademoiselle having breakfast

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Children going to school

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Carrying water from the well

On the evenings the 20 mins walk back becomes 45-50 mins because it is a never-ending chat with absolutely everybody about how was your day. And no polite:”how was your day”-“fine thankyou” no no no… Juicy details are expected: lows, highs, people involved, whys, whens, hows, hopes for tomorrow and a few compliments for the little kids around who greet you as if there was no tomorrow. Very different than the walks from work to home in Canada.

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Madame who sells me sugar and soap

And if you dont take even a few mins to stop and chat with mama, ohhhhhhh you will hear about it the next day: “you were angry yesterday” with these offended eyes they give you. “I was in a hurry” and “I was not in the mood to greet every single person on the road” are not known reasons here. They just dont exist, and therefore lack all validity. (in a hurry? Who is EVER in a hurry here? Nobody).

IMG_7048Madame who sells me fruit

IMG_7052Dorine who says goodbye to me every afternoon when I leave the school (her mom sells water at the school portal)

IMG_7057The Beninoise version of donuts: always a temptation
on the walk back home

  IMG_7056Tatiana and Gladys, busy on their sewing machines as they are, they always have a smile to send me home with: Bonne nuit!

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Need to be crazy to experience art and depth to this level

“Oasis of Love” is a centre for Mental Health Aid in Calavi, a suburb of Cotonou. I was not sure what to expect and what a surprise to enter and see color and life everywhere.IMG_6984

Sylvain welcomed us, he is a French man who has been supporting Gregoire for a while already. Gregoire? A regular Beninoise citizen who saw there was a need and opened a centre to support the mentally ill.

Sylvain is psychiatrist and artist. Together. So he blends his two passions to run the centre’s programs. He explained that typically the mentally ill pass up to 20 hours a day sleeping because of the medications, but also poor nutrition, neglection and other factors in the same line. Their aim at the centre is that they sleep the regular 8 hours a day and occupy the rest of their time in good stuff. Their definition of good stuff? Art.

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So the weekly schedule is full. It includes:

  • Sports, games, corporal expression (lots of: imagine I am like a bird… everybody open your wings… etc)
  • Knowledge of the world, the arts, the religions, different cultures, rights and obligations, ecology

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A sculpture of Mami-Watti (the spirit of the waters in the West African Folk Tradition) hanging from the workshop roof

  • Speaking circle
  • Self-knowledge, self-development

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The actual models get lost here in the color, but they are actually paper people representing each of the patients.

  • Breathing and relaxation
  • Plastic arts: painting, sculpture, modeling, origami, recycling

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This is sculpture: the person made himself one side smiley one side angry. The reflection that followed was about how the choice is ours in self-regulating our attitude towards the everyday happenings in life.

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Statue made of recycled plastic water bottles

IMG_6967Animals made of metallic cable

  • Singing, theater and mimics
  • Curiosity and imagination

IMG_6972     IMG_6975 IMG_6973 As an example of a creativity activity, they have this book called “The Earth from the Sky” so in group sessions under the tree, they open one random page and show it to the patients and start asking questions: what is it? what might it be? where? why? what happened before the picture was taken? what are your thoughts? your feelings?…

  • Dance: guided and free style (tam-tams in place of course)
  • Viewing of self. Literally.

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They have a small “studio” which a video camera, a USB cord and an old computer. There they record small clips of the patients and show them back to them. A full psychological debrief and reflection follows, patients advice and give each other tips…

  • Free time, reading
  • Story time, documentaries
  • There is also a tailoring workshop where some of the patience learn to dye battiks (the traditional local clothe) to make dresses, tablecloths, drapes…

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I almost wanted to come and live here myself. And Sylvain is SO PASSIONATE about his work it is even contagious! He is full of hope, full of enthusiasm, then we learned by Gregoire that at his… what, 50+ years old he sleeps on a mat in the floor together with the mental ill patients, eats their same food, and he is just the most joyful person ever.

IMG_6986Madame who wanted to be in the picture (can’t avoid that here in Benin), Gregoire, Monica, Sylvain, Sister Silvia and Cecile

Once a month Gregoire also organizes a meeting with all the clients’ families and general public to spread awareness on mental health. From how to support a relative with mental health issues to fighting back the myth that it is witchcraft and bad spirits possessing the person. Oh! so many of these patients have been exposed to the most inhuman tortures in good will to exorcise them from the bad spirits inside of them, when all they have is dementia, depression, a bi-polar disease, or their brain is just not within the parameters of normal, period. People here call them “the fous” (the locos, the crazy ones). Reminds me of a mexican song which makes the point if it is seiner the one who thinks or the one who looks at the moon.

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By the time I took the picture the talk had already finished and just the chairs remained, but under the tree next to the workshops it actually gets pretty crowded. Not bad for a culture that kills or abandons kids who are born different under the label of witch-children.

IMG_6978Voila the “crazy ones” relaxing and chatting under their art on a Saturday afternoon. They smile and very friendly greet you as passing by: “Bonjour madame!”

Oasis of love is a very inspiring place, full of color and really, of love, which provides dignity to its patients, but also a deep inspiration for everybody passing by: foreign volunteers (French, Canadian, Belgian, Senegalese interns fight for a placement to come and spend some time here), local organizations or potential partners as we were. Monsieur Gregoire and Sylvain are so modest and welcoming and transparent, a living example of sharing their talents and gifts with the most vulnerable ones. Incredibly also, two of the happiest people I had ever met.

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