Wednesday, December 5, 2007

La Cuisine a Beninoise

Several travel books make the claim that Beninese food is some of the best in West Africa. While I can't comment on the comparative element of this assertion, I think that this culinary judgment should probably be made with some qualifications, or at least some divulsion regarding what exactly composes Beninese cuisines.

Beninese food for the most part consists of 2 parts:

A) Starch. You have your starch, sometimes rice or cous-cous. But most of the time it is "Pâte," a lump of paste made out of either corn mill or garri. Here in the North "Ignam Pilé" is in my opinion a more palatable alternative to Pâte. It is basically boiled yam (not the yam found in the states…these are huge…starches on steroids) pounded (w/ gigantic mortars and pestols) into a thick disk-shape perhaps very roughly resembling the closest thing they get to mashed potatoes here.

B) Sauce. The sauce is usually composed of some variety of the following ingredients, all easily found in your local village market: tomatoes and/or T paste; Maggi cubes (think bullion cube); onions, piemont (peppers), garlic, oil, and often some meat (beef and chicken are best, but goat and fish are the other more lowly of God's creatures who frequent these sauces more often). Sauce "legume" will have a greenish vegetable in the ensemble, and sometimes "Wasagi" cheese. And "gumbo" is a slimy concoction made using okra…perhaps the Beninese salute to Southern cuisine?

And that's about it as far as variety goes. On the streets one might also find "boie" (think oatmeal, but made with corn meal instead of oats); fried yams, or fried balls of dough (sometimes made w. bean-curd) and surved w/ a hot sauce. Outdoor "cafeterias" will offer you one of the above staple/sauce combinations, perhaps also with additional options of spaghetti noodles, beans, and cheese (rice, beans, cheese are my own daily staple here). Often you can also find an omelet stand, a "salad lady," someone selling bread, and in most towns you can find some guys grilling meat in the open market.

Monday, October 29, 2007

C'est vrais, J'existe...

With the close of Pre-Service Training's sunrise-to-sunset schedule regiment, and as I further settle into my new post, I'm finally finding myself in a position where I can begin posting more faithfully on my blog….depending on how often I get to an internet connection. If for the past 3 months you've been regularly checking for updates, only to be consistently disappointed, hang in there.

Following is a shot-gun blast of posts that have actually been in the works for a while, whether in my head or on my laptop.

A First in Football History


Last week the groups for the African Cup of Nations were chosen by lottery. The African Cup of Nations is to be played out in Ghana and Egypt this January and for the first time in its humble history Benin qualified for this 16-team event by beating Sierra Leone 3-0 a couple weeks ago.  


Unfortunately, as this week's draw revealed, bottom-seeded Benin will be playing Nigeria (the recent victor of the Under-20 World Cup) in the first round. Most Nigerians appear pretty confident of the estimated results of this match-up, probably w/ good reason. Mali and Cote D'Ivoire are the other teams in Group B, which is to play in Ghana.


While Benin's lot admittedly doesn't leave much opportunity for success in its group, I admit that watching a Benin-Nigeria match in Nikki will be a blast b/c Nikki, being situated on the eastern border has many Nigerian residents. If I can't be in Accra in late Jan to watch this match in person, a generator-powered tin shack packed with a good mix of Beninese and Nigerians is not a bad consolation.

French in French Africa


Here's a brief digestif after having spent three months as a French student in French Africa.


First, some thoughts about the French language. Proper French is kind of like playing bagpipes. When the pipes are played well, they produce one of the most beautiful sounds heard. Yet anything less than well-played produces the cacophony of a goose giving birth. And getting to the point of playing the pipes well is really, really hard, as I've had chance to observe.    


French, when spoken well, is a beautiful language. But it's really hard to speak [and understand] it well. There are a number of technical reasons for this I'm sure, perhaps purposefully conceived of by the aristocratic classes of Old that made French the exclusive language that it is.


In some sense, to speak French well you have to be in a special club, a country club if you will. Club membership entails understanding all the secret rules of grammar and pronunciation, many of which are based not on any kind of linguistic logic that I can conceive of, but on an aesthetic of what sounds nice. One must gain an intuitive discernment to know which of the consonants and vowels one is actually supposed to pronounce in any word, and equally to know which letters hang onto words for no apparent reason other than to trick novice speakers (especially English speakers, as it is, since so many French words look deceptively identical to their English counterparts).


Club membership also entails that you have the time and training [and trainer, perhaps] to learn to speak the words properly. Speaking French not only requires amazing agility of the mouth muscles, but a considerable amount of mouth muscle memory, as well. How else is one to pronounce their R's.         


Having said all that, learning and speaking French in French Africa has its advantages. To begin with, most Africans speak French more slowly, rhythmically, and with "courser" pronunciations than Frenchy-French. For example, Beninese tend to roll their R's versus the French slurring. Grammatical rules and constructions are also more simply employed, if not often ignored and violated. Fewer verb tenses are used. For example, in Benin the subjunctive virtually doesn't even exist (only in the linguistic-grammatical sense, of course).


Bien sure, learning French in Benin also brings unique challenges, especially for one wanting to acquire a fairly proper comprehension of the language. As with any language that is spoke in different countries and regions, in Benin also certain French words are wielded and employed differently. "Deucement," for example, is an exclamatory word on a number of meanings: slowly (as adj.); slow down!; be careful!, I'm sorry! "Petites choses" (little things) is underwear; pate ("paste") is a staple food here made from corn flour and water. Another common difficulty, especially in more rural parts of Benin, is speaking and understanding folks who speak a French that is heavily accented by a tongue more accustomed to speaking a local languages than French.


All things considered, though, learning decent French is indeed probable and possible here. The Beninese especially tend to be patient and amiable (if not sometimes too forgiving) with an American struggling to learning French. When I've finally reached the point fluency, I may not be a card-carrying member of the high-French country club, and I might indeed speak with a tell-tale West-African accent. But I don't really see any loss in either of these prospects.      

Recently Read: Pathways to Power, by Paul Farmer


Rats and roaches live by competition under the law of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy." – Wendell Berry


I recently read Pathways to Power by Paul Farmer. It qualifies for the well-populated category of "development/poverty/human rights book," but stands out in a couple ways.


Paul Farmer, a doctor who's been practicing for over 20 years in Haiti, writes about poverty and human rights, but does so non-abstractly (bringing lots of personal experience into his thesis); with the insight of being both a "practitioner" (doctor) and academic (anthropologist); and with the objective passion of a social prophet of sorts (it quickly becomes clear in his book that Farmer has a high and studied regard for Liberation Theology, its followers, its social grievances, and its methods)  


Farmer's main thrust is that the conception of human rights needs to be expanded beyond mere political and legal terms, and expanded to include and address injustices caused by "structural violence." These are more difficult and costly to address because they are social, cultural and economic in character, and naturally run counter to market-driven capitalist ideology and systems that runs the world today.


For example, you have a Haitian girl dying most immediately from AIDS. While the standard legal-political categories of human rights has no classification for such an abuse, a deeper analysis made according to Farmer's proffered stipulation of human rights would identify the many facets of structural violence that led to this girl's death—i.e. the material poverty and social casting that led to her contraction of HIV; her lack of economic resources that mitigated her ability to fight AIDS (with drugs and overall health). Because the girl's contraction of HIV involves Haiti's history of violence, national poverty, general prevalence/vulnerability to disease, a deeper analysis would also include Haitian history, U.S. policy towards the same, problems with the way that international Aid operates today.

Ryan Vroegindewey

PCV Benin 2007-2009

Concession Culture


My place of residence here in Nikki is a cement "house" adjacent to others in a duplex-style of construction. This "concession" also features a small front courtyard/outdoor space in front of our residences, where most Beninese do there cooking. The concession is enclosed by cement walls and a metal gate.


Concession-living caries with it its own flavor of culture—nothing like I've ever know, in fact, despite my two years of service as the RA of a college dorm. If I had to encapsulate the culture of concessional living, I would have to proffer that "Concession" is African for "sharing"… of everything.


For example, in a concession everyone shares his or her noise with everyone else. What follows is a typical schedule of what one might commonly here in a typical day:


8:00 – Neighbor girl sweeping the entire courtyard.


10:00-22:00 – Radios and Televisions, played at various times, from various directions, and at various volumes, but as a rule of thumb more loudly as the evening ensues and the temperature cools.


20:00-23:00 – Neighbors yell-talking in Barriba (a local language). Kids

playing/fighting…sometimes not sure which.


4:30 - (yes, that's four-thirty a.m.) – Neighbor girls making "Ignam Pile" (which is French for "mashed yams") to be eaten before sunrise, when the daily fasting of Ramadan begins. The important part is that ignam pile is made by 2-3 girls pounding with a HUGE wooden mortar and pestols, right outside my bedroom window.


4:5:00-6:30 – Various roosters intermittently crowing. Other animals (goats, dogs, etc.) progressively join in morning chorus. Barriba-talking neighbors join in later.    


5:00 and 7:00 – Calls to worship from the nearby Synagogue.


8:00 – Begin again with sweeping, and we have a fully 24-hour day.


Fortunately, I like all my neighbors, and I happen to even like ignam pile. I guess it's just a matter of adjusting….and cranking my radio.   

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Some photos

Here are some photos from the last month. There are more, which I hope to be able to post to my Picassa account soon...but a system/opportunity still has to be worked out. Enjoy.

An intimidating stance. At St. Jean Eude's just outside Cotonou, where we spent our first 5 days in Benin.

"The Point of No Return" overlooking the Atlantic in Ouidah. This coast served as one of primary African exit points for slaves from all over Africa being shipped to the Americas.

A view from atop a "mountain" just outside of Dossa. Catholics here annually celebrate an apperation of Mary which they believe appeared on this hill.

On the way North for my post visit our bus--among many others--was held up for about 5 hours near Dossa. The night before a charcoal smuggler had been shot by the Gendarme; appalled what was apparently an excessive show of force, some local witnesses barricaded the road, set some tires on fire, and refused to back down until President Yayi Boni showed up on the scene. He didn'y show, but the Minister of Finance did make an appearance (by helipopter). He checked the scene out, ostensibly said some things to make the peace, and about 2 hours later traffic was moving again. And only 15 hours after the shooting.

Sabastian, one of the other SED trainees, on the beach at Ouidah.

Waiting for the Independence Day parade to begin (only 2 hours behind schedule as it was). That fantastic garb I'm sporting is called a "Bomba," and is tailored from lively "tissue" (fabric) picked out by my host family.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

A Reason for my Silence

I realize I haven't set the best precedent this past month as far as updates go, but there are good reasons. Training in Azove (Southern city about 5 miles from the Togolese border) has been extremeley structured, and as such there hasn't been much free time to trek to a cybrex in another town.

Azove itself has usually had internet connection in the past; however, in the recent months as I understand it the government shut some services down, ostensibly due to back taxes that have long-been owed.

The cellular phone situation has been similar, as currently only 2 (BB Com and Libercom) of the 4 possible cellular providers are operating. The other 2, Moov and Arriba, were also shut down recently in the name of cracking down on corruption (i.e. collecting on back-taxes, previoulsy uncollected for whatever reason.)

While these interventions have caused some personal frustrations, I surmise that they have potentialy affected more disturbances to the Beninese whose businesses and daily routines are reliant on cell phone service--even those who have SIM cards for the running service providers have had to contend w/ an oversaturated network. About 20% of Africans use mobile phones, and here in Benin the widespread utilization of them is reflective of this wider trend. I heard it reported the other day from BBC that the role of the mobile phone in African life is increasingly important for social communicating, business affairs, even as a means of credit exchange/price negotiating and, during elections, political transparency and accountability. I recall reading in the Economist awhiel back that cell phones were the new "personal computer" [and a relatively affordable one--hence their importance to the developing world], as they have taked on and sometimes replaced many of the communicative functions of a PC.

Rumor has it that a Nigerian Co. has purchased Moov and Arriba and that things are in the works for the remittance of payments, and the resumption of service. Good news for both the people here trying to run a business, and for myself who's just trying to connect with home.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


Last Friday evening I arrived safely in Cotonou, Benin. On the night drive to St. Jean Eudes (a religious compound we've been staying for the past half-week), my senses recalled certain sights and sounds from my trip to Eastern Africa two years ago: the streets lined with vendor shacks, the night heavy with heat and humidity, the air poignant with smells of smoke and two-stroke engine exhaust. It's good to be in Africa again.


The past days have been packed with a variety of training, activities, and introductions. I'll flesh out some of these highlights as I have time to process them. Au revoir for now.  

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Soaking in Americana

In the past month I have bided my time between Memphis, Denver, Chattanooga, Birmingham, and Philly--all to carry about the not so fun business of goodbyes. Here is a photographic menegerie of the past month spent with my people in my culture.

Two fellow sojourners.

The siblings at Coors stadium. 6-1, Rockies. The inflated ticket prices were worth seeing Yankees fans being sent home crying.

Goober fishing.

Sleuth: "Dang, did I just climb that?"

If I had to visually summarize and momorialize the sum of the American ethos, this would be it. If you build it...

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Expat Survival Gear

What does one take to Africa for survival, entertainment, comfort? A daunting question, but which must be answered, and soon. Here are some of the more important items constituting my 80-pounds of rations thus far:
  • Italian Espresso Maker and French Press. Relaxants and relationship-builders.
  • Cumin and Cilantro (Lots - I plan to be the first to pioneer Tex-Mex in West Africa...if things work out the way I plan, I may be doing some Chipotle small business development in the distant future).
  • Top Gun Soundtrack. "Danger Zone" will be the anthem of choice when its time to put on the aviators and ride back-seat on a moped taxi down the main strip of Porto Novo.
  • Big Bass Pro Shop mesh hat. For protection from the Equatorial sun but mostly in honor of the South and Andy Clark.
  • Books. Walking With the Poor by Bryant Myers. Mythology by Edith Hamilton - not so much for becoming better-versed in mythology as much as for recalling the joy that these stories bring to Cassel. Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky - I MUST finish this book. Puritan Prayers for finding words more beautiful than my own. Some C.S. Lewis.
  • Scrabble, Travel Edition. So that I don't forget how to speak English.
  • Radio Shack Dynamo hand crank short wave radio. For catching the BBC World Service and other voices from the West. And so I don't forget how to speak English.
I'm open to further suggestions...

Friday, June 29, 2007

Mailing Address

My Benin mailing address will conform to this format:

Name, Peace Corps Volunteer
Corps de la Paix
Cotonou, Benin

Basically don't send me anything expensive, heavy, bulky, perisheable, breakable, or suspicous. Letters (air mail only) take about two weeks, packages at least four.

Here are the USPS guidlines for Benin-bound mail. Don't be put off by the special postage schedules--first class will always do.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Pardon this Guy's French...

So there aren't exactly a lot of travel guide books out there on Benin. One, in fact, and it's written by some journalist-surfer dude and published by some obscure British book company. I bought it.

Upon my initial perusing, the book pretty much read like any other travel guide I've picked up. And then I happened upon page 74, wherein resides a section entitled "Africa is Hell."

I'm not sure if surfer dude gets his comdedic kicks from couching such a disclaimer in the middle of guide book (which the average reader would have probably already purchased at this point), or if this fine piece of paternalistic prose really does reflect some Brit's convictions about an entire continent. Brilliant. Either way, I'll probably leave the official Guide Book to Hades at home and look into what Lonely Planet has to say about West Africa.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Don't Know Much About...

The Republic of Benin

Benin is a small Francophone West African country wedged between Nigeria and Togo. It is an unfortunate reality that if you don't know much about a particular African country it is probably because that state hasn't had the tumultuous and notorious recent history that it's neighbors might have had and, therefore, doesn't stand much of a chance on the international newspage--such is the [fortunate] case with Benin, I think.

Nevertheless, Benin's history and culture has its share of points of interest. For example, in the days of cross-Atlantic slave trading, Benin was the primary exit-point for slaves captured and gathered from across the African continent to be shipped to the Western Hemisphere. Historically and today the country is the progenitor and primary practitioner of the Voodoo belief system (with over half the population practicing either purely or in syncrestitic forms). During the 1970s and 1980s Benin was commonly known as the "Cuba" of West Africa for its exceptional communist postures and policies. After a stark turn of events in the lates 1980's however, Benin's government was overhauled, its economy was liberalized, and today is considered of the most stable of West African states.

For a more info and a country profile of Benin check out the BBC's or the CIA Factbook's entries. Other informative sites of interest include a Peace Corps Friends of Benin site (a hub for news and other info), Benin's Tourism site (I believe put together in part by Peace Corps Volunteers--includes an exciting welcome anthem), and the U.S. State Department's notes on Benin.

The Peace Corps

When it comes to the Peace Corps, there are a number of associative images floating out there in the popular consciousness: long-haired idealists evading the draft and developing the world with smiles (or perhaps more likely developing their own tastes for local drink, etc.); candidate pools for the CIA's historic recruitment of cold war spies; or, if your imaginative powers are especially fueled by film, maybe you think of Tom Hanks and John Candy bumbling around to build a bridge in a Southeast Asian village (1985's Volunteers).

If you're interesting in augmenting a popular education with some other sources, I'd recommend first checking out the Peace Corps website for the PC's self-spin on history, goals, etc. To get a more candid exposure to what a Volunteer's work and life looks like on the ground, check out the Peace Corps Benin Blog index, which includes updated blogs from current Small Enterprise Development volunteers, some of whom I will probably be working with in Benin.

Economic Development

There's no way that I'm going to be able to sufficiently broach this issue here. But if you're interested in learning more about what has arguably been the most important international social question of the past 60 years, the problem/possibility of "Third World" Economic Development, check out the UN's Millienium Development Project to eradicate poverty (an overly-optimistic project in my opinion but nonetheless noble in its goals and worth looking into for a full-orbed look at some of the goals that international development entails). For the most holistic definition of poverty and development, I'd have to reccomend Bryant Myers's book Walking with the Poor, which is likely to trigger a paradigm shift in any pre-conveived definitions you might have concerning "the poor."
Small Enterprise Development (SED, aka Micro Enterprise Development) is the grass-roots development of small businesses. SED is just one facet and strategy within the whole Development Project, and best describes the type of projects in which I will eventually be engaged in Benin. For a primer on what SED entails, check out an
introductory paper put together by the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College.