This weekend I was talking to someone about my first time in Africa, as we spoke, vivid images of my life came back… I thought about it, and I questioned myself how long will those vivid images last in my memory… I wrote this story in total appreciation of my journey, and thankful to the man that became the vessel that took me around the world… He is no longer in my life, yet I am so grateful for what he brought to me. That journey was essential to become who I am today. This weekend I also read “The Book of Joy” an intimate conversation between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu… it moved me to the core, and one phrase of the book somehow summarizes what has being my life since I started this journey around 22 years ago… “Wherever you have friends, that is your country, and wherever you receive love, that is your home.”
1995, I left the United States after more than 15 years of living there, to start a new life in Africa with my then new husband. As I look back, I can’t find a trace of doubt or fear in my memory, to the contrary. I must have been very convincing, because nobody came to tell me something against it. Benin, he said, I went to an old map, and could not find that country… The map was probably older when Benin was called still Republic of Dahomey, a former French colony. Benin is in West Africa. It is bordered by Togo to the west, Nigeria to the east, and Burkina Faso and Niger to the north. I had to enquire further with him, to find it…. then when Google was not at our finger tips. We only had a basic messaging system at work, and now thinking about it, they were organizing all the paper files as a first step to digitalization. At that time, I was working at one of those big international organizations with headquarters in the USA.
We finally arrived in Cotonou-Benin at the beginning of August, after so much expectation, and preparation. Still sitting in the plane, as we heard the landing announcement, they also mentioned that we should have our vaccination cards at hand to present them to the health authorities. We had spent a month in Laxou-France in preparation for our trip to Benin. There I got all my required vaccinations, hepatitis, yellow fever… a list I can’t recall… some of them for the first time in my life. Malaria was endemic at the time, and it seems that it still is in most rural regions of Benin today. We got our documents out, and we knew I did not have the Cholera vaccination, they did not have it in France at the time. I remember looking out the window and seeing the health inspectors standing in line on the landing strip, waiting for the passengers to descend. The contrast of their dark skin with the white aprons gave them away. As we embarked in Paris, we never thought they will actually check our health cards, so after all the preparation, we were faced with the possibility of having some trouble because of the lack of my Cholera vaccination. I know now, that they take those small things seriously, and partly because that is a chance for some additional income, in this case for the health inspectors.
So, sitting there, looking out the plane’s window, we were facing a moment of panic, specially my new husband, a young German man, on his way to his first job after his studies… Without hesitation, I took a pen out and copied from his health card, exactly into mine…. And now the signature… the first one that came to my mind was my Dad’s… I had spent years perfecting it, for this moment!!! I am sure he would have approved, not only approved, but I am sure he would have been honored… So, to the amazement of my then new husband, I just signed it and I was done with it… dated 7/20/95.
As we came out of the air-conditioned plane, down the stairs on to the landing strip, I felt the heavy humid heat, the hot air filling my lungs… and at the same time, the pleasant feeling of my warm skin conquered my senses. I remember wearing green lime pants, and a white blouse. Our health cards were checked and we walked into the terminal. My husband was going to work in a junior position at a German agency for Development. It was an agency for voluntary experts doing for the most part practical training like carpentry, electricians, etc. His was a new position, working with local municipalities, something the agency had not done before. At the time, I had no job…but that soon changed.
We were allowed to bring only150 Kg. in an aluminum box, and two pieces of luggage each for our expected three years stay. I left Washington with this perspective in mind, which meant, I had very little space… So, I went to “Willian Sonoma” and “Crate&Barrel” and walked around, thinking, what small useless thing can I bring that would make me happy… I picked up a set of four napkin holders, two candle holders, some fun plastic beach glasses, and four cooking books that I still keep and use often. As we packed the box in Germany, we had our first real confrontation, as I wanted to bring my (heavy) pasta machine, my candle holders, my books… and my new husband was just thinking about the water filters… As it turned out, we never used the water filters… on the other hand, the candle holders, the pasta machine, and the other useless things, gave us so many nights of unforgettable dinners, and moments. At one point, thanks to my pasta machine, I even sold fresh tortellini every Wednesday together with an Italian woman I met there. And then again, he was only looking for our safety… and me just pleasure… the combination worked!!!
We waited for our luggage to arrive, at our side was Monsieur Dumisha, he was from the agency and had been waiting for us at the luggage belt. He introduced himself, very formal, and friendly, he was there to helped us with our luggage. He ended up being our French coach and right hand for everything we needed during our stay there. It was August, rainy season, we latter learned well what that meant… A small Van was waiting for us by the exit door of the airport. Monsieur Dumisha and my husband rushed to get the bags in the van… as I stayed behind. I remember looking around, taking in what I was living, a chaotic place, filled with noise, and the usual movement of any airport, only this one, filled with amazing colors, their clothing was just beautiful, all women looked so elegant with their matching outfits including turbans… As I came out, I saw the van, and carelessly rushed to cross the small street which was covered with water holes. The van was practically submerged in one.
During our years there, we learned to drive during the rainy season, sometimes with the water high up very close to the window. As I rushed, I heard a sudden honk, and realized that I had almost been run over a by motorcycle… a taxi motorcycle “Zemidjan”, a man in a yellow shirt driving it. I had never seen one before, for sure… In our time there, I not only got to know them, but since we did not have a private car, Zemidjans became my reliable source of transportation. We took the luxury of taking two Zemidjans when going together with my husband out to the town… Most locals would ride in one. One thing I never did, and that was to take our son, that was born during our time there, on my back while riding a Zemidjan, like the local women did, I would hold him in-front of me, like any sensible woman!!!
After I survived my first encounter with the Zemidjan, got into the Van and we went to the “Maison de Passage”, a house made into small hostel for expats, not only for Germans, but European in its majority. I spoke French at that point but obviously not enough to understand well the African accent… for luck most people at the Maison de Passage spoke English. We soon encountered other volunteers, and colleagues of my husband that had done the preparation with him in Germany. I was the only one that had not done any cultural/country preparation before arriving to Benin, I came directly from Washington. To my surprise, most of his colleagues’ partners spoke little English, and almost no French, I spoke no German at that time. I was often lost as most of them will just proceed in German. Then for the first time, I realized I had married into a complete different culture and language. Lost in translation as I was… I could not understand why they would not take us to our house… until one day, I told my husband and Monsieur Dumisha, please take us there, I did not see any reason why not. Soon I learned that the house had being almost demolished and was under renovation. We ended up staying at the Maison de Passage until all the work at our house was finished.
Monsieur Dumisha finally took us to the house, it was a corner house, and it was not only under construction, it was completely ruined. I latter found out that in Benin, it took only a few weeks for a house that was not inhabited to be filled with spider waves and humidity, as it is so humid and hot. But my first perception was that it had being abandoned for years. We walked through the house in disbelief, the bathrooms, the toilets were horrible, the windows did not close, the mosquito nets at the windows torn down. There was furniture inside, which I did not pay any attention at that moment. A lesson for life… the former occupant, a German carpenter, had built himself the furniture, and it was beautiful. We walked back to the office, which was very close to the house, and I said to my husband -we need to find a house, I can’t live there-. Looking back, he had no choice but to accompany me in my search, so we would have French lessons in the morning, and walk the streets of Cotonou in the afternoon in search for a house. After a couple of days, it was clear, that the task was close to impossible, we had a specific budget and for that money, there was little we could find within the area they recommended.
My husband started his job soon after we arrived. After we gave up on our house search, I thought… they are rebuilding what will be our house, so I decided to really make it our house. Next thing, I showed up at the house to see what they were doing, and they were advancing, yes… but at a very comfortable rhythm. At that point, I did not have much to do, so I started to show up every morning to accompany the renovation. I brought a basket of fruit for the workers every day… and bought food from the “bonnes femmes” that came to the door everyday knowing I was buying lunch for the crew. At that point, I only ate the fruit, I did not eat street food…latter we learned to eat it and loved it. The working crew were more than surprised to say the least… my presence was a bit strange at the beginning but and as days went by, I became one of them. Sharing meals with local constructions workers was not something white people did… Now looking back, I was crazy, innocent, fearless, and determined.
As the house started to take shape, the bathrooms were replaced, the rooms cleaned and painted, mosquito nets, and a ventilator installed in each room. We had no air conditioning, and believe me, we learned to appreciate friends with air conditioning during our years there. On our last months in Benin, we lived an energy crisis, no electricity most of the day, and small periods at night… The rain had not come, there was a serious drought, and the hydroelectric plants were not generating enough electricity. We did not have even our ventilators to cool down, and spent nights fanning by hand our son so he could sleep. Our house was an old one, it had been designed to take advantage of the wind, as it was completely open to both sides allowing the wind to go through… but during that time… the heat was unbearable.
During the renovation, we would ride our Zemidjan and go to what was called the rout of the Lebanese to search for paint, or the bathroom floor tiles that became the signature point of our house. The Lebanese route was a road filled with small business selling anything from fabrics, to construction material, household items and anything in between. In Benin, at that time, the wholesale sector was dominated by Lebanese, Indian, and Chinese traders. There, we bought a few boxes of multi colored broken tiles, and hire a young man that specialized in installing this “carreaux cassé”. We handed him the broken tiles, he first laid them out of the boxes… from there his creativity took over and the results were stunning… a mosaic on our bathroom floor.
As we moved into the house, we had to organize some extra furniture… there were some basic items at the house, a double bed, a book self, a dinner table with chairs, and a living room set, all beautiful in teak wood. The agency was in charge to provide a furnished house to the volunteers, they had a warehouse with extra items to choose from. I went there, and it was filled with nice furniture, as they had carpentry cooperation there, most of the pieces were well done and with a distinctive style. We picked some obvious items, an extra bed for the guest bedroom, we had to have one, for colleagues that came from remote parts of the country in need of a place to stay. One item caught my eye, an old pantry with wire grid instead of glass, to keep mosquitos out. I told the man in charge that I wanted that piece, he looked at me in disbelieve, I must admit it was in a sad state… You can have it… he said… and please don’t bring it back… So, I went back with my beautiful gift. I keep it outside on the porch of the house until we fixed it. We had a guard, he came with the house… Herve. He became my right, and often left hand during our stay in Benin. He guarded the house, took care of our garden, kept me company, baby cited our son, so we can go dancing… and cared for him with so much joy. Sometimes when we came back from a party, we found Herve siting in the living room sofa with our son sleeping on his chest… Thinking about it, I can still bring to my memory the scent he left on my son’s skin…
We spend our last day with him in Benin. We had lunch at a local restaurant, him holding our son the whole time… knowing that would probably be the last time he would carry him or see him. We lost contact with Herve. I have always kept his picture with our son in the living room… a sweet reminder of one of the sweetest and kindest man I have ever meet…
I asked Herve to sand and clean my new acquire treasure… we removed the old wire grid. The job grew a bit out of our reach so Herve called Alain, a carpenter friend of his… Alain had also worked with the German carpenter that had previously lived in the house. He replaced the missing shelves, cured the wood that had started to rotten, and replaced the wire grid. Once cleaned… Alain wanted to put on lacquer, I stopped him on time!!! I went back to the Lebanese market searching for red paint… no chance, all I found was a red pigment. I applied the red pigment myself… and my beautiful red pantry has accompanied me from Africa to Europe, to the Americas… back to Africa and back to Europe… looking gorgeous, and always the center of attention everywhere.
That is how I landed in Africa… for the next three years we lived the simplest of life, yet full of excitement, often by the sea. No television, only a long wave radio we used to listen together, often in the bathroom, where the reception was best, and in our last year, finally internet. Movies were only projected at night, since movie theaters were open to allow ventilation, we soon learned to cheer with the crowd, as locals did. I ended having a great job… We had a child, our first son. I had the most amazing pregnancy eating pineapples every day… relaying on the local Spanish missionary nuns for my prenatal care. We all had our share of Malaria and medical adventures… All of which is material for many more stories…. to come…