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.

 

 

Night Wanderings of the Wind Spirit

Where were we?

Ah, yes, Vodoun…

On Sunday I arrived back in Pobè to find that my electricity was cut off and everything in my freezer was a total loss. After cleaning up the ruins of a kilo of putrid ground beef in my freezer, which I wouldn’t wish on anyone, and noticing that my battery-operated router had stopped working and one of my toilet tanks had emptied, I wandered over to the Magic Wi-fi Gazebo, behind my office, to work on my column. Our driver, Donatien, a big guy in his sixties with laugh lines and a calm, fatherly vibe, stopped by. It couldn’t have been later than 8:30 at night.

“You better get home,” he said.

“I beg your pardon?”

“The fétiche is going to come out.”

A fétiche is an image of a Vodoun spirit. For three weeks every September, Vodoun adepts in Benin celebrate the Fêtes de l’Oro. The fétiche comes out at night, and during the day on certain days, and wanders the streets. Women are not allowed to lay eyes on it, and and non-initiated men are not either, particularly after dark. There is a complex schedule of days and times that the spirit might be around. “The initiates can see the spirit,” explains Anicet, who practices Vodoun. “The non-initiates see only wind, and are blown away by the wind.”

A few of the men in my office, at least one of whom doesn’t practice Vodoun, have become initiates just to save themselves the trouble of keeping track of when they need to restrict their movements. Those of us who are possessed of uteruses don’t have that option. Not only do we have to be inside by 9:30 or 10 p.m. every day, there are a few days when we are on actual house arrest — even though my office is a five-minute walk from my house. The spirit is more likely to be found in rural areas than in larger towns like Pobè, and apparently some women stay inside for the 18 days of the festival. Pregnant women going to deliver — and, presumably, night nurses and other uterus-bearers who must go out at night – walk through a sort of eruv (spiritual corridor) and have to wear a blindfold. Our local logistician called at 10 a.m. on Tuesday to make sure I was respecting the restriction and staying inside that day — although even he thought it was excessive. “We’re in the regional capital, there’s the regional hospital and the regional court,” he said. “Are they just going to tell all the women who work at the hospital and at the courthouse that they have to stay home?”

“What happens if I do go outside?” I have asked at least eight people.

“You might disappear,” they have said, with absolutely straight faces.

“We can’t guarantee your safety,” said our program manager, Célestin, a wise, calm man in his 70s, using language normally used by staff announcing evacuations due to elections, militia activity or military coups. As far as I know, Célestin is a Catholic who has never practiced Vodoun, and is a nutritionist with several university degrees who has travelled widely.

“Why?” I asked.

“You might disappear,”  he answered, with a perfectly straight face. I thought I saw a twinkle in his eye, but that might just be Célestin being Célestin, like a router whose green light turns on whether it’s connected to the Internet or not.

“Do you know anyone who has disappeared during the Fêtes de l’Oro?”

“No, but…we can’t guarantee your safety. Make sure your porch light and the light in your front room are off by 10 p.m..”

No one I know has told me the name of anyone who has disappeared. People might laugh at first but if I probe, I run up against a hard wall of seriousness. A few 10-year-old kids down the street said they thought they knew someone who knew someone, but that’s as far as I’ve gotten so far with any kind of “investigation.” If I was in Pobè as a freelancer or a private citizen, then…no shits given, but as a Cuso rep, if head office puts me on house arrest, then on house arrest I am.

Fortunately, I have two office friends who came to visit me on house arrest. They brought snacks and sodabi – Béninois vodka. One of the guys is an ex-Catholic Joel Osteen fan married to a Muslim, but shares my secular humanist outlook on a lot of things; the other is a committed Christian but not that dogmatic. We talked for hours about Christianity, Islam, Rastafarianism, arbitrary religious taboos and yes, Vodoun. After two or three shots of sodabi, I made fun of the Oro, the woman-hating wind spirit who imposes his schedule on thousands of people.

At five the next morning, I was awoken by the sound of the wind knocking things around on the roof. I was wide awake and on high alert and could not go back to sleep to save my life.

When I finally gave up, showered, dressed and went out, there was hardly a breath of wind.

So who really knows?

 

 

 

 

God is (maybe) alive, magic is (maybe) afoot, and memory’s a strange, sad bastard: Grand-Popo and Ouidah, Part 1

One of the first books I ever read about Africa was Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Shadow of the Sun. I read it on the advice of a prof in undergrad —  the same prof who, nearly a decade later, persuaded me to take this job. It sent me down a Kapuscinski-related rabbit hole (well-documented in the old blog) which led me to read everything he had written, and a fair amount of the work written about him, that had ever been translated into English or French. Although Kapuscinski, the writer, could on occasion be an abrasive asshole and a self-aggrandizing fabulist (none of our idols are saints — and sorry again, Jessica, for the niche literary reference), a lot of what he wrote about human nature, about the distinctions between life in the so-called developed world and life in Africa, about culture shock, about the dangers of “otherizing” and about the daily delights and annoyances of being a travelling ink-stained wretch, I found massively relatable. I can’t remember now in which book it was that he talked about the conflicting demands of being a reporter on the road. Writing is an essential part of what you are there to do. Logistics and basic self-care are also important. But all of those require taking time out from actually seeing things, doing things, learning things and talking to people – which are the most fascinating parts of any trip. As soon as you sit down to write, you face the possibility that some other urgent thing could tear you away. (Case in point: as soon as I finished that paragraph, I made the mistake of checking Twitter and seeing that the parent company of Le Soleil in Quebec City, the only daily newspaper that even tries to be objective in a city of 700,000 people, and the employer of some very talented and committed people, has just declared bankruptcy, and part of me will be unable to concentrate until I see whether or not they get bailed out.)

The possibility of ever-present distraction is the main reason why this actually-sitting-down-and-writing thing is hard! I’m currently at a great hostel in Lomé, Togo, surrounded by chatty backpackers and hungry mosquitoes, with a laptop battery at 18 per cent. But it’s been nearly two eventful weeks since my last blog entry, and I will finish this one, I swear I will!!

**

On my second-to-last day in Grand-Popo, Dixon persuaded me to go on a tour with him to the cross-border market, which is technically in Togo. We took a half-hour motorcycle ride past flourishing fields of tomatoes and corn and arrived at a crowded lake crossing, where boat attendants picked up men, women, girls, boys and sacks of onions alike and carried them bodily, wife-carrying style, one hand around the shoulders and another under the knees, out to waiting wooden pirogues. We were rowed across the lake, wife-carried across to the other bank, and plonked in front of a border checkpoint, where guards eyeballed us but didn’t check our documents.

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People rowing toward the cross-border market.

Dixon and I wandered through an impossibly colourful row of vegetable stands, tumbling piles of red tomatoes, green peppers, dried herbs, purple onions,  vibrant plastic kitchen tools and stacked canned goods glinting in the sun.

“You know what’s killing us?” Dixon said, offhandedly, running his hand through a sack of dried herbs. “All this stuff that comes from other countries?”

I braced myself for a remark about homosexuality, or telenovelas, or the generalized poison of Western influence, ces cultures que nous copions, as some African conservatives put it.

“What?”

“Potted meat,” he spat.

“Sorry?”

“All this canned shit that’s full of salt and preservatives and sugar. We get everything we need from the land — I know about herbs, I know there are herbs here that can treat cancer and diabetes and high blood pressure and all of these diseases from bad food that are killing us. We get everything we need from the land. Why do we need all of this canned, imported shit?”

We get everything we need from the land — why do we need this canned shit?! I heard the voices of many, many North American Indigenous people, both real and literary. I heard the literal voice of someone I know in Quebec City, the Huron-Wendat artist and entrepreneur Steeve Gros-Louis, who gave me a long interview a few years ago where the ideas of food, spirituality, language, using the resources the land provided and becoming the person you were always supposed to be all intersected. Like Steeve and the Huron-Wendat, even more so like the Inuit until a few generations ago, rural Béninois really do get everything they need from the land, especially in the area around Grand-Popo. We had seen it on the way in. Rich, varied and flavourful fruits and vegetables, manioc and corn, goats, chickens and sheep, incredible fish and shrimp straight from the sea, oysters and salt from the lagoon, clay (for making pottery and bricks and building  walls) and gravel from the soil beneath their feet, gourds for making bowls, reeds for mats and thatch, herbs for medicine and palm byproducts for just about everything — the coconut with its nourishing oil, meat and juice, and the shell which I saw being used for goat feed, red palm oil and palm wine from other types of palm, palm leaves for building woven fences… If you wanted to start a utopian, autarchic society, West Africa, especially a seaside spot like Grand-Popo, would probably be the place to do it. At the National Museum in Lomé, Togo, I saw how women used to (and in some rural communities, still do) create elaborate clay and gourd pots, wood-bark cloth and raffia boxes. Men from one part of Togo were known for their skill in practical metalworking; why did a friend of a friend (more on him later, I hope) who is working on an agricultural capacity building project have to pay thousands to get a set of tractor discs sent from Canada to rural central Togo, instead of having them made?  Much of this craftsmanship is going the way of the dugout canoe, being gradually lost in the name of convenience, and especially in the name of Chinese and Western companies looking to dump their products onto “emerging markets,” getting people hooked on faster, usually more accessible, sometimes but not always cheaper, alternatives. This comes with a pretty hefty cost in terms of loss of craftspeople’s livelihoods, loss of knowledge, environmental impact (look at all this plastic!) and human health, and it also sends money to Asia and North America instead of keeping it in local communities, where it’s very sorely needed. It also means that replacements have to be found for some of the handy byproducts — you can’t use shards of clay pots to fill holes in thatch, as the Togolese used to do, if pots aren’t made of clay anymore.  Of course, the train has left the station, and the lid of Pandora’s Box has been slammed shut much too late. “On ne peut pas tous porter des caches-sexe” (We can’t all go back to wearing loincloths) as one of my Canadian colleagues in DRC snarkily put it, but there has to be a way to undo some of the worst excesses of globalization and allow people to reclaim their dignity on their own terms.

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Gourds at the cross-border market: bowls, lamps, fetishes, decorations or musical instruments in the making.

Fortunately, the colonizers did leave behind one thing that’s at least useful — a common language. Dixon and Steeve, if they ever met, would have a lot to talk about.

***

After Dixon and I were wife-carried and rowed back to the Béninois side of the border, we explored the old colonial quarter of Grand-Popo — houses where Portuguese and French slave merchants, colonial rulers and priests had lived at one time or another. The oldest Portuguese colonial residence had been built sometime in the 1600s, the newest building — a Franco-Béninois seminary with an inscription (“God will dry your tears” in Fon) over the top centre window — had been built in 1932. “God will dry your tears,” Dixon translated bitterly. “They put that there to try to console us about slavery and the loss of our culture.”

 

All the buildings had one thing in common — they were falling apart. Even the skeleton of the seminary, built within my grandparents’ lifetime, no longer had a roof. The abandoned buildings, where slaves once awaited transport in inhuman conditions, where 17th-century colonialists pored over maps and ledgers, and where early-20th-century seminarians and the children who would one day rule postcolonial Benin studied, all were filled with ankle-deep piles of trash and empty wine bottles. An older person, barefoot, with close-cropped bleach-blond hair, earrings and an ancient, frilly peach skirt-and-blouse suit, who Dixon called le vieux (Old Man) paced around, making sure nothing was actively collapsing. Dixon later confirmed what I thought, that le vieux was the West African equivalent of a two-spirit person, someone who has both masculine and feminine elements. He also said that in Vodoun, two-spirit people, like twins and albinos, are treated with great respect — but it’s difficult to think of a more brutal job for an older person, clomping around in the hot sun through piles of rubbish, sleeping on a mattress in a ruin and earning almost nothing, protecting…what exactly?

Dixon and I sat down next to a particularly beautiful, particularly old Portuguese colonial house. It was also softly falling apart, after four centuries of salt and sea spray, but it seemed slightly better preserved than the other buildings. “It’s a shame this is all falling apart,” I said. “You could get UNESCO in here, make some repairs, charge admission…”

“I guess so, and there are some people who want to do that, to bring in tourists,” Dixon said. “But most of us don’t want to. Most people don’t want to remember slavery, or colonialism. They were sad, scary, shameful times. Also, if we did that, then the Europeans would get involved again, maybe reclaim some kind of right to the property, and we fought so hard to get them off our land…”

I never thought of it that way. A week later in Ouidah with my mother (I’ll get to that, too) we were walking the slavery trail, La Route des Esclaves. Along the trail, there is a tree that slaves — as they shuffled, terrified, toward the unknown, with that heavy, empty feeling that something very, very bad is about to happen — were told to circle, nine times for the men and seven times for the women, to forget the languages, cultures, faiths and names they were leaving behind. Its name translates to the Tree of Forgetting.

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The Tree of Forgetting memorial. I wish this was a better photo.

The tree itself, after close to 400 years, was cut down in 1990, because the government of the time thought the tragic memory of slavery was not something that Benin should hold on to. But less than three years later, it was replaced with a sapling and a memorial sculpture. The slave trail was being redeveloped as a tourist attraction, a memorial and an exhibit at an international festival of African art.

“Either way, the ‘tree of forgetting’ didn’t do what it was supposed to do, not entirely,” said Anicet, our guide in Ouidah. “Because in Haiti, in Brazil and in so many of the countries where the slaves went, we still have Vodoun.”

**

And that, dear reader. is not quite the end of the story, but hardly anyone will read this far, so I’ll save the rest for another post, hopefully tomorrow. To be continued…

 

 

The Road to Grand-Popo

The road to Grand-Popo is actually nothing that remarkable, although it does sound like a cool book title. It’s a stretch of the Cotonou -Lomé highway that runs just far enough inland to be out of earshot of the ocean, with villages and towns strung along it like beads on a necklace. It’s what you find when you get there that changes everything.

I had booked three nights in a hostel that was the first place listed under “Rapport qualité-prix” in the Petit Futé. I didn’t expect heaven on earth, but that is what I got.

As you pull into Grand-Popo, you start to hear the whoosh of the sea that city noise has drowned out. My hostel was right up against the ocean — you could hear the waves from anywhere on the property.

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I wanted to explore the weekly market, the cultural centre and a row of shops, but I was drawn to the beach first. The huge, crashing waves have pushed up a five-foot-high cliff of sand between the beach and the sea. I walked to the cliff’s edge, slid down it and felt the cold water splash around my ankles. I scrambled back up a divot in the cliff and sat down on a branch of driftwood.

Some touts wandered up with a backpack and a briefcase full of necklaces and rasta-themed tat. Oh no, I thought, please not this.

“Some other time,” I told them, hoping that they could pick up on the bat-signals my brain was trying to send out: Please-leave-please-leave-please-leave.

“OK,” one of them said. “We don’t always know what…state of mind people are in when they get here.”

So they had read the bat-signals after all. Stress, tiredness, frustration and the lack of a meaningful break since New Year’s had eroded what felt like a bowl-shaped dent in some part of me. I had hoped that at the end of the road to Grand-Popo, I would find something to fill that dent, before diving into an exciting, but also exhausting, whirlwind of a family visit followed by a few writing assignments. Even I was surprised that first afternoon when I almost physically felt the waves, one by one, bringing something to fill in that hole, until, amazingly, it wasn’t there anymore.

Well, fuck, I thought, with the confused awe of an atheist who’d just been healed by laying on of hands, It really was that easy. 

Then there was lunch, which confirmed my delight and amazement — fresh crayfish in a sweet-hot-spicy-creamy lemongrass sauce with ginger. We do get fish in Pobè, lots of fish in fact, but by the time it makes its way to a dusty provincial town more than two hours inland with unreliable refrigeration, it’s usually been dried, smoked and/or salted to within an inch of its life, waiting to be fried and served as chewy silver-brown frétin over sour maize akassa, at workers’ canteens for a few hundred francs.  Just the tender texture of actual fresh seafood took my breath away. Never mind the fact that I was eating it in front of the crashing blue sea it had been fished out of. By the time I even thought of Instagramming it, it was a pile of shells.

I did stop by the market, a quiet bare-bones market where I was the only tourist in sight and spent way too much on fabric, the cultural centre (which was closed) and the row of art and music shops, where I fell in love with some tiny bronze rabbits and met an artist about my age who lived a very eventful life.

Suleiman learned to dance at a very young age, or so he tells me, but was removed from his mother’s vibrant, arts-loving household by his fundamentalist Muslim father around the time he started school. After his father passed away he spent some time on the streets before being taken in by his mother’s uncle, learning to drum “from some vodou guys in Ouidah”, and touring Germany and Finland with his uncle and a bunch of other artists from Benin and Togo — incidentally, there are a lot of cultural exchanges between Finland and Grand-Popo because decades ago, a Finnish author saw some similarity between the way the sea crashes into the lagoon outside of Grand-Popo and something similar in his home region in Finland, fell in love with the place and built a huge Afro-Scandinavian cultural centre (which was closed when I visited, but may reopen sometime in August, stay tuned).

Anyway, back to Suleiman of the bronze rabbits — after his time in Europe, he moved to Togo and set up a nonprofit to send street youth to school and encourage them to learn music and dance as well as skilled trades. Much of their funding comes from Suleiman’s ceramics, bronze rabbits and wooden masks and bowls.   “It breaks my heart when I hear about all those Africans who have drowned trying to get to Europe,” he said. “There’s so much to do here!”

(Incidentally, although Suleiman spent several years of his life in a fundamentalist Muslim household, he has since, like many Béninois, filled his plate at the all-you-can-eat spirituality buffet — a serving of Islam, some Christianity, some Vodoun, some animism and a generous spoonful of Rastafarianism on top — literally, in the form of his dreads and bonnet.)

The next day,  the proprietor, Mathias, talked me into going on a tour, rowing through a mangrove swamp to an island where people practiced Christianity-inflected Vodoun and made artisanal salt. The whole tour was unexpectedly fascinating, from watching dozens of kids use a rope several metres long to haul in a fish net, to watching reed mats dry in the sun, to rowing through the mangrove swamp and listening to a tree twitter and vibrate with dozens of birds, from orange-yellow finches to huge white ibises. It was the first time I’d seen an ibis, and I thought of the wise funeral director Mr. Ibis in American Gods (literary reference again, sorry Jessica!), the huge painting of the Vodoun sea goddess Yemaya on the wall behind the hostel bar, a discussion I’d recently had with a friend about how the decision to cast a Black actress in the new Little Mermaid was probably just a salute to Afro-Cuban Yemaya, and how maybe we are all surrounded by gods, or at least running sequences of archetypes and symbols that pop up when you least expect it.

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Even the saltmaking process, which was described in exhaustive detail and was not part of the tour I thought I signed up for, was strangely, unexpectedly fascinating. As best I can remember it, women gather clay from a specific riverbank, and then put it in piles to evaporate. Once it’s evaporated enough, they put it in baskets and pour purified water over it, using bowls and bottles to catch the liquid. They pour the water into a tank with a few palm nuts, which play some role in verifying the salt content. When the palm nuts are the right colour, they boil the salt water – indoors, in Willy Wonka-like vats over a roaring fire, which must be impossibly hot work in the dry season. The resulting salt is strong with a hint of dried red pepper flavour. I never realized salt could have distinct flavours until I tasted this salt.

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I spent much of the rest of the day doing next to nothing on the beach. At dinner, the dining room was empty except for me and a group of very young French backpackers. finishing dinner and sucking down pina coladas. “You want to sit with us?” the young blond guy at the end of the table called out. I realized I had entered a very interesting space in the age continuum — old enough to be called “vous” by a university undergrad, but still young- and approachable-looking enough to be on the receiving end of “You want to sit with us?”

They were undergraduate pharmacy students from Paris, who had just finished a month-long volunteer placement in a small village near Calavi, giving health education to young kids, which they’d raised money for by selling flowers around campus. It was their first time in Africa. They were heading out on a weeklong vacation around Benin and Togo before flying back to France. They had paid Mathias’ brother Dixon and his friend to set up a bonfire on the beach, and they invited me to join that, too.

In Asosa and Pobè, I’d gotten used to seeing more of the stars than you’d normally expect to see in a city. These kids hadn’t. One of the guys flopped on his back on one of our reed mats, looked up at the sky and actually gasped. “Wow!” he said. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen the stars like you’re supposed to before in my life!”

Djembe drums and cocktails and coolness forgotten, the kids spent the next hour  trying to find constellations and remember the myths that came with them. The wonderment in their voices was my gift for that day.

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To be  continued…

 

 

The Stars of the Show

This week, I have been named Cuso International volunteer of the week and interviewed to feature in a fundraising campaign and a social media campaign called #IAmCuso. A picture that a colleague took of me — an awkwardly smiling androgynous white person with big ears and a notebook under their arm–  surrounded by grinning Congolese midwives at a hospital in Kinshasa is making the rounds on social media. Friends and family and friends of friends are liking and sharing and commenting: “I’m so proud of you! Look at the great work my friend/niece/partner’s friend/ex-neighbour is doing overseas!”  On one hand, that’s very cool. After several months of waiting for my work to get more visibility, I finally feel like it’s seen. I’m well aware that the two things that any NGO needs to continue to exist at all are funding and people, and photos of grinning expats having the time of their lives while working overseas are essential for both of those campaigns. Funders think, “Our money is paying for ‘our’ people to improve people’s lives overseas, and look, it’s working!” Potential participants think, “That happy person in that exotic locale could be me! I should see if there are any vacancies!” and the wheels keep turning. More trainings are scheduled, more gardens planted, more marketing strategies improved.

Except…in the context of this project, in particular, I’m not the one doing the great work. I essentially have a desk job. I sit at my desk transcribing interviews, writing articles and social media posts, editing reports and putting together style guides, every now and then joining colleagues who go “into the field”, taking the opportunity to talk to parents, midwives and community health workers and take as many photos as I can.

I am the storyteller, not the star. With a few specifically qualified exceptions (the volunteer doctors, nurses, teachers and agronomists I’ve met on this trip come to mind), the volunteers aren’t the stars. If my work is having an impact on maternal health, it’s very, very tangential. I couldn’t deliver a baby if my life depended on it, and I’m completely in awe of the midwives and nurses working with our partner organizations in Tanzania, Ethiopia, DRC and Benin. Some of these men and women are my age or younger, some are my parents’ age are older. All of them know how to diagnose and manage complications, calm panicking family members, and literally deliver babies, with skilled hands and committed hearts and minds. Sometimes, they have to work in small villages hours from where their husbands and wives work, and see their families only on weekends. Sometimes they have to deliver babies by candlelight, surrounded by the kind of unrelenting, close-to-the-bone poverty that makes even a spare piece of cloth for an improvised diaper hard to come by. The stars of this program are people like Dina Kamata from Tanzania who saves lives with her cool-headed implementation of emergency protocols where most people would panic, Emmanuel Nicus Nyagor from Tanzania who has learned a new language to better assist patients in a remote area, and Mesayi Truye  from Ethiopia, who has devoted his life to making sure women can be saved from common complications….and dozens of other midwives who I’m hoping to be able to “introduce” you to in the coming months. At the risk of putting words into other people’s mouths, I believe that a lot of my fellow volunteers see things the same way. We are promoters and facilitators rather than direct actors. And yet, because of the way most NGO marketing works, we sometimes accidentally eclipse the direct actors.  Please do like and share that fun photo of me in Kinshasa all you want, especially if you think it will encourage someone you know to donate or to become a volunteer. But please get to know these amazing midwives first. They are the real stars of the show.

 

 

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Welcomed by maternity supervisor Hélène Bombula Liema (second from right) and her team at the Centre Mère-Enfant de Bahumbu, in Bahumbu, Kinshasa
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Élie Kazadi and instructor Aurélie Théthé Lukusa, two talented and committed Congolese midwives, demonstrate neonatal resuscitation.

I promise

I promise that before too long, I’ll write you all a long, rich, colourful blog entry about all the amazing, and sobering, experiences that I’ve had in Benin. But first, bear with me for a minute.

Twitter, as we all know, is full of vitriol and inanity, much of it presidential.  But sometimes, people can pack unexpected beauty into those 280 characters. At some point during the decade (!) I’ve been on Twitter, I ended up following a bot which tweets out two lines of Seamus Heaney’s poetry every day. I vaguely remembered Heaney from high school literature class — we read an excerpt from his translation of Beowulf. There was something creepy and sharp-edged about it that had us all spellbound, like we’d all put on glasses that brought the battles into sharp focus, like we could suddenly see the swirls of the swords’ metalwork and the moss on the stone and the glint of the dragon’s blood. It was eerie.

Three years later, I went to Russia and shared a tiny apartment with three girls from Moscow who had known each other forever and who recited Pushkin and Akhmatova from memory to help each other fall asleep, and those moments lying in bed and listening were some of the most beautiful  l can remember. Then I studied French and ended up loving singer-songwriters like Georges Brassens, Gilles Vigneault, Félix Leclerc…suffice it to say that Heaney and other denizens of my high school English reading list like Derek Walcott, Robert Frost, Langston Hughes, Emily Dickinson…were out of sight and out of mind. Until Twitter and the Heaney bot. I believe the first Heaney-bot tweet I saw was something about sea nymphs and mortality, and again, the simple, clear image of the crashing sea spray almost literally blew my hair back.

But that’s not the point.

One of my oldest and best friends had his birthday yesterday. I met him more than ten years ago in undergrad when he was dating a kind, wild girl who I’d made friends with in a literature class ( who passed away in strange circumstances when we were 20, around the time I was listening to my roommates recite Akhmatova) . He became a very close friend as well; we would talk on the phone for five hours at a time  about pretty much everything. After I moved away from Ottawa we met in person when we could…in a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant in Montreal where we had lemon chicken at about 10 a.m., at the Ottawa bus station, in Quebec City  at 7 a.m. in a hotel restaurant before he had to run off to his cousin’s wedding…I surprised him for his 30th birthday, he came to Quebec City when I graduated from my master’s program, we would have lunch or dinner when passing through each other’s cities, but in between, we would go eight or nine months without really talking — which is shameful, and practically always my fault, because I’m the one who’s constantly moving.

Which brings me back to Benin, and Twitter, and Heaney. Today, while talking about something entirely different, an Irish journalist I follow on Twitter tweeted an excerpt from another Heaney poem, which I’ve copied from here:

Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;

Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.

And yet all this comes down when the job’s done
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.

So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me

Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.

 

I’m six time zones away from most of my friends and family. I can be, despite my two communications degrees, a pretty terrible communicator. But if we are old friends, if we’re family, then the wall still stands. I promise.

Wall_at_forest_edge_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1152555

 

(Photo by Lis Burke, via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Licence. This wall has probably been around since centuries before any of us were alive and will be around long after we’ve all forgotten this year – as will our realest relationships. This may be a weird choice of words from an atheist such as myself, but have faith.) 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Trouver ma place

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(Credit photo: Wiros via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Licence)

Je suis maintenant à Pobè, une petite ville poussiéreuse et, disons-le, ennuyante, à deux heures au nord de Cotonou. En dehors du travail, il n’y a pas beaucoup de choses à faire ici — manger au restaurant, boire de la bière, travailler de la maison, prendre des longues promenades d’un bout de la ville à l’autre en se faisant dévisager par les enfants parce que, avec le départ de trois de mes collègues, je suis la seule expatriée “visible”  de la ville au complet. Pobè me rappelle un tout petit peu de la Gaspésie, dans le sens que tout est organisé autour de la seule et unique Route, la colonne vertebrale via laquelle les conducteurs et les camionneurs traversent le village, prenant à peine note, partant d’une ville et allant vers une autre, ne laissant que l’échos de leur passage par-dessus le seul dos-d’âne devant le seul hôtel. (Sauf qu’il n’y a pas de fleuve; le beau fleuve qui se déverse dans l’Atlantique est loin à l’ouest de nous, à Cotonou).

J’habite seule dans une maison — la première fois dans ma vie que j’ai  une maison. Asosa n’était pas moins ennuyant que Pobè, mais au moins j’étais entourée d’amis. A un moment donné à Kinshasa, j’avais hâte de ne plus vivre en colocation, mais là, mes ex-colocs, leurs copains, le chat d’une des filles et leur débordante énergie me manquent. Mes voisins sont un chantier, un bureau gouvernemental et une famille en face dont j’ai l’impression qu’ils ne comprennent pas le français. Je vais essayer avec quelques mots de Fon, la langue nationale du Bénin, mais ici, il y a de fortes chances que des personnes peu éduquées ne parlent pas le Fon non plus, mais plutôt une des nombreuses langues locales — Goun, Nagot, Adja…en tout cas, l’intégration sera difficile. La dernière fois que j’étais ici, je m’étais fait un ami, mais c’est un homme célibataire qui a depuis avoué qu’il voulait coucher avec moi, alors que moi j’avais voulu qu’on soit amis…donc, j’hésite d’aller vers lui au cas où il pense que j’ai changé d’idée. Ça va être un peu dur. Ajoute un imprévu — panne de courant prolongée, panne d’internet prolongée, chicane avec un collègue, plans annulés — et ça devient encore plus dur. Je ne sais pas encore comment je vais gérer ça, vivre ici pendant cinq mois. A suivre, quoi.

J’ai quand-même un “out.” On m’a réservé un aller simple Cotonou-Toronto via Bruxelles pour le 23 aout, même si mon contrat se termine en décembre. Pourquoi? Parce qu’avoir un billet retour vers ton pays de résidence facilite l’obtention de visas, et parce que ce n’est pas toujours possible de reserver un billet d’avion 13 mois à l’avance. Le plan était toujours d’annuler ce billet et de reserver un autre plus près de ma vraie date de départ. N’empêche que si je voulais prendre ce billet, je pouvais. Quand j’ai accepté ce poste, on m’a parlé de trois mois à Cotonou et non  de cinq mois au village. La grande partie du travail de terrain prévu dans mon mandat initial est terminée.  En RDC et ici, on m’a parlé des coopérants qui avaient des placements de neuf mois ou d’un an, et qui ont seulement resté quatre mois, trois mois, voire quelques semaines. Pour des raisons de santé, des raisons familiales, parce qu’ils pensaient avoir fini leur mandat à l’avance, parce que leur mandat n’était pas ce qu’ils croyaient qu’il allait être, parce qu’ils avaient des mésententes au travail ou simplement parce qu’ils ne voulaient plus rester. On m’a dit et redit, il n’y a pas de honte si tu plies bagage. Ça arrive.

Mais — sauf imprévu de famille ou de santé — je ne vais pas prendre mon “out.” Parce que je suis une personne de parole, oui. Parce que j’aime bien l’organisation et les gens avec qui on collabore et ce qu’on me demande de faire, même si ce n’était pas prévu au début. Parce que je veux découvrir l’Afrique de l’Ouest un peu. Et aussi parce que je m’inquiète que la vie que j’ai quitté à Montréal, et que j’aimais, n’existera peut-être plus.

Je me tiens au courant, peut-être un peu trop au courant, de ce qui se passe à Montréal. Je reçois Le Devoir tous les matins. Depuis des mois on parle de la pénurie de logement. Or, j’ai cédé mon bail à un locataire qui est décédé deux mois plus tard, la proprio va faire ce qu’elle veut avec mon petit appart sur le Plateau, et je n’ai aucune idée de ce qui va se passer avec mon recherche de logement. J’avais espéré déménager dans un endroit un peu plus grand, mais ça risque d’être hors de prix. Je ne veux pas être contrainte de vivre en banlieue, ou dans un micro-appart d’étudiant avec un petit poêle à la place d’une cuisine.

Et le travail! Quand je vivais à Montréal, j’étais journaliste pigiste à temps plein. A partir de février 2017, après cinq mois de galère, de “brand-building” et de mise en question existentielle, j’ai réussi à avoir un revenu convenable sans être obligée de travailler dans une boite de relations publiques ou dans une sandwicherie. Or, un peu partout, mes clients annoncent qu’ils ferment boutique (comme Vice Québec hier), “changent d’approche”, prennent moins d’employés et encore moins de textes des pigistes (Journal Métro) ou, tout au moins, remplacent des rédacteurs avec qui j’ai collaboré pendant des mois avec des rédacteurs qui ne me connaissent pas d’Ève. En plus, je n’ai toujours pas de permis de conduire, qui me désavantage pour les postes à temps plein. Il y a aussi de moins en moins de postes à temps plein — j’ai l’impression qu’on joue tous aux chaises musicales et qu’il ne peut y avoir qu’un nombre très limité de gagnants, qui ont une place pour s’asseoir quand la musique s’arrête. L’idée de refaire tout ce que j’ai du faire en 2016 (quand je vivais de mes épargnes pendant cinq très longs mois), tout en allant à l’école de conduite pour la quatrième fois, m’inquiète, et en bonne procrastinatrice, j’essaie de l’éloigner.

Bref, j’ai l’impression d’être une funambule qui se balance sur un fil entre deux falaises. Mon espace est très étroite et le fil est très long. Je n’ai pas le choix que de continuer jusqu’à ce que je peux descendre gracieusement. Et après? On verra après.

(Avec toutes mes condoléances à la super-équipe de Vice Québec, qui m’a permis de rencontrer de très bon(ne)s journalistes et rédacteurs, une poète révolutionnaire, un guide touristique pas comme les autres, des anciens itinérants qui ont mis sur pied un refuge citoyen, des demandeurs d’asile et plein d’autres belles personnes. Que vous puissiez toujours trouver moyen de gagner aux chaises musicales.)

 

Someday…

Someday I will write about this place.

It’s the title of the queer Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wanaina’s memoir (I warned you about the literary references). It’s also what I’ve been telling myself for the past three weeks.

I’m now back in Benin, in the tiny, sweaty, dusty town of Pobè, in a surprisingly spacious one-story house (a house! At almost 31, I’ve still never had a house of my own) recently vacated by one of the former volunteers I worked with back in March.

“How was Kinshasa?” just about everyone I knew in Benin has asked.

“Fantastic! I love it! You’d love it!”

Why?!

The odd thing is, I don’t know why. There’s something benevolent about the energy that hums through that place, and warm, like the feeling you get when you get out of a pool, briefly shiver and then decide to slip back into the water. Although, I have to admit, that energy might be easier to find and appreciate if you’re insulated from the grinding poverty of most Kinois. 

What is Kinshasa? It’s nearly impossible to describe in a few paragraphs, but I’ll attempt to give you a few vignettes. Our kind, sweet, long-suffering chauffeur, a quiet former trucker with soft brown eyes who has endured more than his share of spills, stains, flat tires, sweaty hours-long traffic jams, inane questions, repetitive visits to the same tourist attractions, squabbling 60-somethings in the backseat, borderline impossible demands and adult temper tantrums for every possible reason, raising five (?) children on $400 a month, while literally listening to volunteers and consultants who receive twice that amount plus rent and have far fewer expenses bitch about how expensive life in Kinshasa is. A veteran of Mobutu’s army, perhaps slightly touched in the head, cracking jokes and bleaching strangers’ underwear for a few dollars and leftover Nescafé. A 20-something woman giving birth alone in a sweaty, dark hospital while overworked nurses run in all directions and a preacher, on a snowy TV, reads something from the Book of Job. A tall elegant 20-something woman with multicoloured braids, singing jazz in a mix of French, English, Lingala and birdlike scat. An abuse survivor emerging from nine months of self-induced shame quarantine, seeing her baby raised by relatives and bravely going out to live her life, balancing work, school and secret. A spry, shouty dance teacher putting awkward expats through their paces in a bright ballet studio before going home  to a house that may or may not have power or water. An elderly midwife remembering the time 30 years ago when guerrillas plundered the city and she worked a shift that lasted six days and six nights, on her own with dozens and dozens of women — like death and taxes, birth doesn’t usually wait for the time when it’s most convenient. Refugees from the chaotic east, after either a two-hour plane ride or a three-or-four-week-long ferry ride, finding work and a roof wherever they can.  Teenage butchers with blood-spatter  trying in vain to keep flies away from the slices of goat meat and liver and compact little bundles of tripe waiting their turn to be cooked on a giant improvised grill made with oil drums and sheet metal, and served wrapped in banana leaves and shaken with salt, vinegar and spices. The sound of lighthearted Congolese salsa music  pumping out of the work car at the end of a long day. Kids who should be in school selling sausage sandwiches from door to door, with mayonnaise that has probably never seen the inside of a fridge — hold the mayo please. Former street children having to sit through a loveless lecture on personal hygiene from religiously minded strangers before accepting a “meal kit” with a baguette, a can of sardines and a few cheap fashion accessories. 25-cent sachets of water and 13-dollar cocktails. Thousands of commuters trapped in mangled, yellow taxis and taxi vans, known as esprits-de-mort — be careful; if you close the door wrong, you may pull the handle off, or accidentally wrench out the entire mangled power-window apparatus. The thick, blocky sounds of the Lingala language. A surprisingly small airport, with about eight departure gates and 20 or so flights a day for a city as large as New York — probably larger, because no census has been taken since the 80s. That’s one more reason, I guess, why this place is so unknowable.  I hope I’ve brought it to life for some of you.

 

 

Les Lettres

J’ai un peu honte du manque des posts en français dans ces pages. Je vous en dois un long.

Depuis plusieurs jours, les célébrations de la 75e anniversaire du débarquement de Normandie battent leur plein. Quand j’étais jeune, j’étais entourée des vétérans de la Deuxième guerre mondiale et des personnes qui l’ont vécue — mes grands-parents qui m’ont en quelque sorte élevé pendant que  (ma grand-mère était infirmière de combat et mon grand-père était bombardier), leurs amis, certains de mes profs…maintenant, il y en a de moins en moins, dont tous ont plus de 90 ans. Dans 10 ans, on pourrait être en train d’enterrer le dernier ou la dernière. Dans 20 ans, on l’aura presque certainement déjà fait. La fin d’une époque, une époque qui a construit la nôtre, et surtout une époque où la plupart des gens sains d’esprit comprenaient que le fascisme et la deshumanisation des autres gens étaient dangereux. Je ne veux pas tout rouler dans le sucre, comme on dit en anglais. On a avancé et reculé depuis ce moment-là, mais maintenant on est en train de reculer d’une façon vraiment très alarmante.

Je viens de lire un article exceptionnel sur Radio-Canada qui raconte l’histoire du correspondant de guerre canadien Marcel Ouimet, sur lequel j’avais aussi fait des recherches pendant mes études. Ses reportages ont été précis et évocateurs, transportant les gens qui mangeaient autour de leurs radios jusqu’aux cotés de leurs maris, fils, filles et voisins en Normandie, en Italie ou à la libération des camps en Allemagne. Mais l’article de ce matin se focalise aussi sur les lettres qu’il a écrites à sa femme. “Alors que dans ses reportages il va parler de précision mathématique, dans ses lettres, il va dire ‘mais c’est terrible ce que nous avons fait, nous, les alliés. C’est terrible, ces villes normandes ravagées par les bombardements,” observe, dans l’article, l’historien Jean-Philippe Pattier, qui avait en quelque sorte déterré les reportages et la correspondance personnelle de Ouimet.

Les lettres sont détaillées, réfléchies, intimes…mais l’écriture des longues lettres commence à être un art perdu. Je me souviens, à l’âge de 9 ans, en 1997, d’avoir écrite une courte lettre au prof de japonais de mon école primaire, qui était retourné au Japon. Je l’ai mis dans un enveloppe avec une vingtaine d’autres notes, de mes camarades de classe. On était tous émerveillés d’apprendre que, six semaines plus tard, les notes avaient bel et bien fait le tour du monde et le prof en question les a lus chez lui au Japon. Il a probablement environ 70-75 ans maintenant, ce M. Kaneko, Kaneko-sensei, et j’espère bien qu’il profite de sa retraite. Nos notes sont probablement quelque part dans son sous-sol, toujours dans leur enveloppe, au fond d’une boite qui a survécu à plusieurs déménagements. Je me demande s’il a des petits-enfants, et s’ils ont trouvé les lettres, et s’ils ont démandé qui étaient ces enfants qui écrivaient si mal le hiragana. Trois ans plus tard, tout le monde ou presque dans mon entourage avant accès à Internet. C’était l’ère des courriels, de la messagerie en ligne, et plus tard, évidemment, les réseaux sociaux. Je ne me souviens pas de la dernière fois que j’ai mis une lettre personnelle dans une enveloppe. Je regretterai toujours de ne pas avoir envoyé plus de lettres à ma grand-mère. Toute ma correspondance est archivée dans des nuages derrière des mots de passe. Quand j’aurai l’âge de M. Kaneko, quand les enfants curieux de mes amis vont fouiner dans mes affaires, ils ne vont pas trouver de lettres. Des cartes postales, probablement, mais très, très peu de lettres. Qu’est-ce qu’on y perd?

J’ai un ami de longue date et un ancien collègue avec qui j’échange des courriels qui sont presque comme des lettres, longs et détaillés, en français. Quand j’écris à mon confrère, en particulier, j’ai l’impression que ce que j’écris est meilleur, plus riche et détaillé et chargé d’émotion, que ce que j’écris dans ce blogue (et aussi un peu plus fréquent). Alors je vous offre mon récit de voyage (partielle), raconté en extraits de lettres.

7 novembre 2018, Québec

J’espère que tu vas bien! Je suis désolée de te dire qu’ils ont encore réficelé mes dates et que je ne pourrai pas venir à Winnipeg début décembre — ils veulent que je sois à Dar-es-Salaam le 3 déc! Par contre, je vais venir dès que possible à mon retour dans un an et j’espère te voir!!
On a maintenu notre amitié-par-courriel pendant plus de deux ans déjà, une autre année ne va pas tout gâcher!
Je suis à Québec pour le moment. Hier je marchais dans les rues de Québec à 1h du matin, après une session de musique, pour faire le plein de sérénité. Je savoure les derniers jours de calme qui me reste avant la tourbillon de trois visites familiales, un congrès syndical, un gala levée de fonds…et un départ en Afrique pour un nouvel emploi!
Je dois t’avouer que l’idée de partir pour un an au complet m’intimide un peu…qui est-ce que je serai quand je serai sortie de là? Je verrai…
1 janvier 2019, Kampala
Dis-moi, as-tu planifié ton message pour que ça arrive à minuit pile, heure d’Afrique? Parce que c’est pas mal comme ça que c’est arrivé! Merci pour tes voeux, que j’avais lu rapidement juste avant que les feux d’artifice s’éclatent sur Kampala.  Pour ma part, j’espère que cette pirogue me fait passer par des aventures inoubliables avant de me déposer doucement au bon port. Pour toi, je souhaite la santé, la force et la joie de vivre. Prends soin de toi! J’espère profondément qu’on se verra de nouveau en 2019!
19 janvier 2019, Dar es Salaam
J’espère que Winnipeg te traite bien. J’ai entendu parler qu’il pourrait y avoir des températures jusqu’à -50 avec le facteur vent, de Montréal jusqu’aux Rocheuses!! Ici il fait +30 et on se plaint de la chaleur et de l’humidité. Ça m’arrive d’avoir le mal du pays, ma musique et mes amis musiciens me manquent intensément, mais ça ne me tente pas  de rentrer avec ces températures-là!
Les odeurs? Parce que tu poses la question…des milliers d’êtres humains qui suent, des feux de cuisson et des déchets qu’on brûle, du mais grillé qu’on vend sur la rue, d’air salé du bord de l’océan, et quand on s’y attend le moins, du ylang-ylang et des clous de girofle.
Je pense que j’écrirai un livre un jour, mais je ne sais pas si ce sera basé sur mon année en Afrique ou pas. Je ne sais même pas si ce sera un roman, un livre de reportage ou un livre autobiographique. Je ne sais pas si j’aurai le courage un jour de m’investir dans un livre; en ce moment je pense que j’ai trop peur d’investir des mois et des mois de ma vie dans un livre qui pourrait être un échec. Il faudra que je trouve un concept dans lequel je crois absolument, au point d’auto-éditer et d’auto-distribuer si je ne trouve pas d’éditeur. La maudite peur de l’échec et les maudites souvenirs des échecs et presque-réussites passées me bloquent, sans parler du manque de temps. Je te tiens au courant…en espérant que je vive vieille et que je me rende à un âge où je n’ai plus peur et où je n’ai plus rien à perdre. Mais je sais que c’est con d’attendre trop longtemps…en tout cas.
11 mars 2019, Addis Abeba
Je n’étais pas dans cet avion (si je l’étais, je ne serais malheureusement pas en train de t’écrire) mais j’étais à l’aéroport d’Asosa (ouest de l’Éthiopie) en train de monter dans l’avion pour aller couvrir une conférence à Addis Abeba, quand j’ai entendu la nouvelle de l’écrasement de l’avion. J’ai pris Ethiopian plusieurs fois et leur bilan en matière de sécurité est excellente. C’est aussi une structure qui est un des symboles de la fierté nationale éthiopienne, comme Hydro-Québec ou le National Health Service en Grande-Bretagne, c’est plus que n’importe quelle compagnie ou entité gouvernementale. Alors l’accident est sur toutes les lèvres depuis hier et les drapeaux sont en berne. Cette route est très fréquentée par les gens qui travaillent dans l’humanitaire, alors je connais plusieurs personnes qui ont perdu des collègues ou des amis. Je ne pense pas que personne que je connais personnellement allait vers Nairobi ce jour-là, et j’espère que j’ai raison, on n’a pas encore publié le bilan complet des personnes décédées. J’ai reçu ton autre courriel avec la nouvelle du décès de l’environnementaliste de 24 ans…d’une tristesse infinie…
Etre dans un avion commercial qui s’écrase, c’est une probabilité très minimale — même dans une très mauvaise année on parle de moins de mille personnes sur les millions qui voyagent en avion autour du monde. C’est une horrible façon de mourir. Si ça arrive, tu ne peux rien faire. Ça peut arriver à littéralement n’importe qui qui met pied dans un avion. Avec ce contrat, j’ai pris 11 vols depuis le mois de novembre et j’en prends un autre vendredi et un autre dans un mois, alors pour mon propre équilibre mentale, j’essaie de ne pas trop y penser.
Ici tout va bien mais la liste des choses qu’on me demande de faire s’allonge tout le temps et je suis assez grillée! Je ne pourrai pas avoir de vraies vacances avant le mois de juin, et rendue là, mon plan c’est d’aller à un genre de retrait sur la plage, me faire masser le dos, boire des jus frais le matin et les cocktails le soir, et penser au travail le moins possible. Normalement je serais partie explorer des grottes ou des vieilles mausolées quelque part, mais j’aurais tellement besoin d’un vrai break…
21 avril, Addis Abeba
J’espère que tu vas bien en ce dimanche de Pâques (enfin, encore le dimanche des Rameaux en Éthiopie, grâce au calendrier orthodoxe).
C’est irréel de penser qu’à Pâques l’année dernière, j’étais en Irlande, en train de lire un paquet d’articles sur le métier de sage-femme dans le monde, qui m’avaient été envoyés par mon actuelle collègue, en préparation pour la série d’entrevues, de tests et de formations qui allaient déboucher sur mon poste actuel. A Pâques l’année prochaine, je devrais être au Canada, en train de préparer ma prochaine aventure. Le temps passe vite! En octobre, ça va faire 4 ans depuis mon arrivée au Manitoba…ça fait bizarre de revivre cela à partir de la ville grande, sale et puante d’Addis Abeba. Les travaux de terrain dans les montagnes n’ont pas abouti…donc, jusqu’à mon départ à Kinshasa, je tue le temps à Addis. Mon père m’a dit une fois que l’odeur de la ville, c’est pétrole et pisse. Je crois qu’il faisait référence à New York mais ça peut tout aussi bien décrire Addis Abeba. L’odeur est dans mes vêtements et ça m’énerve. Une chance qu’il y a du bon café et des bons concerts, et des randonnées dans les collines, pour que j’aime au moins un peu cette ville chaotique. 
18 mai, Kinshasa
Malheureusement notre séjour dans la Vallée à dû être reporté, et le “pourquoi” est tout un histoire. Il y a très peu de généralisations qu’on peut faire à propos de l’Afrique au complet, avec ses 30 millions de kilomètres, 1.2 milliards de personnes,  54 pays et innombrables religions, cultures, climats, langues, etc. Une des généralisations, c’est qu’il faut éviter à tout prix de circuler la nuit en dehors des grandes villes. Les routes sont mal éclairées — voire pas éclairées du tout s’il y a une coupure de courant — souvent mal entretenus, souvent il y a des bandits ou des “contrôles policiers” plus ou moins officielles…il y a un paquet de dangers. Donc, quand on est partis deux heures en retard et quand on n’a pas réussi à s’extraire de la circulation d’Addis avant 11h, je pensais qu’on allait dormir quelque part sur la route. La nuit est tombée quand on était à moins d’une heure de notre destination alors on s’est pas arrêté, malgré le fait que les phares de l’auto étaient faibles. A 15 minutes de là où on devait dormir, l’inévitable s’est produit, et l’auto a frappé quelque chose. On pensait d’abord qu’on a frappé un homme, mais on ne saura probablement jamais ce qui s’est vraiment produit. Le conducteur – on ne le connaissait pas, le bureau-chef l’a embauché d’une compagnie locale – est parti à toute vitesse, alors que mon collègue et moi, qui avons commencé de sortir de l’auto pour regarder ce qui s’était passé, étaient à peine rentrés dans l’auto.
Le gars nous a déposé à l’hôtel et a promis qu’il allait faire une déposition, mais plusieurs heures ont passé et il n’a pas donné aucunes nouvelles. Le lendemain, on a appris qu’il est effectivement allé porter plainte…à Addis-Abeba. Nous voilà à l’autre bout du pays, sans auto, donc sans moyen de déplacement. Le bureau-chef nous donne des instructions comme quoi il faut rentrer à Addis, parce que théoriquement, dans la région où on était, les membres de la famille de la victime-homme-mystère pouvaient s’en prendre à nous. Reste à s’organiser pour rentrer à Addis….ça nous prend trois jours, une voiture partagée et deux bus. Comme consolation pour le projet abandonné, on a au moins l’occasion de faire une escale à Hawassa et gouter le meilleur café au monde… et traverser le Parc national des montagnes de Balé, où des babouins curieux ont littéralement grimpé sur l’auto. Mais notre travail de terrain dans la vallée à été reporté à une date pas encore précisé…sans doute vers la fin de l’été. Ben, ça donne quelque chose à anticiper, au moins. Pour le moment je suis à l’autre bout du continent, à Kinshasa. C’est une grande ville chaotique et comme insaisissable que je commence à aimer pour des raisons que j’ai de la misère à articuler. Nous, les expatriés, n’avons pas beaucoup de latitude pour circuler seuls, mais si on est en compagnie des gens locaux, on peut circuler presque librement, ce qui fait qu’il faut faire des amis pour découvrir la ville. On a eu des difficultés logistiques ici aussi alors j’essaie de négocier quelques semaines de plus ici; je me croise les doigts que je reçois la confirmation lundi. Pour le moment j’attends des collègues qui m’ont dit qu’ils allaient me faire découvrir la bouffe de rue, et j’ai hâte. Avec ma coloc et ses amis on va souvent dans des restos d’expatriés, mais je commence à être vraiment tannée de ces endroits.
Pour répondre à ta question, ici au Congo, Nelson Mandela et d’autres militants du mouvement anti-apartheid sont vénérés — en fait, il y a beaucoup de femmes de mon âge prénommées Winnie (après Mme Mandela) et beaucoup de gars nommés Steve ou Biko (après Steve Biko, un camarade de Mandela qui a été assassiné). Mais pour ce qui est des commémorations de la fin de l’apartheid, je pense que la plupart des gens sont trop préoccupées avec la politique domestique. Après deux ou trois ans de reports, les élections ont eu lieu fin décembre, et bien qu’un candidat a été déclaré gagnant et inauguré, il y a un flou autour des vrais résultats et il y a des manifestations régulières des gens qui réclament “la vérité des urnes.” Le jour de mon arrivé on a vu de nos yeux une manif — on a été pogné dans le trafic derrière les policiers qui encadraient la manif. Je partageais l’émerveillement de mon collègue congolais face à des policiers qui encadraient une manif au lieu de le reprimer. C’était vraiment remarquable!!!
Il me fera plaisir de te raconter tout cela en personne dans sept ou huit mois, et de te raconter mes autres aventures aussi!
4 juin, Kinshasa
J’espère que tu vas bien…Au cours de cette aventure africaine (dans deux jours ça fera six mois) je deviens de plus en plus fâchée par l’état du monde. Comment peut-on continuer à accepter un monde où des femmes decident d’accoucher chez elles dans le noir, sans eau, faute de $25 de frais hospitaliers, alors que des hommes et des femmes qui gagnent des dizaines de millions les gardent dans des abris fiscaux? Si on envoie des gens sur la lune, pourquoi ne peut-on pas gérer la distribution des richesses? Ça me dépasse.
Tu es chanceux d’être entouré par des fruitiers et tes lilas. Ici on a l’odeur omniprésent des déchets que l’on brûle (parce que dans cette ville de 12 millions, il n’y a pas de collection et traitement systématique des déchets et si on ne les brûlait pas, ils seraient entassés là par terre), mélangé avec les fleurs d’un arbre tropical mystérieux qui sent un peu le muguet, et les poulets qu’on fait griller sur des barbecues improvisées façonnées de barils de pétrole et plaques de métal, et qu’on sert coupés en morceaux, emballés dans des feuilles de banane, avec du mayo épicé et des cure-dents à la place des fourchettes. Une délice.
Pour répondre à ta très bonne question (“où sont les textes?”) ce n’est pas moi qui met des sujets en veilleuse, c’est le processus [de transcription, rédaction, vérification, révision, commentaires des partenaires, traduction, révision de traduction et publication] . Mais j’ai tout de même 4 liens pour vous:
(Je suis désolée que les trois dernières sont seulement en anglais; j’ai fait des traductions en collaboration avec une réviseure française, mais on ne les a pas encore utilisés!)

How to Bounce Back

I have been in a writing rut lately. It’s time I came out and admitted it. I feel like I’ve only written one or two decent things since Asosa. I feel like my posts are shorter, like I have less to say even though I’ve seen some pretty amazing things, like everything has been written before, like the parts of my brain responsible for writing are covered in some kind of weird moss.

The strange thing is, I’m not sure why. But I suppose it’s something that happens sometime. I’ve also been spending less time just sitting at my computer working on creative writing — I’m sitting in front of my computer, for sure, but I’m doing work stuff, beavering away at freelance commissions, studying Lingala or just…watching my free time evaporate in a cloud of social media, podcasts and other distractions. When I’m not sitting at my computer, I’m trying to go out and live life, whether it’s sitting around having beers and banana-leaf barbecued chicken or grilled goat liver  (both are delicious) with colleagues, or going to dance classes and club nights with my roommate, Liz, and her friends, a quartet of sweet, friendly local salsa dancers,  their expat girlfriends, who are all well-travelled career NGOists with no shortage of useful information, and their dance partners and local friends. Liz left the other day, with her cat (who, during the month we lived together, felt like our cat) and I now have another roommate, a woman who works in my office, who doesn’t go out as much and spends a lot of her time cooking and listening to local French-language radio. I don’t think I’m going to be “bandwagoned” into going out quite as much over the next few weeks, so in theory, that should leave more time for my own writing and for link sharing…watch this space! 🙂