Archives - ‘Bénin’

News from Bénin

September 10, 2010 | Kathleen, Intern, Bénin

Welcome back to my adventures in Bénin! Ganvié is the Venice of West Africa. An entire village solely accessible by boat; it is remarkable.  We took a three hour boat ride both ways to visit the village of Ganvié. The people base their livelihoods on fishing in Lake Nokoue.  We were greeted by naked children swimming around our boats and asking for 100 Francs CFA to take their pictures. All houses are built on stilts and some are made to stay longer than others. Some families brought in dirt from the mainland to make their own small yards for their chickens and goats to graze and so that their children can learn to walk on solid ground. It was strangely beautiful to glide soundlessly between stilted homes. The only sounds came from the children when the spotted us shouting Yovo! Yovo!

I was thrilled to be on the continent for World Cup Mania. Bénin sadly did not have a team represented but that did not impede the citizens from cheering for the few African teams in the tournament.  We were lucky enough to get to see the Ghana-Uruguay game at the Stade de l’amitié projected onto a large screen.  There were easily a few hundred people watching there and when Ghana scored their first goal, the crowd went nuts. I feared for my life because everyone was screaming, cheering and running around, hugging and dancing. Soccer is taken very seriously here. Therefore, when Ghana ended up losing the game in a shootout, there were a lot of tears and silence while people filed out of the stadium.

At my placement, we continued to do awareness presentations to youth working at seamstress shops and hair salons. The peer educators made their messages clear with their wooden phalluses and words of caution. They were so persuasive that they easily captivated their audiences. Most people were thrilled to have the opportunity to have their questions answered regarding the taboo subjects of sexuality and reproduction. My colleague and I got to give a refresher course to the peer educators so that they could ask questions and get clarification to the questions they were being asked on the streets.  The youth are intelligent and have a thirst for knowledge so that they can help their community.

We also had the opportunity to do a radio show involving many key people we worked with.  The topic of the radio show was “How youth are informed about sexuality?” It was an hour long show and we had the audience call in to ask questions or comment on what was discussed. We invited peer educators, the stadium nurse, a parent, the coordinator of peer educators and a couple fellow interns. It was an exciting experience and a success. The station had to stop taking calls because too many people were calling in to ask questions.  I definitely saw a lot of enthusiasm with this topic.

At the end of our internships, all the interns had presentations of what they had learned at the Ministère des Affaires Étrangères. We all got to dress up in the African apparel that the couturiers had made for us. It was interesting to get to see what everyone else did at their placements.  Many interesting questions were raised regarding what we thought could be changed in terms of how things worked and suggestions were given on how to improve the internships for the future.  I was so pleased to see that all of the people we worked with on our internship had showed up for our presentation.  It was very difficult to say good bye to all of them.  We had such a great time with them and everyone was so nice. I look forward to working with them in the future. Next, we are off to Abomey and Aklampa to finish our time in Bénin.  Let the adventure continue!!!

Crazy bus trip across the country of Bénin…

September 10, 2010 | Kathleen, Intern, Bénin

This is the story of how a group of eleven interns went on a crazy bus trip across the country of Bénin… just kidding, but not really ;)  

Leaving the comforts of Cotonou was difficult but we were all ready for a change of scenery.  We loaded up our white 15 person bus lent to us by the Ministry of Sports and Leisure for Youth and set out to the historic town of Abomey.  This was the location of the birthplace of the entire country, the old Kingdom of Dahomey.  We were in Abomey for a five-day training session to counsel people getting tested for HIV. We had long days of training, having presentations and practicing how to properly inform a person whether not they contain HIV in their system.  This task was not for the faint of heart. 

While in Abomey, we took a tour of the Palace of the late King Glélé.  Now a protected UNESCO World Heritage site, we were guided through the vast compound of the King who reigned from 1858-1889.  The Kings gained power by warring with neighbouring villages and selling prisoners and other people into slavery.  The palace was protected by 10 foot tall and a foot thick red clay walls.  We saw many artefacts and jewels left from that time period.  We even got to see the impressive tomb of the King and his 44 wives. It was a very fascinating tour that one needs a lot of time to explore.

After our week in Abomey, we hit the road again for the North West corner of the country for a safari at the National Pendjari Park.  It was an eight hour long, cramped and bumpy ride to our destination.  We awoke in the early hours of the morning to be ready for all the animals.  We arrived at the park in two jeeps and were sleepy but ready to welcome the wildlife.  It was a little slow getting started, but once we reached a small lake we came face to face with a variety of deer and antelopes, alligators, baboons, aquatic birds and even a couple shy hippopotamuses.  We were ecstatic clicking our cameras away.  The further into the park we drove, the more we saw. It was a wonderful experience despite not getting to see any lions or elephants; we did, however, see footprints and some fresh dung from the later.  After the daylong jeep ride, we went swimming in the beautiful waterfalls of Atacora.  It was a lovely way to end the long hot day.  We were also given tours of traditional houses that some families still use, called tata sombas.  They resemble little castles made out of the red clay.  They are quite fascinating with livestock and the elderly residing on the first floor.  In a circular room off the back is the kitchen; off that it leads to the upper levels where the rest of the family sleeps under small turrets.

Our little weekend vacation was over quickly as we headed back South for the village of Aklampa.  This rural village of 22,000 people is located in the middle of the country accessible only by what I can only describe as a dirt field road.  We stayed in a house used by Canadian doctors who come to the village on medical missions. It was the only house in the village with electricity.  Our operation in Aklampa was to test and counsel 1000 people for HIV in five days.  A daunting task but we were up for the challenge.  For the first few days, I and a few other interns had the job of training peer educators so that they could inform their community on safe sexual health practices. 

Soon, the big day arrived and we were to start seeing clients to get tested for HIV.  I however, opted out of this responsibility and was instead the facilitator of the counselling site with the counsellors, patients and nurses.  We were set up in different sites within the village and in more remote locations.  With the aide translators and other great community officials, we counselled and tested over a thousand people.  Luckily the prevalence of HIV in Benin is low compared to other sub-Saharan countries.  At 1.7% we only had a handful of people who tested positive and a few others that tested positive for other illnesses.  It was a tough and gruelling five days but we survived.  Before we left, we had a little ceremony where we made our donation of our fundraising efforts to the local drop-in centre for orphans and vulnerable children.  We were even thanked and blessed by the village King.  It was a bittersweet occasion.  We were glad to be done our stint there but sad to be leaving all the great people we got to work with.

We arrived back in Cotonou a few days before our flight was to take us back halfway across the world.  We spent our last couple days running last minute errands and heading back to the artisan market.  On our last night, we celebrated a fellow intern’s birthday and started saying our tearful goodbyes to the people who were so kind and generous to us during our time in Benin.  The next day is a blur of goodbye tears, laughter and promising to keep in touch.  I definitely plan to return to Benin someday soon; hopefully to work with the people who were so kind to me on my internship.  As for the awesome group of people who became my family on the trip…frequent reunions in Ottawa!!! 

Afon Gandjia!

July 13, 2010 | Kathleen, Intern, Bénin

Afon Gandjia Everyone!

Living in Cotonou for the last few weeks has opened my eyes to so many things. I have experienced so much in the little time I have been here. There are several languages spoken in Benin but in the South we most often hear Fon. French is the official language taught at school, so luckily we are able to communicate with most people. The city of Cotonou is heavily populated and the economic hub of the country. Along with its prosperity however come the downfalls of heavy pollution and high unemployment rates. Despite that, the country is rich in history of Dahomey kingdom, the slave trade and the infamous voodou religion. Last weekend we visited Ouidah which was the city from which thousands of natives left their homeland to be sold to work in the United States and Central America. We toured the museum which housed many photos and artifacts remaining from the end of the slave trade. The Porte de Non Retour stands tall and solemnly on the beach with vendors demanding peoples’ attention nearby.

The people are very friendly and curious of the new Yovos (white people) in town. Walking down the sandy streets or in the markets we hear repeatedly bon soir! The little children sing the song as we pass:

Yovo, yovo! Bon soir!

Ca va bien, Merci!

It’s adorable! I love all the colourful patterns that people wear here. I’ve been to the couturier to be measured to get some clothes made; I can’t wait to see how they turn out :)  It’s lovely being able to get fresh mangoes and pineapples from street vendors. Yesterday, we went to the to the marchée des artisanats to buy authentic handmade crafts, metal works, masks, drums and everything else under the sun. I need to get better at bartering. Some vendors are particularly aggressive at pushing their products on you.

During the week, I am at my placement at the Stade de l’amitié. My coordinator runs projects for the Ministry of Sports and Leisure for Youth.  Me and another intern are busy working with a nurse, and peer educators whose main objective is disseminating correct information to their peers about preventing the spread of HIV and STIs and basic sexual and reproductive health issues. We are trying to help them find ways to ameliorate their situations. I am really impressed by the work they do with so few resources. We were even invited to play soccer at the stade with a woman’s team and then stay for an informal presentation made by the peer educators to everyone who participated. I am excited to keep working with these dedicated and inspiring people.

Well I will keep you posted on the weeks to come. I’m loving life in Cotonou!

All the best,

Kathleen