I was a Canadian fish out of water. Shortly after completing my first month as a language teacher in Parakou, a dry dusty town in Benin, West Africa, I visited a new literacy centre. I traveled from Parakou, 35 kilometers by motorcycle on dirt trails to see this centre in Gararou, a modest Peuhl village.
When we arrived, the class instructor greeted us and began the usual speech. I swore, sometimes it would take fifteen minutes just to salute each other. First, I asked how they were, then how they felt, whether they were tired. At this point, either I got a long speech on ailments, or a quick and painless all’s well. A long lull followed. Then the greeter asked if I was still there (even though I was standing in front of him). I asked about his work, his fields and his family.
No such thing as a simple hi, how are ya, in Benin
Following the routine with the instructors, my driver and I circled the village and greeted the elders. We arrived at the classroom only after every elder, king and teacher in the village received an hello. In this village, instructors held classes in a one-room building constructed from dusty brown cement wall, filled with rows of long rustic benches. Numerous branchless trees thatched together by skinny strings formed triangles that supported the thin layer of aluminum roof. The open windows contained no glass, rather simple wooden shutters.
Walking into the room my conversation distracted me. Before I knew what hit me, I cracked my head on the threshold of the five-foot high door. Startled and slightly dizzy, I remembered the Peuhl people of northern Benin made small door openings to keep charging bulls from entering the dwellings. As I stood there with stars swimming before my eyes, I felt like a bull had charged me.
Pain already flooded my bruised kidneys from moments before when my motorcycle driver had hit speed bumps at 60 kilometers an hour near the train tracks. In Benin train track crossings are identified by four sets of speed bumps. Fortunately, they tar them over the same color as the rest of the road to make them easily identifiable! Consequently, as we flew over the speed bumps, the motorcycle's back crossbar dug into my lower back causing me to yelp. “Doucement”. My Beninese driver called back to me, a French word literally meaning “softly” used ceaselessly in Benin, to express everything from “watch out” to "excuse me”.
So I stood in front of my new class with one hand on my pounding head and the other on my aching back. Along with my long 70’s feathered hair, gelled in place by sweat and the dirt of racing down the red dusty highway for an hour on the back of a motorcycle without a helmet, I believe I made one fancy first impression.
Observing and being observed
As my head ricocheted off the hard cement wall, I quickly looked in to see the students inside the classroom. Some 20 students ranging in age from 15 to 50, immediately jumped to attention and waved their hands in the air crying out, “Doucement! Doucement!” Once the excitement was over and everybody sat down, I took my observation seat at the back of the class, and the instructor picked up from where he had left the lesson.
I made some notes and listened. After a while, I looked around the room. In each of the three windows on the right hand side of the room grew a pyramid of gawking children. Turning behind me, I found an avalanche of more brown eyes, all fixed on me, pouring in through the open back door. I smiled and they bashfully smiled back.
Eventually the children began to focus on getting my attention, and not very subtly either. One of the older students finally got up and drove them out by beating them away with sticks. An hour later, I slipped out the back door to sneak a cigarette. After several minutes, my driver joined me. I started to speak when several loud shouts cracked the silence. We shifted positions to peer around the corner of the building.
Not far from the school, a man and a boy hurried up the lane each carrying a large squirming rodent by the tail. My driver confirmed they were definitely rats, but they were the biggest rats I’d ever seen. I figured the farmers had caught the rats gnawing at the crops and were going to kill them. I asked my driver what they intended to do. Shocked at my stupidity, he snapped his head around and uttered one word – stew.
When class finished, the teacher asked me to introduce myself. We hadn’t discussed this before as I generally only observed on my first few visits. My driver, also an educator, stood first and spoke, buying me time to make something up. I figured I’d start off with my name and then work my way into telling them that I was from Canada, in Benin on an internship to observe classes, like the one they just completed. I thought that would be enough and then we’d go for some water.
My driver finished his speech, nodded to me. Joining him in front of the class, my lips parted to speak when he told the group my name was James, and that I had come all the way from Canada to observe classes as part of my internship in Benin. After an uncomfortable silence, I stuttered, “Yeah, like he told you, my name is James and I’m Canadian.” The students didn’t mind the repetition, when I finished speaking, they gave me a standing ovation.
It was at this instant that my hay fever, which had been dormant for years, kicked in, I began sneezing like a crazed fool. After every sneeze, the students sang a hearty “Doucement”. My nose started to run with clear liquid, I wiped furiously with the first thing I could find, my left hand. The students stared in dismay. It wasn’t that I had chosen to wipe my nose with my hand that disgusted them, it was the choice of hands.
For that brief moment in time, I forgot that toilet paper did not exist in the villages. A simple rule had been established – wipe your ass with your left hand, eat and do everything else with the right hand.
After class, the instructor sent one of his students to retrieve my gift. Embarrassed, I told him it wasn’t necessary, that it was my job to visit their class. I was happy to be there. He insisted. The student returned holding a chicken – a live squawking feathered chicken tied at the feet, dangling upside down off the student’s arm. I smiled wondering what I was going to do with it. My driver thought the chicken was splendid!
“But that’s not all” cried the instructor. Once again he motioned for us to sit as a small boy walked in with a large pot in his hands and a smaller pot balanced on his head. He took a big bowl, filled its lower half with water. My driver dipped his right hand in the bowl, washed it in the water and I did the same. He then took the covers off the pots. Inside, a loaf of mashed yams steamed. The smaller pot revealed a thick red dipping sauce with large chunks of meat.
I instantly flashed back to earlier that afternoon when I spotted the farmer with the rats. My driver winked at me and hinted it was beef, although it was cuts of beef I'd never seen before. After eating the rat stew, we walked around the village to say our good byes, hooked the clucking chicken on the motorcycle handlebars and headed home. Upon our arrival I insisted that he keep the spectacular gift. I prefer my chickens roasting on a barbeque.