The world we live in now

All “gatherings” are now forbidden in Quebec, as part of efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus. It’s unclear if a group of 2-3 people constitutes a “gathering”; five or more definitely does. I was passing through an older friend’s neighbourhood earlier today on my way home from a work-related trip out and decided to stop by and say hello from a safe distance, as I’d promised him. That “hello” turned, at his insistence, into a forbidden espresso, a forbidden dinner, a forbidden glass of red wine and a forbidden ride home in his van so we could talk more. All through that time he made up excuses not to be worried about the coronavirus, and we told each other stories from our childhoods and, at times, pretended nothing was wrong.

As he let me out of the van, he looked straight at me and said, “If I do get sick and die, don’t beat yourself up over it. It’s my decision to have guests in my house, and my decision alone.”

That’s the world we live in in spring 2020.

Stepping back

Were you a reader growing up? Did you ever read The Diary of Anne Frank or A Child’s Life in Sarajevo or (if, like me, Russian Studies was your thing) the terrifying Blockade Diary of Tanya Savicheva ? Maybe you read fictional accounts of this sort of thing, the historical fiction “diaries” that are written to help 10- and 11-year-olds understand historical events through the eyes of someone their own age. Or maybe dystopian fiction is more your thing — The Handmaid’s Tale, anyone? The Testaments? Suite française (based on actual events)?

One thing all these books share is that stomach-dropping “oh shit” moment, maybe a quarter of the way through?, shifts from “Nina and I went out for ice cream.” to “Nina’s sister has been shot.” From “our literature teacher is so annoying” to “our literature teacher has disappeared.”

We are living that moment right now.

Last Tuesday, I worked in a coffee shop for a large part of the day before going to meet some friends for a dance class. Afterward, we went to a microbrewery for one drink, which turned into a late dinner, which turned into a second round of drinks, before we carpooled home.

Wednesday — this time last week– I worked on a story about college basketball for most of the afternoon before taking the Metro to a Midwives Save Lives cocktail party.

Thursday, I finished the story — and another one about domestic violence prevention– and then got on a train to Toronto. I went to the Midwives Save Lives closing event at U of T — where the elbow bump had become the “salutation d’usage” — and went back to my hostel to sort through the photos, go through edits to a story on food co-ops,  and do a bit of paperwork. I wanted to grab a drink and a snack at the downstairs bar, but by the time I was finished, the bar was closed. It was just as well (thought I) because the next morning I had to get on a train to Oshawa to meet some trade unionists for another story. Great meeting with the trade unionists, drive around the vast, spooky, almost-closed GM plant, train back to Toronto, bacon sandwich and a beer at St. Lawrence Market with a Quebec City friend who lives near there now. We elbow bump goodbye. On the train back to Toronto, no one is talking about anything except this new virus, which celebrities have it, what is closing, and why people are panic-buying toilet paper. Theatres and concert halls have been closed down by the government, although not very many people seemed bothered by that as such, because who goes to the theatre more than a few times a year anyway? The schools were all extending their spring breaks, but only by a few weeks.

Let me pause here and explain what’s going  on, just in case you’ve been living under a rock, filming a reality show or recently held hostage, or you’re reading this 20 years in the future and you’re too young to remember the godforsaken spring of 2020. The spring of 2020 was the spring of the first coronavirus outbreak. Coronavirus is, well, a virus, that attacks the lungs. Many if not most people who get it have no symptoms at all, or cold symptoms. But in a minority of people, it causes a really scary, hard-to-treat viral pneumonia that is sometimes fatal. It has, as of this writing, a death rate of about 4 to 5 per cent, which doesn’t sound like that much, but look at your Facebook friends list or your address book app and imagine one of every twenty people dying horribly, and you suddenly realize that it’s actually a pretty high number. The great majority of people who died have either been over 60 or immunosuppressed. Most of the young, healthy people who have died have, sadly, been health care workers who were constantly exposed to it. But younger, apparently healthier people have dropped dead of it too. I might not be at massive personal risk, but I’m still at risk, as are my parents, and (because I have a wonderful multigenerational friend group) several of my close friends.

I’ll pick my chronology back up. By Saturday, events were getting cancelled left, right and centre. I went on a great outdoor guided tour given by my friend Donovan (not cancelled) and then to a music event at a bar (where, at the end, a vote was taken and a hiatus declared.

The event I was supposed to go to in the Lanaudière with my friend Guillaume was cancelled as well, but I didn’t think much of that. I woke up early the next morning, worked a bit and went for coffee with my friend Vlad, a Haitian poet who I hadn’t seen since before Africa, who was, as usual, bubbling over with ideas for everything from kids’ books to stage plays to manga.  We hugged as I got off the metro at Peel to go buy gym clothes at Winners — I’d been hoping to start going to the gym again but then I realized that my gym clothes had gotten lost during one of my moves. So I went to buy gym clothes, and vegetables, and went to lunch at my friend Claudio’s place. Suddenly, just as we were finishing, the premier’s voice came on the radio. There were new day care centres being opened for the children of essential workers, OK, great. Then he announced that gyms, bars and libraries were being ordered to close.

That stopped me short. Gyms, bars and libraries…the places where people went to escape from the mess of the everyday. The bar where Claudio and Guillaume and Alain and I saw our friends every Monday — shuttered. Restaurants and cafés were not initially closed, but were restricted such that some of them just switched to providing takeout-only service.

We were also being told to practice social distancing — to stay at least six feet apart from any human we might meet. In that moment, Claudio and I couldn’t social distance — we just held each other. “Normal” was gone, and who knew when it would return? Then he drove me home, even though I perfectly well could have taken the metro — although I’m glad he did drive me, because that meant we both spent 15 more minutes in the company of another human before it became taboo. Then we both started our self-isolation…which will probably last months.

I’d always been bewildered in the past when I’d heard about AIDS patients in Africa continuing to have high-risk sex, or families of people who had died of Ebola touching the bodies even though they’d been told that they were likely to give themselves the disease that way. “Why don’t these people just stop?” I wondered. Years later, I took a class on communication in humanitarian contexts, where I was told that “culture always wins” when adopting a new habit is a question of respecting a culture versus keeping safe physically. “Why?!” I still thought.

Now I think I get it. Hugging is part of our culture. Coming together in bars to listen to music, or in coffeeshops to talk and talk and talk, is part of our culture. It just is. And it has been cut off from us, for our safety. And I feel like I’m wasting away without it, especially without the hugging. Goodness knows how we’re all going to get through this.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

30 seconds in front of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London

A piece I wrote in January and thought I had posted, but apparently had not. 

 

The first time I saw St. Paul’s Cathedral rising over the Millennium Bridge was about 10 years ago. Then, as now, I was coming to the end of a long and transformative trip. Then, as now, I was exhausted on some deep cellular level. Then, as now, my hands had physically molded into the shape of my suitcase handle. I had the added complications of sloshing hormones, a tattered relationship with a good woman and the woefully incomplete self-knowledge you could expect of a 20-year-old who, on top of it, had a disability and a gender identity she didn’t yet have the tools to understand.

But, then as now, the towering majesty of St. Paul’s took my breath away. Even as an atheist, even as someone who’d only passed through London a few times, I understood the power of the image that appeared in London papers at the height of the Blitz in 1940, of the Cathedral dome rising out of the smoke of the bombs. Even though I was unsurprised to find out that it was partially a montage — “more of the picture has been changed than not,” one researcher said — the symbolism shook me.

I even, for the briefest of moments, regretted my decision not to have kids. It would be something to be able to walk with a child along the Thames, past Shakespeare’s Globe and the Tate Modern, up to the Millennium Bridge,  briefly grab their upper arm and say Stop. This is grace. This is beauty. This is permanence.

Stpaulsblitz

Our Collective Failure

20200102_125934 USE

 

Here I am in Athens, Greece, where I’ve spent the last two weeks volunteering at a refugee camp called Skaramagas. In practice, it’s a small town, wedged between a naval base, a container port, a highway and a gulf that eventually opens out onto the Aegean Sea. About 3000 people live here, in heated, shipping-container-like boxes known as caravans, about the size of a trailer, each one shared by two families (8-12 people). Most of them, as far as I can tell, are Syrian, Afghan and Kurdish families with children, who trekked over land from Afrin, Erbil or Kabul to Turkey before surviving the short but risky Aegean Sea crossing. There are also some Palestinians, as well as smaller numbers of Congolese, Angolans and Cameroonians who were able to save for flights to Turkey before attempting the crossing. Some, like an 18-year-old young woman from Syrian Kurdistan who I spoke to today, were literally fleeing to escape falling bombs. Others are fleeing political instability or had gotten “involved in politics” without intending to and had to make a run for it. There are some who are looking for financial stability or increased independence — “I just want to be a grown-up — to earn money but also to make my own choices and have control over where I go and what I do — and Africa doesn’t let you do that,” a guy my own age from a southern African country told me. I don’t know if any of these people will receive asylum. An external adjudicator, an overworked Greek judge listening to an interpreter over a spotty Skype connection, will decide if their suffering was “real,” if it meets the criteria for asylum and if it renders them deserving of international protection and of the legal freedom of movement we Western passport holders take for granted. The Greek asylum system is currently dealing with a massive backlog, so many of these people will be spending huge chunks of their lives in camp — Adnan (not his real name), a resident volunteer who works with us said in a meeting that a friend of his, a recent arrival, had received a summons for an appointment in 2027. People make a home here as best they can, acquiring and making space for houseplants, camp cats and dogs and even a songbird or two, and spending long hours colouring mandalas or making paper garlands in craft workshops like the ones our organization runs. Some entrepreneurial people have started barbershops, green markets, corner stores, bakeries which turn out a steady stream of fresh pitas for 50 cents, and full-fledged restaurants with falafel, shawarma, shisha and outdoor benches facing the sea. Camp residents tend to have a love-hate relationship with Skaramagas — on one hand, it’s a damn sight safer, cleaner and more accessible than the camps in the Greek islands, where fights, stabbings and self-harm are common and many families have to live outdoors in tents. On the other hand, not all of them have the possibility to go to school or find work, mostly for linguistic or paperwork reasons, and they’re stuck living in overcrowded trailers for years on end. When I asked Adnan how long he’d been stuck in Skaramagas, he gave me the time down to the last hour. If he knew when exactly he would be leaving Skaramagas, he would probably count down to the second.

My co-workers are a French project coordinator about my age, Adnan and his friends (young, multilingual refugees who help translate and serve as cultural mediators, among other things), my computer programmer flatmate (who is Slovak, not Czech, I stand corrected Martin!) and a rotating cast of Norwegians (the organization is headquartered in Oslo), Italians, Germans and Brits of various ages and backgrounds. One of the older Norwegians is a retired civil servant who composes music in his spare time. During a meeting, he played a song that he had co-written for the Norwegian national division of the Eurovision song contest. The song was in honour of Alan Kurdi.

You remember Alan Kurdi. He was the three-year-old Syrian boy with extended family in Canada, whose dead body washed up on a beach in Turkey in 2015. A photo of his body, curled up on the beach as if sleeping, went viral, sparking cries to “do something!” The outcry may have contributed to the Trudeau government’s decision to campaign on, and eventually fulfil, a promise to take in 25,000 Syrian refugees.

But other than that, beyond symbolic outrage, not much has been done. Thousands of people, including children, continue to die in the Mediterranean. Countries and organizations that could provide better support for these desperate people don’t — in fact, things are getting worse, as the Conservative government in the UK has voted down an amendment to the Brexit agreement allowing for easier repatriation of a few hundred kids with family in the UK who are stuck in Calais and on the Greek Islands. Greece, for its part, has made refugees ineligible for free health care — at the same time making kids unable to attend school because they can’t have the required vaccinations, and endangering public health by letting so many children wander around unvaccinated. Well done!

I could not find the lyrics to the Alan Kurdi song online, but they went something like this:

A September night in a boat too small

The stars were bright but the waves were tall 

He reached out but we did not care

He touched no hands cause we were not there…

This song snapped something in me. As communications specialists — journalists, photographers, press officers, bloggers and storytellers — we operate in the hope that our work will touch hearts and minds, and provide the shock needed to fix broken systems. Does it, though? This viral photo of a migrant father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande did nothing to change the Trump administration’s soulless policies. Four and a half years after the photo of Alan Kurdi, thousands of people, including children, are dying in the Mediterranean. At least eight children died when their boat capsized just last week.

In my mind,  there are only two possible reasons for this fatal indifference.

  1. We, as communications professionals, despite all the stories, all the photos, all the press releases, all the social media appeals and all the migrants and bereaved family members who gave us their time, failed to tell the story well enough. We failed to touch enough hearts and minds.
  2. Our work is irrelevant because most people, at least most people who are in a position to actually do something, truly don’t care.

Either one is soul-destroying.

An attempt to bring everything together

Facebook reminded me — one year ago yesterday, I landed in Tanzania for the first time. One year ago today, I flew to Mwanza with Moya, the MSL program director, to meet the Tanzanian midwives who were training colleagues, and being trained, as part of the program.

Today, for a paper that I sometimes wrote for back home, I’ve been asked to sum up the whole experience in a 600-word column, and I barely know where to start. How to sum up a rich, chaotic year of living out of a suitcase and learning every day? How to talk about my main takeaway from this trip — gaping, disgusting inequality — without turning my column into the kind of — heaven forbid! — political screed that community newspapers sometimes hesitate to print.

At the moment, I’m still in the Bale mountains of Ethiopia, getting ready for my last day of fieldwork tomorrow. We — me and a co-worker from the Addis Ababa office — have been put up at a sort of safari lodge, where most of our neighbours are German and Belgian trekkers and birders about my parents’ age, kitted out with expensive fleeces and backpacks, twittering (pun intended) about their “world lists” and the different kinds of finches they saw.

The Ethiopian hotel staff speak to them with undisguised bewilderment. The life expectancy of Ethiopia is 66, which is about the same as the life expectancy of Africa as a whole. Those who live beyond that date are usually either sitting at home, presiding over (and being cared for by) relatives, worn out by lives  of constant walking, poor medical care and neverending anxiety over where the money for the next necessary expense was going to come from. Either that, or like a few of the elderly people I worked with in Benin, they’re working night and day on a soul- and mind-consuming project, scrambling to finish it, or get it into an appropriate state to pass the torch on, while they still have the energy. The average African life is wearing — I thought one of my bosses, to give just one example, was older than my father, but in fact he’s in his early 60s. “Where you’d be wearing out the knees of your trousers, sir, they just go and wear out their knees,” says the perceptive, long-suffering Orleanna in The Poisonwood Bible (Barbara Kingsolver’s beautiful novel about an American missionary family stranded in the Congolese jungle as independence unfolds)  which I’ve been rereading.  One thing African retirees generally aren’t doing is looking around for ways to spend their money and deciding to spend thousands going to Ethiopia to watch for birds and mark a checklist. Between the birders and the staff here, there’s a quiet, polite clash of civilizations.

It’s been an incredible year, and part of me just wants to get on the next flight home, sleep for a week and then start the holiday baking, but me being me, that’s not how I’ve set things up. I have one more week in Addis Ababa before I go to Lalibela to visit the millennium-old churches carved out of rock that I’ve only read about. Then I leave Africa — less than two weeks from now! — and fly to Vienna, where I’ll take a few days to get organized for the next leg of my trip (and hopefully absorb at least some Christmas cheer in the Vienna Christmas market) — before catching a bus to Ljubljana to meet Mom and see my Slovenian family (Midnight Mass, the whole routine…I haven’t been to Midnight Mass since I was ten, and I feel like a fish out of water because I never take Communion, but what is more Christmasy than Midnight Mass in a small  Eastern European village? Count me in.) A few days after Christmas, I’ll catch another bus, via Belgrade, to Athens, where I’ll spend two weeks volunteering in an urban refugee camp with some Norwegian and Czech people I met on the Internet.  Somewhere in that time, I need to wrap up a few work-related loose ends. The plan after Athens is to catch up with some old friends in Berlin, London and Cambridge before heading to Dublin for a folk music festival I’ve been anticipating since last winter. And guess who the closing act is?

Afro-Celt Sound System.

After Dublin, I’ll fly to Toronto, possibly meet with a client, and then take the train the rest of the way home. Then, and only then, after I’ve gotten through customs, gotten a new phone number, signed up for health insurance and slept in my own bed (did I mention I got my apartment back? that was a nice early Christmas miracle) will I really be able to sit back and sum up. And that is quite a ways away. So…stick with me until then.

 

Mountain scenes/More talk about food

 

(Note: I have not been able to upload photos for this entry because of connectivity issues. They’ll be up here eventually. Until then, I hope my writing is evocative enough that photos are a nice-to-have, not essential.)

I’m currently in the Wabe Shebelle hotel in Roba, Ethiopia, more than 400 kilometres from Addis. It’s cold and damp here, the kind of cold that gets into your bones, and there’s no heat and only theoretical hot water here. Last week, I was with Anicet in Dassa, Benin, la porte du Sahel, climbing creepy lunar-like rock formations in the kind of 40-degree heat where just walking to the corner store makes you sweat and you practically have to wring out your clothes. Now I’m trying to keep warm and adapt to the kind of cold I haven’t felt since almost a year ago, when I was standing on a street corner at 3 a.m. on a Montreal December night, waiting for the bus to Trudeau.

At one point, my plan was to return to Montreal directly from Benin. That would have been brutal, taking off in 35-degree heat and landing in -15. I am proud of my current plan, which involves gradually scaling down from +30 + (Benin) to +15 (here) to +5 (Europe) to -15 (home). Now, I’m at Stage 2.

The ride up here was magnificent. We left at 6:30 a.m. and by 8, the pencil-grey clouds had cleared. The sky was a brilliant blue, and the sun shone down on fields of wheat, teff (the grain that injera is made from) and grasses used for animal feed. The wheat fields and the piles of straw literally glowed. It was what I always imagined Ukraine or Mongolia might look like — if in Ukraine or Mongolia there were curious baboons wandering across the road. As we drove through Oromiya, climbing the winding mountain roads, there were fewer and fewer other cars. We passed houses built from dung and sticks, and lonely mosques of pounded metal. A few hours outside of Addis, the car slowed, as a bunch of camels — camels!! I was today years old when I first saw camels! — were led across the highway.  People rode by in twos and threes in horse carts, leaving a Christmasy jingle in the air as they passed us or we passed them. Elegant women in niqabs rode on horseback, an umbrella in one hand and the reins in the other. Women were straining teff from basket to basket, and it caught the sun and glowed gold. A guy on horseback herded goats across the steppe, cracking a whip, like something out of Lermontov. Then up we went, climbing another mountain road and looking out over a jaw-dropping, green and yellow valley. Women and men my age and younger wandered by, on foot, on horseback or on motorcycles, and I wondered what their lives were like. They probably knew a whole lot of manual skills that I would never learn, like how to control a horse, how to strain teff and how to build sturdy walls and fences with sticks laying around. We passed college and university campuses, so many of the younger people would have been well educated, but others had probably never seen a website or read a book other than the Bible or Koran. Some probably travelled to Addis Ababa every now and then, other had never been and dreamed of the big city, others had never been and were fine with it. It varies.

I alternated between staring open-mouthed at the view and flipping through a novel about students in first-year university in Boston. It was surreal reading about a world where, say, stoplights and subway trains and insipid vending-machine sandwiches exist, then dipping out of that world into the time warp of this one.

In the middle of the afternoon, we stopped by the side of the road overlooking a valley, so the guys — there were four of us on the drive, two men and two women — could pee. I took the opportunity to get out and stretch. Around us, the silence was absolute.

“You can literally hear your heart out here,” I told the logistician.

“Haven’t you seen this view before?” she asked. (She’s a bit of a killjoy.)

Not wanting to repeat the experience of six months ago — where the driver hit something, or someone, after nightfall, practically threw us out of the car and screeched off back to Addis — we started at 7 in the morning and drove straight through, making just a few quick stops to pound back scrambled eggs and bunna — hot, almost chocolaty Ethiopian coffee, the best in the world — to pick up some avocados at a giant fruit market and to pee/stretch/contemplate the view. We arrived, hungry and tired, to find that practically the only thing the pricey restaurant had on offer was shiro, lentil stew. It was thin and tomatoey and the portions weren’t particularly generous, but I thought it was fine, if kind of lacking in spice. It tasted like mediocre tomato curry — ferenji shiro, my colleagues announced. But they couldn’t order anything else off the menu, because they were fasting and not allowed to eat meat. So they were not only hungry and tired but also cold and annoyed, and headed to their rooms at 5:30 p.m.. Which at least gave me a chance to write this.

This past Tuesday was my last full day of work in Pobè. I spent it shooting photos of a series of health facility user committee meetings (photos which I still need to process, hang tight to those who are waiting for them, if any of them are reading this) — long hours of meetings in clinics without electricity, with participants (particularly female participants) who had to sign the register with a swirl. That evening, I worked until 3:30 a.m. on my bilan, my big end-of-mandate report. I did fieldwork in the morning, napped and woke up 10 minutes before I had to give the report. I sprinted to the office — only to find no one there. No one would show up for the next 45 minutes. I called Célestin — who wasn’t there himself– to see if I hadn’t perhaps gotten the time wrong. “Oh, I told people four so they would all be there by five,” he said patiently. When will I ever learn?!

The next night I was in Cotonou, where a fellow volunteer had kindly offered to hold a goodbye cocktail party for me. It was at a rooftop bar with bright lights where small beers cost 3000 francs (eight times what they cost in Pobè) and a Haitian-American singer in a long gown sang “Route 66” and “Georgia On My Mind.” The bright lights, the glitz and the cognitive dissonance made my head spin after low-key Pobè. My lunch that day was a classic Béninois office drone feast of fermented corn paste, cured fish, raw onions and mysterious spicy sauce that cost 50 cents; dinner was half a spinach and feta pizza.

I appreciated the pizza — it was a gift, and the creamy, luxurious texture of the cheese was something I hadn’t felt in awhile — but it made me realize something about Western food. Whether it’s a bagel, a pizza or a mediocre club sandwich, “normal” Western food all tastes the same, sweet and bready, sometimes salty, almost always bland. Didier, my ex from Burundi who is a good friend, arrived in small-town Quebec as a refugee last fall. When he needed to go to Montreal, I would take him out for a bite to eat. He couldn’t finish a breakfast sandwich at my favourite bagel place. Banh mi were a slight improvement, as long as they had crunchy fresh vegetables and plenty of hot pepper sauce. Now I understand why he couldn’t bring himself to eat a ham, egg and mayonnaise sandwich. I don’t know if I ever will again. In Africa, yes, there’s a lot of poverty, but what food there is always tastes like food! The sourness of injera, the weird bracing bitterness of traditional Ethiopian cheese, the spice of good shiro with or without meat; the brightness of the raw onion, the saltiness of the cured fish, the ginger and garlic in the mystery sauce and the distinctive taste of the akassa or the corn paste; potatoey igname pilée dipped in spicy peanut sauce with gluey green crincrin, fatty lamb skin which I used to hate, and the iron-rich denseness of lamb organ meat. Juicy beef skewers and sweet aloko (plantains). Food in Africa doesn’t taste like wheat flour, tastes like food. 

 

Benin Stories, Part 1

For weeks now, “put something on the blog” has been near the top of my to-do list, only to get pushed down by more pressing concerns…like “what am I going to do with all this junk,” “how am I going to work around this internet/power/water/phone outage”, “how am I going to get my motherboard fixed 500 kilometres from an Apple Store” or the latest thrown down by my project manager — “how am I going to make a nice short film with subtitles and good sound in less than a week with you breathing down my neck?” I have done crazy things in the name of professionalism here before though, like co-hosting a live radio show two hours after I got into a motorcycle accident (nobody freak out, all I have now are a few scars down my left arm and a weird story), leaving Cotonou at 5 a.m. to host a workshop in Pobè that I knew next to nothing about, or battling through multiple layers of bureaucracy, a federal election communications blackout, two postponements,  unexpected leave by key contacts, one dead motherboard, three power outages, dozens of tiny Internet outages which were just long enough to keep files from uploading, and a silly software mistake — the only part of this whole comedy of errors that was objectively my fault — to file what initially looked like a straightforward story for a freelance client. I don’t think I’ve ever been so tired in my life as I have been during the last week. On Friday morning, I realized I had forgotten to take the garbage out, and instead of getting up, I called Monsieur Alain who drives the garbage bike (a moto with a trailer attachment) and said I was still out of town, so he wouldn’t come by and ring the doorbell. Then I went back to bed for another hour, and only after that was I at all ready to go to work. Those times where I had a choice between work, sleep, spending time with other people, and blogging, blogging fell right down the list with the echoing bomp…bomp…bomp of a ball bouncing down basement stairs. So I owe you stories. A bunch of stories in fact. Let’s see…

 

At the beginning of October, I took a day off from work to go down to Ouidah with Anicet for the Festival international des jumeaux. It is a Vodoun thing…twins are considered magical and revered in Vodoun. Anicet, who loves and researches and practices Vodoun, wanted me to see it. Our first stop was an altar, the altar of the twins, maintained by an elderly priestess who Anicet seemed to know. Now, you know me, I’m an atheist. If a friend asked me to go to a Christian or Muslim service, my first instinct would be to say no. If I couldn’t talk my way out of it, I’d at least leave the room before all of the intimidating “commitment parts” started. But something moved me about this service, inside this corrugated-metal temple the size of a large washroom stall. The woman asked me what I wanted to say to the twins. I said that I was grateful for getting this far and that I would love it if they’d see me home safe. We alternated ritual shots of cheap gin and flat Sprite — apparently the twins love sugar even more than gin or chicken blood, the usual things one offers to Vodoun spirits. The grey-haired priestess murmured in a language I didn’t understand. Long minutes later, she told me they had “accepted everything” — our gin, our Sprite, our coins and our wishes. I will never know what, but something in that temple made me want to cry with gratitude and relief. Was it the kind, serene, if-you-need-to-talk-I’ll-listen look on the priestess’s face? Was it my deep-seated fear of dying out here that had just been quietened by the spirit’s reassurances? Or was it just emotional exhaustion and feeling like I could use all the help I could get, even though it came from spirits I didn’t even believe in? Who knows?

20191006_123137.jpg

The festival itself was like a combination of Halloween, a summer street party and what I always thought Day of the Dead would be like. Anicet had taken on a tour guiding contract and had to pick up clients, a wealthy businesswoman and her family from Togo, so I was there on my own. Street vendors sold large bags of candy that adults would walk around with. Kids — many obviously twins, dressed in identical bright pagne suits — would sit with their parents behind small bright altars with effigies of twins. Every time someone, usually a kid, called out “Quelque chose pour les jumeaux?” (something for the twins?) you would have to give them candy. If you had no candy, then you had to give change. If you had no change, then they would jog behind you through the crowd, not letting you go until you came up with something — a pen? a leftover fried doughball? a keychain? your shoes? Of course, my white skin and pagne shirt marked me out as a tourist — rich, feckless and easy to wheedle. “Quelque chose pour les jumeaux?” a boy said, after my candy and change had all run out. “Je n’ai plus rien,” I answered. “Et ça c’est quoi?” he said, pointing to my half-drunk Coke bottle. My Coke disappeared into the Lord of the Flies-like whirl of grasping hands. It was like Halloween, but a little sinister, like the old Celtic version of Halloween. Trick or treat! No treat? Well, these were the tricks. I wanted to break a bill to get more change to buy candy, so I went to a pop-up bar where two skinny guys with colourful outfits and sunglasses, who both kind of resembled Baron Samedi from the Haitian Vodoun stories, were handing out generous shots of sodabi, local moonshine. I paid. They poured. We clinked glasses. I have to give them credit for this much — it was very good sodabi, herbal and surprisingly refreshing for hard liquor. If this was their cousins’ homebrew (as opposed to a commercial product), their cousins were very good home brewers. I asked for my change.  “It’s coming,” said one of the Barons, making no effort to find my change as he continued pouring shots. When he saw my eyes still on him ten minutes later, he and the other Baron started to run. I took off after them, but the crowd parted to let a car pass, and when the car had gone through, the Barons were on the other side of it, never to be seen again. Also never to be seen again were my 8000 francs (about $13, but an absolute fortune here, a week’s wages for some people). So there I was, stranded at a street festival in Ouidah with no money whatsoever and 500 kids asking for candy. When Anicet found me an hour or so later, he told me that his clients had asked for time to themselves at a restaurant. He said all right and went home for a quick bite to eat. When he came back to the restaurant, the clients were gone and all of their phones rang and rang. They’d done a runner. For poor Anicet, it was more than $100 gone and a day of his life he’d never get back. Trick or treat indeed.

 

20191006_174936.jpg

A week later, I had to go down to Porto-Novo for some paperwork. In my few months in Benin, I’ve gotten the impression that not many people go to Porto-Novo unless they have something to do there. Unlike paved, orderly, comparatively calm Cotonou, Porto is a giant village, muddy, potholed and perpetually under construction. When my paperwork was done, I decided to go play tourist, and went to Songhaï, a giant zero-waste organic farm that is one of Porto-Novo’s main tourist attractions. The tour was aimed at recruiting future organic farming interns, and went into a lot of technical detail on everything from what animal breeds are raised to how waste is repurposed (“Nothing goes to waste here! The shit from the bottoms of the bird cages goes right into the biofuel processing tank!”) but I did see ostriches, so there was that.

Then I ended up at the da Silva Museum. My guidebook had been weirdly derisive about it, but it had that eclectic jumble of strangely beautiful things that makes African museums so much fun: in the middle of a detailed and interesting historical narrative, a guide will stop to point out a human skeleton on an anatomy-class stand, a stuffed crocodile, a vintage camera, a framed portrait of Mandela, a shed of vintage motorcycles, or a beautiful inlaid cabinet that someone brought back from Pakistan one time.  Going to a museum in Africa is like opening a giant steamer trunk.

20191012_153551.jpg

 

Steamer trunk aside, this museum was dedicated to Benin’s Afro-Brazilian community, who, in an incongruous but very Béninois twist, are mainly Muslim. Some are descended from freed slaves who were able to return to West Africa after abolition in Brazil; others are descended from Brazilian slave traders, many from one man with the disturbingly cheery nickname of Chacha. This Chacha was based in Ouidah, where his descendants still live, and his heir (his sixth or seventh great-great-grandson who is five or six years younger than I am) is still known as Chacha, which must be a heavy legacy to carry. The main square in Ouidah is known as Place Chacha, and when I was there, it was a souvenir market, just a few hundred meters from a concrete-topped mass grave of slaves who had been thrown in alive when it was decided they were too old, ill or exhausted to survive the journey to Brazil or America. A souvenir market now stands on the place where Chacha’s men once traded human slaves for cloth and beads.

Back to the Da Silva museum…a few blocks away from the museum, included in your admission ticket, is a beautiful memorial to Toussaint Louverture, the father of Haitian independence, and to all the victims of the slave trade, of slave rebellions and of colonial violence. A sculpture of the “Tree of Liberty” arches over a courtyard, with an anteroom lined with photos of Black leaders and heroes from all walks of life. There’s also an exhibit, part of the museum proper, about the similarities between West African and Haitian Vodoun rituals. One of my Béninois co-workers once said that if he could go to Haiti and walk where the West African slaves walked, he could come home and die happy. I thought of our Haitian-Canadian midwifery consultant, Tania, and hoped she had seen this before she left. People in power assumed that slaves stolen from West Africa and taken to places like Brazil and Haiti would be too disoriented to keep hold on their culture, their language, their faiths…but they assumed wrong.

Stay tuned for the next instalment of Bénin Stories…Abomey, Bohicon and Kétou! And of course, Pobè 🙂

 

 

 

 

Choices

20190922_160541.jpg

(The mosque, the Legba, the umbilical cord tree…and motos, because of course there are motos)

 

I had been wanting to write about what goes on outside the walls of my tiny little compound, in the streets of Pobè: dapper high school teachers in tailcoats donning the solid-colour shirt of a unionized moto-taxi driver at weekends and hauling foosball tables, live sheep and families of three from town to town on the back of their old Chinese scooters, everyone having at least one side hustle and everyone with any ambition having three or four, the Renaults older than me with their shot suspensions and rusted-out undercarriages juddering down the rutted red roads bobbing from side to side like toy boats, younger kids playing street soccer, older kids playing street pétanque (a French game kind of like lawn curling?) with the cochonnet (the centre ball that everyone tries to hit) made from a knotted plastic bag. The roofless, perpetually under construction evangelical church across from my house where you hear singing and chanting at all hours. The kids who ran from the sight of me a month ago and now give me multiple, sticky, dusty high-fives. The complete and utter darkness of my street after nightfall.  The weird and wonderful building that looks like a shopping arcade until you notice the two golden leopards over the entrance and realize it’s the high king’s palace. A shrine to Papa Legba, the Vodoun protector god,  two feet from the front door of the town’s largest mosque, tiled with the same sky-blue tiles, within sight of a spreading tree where the animists who founded this place buried the umbilical cord of the first baby ever born here. Within sight of the tree are a few churches, a market and the Vodoun sacred forest. In the middle of this unexpected Islamo-pagan tableau, you find five-foot-tall Monsieur Serge, a Christian and the only tour guide in Pobè, throwing his arms wide and exclaiming, “Have you ever seen anything like this? Isn’t it extraordinary? This is why I love this city. This should be a tourist site known all over Benin — all over Africa!” You don’t have the heart to remind him that there’s only a single, perpetually-under-construction hotel in the whole place. But he has shown you that you can be a tourist in your own, boring city, and even though it only confirms your suspicions that your city is, in fact, boring, it’s at least a fun way to spend the afternoon.

And yet, Marie, the French girl who I talked with at my roommate’s favourite bar in Kinshasa all those months ago, had it right: “You’ll get to know yourself really well in a town like that.” What she meant was that what was happening inside would sometimes be scarier and more momentous than what was happening outside.

I was editing a newsletter item on obstetric fistula recovery when something hit me with a clunk — choices. These women weren’t getting help to lead happy, pain-free, self-directed lives. They were getting help to be in good enough physical and financial shape to find a “revenue-generating activity” (NGO-speak for a small business in a low-paying, saturated, usually female-dominated field that can hopefully provide a modest, steady living to someone with a bit of business acumen who controls her own finances). For hundreds of millions, maybe billiond, of people in the world, subsistence farmers and storekeepers and rag-pickers, there’s no room to make their own choices — no headspace, no time– because their lives are dominated by the constant, everyday imperative of keeping body and soul together and feeding the kids. Hundreds of millions, maybe billions, don’t live in the same grinding desperation but are nonetheless chained to “their place” because of minority status, gender, disability, geographical isolation, religious, social and family obligations or just being born in the “wrong” place. As a white upper-middle-class late-20th-century American child, I had the luxury of being told that I could be an astronaut or a politician, that I could go to university, travel the world, do anything I wanted to do. My path was mine. Hell, I didn’t even need a visa to go to most Western countries. The world, in more ways than one, was my oyster — and into my 20s, I thought that was how most people lived!  As an adult, I’m only just now realizing that I’m part of a very small minority (maybe 10 per cent of people on earth) of people with choices, and part of an even smaller minority who are aware that they are the minority.

It’s a lot of pressure, when you think about it. I have won the lottery — I have been given a life that I control. How do I make it count? How do I do right by those people who have less control? If I believed in God (which I don’t), I would ask God to make me an instrument of…whatever.  I mean, what can I do with this gift? How can I be worthy of it?

Earlier this week, it was my birthday. I am now, and it kind of boggles my mind to say this, 31 years old.

Last year, I was hurriedly putting together a birthday picnic in the park down the street from my apartment, giving some chicken pieces a good soak in some yassa marinade, hoping that it wouldn’t rain, that it wouldn’t get dark or cold too early, and hoping that  the multigenerational, multilingual group of friends, relatives, friends’ dates and friends’ kids would hold together once alcohol and sugar were added — none of which I could really control.

This year, I was enjoying barbecued chicken and attiéké (bitter West African couscous made from manioc) from a street stall with Anicet, after a few of my friends from work bailed because they had family commitments that they had forgotten about (the average Béninois family is large and close, , so hardly a weekend goes by without a wedding, funeral, baptism, death anniversary or some other necessity).

Last year, I was just beginning to plug my Cuso fundraiser, and all of this was just beginning to seem real.

This year, I’m in the thick of it.

Last year, everything smelled like fall leaves.

This year, everything smelled like chicken grilling, car exhaust…and endings.

As unbelievable as it sounds, I am three months away from coming out the other side of Cuso.

***

I was worried about waiting for so long to write about the rest of my vacation, worried I’d forget things, but actually, it’s pretty unforgettable. After I left Grand-Popo, I picked my mother up at the airport and spent the next week and a half seeing Benin through her eyes We stayed in the once-glamourous, softly decaying Hotel du Port. Once, it must have been the pride of Cotonou, with its 50s colourized postcard vibe, palm trees, cocktail bar, nightclub and brick pizza oven. Now the pizza oven is bricked up, the nightclub is a construction site with white paint over the windows, and a young employee thoroughly and methodically cleans the pool at the same time every afternoon, even though maybe three people have gone swimming in it that day. The cocktail bar, at times, doesn’t even have orange juice, as my mother found out when she tried to order a cocktail one afternoon. It wasn’t completely abandoned, but I’m not sure if there were more than ten guests at a time the whole time we stayed there. I don’t know what pushed the hotel over the edge into irrelevancy, whether it was the new Novotel stealing the high-end market, the port expanding to brick up the view of the harbour with shipping containers, or just bad management, but it’s firmly lodged there now. It’s a typical upper-middle-range African hotel; it has all the amenities, they just all go on the blink from time to time – but I fell in love with the place for one reason: hot water.

I was surprised at how quickly my mother embraced certain things about Benin. By the second day, my mom, who had never been on a motorcycle in her life that I know of, clicked her helmet on, swung her leg over the side of a motor taxi, grabbed the metal loop on the back of the seat and whizzed with me to Dantokpa Market.

Dantokpa is one of the first things you see as you cross the bridge from Porto-Novo, a sprawling neighbourhood of corrugated tin roofs and cement market buildings that goes on for miles. From what I hear, it’s the largest market in West Africa — and perhaps surprisingly, one of the easiest to stroll through. No one pops up out of nowhere offering to be your “guide” or “vegetable buyer.” No one chases you for half a block after you’ve decided to go look at another stall. They have too many actual clients to worry too much about the ones who got away.

All of the sights I’d gotten used to in Pobè, that were multiplied kaleidoscopically in Dantokpa, were new to her: the piles of red tomatoes and orange and green chiles and baskets of glinting fish, the hens and goats wandering across the road. The market spirits were kind to us, and we found the fetish market, the hidden few blocks of the market where vodoun practitioners go to find potion supplies and sacred jewelry, tiny taxidermified sunbirds for luck, chameleons for memory, animal skulls and leopard skins and lion paws and blessed drums. I could not begin to find that place again, I don’t know anyone else who has found it, and I thought it could only be a good sign. The market spat us out the other side, where market boats bobbed in the lagoon and scavengers picked through massive bricks of rubbish as vendors set up tables on top of it. I never felt threatened – I never do when I go to Dantokpa — and despite our good luck I was still rigid –If you steal from my mother I will cut you. If you try to swindle my mother, I will cut you. If you harass my mother, I will cut you. I was glad to get out– but she wanted to go back.  Everywhere we went on the way back, groups of men were leading herds of sheep to market for Tabaski, when Muslims get together to sacrifice sheep in honour of God telling Abraham that he didn’t have to sacrifice Isaac, after all. You sacrifice and grill a sheep or lamb, according to what you can afford, and you share it with those around you. “You don’t have to buy a lamb if you can’t afford it,” said Sirikou, the devout elderly guy who works as a driver with the hotel, who was saving up to buy his own lamb when we hired him for a day out. “But if you don’t share all you can, Allah knows. That’s Islam, it’s not just yelling ‘Allah, Allah, Allah,’ it’s sharing.”

The next day began with the Shared Taxi Experience — bouncing along the road to Ouidah in a nearly rusted-out car with completely ruined suspension, hemmed in by four other passengers along the back seat, with another passenger in the front seat and another, skinnier passenger seated on the gearshift . The children stared at my mother with wide saucer eyes…and we were on our way to Ouidah.

Next instalment coming soon…I can’t believe this was a month ago now!

 

 

 

 

 

Roots and Goats

Yesterday, as the Oro curfew descended over Pobè, I hit peak Cotonou expat, trying to hammer out logistics for the next phase of this trip over an afternoon beer at Le Livingstone, the expat-iest of all of Cotonou’s expat hideouts. This morning, we juddered through the mud back to Pobè, where I finished unpacking and am now waiting for the logistician to stop by and pick up something I borrowed from him…as good a time as any to keep chipping away at the Great Chronicle of my Wondrous Vacation and the Fantastic Fêtes de l’Oro.

My last day in Grand-Popo, Dixon talked me into doing a Vodoun-specific tour, walking through the dusty, sun-bleached village of Hevè. Unlike Ouidah, which leverages its Vodoun heritage to attract tourists, Hevè doesn’t market itself. Cement altars to Papa Legba, the protector god of Vodoun, are everywhere, decades’ worth of blackening chickens’ blood sacrifices visible on their cement heads. The Python Temple in Ouidah charges admission; the Python Temple in Hevè is under lock and key, open only to initiates. Dixon told me a story, which I haven’t been able to find online and of which my recollection might be imperfect, about two brothers who led a large group of refugees trying to escape slave traders centuries ago. The slave traders chased the refugees into a deep forest, where the two brothers turned into snakes and streaked off into the dense bush, forming paths that only the other fugitives could follow. Ever since then, the story goes, the python has been venerated as the patron of refugees and fugitives. The python is also a symbol of good fortune and perpetual movement. Dixon also showed me the centuries-old sacred tree which everyone gathers around during festivals. It’s not a cute little living maypole that gets decorated four or five times a year — like a lot of what I’ve learned about Vodoun, it’s colourful and “exotic” on the surface, but solemn and earthbound and a bit dark if you give it the slightest further examination.

A few weeks after this whole experience, I was in Kpalimé, Togo, with Anicet and a motorcycle guide, a born-again Christian appropriately named Emmanuel. We had just hiked from a beautiful waterfall to an actual castle, which has a surreal backstory that I’ll write about separately when I can. Anicet explained that his mother had grown up practicing Vodoun and later converted and joined an evangelical church. Anicet himself converted back to Vodoun after going to several different churches, seeing how many times they passed the plate — four or five times in one service in one case, although the parishioners only earned a few hundred francs a day– while not offering the slightest indication of how the money was spent.

“Why do you like Vodoun?” Emmanuel asked, correctly pointing out that in a country as religiously diverse as Benin, someone looking to change churches could have chosen any one of dozens of belief systems.

“You’d make a good secular humanist, changing your views based on data like you just said you did,” I teased. “But yeah…why Vodoun?”

“It’s legalistic,” Anicet said, exposing a facet of Vodoun that I hadn’t even thought about. “The laws are straightforward and justice is quick. I can read the oracles and plan my day and keep bad things from happening. But mostly, it’s ours. It wasn’t brought here by any White colonist or Arab slave trader — it’s ours.

Vodoun is quite literally rooted to this place. Nearly every town, including Pobè and Ouidah, has a sacred forest, overseen by Vodoun priests, with a couvent (temple) at its centre. In Porto-Novo, French colonialists had the sacred forest cut down just to spite the local Vodounsi, and converted it into the colonial governor’s back garden. It’s now the overgrown botanical garden, and the demure lines of spice trees are being taken over by baobabs and vines and grasses and lush weeds of all descriptions. You spite the tree spirits at your peril; if anyone attempts to hack branches off the sacred tree in Hevè, it’s believed that they’ll end up with a hideous skin infection. Trees live for centuries and send their roots deep into the soil; it makes sense that they should be repositories of memory. The sacred tree in Hevè was bound with a heavy chain, to memorialize the victims of slavery, which depopulated this part of the world as fully and eerily as the Irish potato famine, which has left swathes of County Clare nearly empty to this day. I’ve mentioned the slavery trail in Ouidah, where captured slaves circled two trees — one, the Tree of Forgetting, to cast off their names, languages and lives, and another, the Tree of Return, to symbolically root their souls to Africa. Another person I know, who is Catholic, thinks Vodoun is slowly ceding ground to Christianity and, to a lesser extent, Islam. “The fétiche never comes out on Sundays anymore,” he says.

But is that a sign of one belief system displacing another, or a concession to the fascinating religious toss salad I keep exclaiming about, that allows people my age to go to church one day, sacrifice a chicken to Papa Legba the next, break the fast with their Muslim in-laws and expound on Rastafarian symbolism with their friends over some sodabi at weekends?

Either way, these trees have survived colonialism, slavery and (up to this point) climate change, so they will be pretty damn hard to uproot, as will Vodoun.

As a secular humanist, I’m inclined to look for a scientific explanation for every odd phenomenon. The tree that is supposed to leave you with a poisonous rash is probably just a tree with poisonous sap. But sometimes the universe just winks at you. As we walked by the temple of the Twins (twins are sacred in Vodoun), two tiny twin baby goats bumbled by on their skinny baby-goat legs. I was the first person to see them. I pointed them out to Dixon and his face lit up with childish delight. “That’s a good sign!”

With at least four months left in this journey, hey, I’ll take it.