Counterbalance and hope

Here is my piece of hope for this world that has so many horrible things going on that we hear of through the media.

In this almost forgotten African country of Benin, where most of the people outside Africa doesn’t know where it is or that it exists, last Friday night we had teacher council. This is a reunion of 80+ teachers and the administration people when class by class is presented by the PP-Professeur Principal (class responsible) once every trimester. The main struggles of the class are shared together with special cases and the different teachers who intervene in the class brainstorm to solve the problems or share what has worked with this or that student.

Conseil mi_parcours (5)

It started at 7pm. It was 9:50pm and I was exhausted of the week and the discussion was in the peak of passion and heat. In one moment I took a step back as teacher and PP that I am at the school and looked at the whole situation from an external point of view. And I thought: This is very cool. 80+ teachers and 2 nuns at 10pm on a Friday night, all dressed in their very beautiful and colorful clothes, passionately looking for answers to improve their students’ development and lives in general. But nobody knew, other than all the teachers’ spouses and the community of sisters here.

Conseil mi_parcours (1)

So, among all these sad news of bombings, earthquakes, wars and torture, here in forgotten Africa there is a good reason to be hopeful: raising good citizens takes effort and dedication and sometimes Friday nights. And not only as a teacher but as a parent and in many other professions and roles as well. The council on Friday was happening at the same time as the France bombings, it was arriving home that I learnt the news. And I couldn’t but think that our Friday night could not have been better spent: counterbalancing hate and violence with care, passion and hope.

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

New school year in Cotonou

Welcome to a new school year in Cotonou! If you are wondering why does the school year start this late, it is because summer is the harvest season here. So even if there was school going on during the summer months, the families would not send their children at all. Still for those urban students as ours, there is a full month of summer courses between August and September to catch up and polish for the following year. Even if they are not collecting crops, the students are always busy working, either helping their parents in whatever business they have, uncles, neighbours, the younger ones taking care of their siblings, cooking and tending the home… children of all ages are working hands here.

nino con bebe    children working

The school year started with so much energy and the school grew a lot also! I arrived 1 week late and what a joy it was to see my last year students approaching me with big smiles to welcome me back.

1ere AB_D

The hardest task for me is to memorize their names. The boys look all very similar to me, and the girls change their braids every two weeks, which doesn’t help either. I have the equivalent to 10th, 11th and 12th grade in Canada, so, full adolescence going on there. But once you get under those though faces and attitude of “we don’t care about the world” (and sneaker models and braids styles), they are really deep in so many senses and thirsty for life!


To start the year I asked them 10 questions. Some wrote one-word answers, consistently with their personalities, others wrote entire novels with details, hypothesis and whatever else you can imagine. Here some of my favorites:

1. The last thing I think of before going to bed is… My future…
club danglais (1)
2. I am afraid when… I am close to a beautiful girl / when I open myself too much with others/ when I don’t live to the others’ expectations/ when my dad arrives home

chicas 2ndo

3. I am happy when… I play basketball because I forget about everything else when I am there / when I listen music because it brings me to a good place / when I dance because I can be whoever I want / when I am with my family because they are pretty cool / when I work well in class…

1e C (2)

4. My summer vacations…were fantastic. I didn’t do anything special or went anywhere, I helped my uncle at his shop everyday. But when I was not there I was with my girlfriend. I adore her, she makes not only my world wonderful but the world where we live better also with her kindness and attention to others. She has a shine of joy that makes me feel alive, I admire of her even her faults because they make her imperfect and therefore closer to me. Madame: does true love exist at 16? If she was a star, I would be her fan #1…


5. Your questions to madame Monica:
– What are the non-negotiables to succeed in life?
-How can I be braver?
-Can I risk everything for a dream?
-What is your favorite meal?
-How can I trust those around me?
-Is it ok to be always alone and calm?
-What do you think about me?
-How was your idea of Africa before coming? And now, has it changed somehow? How?
-Why isn’t life as we want it to be?
-How do can I master speaking in public infront of a crowd?
-Do you have any friend who is a pilot? Because I am looking for information on the career

weekend foi 1e (14)          weekend foi 1e (8)

Teenagers but not that far from us “adults” after all eh?

So, if anybody reading this post has any good answer to any of the questions above, I am all ears (well, eyes). If you wonder how I spend the lunch break at the school, it is usually on the playground or at the picnic tables drinking pineapple juice and talking about these things with the students. Or the shoe brands, or the braid styles. I do must of the listening though, but I enjoy very much being among them. These kids are full of energy and potential, they are with no doubt the hope for their country.

  1e C (8)

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Voodoo in Benin

The most difficult commandment to follow

In class of 2nde (equivalent to 11th grade in North America) we are studying the 10 commandments. I asked my students which was the most difficult to follow according to them and they all agreed that #1: “you will adore God as your only God” with no doubt.

Benin is the cradle of Voodoo. It is evident by the gigantic market section usually known as “Marche des Feticheurs” which offers a supply of whatever you can imagine to use in voodoo ceremonies: heads of monkeys, dog skulls, snake skins, human-shaped statues, rope dolls, you name it. According to the locals, most voodoo is white magic to summon the good spirits. “Good spirits are stronger than bad spirits”. Bad spirits are in the lines of witchcraft, which merits a full different post of its own.

fetiches voodoo mano       fetiche marche

Voodoo and Catholicism mix in a very interesting way. Many people are devoted catholics, but there is a very strong traditional part of their culture that forces them to carry fetishes and amulets for the different needs of life. “Yes, God is almighty, but why not help him a bit?”

4e 4

Guessing how many blessed pens and grin-grins there are in my classroom trimester exam

Fear is a real deal in everyday life Benin. Most of the people live with the belief that if things happen (or don’t happen) is because of others (spirits). If you are late, a spirit didn’t allow you to be on time by causing a traffic jam for example. If your aunt died, it was a bad spirit who possessed her. If you did well at school, it was a good spirit who enlightened your head. (Or the grin-grin that the feticheur fixed you last week). Most of the parishes have help-groups for people who want to stop believing in voodoo, who want to believe that God only is almighty, but their traditional beliefs and culture do not liberate them from the fear of being unprotected. Many of our students have their their “grin-grins” (amulets) and are actually afraid to live without them, and many of them also bring their pens to be blessed before an important exam. I once questioned the practice to the priest. He said: “well, if we don’t do it here, they will go elsewhere to have it done. So better to bless the pens here and then give them a little speech on the fact that it is them with their effort and work who will win the note, not the blessed pen”.

The Pythons
Then we have the snakes. Fetish followers (about 50% of the population) practice animism as part of Voodoo, worshiping the Python. I found it a bit ironic that the phyton deidity temple is exactly across the street from the Catholic Basilica in Ouidah, the first Catholic church in all Benin. Back in the days of the slave wars among the various kingdoms of Benin, one of the local kings took refuge in the forest to escape his enemies. Legend says that many pythons started coming out to protect him. In gratefulness, he built the temple back in Ouidah to adore them. Now the Benin people, who are always short of protection against all kinds of spirits, rely in the phytons and phyton spirits to stay alive just in everyday life. You can recognize the sub-group of Pythons fan club by the particular scars in their face: two little lines, perpendicular to the mouth. Anybody is welcome to the Pythons temple: the entrance is about 2 dlls and that includes a local guide which explains you all of this, and help you pose with one of their snakes. They are well fed and harmless, I would say, even extra used to tourist and locals petting in a regular basis.

nina snake

The rites
The rites vary depending on a thousand of factors (which spirit you are invoking, for what, how, when, etc). The one I witnessed one day in Possotome village, was a man steeping barefoot onto a putrefying mound of candle wax, palm oil and the feathers and blood of sacrificed goats and chickens. The man was willing to have a conversation with a particular spirit. The whole ceremony happened in the “sacred forest”, before the burned fetish tree adorned with a couple of skulls (not sure which animal…) and some colorful ribbons. The drums sounded, the women in white danced and the man looked somehow possessed but not in a scary way, maybe he was just truly concentrated in connecting with the spirit. Since they speak their local language I was not able to understand anything, but I was explained that he was just wanting to recover a lost item. As I said, the belief is that he has to wait for the spirit to return it, why bother in looking for the lost item himself? And then some foreigners wonder why Africans are “passive”. It is not passivity, it is just that contrary to Occidental thought where almost everything is in our hands (and sometimes we carry the weight of the world on our shoulders), Beninoise are in the other extreme where almost nothing is in their hands. More relaxed for sure, almost no gastritis or cardiac affections around here.

fetiche voodoo       IMG_5523
No Windsurfing in Possotome.
Possotome is a cute village with a big lake where we learned the fishing techniques and enjoyed a beautiful sunset. The wind was so strong that Ana commented “windsurfing would be amazing here!” and our local friend was like: “no no no!!! never! Imagine that those kites fell on the lake voodoo deidities… catastrophe for the whole village”. Well. Then we came to learn that each of the 45 villages around the lake has their voodoo deidity in a particular area of the lake sourrounded by wooden branches to signalize the position. The deidity provides the villagers with good fish for the whole year. Nobody can fish or swim close by except the day of the year where the whole village sends the sacrifice (a goat, a chicken and some vegetables). Then the priest comes on a pirogue (small canoe), does the rite, throws the offering to the lake next to the deidity, nobody in the village fishes for 7 days and then after they are happy with lots of fish the rest of the year. So as the pirogue goes around the lake you see the different set of wooden branches to protect the deidities… and somehow you also want to thank them for the delicious lunch of fresh fish and crab that you ate at noon that very same day. Sorry windsurfers, no action for you here in Possotome for a while more.

d_Possotome (6)     bpesca (8)

Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Christmas in Benin

(oppps! I just realized this post never publised back in December… sorry!)

This Christmas was very simple, but I am very happy it was like that, because Jesus himself was born like that: simple.

Somebody said that it is rich not the person who has more, but the one who gives more, right?
At our school that was well lived. The sisters asked the students for an in-kind contribution of non-perishable food to share with the neighbourhood’s poorest families. The response was overwhelming. And these are not rich kids, most of the families struggle to pay the modest school fees that are required to study here. It moved my heart to see baby Jesus under the tree surrounded by baskets (all skillfully decorated by the girls in the classes I am sure) and envelopes with a few hundreds/thousands francs, I thought Jesus would be very happy to be born surrounded by so much generosity and love.

IMG_4881       IMG_4862
Decorating the tree was another happy moment of fraternity. We sang Christmas carols, in French they are very pretty! Everybody helped either with the branches, the hall decorations or cleaning around. There were smiles, ideas and a very heavily-decorated baroque tree at the end!

IMG_4843                    IMG_4853
My name is Karigatou and I played the role of sheep
On December 25th we had a celebration at home: the sisters, volunteers, postulants and boarding home girls. Each group prepared something. The german-speaker volunteers and sister sang in german. The Latinas we danced El Burrito Sabanero.


Our nativity scene at home reflected exactly the nature of our community: Japanese Mary and Joseph, made-in-China plastic three wise men and a gigantic German baby Jesus.


German carols – courtesy of the German and Austrian gals

The boarding home girls made a sketch of the history of the nativity. The 6 smallest-tiniest girls were in 4 legs beeeee-ing around as the sheep they were: beeee, beeee, beeee (until the shepherd called them to come and adore baby Jesus). At the end each of the participants presented themselves: “My name is Ana and I was the Angel”, “my name is Aminata and I was a shepherd”, “My name is Solange and I was Mary” and then the smallest ones came at the end, with such pride they presented themselves: “My name is Karigatou and I played the role of sheep”. That was super cute. And that made me think on how important our roles in life are, even if we sometimes think of ourselves as insignificants. And we should be proud of who we are and what we do. To complement, the time here has made me also reflect on the impact that we have on those around us, many times without even realizing it. Students have come to talk to me about things I said that I never thought they would remember. The sisters notice things that I do unconsciously. I am sure my students brought their contributions to the collect thinking of the neighbourhood people as their beneficiaries, but they also impacted me without knowing it, by reminding me of generosity, detachment and simplicity. At the end I think that is what Christmas is about.

I don't have a picture of the boarding home nativity sketch but here is Aisha, one of the sheep

I don’t have a picture of the boarding home nativity sketch but here is Aisha, one of the sheep

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Slave trade in Benin

Last weekend we went to Ouida, which is a very historical ouida welcome
town in Benin. It is the stronghold of voodoo, and also
the place from where nearly 12 million slaves departed to
America (Brazil and the Caribbean mainly).

The Portuguese were the first to arrive to Ouida (Whyda back in the days). But they didn’t stay too long. Then the French came and built their fort. Today the fort is the Museum of History of Ouida, a very interesting place full of very old maps (some of the originals from the 1700s!) and a good recount of the local history in the kingdom of Abomey days, and in the slave trade chapter.

museo fuera      museo interior

Many people blame only the Europeans for the slave trade. But it was not them running behind the locals to put them into boats and ship them across the world (those were the Spanish in Latin America, see the movie “The Mission” for more reference on that one). In West Africa it was really the same locals between the kingdoms of Abomey, Allada and Porto Novo (in the Benin area) who chased each other and profited dearly by handing them for exchange to the europeans. I mean, it takes two to Tango.

The slaves were walked from their homelands for months in miserable conditions (chained to the neck or the feet, almost starved), many of them committed suicide before even making it to Ouida. There they were taken to the fort where they stayed in filthy and inhumane conditions until a good number gathered in order to fill a boat.

Between the fort in downtown Ouida and the beach, there are about 3.2 kms that the slaves would walk to the unknown. This same path is now called “Route des Esclaves” (Slave Route) and it is a historical walk in Ouida. It starts at the fort and continues to the “Tree of Forget” where slaves were asked to go around three times. It was believed that then they would forget their previous lives: where they were coming from, their families, etc. (I don’t think it worked very well though)


Slaves Route


Tree of Forget

Along the Slave Route there are different points where the caravan would stop: In one to be branded with burning iron as cattle, in another to spend some time in a dark box-like building to disorient them and simulate the conditions of the ship. These days there are a series of fetiches alongside the route.

fetiche ruta1      IMG_4664

At the beach nowadays, there is a very moving memorial called the “Door of No Return”. It is a beautiful arch with the picture of slaves marching through it and some iron statues with chains on each side. The beach itself is very beautiful: the sand is redish, the sea very blue and the forest on the coast. I was standing there and thought of the many people who passed through there in miserable conditions and never saw their families or their homeland again.


puerta cerca       arco cerca

In the ships the life was not much better. They were terribly cramped and in the most unhygienic conditions. Men were chained chest to the floor and women back to the floor for the patrons to come and rape them whenever they wanted. This was done with two intentions: one the pleasure of the person on top, and second to get them pregnant and procreate babies to make up for the ones who would die on the trip (which were a lot). So “mestizaje” or mixing of races began back in the slaves ships. At the end only the strongest both physically and in will made it to America and those were the ones Europeans wanted to work in their American plantations or to build the new cities there.




The story didn’t finish with the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in the 1800s, and it hasn’t actually finished yet. The slaves sold to America brought with them their African culture and gens which mixed with the locals and made us Latinos so wonderfully diverse. Voodoo remains the main religion in Haiti, everyday life practices are almost identical in some areas of Brazil and the Caribbean as they are here in West Africa and I thank them dearly also for the beats of Samba, Salsa, Merengue and Cumbia. But then we have racism which has shaped America into every fiber of our culture.

In this side of the world the value of the human being decreased very much, making it easy for people to sell or enslave young ones for their own interests. The mistrust among the locals is there behind the warmth of the culture and the voodoo has evolved from a  spiritist tradition to more of witchcraft and sorcellierie practice (more on Voodoo soon).

Cocoa plantation children exploitation - Ivory Coast

Cocoa plantation children exploitation – Ivory Coast

Slave trade was a very sad chapter of human history and one example where the West world was wrong in their utilitarian thinking. Even more sad is that it still continues today in modern practices such as child traffic and forced labour, so commonly found here in Benin but also around the world (I saw a lot in Cambodia and Mexico, but probably in other places is the same). Still when my 15-year old students hand me passionate essays on the dignity of the human life and I meet engaged Beninoises who have made of their personal mission to work for the human rights in this corner of the world, I smile and think for myself that there is still plenty of hope for human race.

IMG_4492     P1030360_klein

Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Ebola around here

Or maybe I should rename the post to “No Ebola around here”.

Thank you for all of you who have been asking about the Ebola situation here in West Africa and your concerns for our well-being.
In Benin the disease is almost unheard of. We know it is there in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, but those places are far geographically and ethically-wise.

Nigeria who is next door, had a few cases a couple of months ago, but they were smart and isolated them immediately, so it didn’t spread. 2 weeks ago Nigeria was declared Ebola-free (that happens when the quarantine passes and no new cases arise).

Don’t get me wrong, It is a real disease and I don’t downplay it. Our Salesian friends working there are desperate with lots of orphan children. The thing with diseases and Africa rural mentality is tradition: a disease is a disease that most likely came out of witchcraft, either if it is AIDS, Ebola or Malaria. For AIDS there is no cure, for the other ones there is, but what is the point of having a cure or treatment if most people in the rural setting don’t have access to it? People die the same of Malaria than of Ebola. So in their minds is just another disease, period. I am sure the chamanes and witch-people are having lots of work these days over there.

Liberians learning to live with Ebola

Liberians learning to live with Ebola

Apart from the spirits dimension, there is also the social dynamics: Ebola is killing people, but its true power comes from poverty and political instability. The public in the affected countries has been conditioned to fear instruction from the government. Those in Liberia and Sierra Leona grew up or endured convicted war criminal or  wannabe dictators who conscripted child soldiers as their leaders. Survival required distrusting and evading the government. So when health workers in official uniforms want to round up family members and friends who are “sick,” it is easy to see why the public is not as cooperative as one would like. The virus thrives while the people live in fear. But we cannot ignore that it was people, not the virus, who originally sowed distrust.

Having said that, three points.

1) The affected area is quite small. Let’s pray that it doesn’t continue to spread.

no ebola


2) Ebola has been in Africa since 1970s (it started in Congo close to the Ebola river). The first case in West Africa was reported in December 2013. When I came to the Ivory Coast in March 2014 there were already posters at the airport and we were all taken our temperature upon landing. But it was not until June that the first North American doctor working in Liberia died when the whole world became paranoid. Just perspective.

Poster in the Ivory Coast on Ebola care

Poster in the Ivory Coast on Ebola care

3) Beware on how much of what you read and hear is true. This is a snapshot of a CNN news report. CNN is supposed to be a leading international news journal, we would all appreciate a bit more of accurate research in to what they present to the world. In this map they showed on prime TV, they confused Nigeria with Niger. That red area that is presented on the image does not correspond to Nigeria. Nigeria is below. I am sure the 175,500 million Nigerians didn’t appreciate the confusion: Niger is mostly Sahara and totally landlocked. Nigeria has lush rainforests, one of the bussiest economies in the area, a big chunk of the oil in the world and well, some other charms. I understand if us regular citizens don’t know the difference or are not very well documented on similar-named countries in a continent far away. But CNN? I wonder what else of what they are presenting is not accurate.


That is not Nigeria, that is Niger


Real Nigeria

All that to say: Thank you for your concerns. We are lucky to have loved ones who care and worry about us at the distance. Those of you who pray, please do so for the people in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea: for the ones who have lost loved ones, the ones who are been left behind, the ones caring for them and for the governments there, who are having a real challenge with the disease. From our side here in far-away Cotonou, we are fine, but we are also vigilant. We keep ourselves extra clean and monitor the news continuously. For now I say good bye because I have classes to prepare, a curriculum to update, some fresh pinneaple to eat, and girls in the boarding home to care for.

Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

La Mission Salesienne in Cotonou

The mission here is so big that it has taken me a whole month to become acquainted with it.I would describe it in two areas: a) The social programs and b) The preventive education

a) The Social Programs

When Sister Maria Antonietta (director) arrived in 2000 she found a lot of vulnerable girls and women subject to all kinds of violence and abuses. The city, being an international port, and the Danktopa market with its 20 hectares, only adds to the problem. So she realized the need for focused efforts. 14 years later some of the highlights include

The Barrack at Danktopa Market

A barrack in the parking lot of the market. The barrack is an old metal container adapted as a children and youth friendly centre. It has three main purposes:

1) in the mornings the little kids take kindergarten classes there. When the moms (who are selling at the market all day long) hear their kids counting or singing in French, they get all excited and become more motivated to send them to school afterwards.

Little children learning how to write #1

Little children learning how to write #1

2) They are strategically located in the market’s parking lot, where the vans depart to other countries/communities. If a kid is being trafficked, it is most likely that at some point he or she will pass through this same parking lot. The barrack there gives them a chance to escape and seek help.

barracas (1)    Barraca Sarita (2)

3) Since there are a lot of children that work at the market, the barrack offers them a safe space free of violence and pressure to enjoy themselves for a few minutes every time they have the chance: do crafts, play games, talk with the animators and sometimes just eat their meal with no hassle from others.

Barraca Sarita (1)   vidomegon_sm

La Maison de l’Esperance

Once a week the animators take a walk at night at the market and identify women and girls that sleep there and therefore are vulnerable to all kinds of violence. They invite them to this house where they can sleep, shower themselves and learn different trades: soap making, cooking, bakery, tailoring and French.

Maison de l'Esperance (1)

Soap making workshop

Soap making workshop

There is also a restaurant where the students from the cooking and baking workshops practice their skills. It is located in the fancy neighbourhood and caters mainly to expats and rich Beninois. It is not only delicious, but many girls have been hired by clients who love the food and the service there to the different hotels/restaurants/embassy residences in the region.

mama mia         mama mia 1

La Maison du Soleil

This is a centre for young vulnerable mamas, most of the time victims of rape or incest that have no support from their families. Here they can sleep there with their babies if they want, shower, leave their babies while they go to work, take parenting classes, attend psychological support, consult a doctor, and find friendly and supportive staff to walk with them in the difficulties of maternity and the sad stories that they come with behind.

Maison du soleil (1)      

Foyer Laura Vicuña

This is a boarding home for girls. Many of them have been trafficked and brought here by the police. Others by different means. Some girls are accused of being witches  and therefore rejected by the entire community, or sold by their relatives. They first arrive to the welcome centre where they receive psychological follow up and French classes. From there depending on the situation, they are helped to go back to their families or a caring relative. If the situation is unsafe for them, they stay at the boarding home and are enrolled in the appropriate school.

Foyer LV_1   foyer LV_2

(Foyer Don Bosco and Magon Centre)

The Salesian fathers have the same kind of program for boys in the city of Porto Novo, political capital of Benin. The boys in the reception centre arrive with all their bodies scarred, with fingers missing, one of them was afraid of the smallest sound around. Those that stay in the foyer continue to learn trades. Padre Carlos, a Spanish misionary there, has received the nicest thank you letters from all the kids who come to show him their diplomas and continue on to lead happy independent and free lives.

(They have a very complete website in French and Spanish:

      porto novo diploma

St Joseph Alternative School

Since many of the children arrive to the foyers with zero formal education at all, an Alternative school was created, for them to catch up on their primary studies. At this school, the kids can finish the 6 years of elementary school in 3 years only. It is now open to the public. The children and the teachers in this school are sooooo hardworking!

Ecole Alternative     Ecole Alternative1

Dominic Savio Support for minors who have troubles with the law

This project offers support to minors in the jail. The staff advocates for their human rights (separate them from the adult spaces, feed them more than once a day…), provide psychological and legal counseling and also follow up on them when they are set free. This is because most of the time the fact that a 13 year old ended up in jail is because the family-social system around him is not exactly the best.

prision (1)

b) The Preventive Education

L’Institut Superieur de Formation des Educateurs Specialises (ISFES)

When working with abused children, youth in jails and traumatized girls, the need for special educators became evident. Instead of sending the sisters and staff all around to study, the Salesian community decided to create their own training centre in the subject. It was then when the Centre for Studies in Special Education was born. It is legally recognized by the Benin Ministry of Post-Secondary Education and their three year program is praised for their heavy research program and practical internships.

Escuelas (1)

Secondary School and Professional Training Centre Laura Vicuña et Don Bosco

The Salesian sisters and priests run secondary schools and professional training centres. The workshops include hairdressing, tailoring, hospitality (restaurants and hotels admin), carpentry, bakery, auto and moto mechanic, I think electricity too. And of course all the joys of working with 1,400 teenagers from 7am to 5pm Monday to Saturday.

Escuelas (2)    Escuelas (3)

The Laura Vicuña Secondary and Professional Training Centre has a facebook page:

St Anthony de Padua Parish

Well, a parish is a parish, but there are many activities outside the religious celebration that are non-formal education as well: the youth group, cultural and sports Sunday afternoons, missionary children group, women’s group, catechism, etc. The parish is run by the Salesian priests. The parish in Porto Novo is St Francis Xavier parish, same idea.

paroisse (3)

The Valponasca Farm

It is a farm north of Porto Novo where formation on agricultural techniques and admin is provided. Also, 100 women from the surrounding area are supported in small groups with techniques and competencies to improve their production. As a plus byproduct, everybody that goes through here learns to read and write French.

ferm 1       Ferme

For those who want to write us, our address is:
Mission Salesienne / Ecole Laura Vicuña04 BP 1434 Cadjehoun Cotonou Benin (Afrique de l’Ouest)

(I got my first letter today, thank you!)

To know more

Here are a couple of 17 mins. videos that describe very well the realities of trafficked children in Benin and witch children in Togo. (Although both of them are regional issues, in the Ivory Coast there was also a lot of witchcraft going on). They are prepared by the Salesian Missions in Spain. They are in French and Spanish with subtitles.


(English subtitles)

(French subtitles)

(Spanish subtitles)


(Spanish subtitles)

The sisters have a page with more detailed information in each of the activities that I described above:

I leave you with my favorite place to buy shirts in this country: The tree (The first time I said I bought a nice shirt at the tree, I was asked if such was the name of the shop. No… the tree – the tree I replied…)


Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Change of country: Bonjour Bénin

Last week I left the Ivory Coast (snif snif) to come and work at the salesian mission in Cotonou, Benin.

Bonjour Bénin!

Benin is not a very famous country, but in international news, no news is good news. It is a small country between Togo and Nigeria, same West Africa neighbourhood. It’s political capital is Porto Novo, but its economical capital, biggest city and international port is Cotonou.

This country is full of history. It is the birthplace of Voodoo and main port of slave exportation to America in the 1800s. Cotonou (Kùtɔ́nû in Fon) actually means “mouth of the river of the death”  in remembrance of all the slaves that were brought here down the Oueme River to be sold and board the ships to America for never coming back.

Quick facts:
– Benin Population: 9.6 million
– Currency: CFA (West African Franc – same as Mali, Nigeria, Togo, Cote d’Ivoire, Niger, Burkina Faso)
– Official language: French. Local languages and ethnicities include Fon, Yoruba, Adja.
– Local beer: La béninoise
– Time zone: UTC +1 (5 hours ahead of Toronto, 6 hours ahead of Mexico City, 8 hours behind Tokyo

flag benin

– Cotonou is home to West Africa’s biggest market: Dantokpa marche
– The city is between 1.2 – 1.5 million people
– Cotonou has become a crossroads of West African commerce, with much trade moving here from Abidjan because of the Ivorian Civil War. It also serves as an avenue to distribute imported goods to the landlocked countries of Niger, Burkina Faso and Mali.

I guess as for today the blog also changes names from Frances Limon: The Ivory Coast –  to – Frances Limon: West Africa… gotta adapt to change    🙂

Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Yacouba masks, Catholic saints and Aztec Gods

Here in rural Ivory Coast, I find that there are “modern” villages and traditional villages. The difference is that modern villages follow the government hierarchy for their affairs, people speak the local language but also French when they want/need to, they have a clinic, and a mill. Traditional villages ground the grains by hand, have a witch that cures everything from a headache to a broken heart, not everybody speaks French, they have the elder who fixes all disputes in his terrace with the two parties sitting next to each other and they still practice their traditional practices such as having a mask house and doing chicken sacrifices every week. Some villages are a combination of both.

senoufo village 1

In the Yacouba traditional villages, the neighbourhoods are by families, for example, there is the Smith neighbourhood where the parents have their house, each of the children and their families their own house, all different houses but all the houses in the same area. Then the Robinson neighbouhood and so on. Then each family has a house of masks: it is a house with a pointy roof, where the family masks are kept. The masks keep the spirits of the family ancestors and in special ceremonies when somebody wears that mask is to invoke that deceased person’s spirit. But mostly the masks are in their house and people in the family go and talk to them. Then there is a guardian to guard the masks house. And that is all he does, his family brings him food there and I guess if he gets bored, he can go in and have a chat with the masks. And if anybody wants to talk with the masks they have to ask access to the guardian. Then every Friday all the family (all the Smiths, all the Robinsons and so) get toghether in their sacrifice rock (each family also has one of them) to sacrifice a chicken in thanksgiving for the blessings received that week (rain, a baby born, harvest, etc).

House of masks

When I learned all that I thought: wow! that is sooooo different!
Then at the Catholic mission, the sister there is giving a stamp of Dominique Savio (the patron saint of difficult pregnancies) to a parishioner and explaining her the process of lightening up a candle in a particular way, and then read the prayer in the back, and then when the baby is born well, to make an donation according to her possibilities to a Salesian mission. The sister is very devote of that, she has a full album of parish girls and their babies who have been part of that saint club of fans. And as I was listening to all that, I was thinking: well, this is not too different from the masks. And then I thought: and also, not too far either from the Aztec or Mayas sacrifices to Tlaloc the god of the rain…

sacrifice aztec

Aztec sacrifices to Tlaloc, the God of the rain Image from:

Maybe we are not that different after all, maybe it is all human nature, period.


More on African village life:

1) Kirikou: A beautiful, wonderful, funny 1-hour cartoon of a West African folk tale “Kirikou” available in Youtube with subtitles in English. Great for all ages.

2) Binta and the Great Idea: A UNICEF-funded documentary of village life and human rights in rural West Africa through the eyes of Binta, a little girl. Subtitled in English, 30 mins.

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Dear post-conflict humanitarian NGOs

Dear UNICEF, NRC, and all others NGOs that work in conflict settings

Thank you for caring for the people in vulnerable situations, especially in conflict. Having worked in peacekeeping, and post-conflict education, I am very sensitive to the horrors of war and their impact on the civilian population.

Now I am working in post-conflict reconstruction and capacity building through the catholic mission in rural Ivory Coast. One of the characteristics of post-conflict communities that is very present in our everyday operations here, is that people look for themselves, and after themselves first and only. The others can figure it out on their own.  That is not difficult to imagine when you come and distribute tents, food and supplies, everybody has to fight for their own. The problem is that people, become used to receiving receiving receiving and even with the right (as victims) to receive for free.

The children touch me especially. At the mission we run handicraft workshops every week for children and youth (together with sports clubs, dancing group, games, etc) in an effort to provide a healthy way of spending free time for children and youth. During the summer we ran them everyday.
Oratorio verano (1)

The problem is that the children grew up so accustomed to receiving receiving receiving that they think they deserve to receive everything from everybody when they want. One cannot blame them, but we cannot excuse them either. Life continues and it is them who will be in charge of reconstructing their country now that armed fighting has finished.

For example, regular afternoon making bracelets:

Kid (extending his hand to me): attach
Monica: what?
Kid: attach my bracelet
Monica: eh?
Kid: my bracelet, attach!!!
Monica: ah no, like that no. How do you ask nicely?
Kid looks at me in a strange way
Monica: please
Kid: yes
Monica: no, say please attach my bracelet
Kid extends his hand to me
Monica: repeat after me: “madame, please attach my bracelet”
Kid: Madame, please attach my bracelet
Monica: Voila (happily attaches the bracelet)
Now multiply this scene x75 kids that we have. Every afternoon. With the colors is the same: “Give me color red!” “cut my crocodile” “I want stickers now” orders orders orders.

We have told everybody that we are nobody’s servants and that is always nicer to be polite, ask things please and say thank you at the end. It sounds so easy and so simple, but at the end of the day, good personal relationships prevent more wars than knowing how to count 1-10 in English or memorizing the periodic table.

It has been the hardest job I have done in all my time here. Little by little after many weeks of the same, the children started telling each other: “you have to say please” “remember to say thank you”. Now our next step is to have them talk nicely to each other, because they are polite with adults now, but among themselves they yell at each other and are very violent for the most insignificant thing: “GIVE ME COLOR RED NOW!!!!” “DON’T TAKE ALL THE STRING FOR YOU I NEED SOME!!!!” I sometimes get scared of those 6 year olds.

oratorio pintarose (4)       juegos (2)

So, dear UNICEF and NGOs that are generous and kind and support victims of conflict: Please give a thought to the fact that when you leave, it is us, people working in post-conflict, that have to deal with all the dependance that you create in the communities you serve. I am not saying it is your fault because we all know that if you were not here when you intervene, these people would have no roof to sleep under and no food to eat and would starve or die of malaria during war. I am just saying that you play cultural dynamics in a very strong way that good intentions not always see. Armed conflict is finished here, but peace has still a long way to come. It is a process that starts with saying please to your neighbour and not yelling at each other in condescending way. It is noticing and considering the others around. Gotta start with the kids.

Categories: Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Create a free website or blog at