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.