Sunday, July 31, 2011

Dance Kangana

Last night on the television in Kaolack, Senegal, I saw a music video by a Togolese group for a new song called, "Dance Kangana." Kangana is an evil spirit who stars in a popular Indian soap opera called "Shree." Each night when it airs, children throughout West Africa sing along with the theme song, taxi drivers use it as their ring tones and radios blast the popular beats.

Indian fashion and television series are exceptionally popular in West Africa. Shree is the latest craze to sweep the region but it is not the first. Perhaps the most popular series so far was "Vaida." The markets were filled with Vaida printed wax fabric and pirated DVDs. When the series ended last year, it was marked by a television special featuring Senegalese stars singing popular Indian songs, while wearing Indian clothing and dancing Indian dances. The original Vaida cast came to Dakar for the event. The strangest of the Indian television series craze is a Brazilian program entitled "An Indian Love Story" that features Brazilian actors dressed in Indian clothing and make-up. It is filmed in a sort of technicolor and just doesn't make any sense to me.

I have also bought into the frenzy, buying Indian "Punjab" fabric and making my own outfits that blend Indian and African styles. There is really an East meets West cultural convergence taking place right now throughout West Africa. I, for one, am fascinated and I wonder how far it will go.... Is it long before samosas and chai are sold on street corners? Will women in the villages start wearing pants? Will Indian music videos find a market here or will "Dance Kangana" be the beginning of the end?

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Zangbeto is the guardian of the night. He protects the villagers from theft, solves domestic disputes, and organizes community service. I have witnessed the presence of Zangbeto in all of these affairs. He also provides entertainment during ceremonies. He dances by spinning around fast, shrinking and growing in height as he turns. I have also witnessed this many times. 

There are many reports of the Zangbeto's public display of power. Zangbeto drives motorcycles, crosses rivers by walking on water, and transforms buckets of water into palm wine. Zangbeto can also become very tiny and dance inside of a bottle. I have not had the fortune of seeing any of these spectacles myself.

Although Zangbeto does make appearances during the day, his main work takes place at night. He moves through the narrow winding paths of the village in total darkness. He is followed by a group of drummers and makes an eery humming noise to announce his arrival. At night his power is great and he must not be seen by anyone who is not an initiate of his group.

Only men can join the group of Zangbeto. All men of the village are forced to join. Children and women (and men who refuse to join) fear Zangbeto. They know that the affairs of Zangbeto do not include them and they in turn avoid all contact. While I was visiting the village, the neighborhood Zangbeto came over to the house to offer me his blessing.


Kaleta is the child of Zangbeto. His primary role is to make children laugh. He provides entertainment during ceremonies and events. He is followed by a group of children who play drums for him. Kaleta lives inside of termite mounds. It is thought that every termite mound contains a Kaleta. He will only come out when he is summoned by his guardian. Every Kaleta has a guardian.

While I was visiting the village, I asked if it would be possible for the guardian to summon Kaleta on my behalf. The neighborhood boys went to speak to the guardian and he happily accepted. The guardian instructed the boys to buy a bottle of red palm oil as an offering. Since Kaleta is a child spirit, he doesn't need sodabi. He showed the boys the termite mound where the neighborhood Kaleta lives and told them to come back three days later. He needed three days to complete all of the prayers and purification rituals before contacting the spirits. He poured the palm oil on the termite mound.

Three days later at 16:00, the boys went to the termite mound. They removed their shirts, as prescribed by the guardian. They took turns breaking the mound, a process that took nearly an hour of hard work. After the mound was completely broken, the boys stood back and waited. Suddenly, Kaleta appeared before their eyes. Kaleta followed the boys back to the house.

As soon as he arrived, Kaleta immediately began dancing. He also made a prayer for me, communicated by kneeling in front of me and holding out his hand. Kaleta does not speak or make any noise with anyone besides his initiates. He communicates only with the children who accompany him in private, secret conversations.

Kaleta danced for over 15 minutes before returning to his mound. Who knows the next time he will be summoned?


There are three types of spirits living in Gbeko. Zangbeto, his child Kaleta, and Pogi. There are many different Kaleta and Zangbeto's because each neighborhood has their own. It is estimated that Gbeko could have up to 100 of each. There is only one Poji in Gbeko. I have never seen it and can not describe it. Poji walks on stilts and one child described it to me as the spirit, "who's feet never touch the ground." 

These spirits are not human. There is a separate phenomenon within voudun culture when humans can enter a trance and speak with the voice of a spirit (ancestor). Yet this is totally separate from the three spirits mentioned here: They are not and never were human. The spirits cover their forms from humans by wearing masks and colorful clothing. Only the followers of each spirit can see their actual forms. They are also the only ones who can touch them. Individuals become initiates of a spirit by following the steps determined by tradition and the guardian of the spirits. 

Each spirit has a guardian who facilitates all contact between the spirit and the human world. The guardian  is the only person who can summon the spirit. This generally includes prayer and gifts to the shrine of the spirit (Zangbeto is represented by a sculpture and Kaleta a termite mound). The guardian must also purify himself before approaching these shrines. One aspect of purification is to have no contact with women (unless they are virgins). Offerings to the spirits most always include distilled palm wine (sodabi) and red palm oil. These are poured on the shrines. Sodabi is also consumed by the guardian as part of the purification process. Sacrifices of chickens or other animals may also be made, depending on the reasons for summoning the spirit. They are usually killed on the shrine and consumed by the guardian of the spirit and also sometimes the person(s) who made the offering. 

I should mention that women are forbidden to have any contact with the spirits. It is entirely the domain of men. Women are forbidden from knowing the secrets of initiation or membership. Women can only see the spirits during the daylight hours. There are many beliefs about consequences for not respecting the "rules" of the spirits. The main idea is that the spirit will take the offending person back to the spirit world with them. This threat is great enough that non-initiates, children, and women all fear the spirits and avoid any contact with them.

Copa Cobana in Grand Popo

Sam Cooke Live at the Copa Cobana played on the speaker during dinner singing, "This little light of mine I'm gonna let it shine." I couldn't have selected a better song.

I sat at the table looking out at the long, empty beach. I ordered a Moka soda... Which tasted better than I remembered. Heaven in a glass! Ocean wind blew my hair in every direction. I felt absolutely free. As she brought my salad, the server proudly announced, "because you said no eggs, we added tuna!" Perhaps she was also the one who replaced Sam Cooke with hideous dijeridoo music! When I left the table without eating (tuna oil covered vegetables) the front desk staff apologized and sent me back to my room with a new salad. At least they understood customer service. I was pleasantly surprised. I ate the entire plate while watching The Life Aquatic on my ipod. It felt like a real vacation. For breakfast the next morning I was presented with a huge thermos of coffee all for me along with a basket of bread and coconut confiture. Heavenly!

After three weeks in the village, surrounded by people 24 hours a day, I was looking forward to a quiet weekend alone. I was happy to discover that the only other people staying at the hotel was a German family. They were polite to me but bossy to the hotel staff. They laughed often and kept to themselves.

It was my first time staying at the hotel. The other times I was in Grand Popo I camped on the beach instead. Total cheapskate! This time I was on a bigger budget. However, staying in the rooms was not expensive.

The colonial style guest house has two floors. The reception workers asked me if I would like a first floor, garden level room for 16,000 or a second floor, ocean view room for 18,000. I decided to treat myself to an ocean view. I was a little bit surprised to see that none of the rooms have windows, hence no view.

The slots in the wood door and parallel window in the bathroom created a nice cross-breeze. A large ceiling fan made the room feel well-ventilated. As the only guest on the second floor, I kept the door open except for the times I was sleeping. The other irony was that large trees hid most of the ocean from sight from the balcony. The next time I am there I will definitely go for the cheapest room available.

I hope to go back to Grand Popo again soon... is was a totally perfect escape.

My baby got sauce

I arrived in Grand Popo on a Friday afternoon. As I got out of the taxi, a motorcycle taxi pulled up. I negotiated a price, slapped on my helmet, and hopped on. The driver drove about five meters before stopping in front of a man standing on the side of the road. The man handed the driver a large bowl covered by a plate. The driver in turn handed the plate to me with an apologetic look. Then he added, "it is sauce for my wife's lunch."

I carried the bowl for about ten minutes before we stopped in front of a beauty salon. A little boy came running out of the shop and took the bowl from my hands. Everyone inside the shop waved. The driver turned around and kept driving until we reached the hotel.

This event symbolizes one of the things I love best about living in Africa. Helping others is expected, assumed, and not optional... whether it is holding someone else's baby in a taxi, carrying a heavy bag, or bringing sauce to a hungry wife!

The village without streets

From 2002-2004, I lived in a small village called Gbeko, which is located on an island in the Oume river. There was no electricity, phones, or police.

To reach the isolated village, I took a canoe ride that lasted between 10 minutes to 3 hours, depending on the time of year. During the rainy season the entire valley flooded. Although the village itself is on high land, the neighboring villages became stilt villages. I bought a canoe and took trips to visit all of the villages in the valley.

In the seven years since I left the village there was a lot of change. Of course the biggest change was the children themselves who have all grown up and become parents and respected community members. I was so happy to see my old friends and hear their stories. Here is a summary of my observations:

  • Fish stocks have been dramatically reduced, both in terms of the quantity and size of the fish harvested
  • The price of nearly everything has doubled (the canoe ride has gone from 10 to 25 CFA and a fried donut has gone from 5 to 10 CFA)
  • The amount of money received for the produce grown and harvested has increased dramatically
  • The secondary school includes all grades, including senior year (terminal)
  • The majority of young men will complete (or at least attend secondary school)
  • Most girls will complete primary school and most will attend secondary school
  • There are female teachers in the schools, including four at the secondary level
  • There is some cell phone network coverage
  • Some houses have generators
  • These houses also have DVD players where people watch movies and Goun/Fon music videos
  • There are many zemidjans
  • Alcoholism (sodabi) is a serious problem
  • There are refrigerators and cold beverages
  • There are many cement houses, including one three-story palace (unoccupied)
  • Belief in Voudun is starting to show a serious decline
  • Many market women cover their food to protect it from flies/contamination
  • Increase in number of large churches
  • Tofu is sold everywhere
  • The road between Porto Novo and Azowlisse is paved

No changes
  • Narrow, winding paths connect compounds
  • Hot water is pumped from the deep under the ground
  • Most houses are made out of mud
  • The main crops are manioc, sweet potatoes, okra, rice, and hot peppers
  • Most girls get pregnant/married before completing secondary school (often with teachers or even the school directors)
  • Childbirth is the biggest threat to women's lives
  • There is only a night market in Gbeko, with large markets near by in Dekin, Zoudounou, and Azowlisse
  • Funerals can last more than five days
  • Most people get married without having a wedding (just start living together)
  • There is not a single NGO helping people in the village (except for the flood victims last year)
  • Belief in sorcery is as very strong and is used to explain every good or bad event that happens in peoples' lives
  • Belief in the power of the spirits living among humans is strong
  • Women work longer hours than men (and do equally difficult tasks)
  • Akassa or pate (white, red, or black) is eaten for every meal
  • Sauces with a lot of pepper
  • My luggage- I brought with me the exact two bags I used in Benin

Bon Arrivee

The day I traveled to the village for the first time I was nervous to have all of my belongings piled into a canoe steered by a young girl not older than ten-years-old.

When we arrived near the edge of the village, I heard singing. As we came closer I saw women standing knee-deep in water. The women approached the canoe and pulled out my belongings one by one until the canoe was empty. They carried the heavy bags on their heads all the way to my house, over one hour away. I was left without anything to carry. Even my bicycle was balanced on someone's head.

When we arrived at the front door of my new house, I found all of the women sitting in a circle with a large bowl in the center of the room. They invited me to sit with them. Then we all ate lunch together.

My return to the village seven years later was less dramatic. I arrived in the evening, just as the sun set. I was accompanied by my closest friend in the village, Evariste. Now a young man in his senior year of high school, I remember him as the boy who took care of my dog, Soleil, while I was away. In addition, he was my main companion during afternoon walks around the village.

Evariste was now living in Azowlisse while he studied for his BAC exam so he came to the village for the sole purpose of being my guide. We stayed in the same house, which was recently built by one of Evariste's many uncles living in Cotonou.

My first goal in the village was to visit Evariste's grandmother, Nene. I ran into her while I was on my way to her house. I also ran into the Voudun chief and  all of the grown up versions of the neighborhood kids.  Everyone was on their way to see me as I was rushing to them at the same time. Seeing all of my friends felt like a real homecoming. I actually didn't even realize how much I had missed my friends there until I was back in their company.

The group of kids who used my house as their central meeting place were all still in school and all doing well. The only exception was one of my favorite girls, Malia, who passed away last year after a sudden illness.

My friends came over to visit me many times each day. Their smiles showed me how happy they were to see me even without them saying so. They carried with them gifts of coconuts, popcorn, and donuts. They had ideas of places to go and old friends to visit. It was truly marvelous to see everyone.

This group of young men and women are a great source of pride and hope, not only for their families but for the entire village. They represent the first generation to become educated, complete secondary school and attend universities or trade schools. This group can gain the power and skills needed to be able to one day improve the quality of life in the village.

I will never be able to express the extent of my appreciation to my friends in the village. They offered me the gifts of friendship and solidarity every day I spent in the village. Without them, I wouldn't have survived a single night. With them, I shared some of the happiest days of my life.


Cotonou has been invaded by people with money. There are many huge buildings with shiny windows and flashy exteriors. There are cash machines on every corner and the streets are filled with Land Rovers.

I returned to Cotonou after two weeks in the village. The newly paved road between Azowlisse and Porto Novo prevented me from becoming covered in red dirt like before but an hour motorcycle ride didn't exactly make me feel fresh.

I was in serious need of a shower yet I had no idea where to stay. I decided to try Hotel Concord, I never actually stayed there but remembered it as a popular place and it was at least in the neighborhood close to all of the places I used to visit.

When I pulled up on the zemi, I was surprised to see that it was closed for business. A man standing outside recommended a place around the corner uncreatively called "The Prince Hotel."

I didn't have another option so I decided to try it. I was delighted to discover that it was directly next door to the Indian grocery store. This is another Cotonou landmark that I had been dreaming about. I happily purchased McVities hobnobs and current shortcakes, in addition to a mint Ritter sport and a bottle of soymilk!

I returned to my room an watched CNN (it's only redeeming quality being that it is in English!), read some emails with the functioning wifi, and took a long, very hot shower.

Later that night I went downstairs to buy some credit for my cellphone. I ended up talking far too long to all of the characters in the lobby. One man could not guess what country I was from, despite many helpful hints. He must of gone through a list of 30 countries but just could not get it right. I thought he may have been pulling my leg but don't think so. Perhaps he was drunk or taking drugs. Or maybe he is just a bit slow.

After a long talk about the perils of immigration to the states, especially without having the correct documents to work, our conversation led to a crowning story I have been waiting to share with someone since 2005 when I visited Belize, a country who's only thing in common with Benin is a similarly sounding name (more than one letter addressed to Benin was sent first to Belize by the U.S. Postal Service). I explained my surprise when I arrived at the airport and saw a large photograph of the small nation's President, who happened to be Lebanese. This story was well-received by my audience, who could never fathom this happening in their own country, despite the large control the group has over the local economy.

The reception worker surprised me the next morning by sending up breakfast to my room. It is always nice to make friends with people and those late night conversations with strangers are often the most memorable.

Before leaving Cotonou again to visit Grand Popo and Come, I took another walk around the neighborhood. I decided to treat myself to the purchase of super cute fabric at the Vlisco store and asked the fabulously dressed sales clerks for a recommendation of a good tailor.

They sent me on a zemi to a shop a few minutes away. The tailor looked at me with hungry eyes. He spoke of love and sat too close to me as I perused the fashion magazines. I  made sure to keep the door open and kept to the topic of the outfit I wanted. He told me I looked like a model and that he would follow me to Mauritania.

When I went to pick it up a week later I brought a friend with me. At first fitting, the outfit was terrible but I made him fix it and the result is very lovely.  Evidently Cotonou has also been invaded by sketchy tailors. I will avoid them in the future.

Thoughts from the rainy season

The two am Air Nigeria flight from Dakar arrived in Cotonou at six am. From the airplane window I could see the rain falling from the dark clouds below. I could also see glimpses of the impressive Oume river, which resembled an enormous snake winding through the dense, emerald green canopy of seemingly endless forests.

When the plane landed, seven of us disembarked from the plane. The rest of the passengers were bound for bustling Lagos. The Cotonou airport was just as I remembered; a simple structure with high ceilings. The building still feels unfinished despite all the years that have passed.

The formalities consisted on a man standing at a desk, without protective glass, who stamped my passport without a smile or a question. I am not sure he even saw the visa I was so stressed about securing before arrival. The consular arrived in Nouakchott the day before my departure and arranged to meet me outside of the official office hours.

My first stop was Hotel de Port. I picked it randomly from the Lonely Planet guidebook, since the only other hotel I knew (Hotel du Lac) was unavailable due to a "seminar." I visited a friend who was staying at Du Lac a couple of weeks later and was surprised to see that it has had a major face lift. It may be Cotonou's most desirable hotel. It was no surprise that I couldn't get a room there all three times I tried.

Unfortunately, a night at Hotel du Port has the same high price tag even though the amenities were greatly lacking. For starters, the room was small. It took three requests to get a functioning television. The hot water was only luke warm. The wi-fi did not work until nine pm.

The worst part was the lack of tranquility. The space below held aerobics classes in the afternoons and evenings and salsa lessons all night long. I was thankful that my 6 am arrival caused me to sleep most of the day! At the same time I realize that a real sports enthusiast may have been thrilled with the possibilities.

Just about the only redeeming quality if the hotel was it's location within walking distance of Bangkok Terrace, my long time favorite restaurant in Benin (West Africa?)!!! I walked there for dinner and had a delicious plate of pad thai with vegetarian spring rolls!

After a long sleep (the pouring rain gave me even less reason to get out of bed), I went in search of the Peace Corps office. It has moved since the time I was there. I wanted to greet the Peace Corps doctor who is to this day the best I have ever had. Dr. Rufin always showed me that he cared, no matter how long his list of patients was. I know that I can never say thank you enough to him for every time he helped me. I don't think I will ever have such comprehensive quality health care again... And hopefully I will never need it as much!

After my visit with the world's greatest doctor, I rode my first zemidjan (motorcylcle taxi) in seven years. I was nervous as I hopped on but felt happy with the wind blowing through my hair. I told the driver to take me to a place where I can buy a helmet. He knew just the place and a few minutes later I felt a lot more confident on the zemi. The next stop was Marche Ganhi, which I remembered as being a chic part of town. This was definitely not the case anymore. The elegant Vlisco Hollandais store is still there while the other stores seem to be crumbling around it.

The ladies selling sandwiches in the garbage pit next-door, so-called "sewer sandwiches," were still there although they did cross over to the other side of the street. I didn't dare eat one.
Instead, I went in search of Farou's, my number one hang out in Cotonou. I can say with confidence that I ate at least one meal there every single day I was in Cotonou. It is the bar by which I measure all Lebanese food. It was my introduction to zaatar, foul, and baba ganoush. I walked to the restaurant in anticipation but soon realized that it was long gone. Disappointed, I decided to save my appetite. It was Farou's or bust.

The next morning I woke up early to run some errands before traveling to the village. A nice espresso in front of the turquoise blue pool was also a reminder that I was on vacation. At the pharmacy I bought some anti-malaria medicine (doxycycline) and then hit the road!

Twenty-four hours later, I was in a canoe winding my own way up stream to the village. It looked exactly as I remembered.