Monday, 17 June 2013

Derek writes: teaching in Benin

at the Psalms weekend course

with the students from the intro course
While Rebecca and the girls stayed at La Casa Grande children's home, I returned to Cotonou to teach at IBB, the Institute Biblique du Benin.  I began by teaching an "Introduction to the Old Testament" intensive course to their full-time students (a class of 6), which involved 30 hours of teaching time over 5 days - 3 two-hour sessions per day, Mon-Fri - which was translated into French. 
Nancy Frey, French and Benin cultural translator extraordinaire

During that week I was interviewed in the evening by a local Christian radio station to advertise for the "Psalms" course that weekend, open to current and former students of IBB as well as the broader church in Benin.
students doing group work in Psalms class

So Friday evening I began a 13-hour weekend course (2 hours on Fri. evening, 6 on Sat., and 5 on Sunday), as well as preaching for the Sunday morning service. This course was much bigger and for a wider audience. There were about 200 people registered, and the course was first translated from English into French and then into Fon, the most common traditional language in Benin.
preaching on Sunday morning
motorcycle parking lot for Psalms course
Both were powerful experiences where I learned an awful lot, and was consistently asked questions that do not come up in Canada, but are very real questions in the Beninese context. Many of them had to do with the Fon traditional voodoo practices. Some of these questions included:

* what should I do with a witch in my congregation who has killed several people through the power of witchcraft?

* is it possible for Christians to curse others like the Psalms do, because there are others who are actively cursing you?

I experienced a high respect that people give to teachers there. Some examples of this were:

* I could not carry my own books - in the twenty steps between my room and the classroom, anyone who saw you would insist on taking everything out of your hands and walking you to the classroom, whether they were students, other professors, or the administrator of BBI. They have a profound respect and appreciation for teachers, which was refreshing. :)

* I was given the gift of a bottle of water at the beginning of each session (3 times a day) to show welcome and appreciation. This is a way of showing hospitality in Benin - to offer water to guests.

* the moment I lifted a chalkboard eraser, a student would jump up to take this out of my hand and erase the board for me, leaving their notes behind

Some other differences I noticed: 

* their hunger and conviction for biblical insight. The Bible was seen as immediately relevant and directly applicable.

* there are very limited secondary resources, particularly in French

* students are not used to taking notes, but having the important things placed on the chalkboard (in full sentences). Anyone who has experienced my teaching in Canada knows that this is not really my style, so I needed to learn to adapt to their style as did they to mine...

All in all, I was struck by similarities between the Old Testament context and life as it is lived in Benin. Where for my Canadian students it is a stretch to imagine a setting where many gods are worshipped, here this is a given; "holiness" churches are very prominent, with some having rules for limiting the participation of menstruating women, wearing special white robes for religious services, etc., that appear to be taken fairly directly from Leviticus; polygamy is practiced in traditional African religious groups, in part to secure enough "manpower" to support the extended family and parents in old age. Where the OT has repeated references to people worshipping and offering sacrifices under trees and on "every high hill," here you can see charred marks under large trees from sacrifices and even signs for "sacred forests" reserved for voodoo rituals.

Where there is a temptation to write this off as superstitious or such, two final observations. First, I found it incredibly helpful to be hear in order to better understand and appreciate aspects of the OT. I wonder how African folks could help North Americans to better understand 'atonement,' or the "family stories" in Genesis, or many other things. Where for us these tend to be theoretical discussions, in Benin there is direct contact and experiential understanding of these settings.

Second, I suspect we have our own idols and 'gods' that we worship too, only in less direct ways. I wonder whether 'traditionally' (ie: repeatedly) checking my email or banking information reflects my own version of "idolatry." Stressing the importance of the individual and my OWN well-being over that of others sure provides a striking contrast to the habitual hospitality we encountered.

Much more to say, but this gives you a sense of what I was up to and where my mind went. I came away challenged, invigorated, and motivated. We are all grateful to St. Jacobs Mennonite Church for this opportunity, and BBI for its incredible welcome.



  1. At last we hear from the Derek! Thanks, Derek. This was interesting to us for many reasons. Our congregation in West Virginia has a long-time connection with Nancy Frey who is pictured.

  2. Derek, it was so good to hear of your teaching experience at BBI.
    As you said, there is so much more you could say and I'm looking forward to hearing more! What I loved was how you talked about how much you have learned in the midst of your own teaching role.
    There is so much potential for learning from each other when we
    open ourselves up to those possibilities.
    Blessings, Sue S.

  3. AH Derek!!!! So wonderful to read about your time in Benin! Thanks for sharing :) Shauna

  4. What a sweet image of your books being carried, your boards being wiped, and a loving respect being placed on you. The many and varied ways that love and respect can be communicated... refreshing to experience new modes of that.

    Interesting question about "what should I do with a witch in my congregation who has killed several people through the power of witchcraft?". I find that 'spirit world' flavor of their faith fascinating... SJMC is less in tune with the 'spirit world' than my family of origin was... interesting to think about how that flavor of our Christian faith can be so strong in some denominations and cultures and extremely mild in others. It has a more charismatic/mystical feel for me.

    Thanks for the challenge re: our 'gods'. Checking Facebook twice an hour, checking email twice an hour, thinking about money issues with too much regularity... why are our hearts so prone to getting slightly obsessive about thoughts and behaviors?