(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?

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