Monthly Archives: July 2016

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:


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bebe platicadora

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

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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.


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


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


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



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


















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)


For funerals we also make clothes with the same pagne






First communions – with the godparents


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 means “hippopotamus” in the local language.


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.

image1  School entrance

School grounds… big

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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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