Friday, 28 June 2013

re-entry shock

The most common question since we've returned from Benin is: How was it? My short answer to this question is: it was a great experience for our family.
at the Toronto airport:
home again, home again, jiggety jig

The second most common is: are you experiencing any culture shock?

At first I thought: no, Derek and I have traveled a lot. We're not going to go through that this time. We're not going to break down crying in the cereal aisle of the grocery store, numbed by all of the choices. Or in the pet food aisle, incredulous at the array of foods we have for our pets.

We were gone for a month - not really enough time to move past the "honeymoon phase" of cultural discovery. We observed, tasted, listened to, smelled, experienced many new things, and were immensely blessed by these experiences. There were some frustrations too, but we weren't there long enough to really let them sink in.

But over the past week, there have been things that have been noticeable, and have struck me in a different way than usual. Here are some re-entry shock examples:

At Chapter's book store in Waterloo: paying for chocolate covered pretzels for teachers' gifts and a book for a friend's birthday party and looking at the total and discovering that I had paid $10 each for the pretzels! I was just a little horrified. At the check-out, I was asked if I'd like to donate any money to school libraries across Canada that are in need. The woman asked if I knew of any needy libraries in Canadian schools. I said, "Nope, but I know of one in Benin! That school doesn't have any library at all." She just smiled and asked where Benin was.

In the emergency room in Grand River hospital: on the advice of a Telehealth nurse and the doctor on call (I'm so thankful for those services, by the way), I brought Eden in to the hospital emergency to get bloodwork done to test for malaria last weekend. She had a headache, a high fever, and was nauseous. When they heard that we had just returned from a malaria zone, they took it very seriously and wanted to get her checked out. Out of the 8 people that I talked to that day - nurses, doctors - none of them had ever heard of Benin. Total time spent at the hospital that day was 6 hours, but I kept imagining what we would be doing at a hospital in Benin. I was thankful for the care we got, and that her bloodwork showed no malaria in that test. They were very thorough in their testing. I kept thinking back to an experience in Benin: a woman carrying a girl of about 11, strapped to the mother's back with a piece of fabric, walking up the stairs to the children's section of the hospital in Cotonou, Benin. The girl looked fevered and her face was covered with pocks. She lay limp on her mother's back. The mother struggled, carrying her up the stairs. I wonder what that girl had, and how she is doing now as my daughter runs and jumps and plays at school.

Garbage pick up day: Seeing all of the things that people were tossing out here in Waterloo, wondering how the garbage would have been used in Benin.

Groceries: Easy. That's the word that came to my mind over and over again when I drove to the store on our first morning back. Easy. It was easy to drive to the store. Easy to buy the groceries and find what I needed. Easy to put them in the trunk. Easy to drive home. Easy. I know people don't want to hear this here - that our lives our easy. Because I know our lives are filled with challenges too. So I'll just speak for my own life. When I compare my life here to the lives I saw in Benin, I have it so easy. I don't worry about where my meals are coming from. I don't worry about my child contracting malaria and dying. Or yellow fever, or meningitis, or hepatitis. I don't have to spend time in my day pounding maize into flour or butchering a goat. My stresses are of a different kind, and sometimes come from over-scheduled lives, deadlines, and dis-connectedness with others.

St. Jacobs Market on a Saturday: So quiet and orderly and predictable. No bartering involved at the hour I went (7:30 - this is not early by Beninese standards).

Laundry: Easy. Incredibly easy.

School: Right now I have no patience for parents complaining about what our schools lack, or teachers complaining about too much work, or students who aren't putting forth a good effort at school. This lack of patience comes from seeing schools where teachers work so hard to teach students, and their only tools are themselves and the blackboards. From seeing parents who are so happy with the education their children are getting at L'École les Leaders. From seeing students working so hard over their summer holidays to keep knowledge in their brains. They want to succeed, and their work ethic is so admirable.

I think that one of the biggest gifts of travel is that it gives you new eyes - to see another part of the world, but also to look at your own part of the world a little differently. I hope that I can hold on to these eyes for awhile.

"We shall not cease in exploration
and at the end of all our exploring
will be to arrive where we started
and know the place for the first time." -- T. S. Eliot, "Little Gidding"

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

sensory memories

There are some memories that are mixes of sounds, smells, sights, or feelings. There are no photos or videos for these multi-sensory memories - only words. Sometimes you just have to put the camera down and experience, you know?

At Bethesda hospital, Cotonou: We walked carefully, quietly, past children in hospital beds, lined in a row, their parents smiling at us weakly, IV tubes connected to arms as children slept. We got to the end of the room where 4 children were lying on a counter top. The doctor giving us the tour asked if a little 2 year old boy was still breathing. The boy lay on the table wearing only a diaper. The nurse said "yes". The doctor shook the boy's body and after a few seconds, he coughed. The doctor frowned, put the stethoscope on the boy's heart, listened. He shook his head and said, "he's dead." Tears came to my eyes at once. It took all of my concentration to hold them back as the small boy lay limp on the table.

At La Casa Grande children's home in Allada: The sound of crickets chirping mixed with children's pure singing voices coming from the girls' house. Night had fallen, everyone was in bed, praising the God who had given them life. In the other direction, drumming and singing from the neighbouring church. A peaceful way to fall asleep.

At Ouidah, the slave port on the Atlantic coast: After hearing the story of the slave trade, Zoe said, "Sometimes I don't like the colour of my skin."

In Rome, Benin, Paris: Eden was sobbing because she felt so badly for a homeless woman who was sitting outside of a cathedral in Rome. In Benin, the need was much greater. Every time the car was stopped at a light, people rushed onto the street offering CDs, toys, towels, dishcloths, photo frames, for sale. Others pushed someone in a wheelchair who had leprosy, coming up to each of us at our car windows and asking for money. One day, Eden saw a hand come up from below and hit her car window. She laughed, surprised. She looked down out of the window and saw a man pushing himself around the traffic on a skateboard, asking for money. Our Beninese hosts weren't comfortable giving money to beggars, so we followed suit. In Paris, Eden asked again to give money to someone on the street. When do we give? When do we not give? It seems so random, and our children are watching.

Leaving La Casa Grande: I cut my finger on the rusty trunk of the taxi as we got loaded up to go back to Cotonou. It didn't really hurt, but tears came as I got in the back seat of the car. Would I see these children again? Where will their lives take them? In 2 short weeks, I had come to love them, and wanted the best for them. I prayed that their dreams would come true: for a library, a basketball court, a high school, a promising future.

Monday, 24 June 2013

last night in Cotonou

The beauty of having power surges, then an explosion in the power box, then a power outage for the entire night, is that you get to take in all of the night sounds of a city.
Eden in her mosquito net, ready for the night
This is what happened on our last night in Cotonou. No fans, no breeze, just a still, not-quite-quiet night in the largest city in Benin.

Heat. Ontario: you don't even begin to compare.

I'll admit it: I'm a country girl at heart. So our 2 weeks in Allada, where La Casa Grande children's home is located, were divine. There are nice breezes at night, crickets sing you to sleep, and the home is on the outskirts of a small town. You can't hear the noises of the town at all, and the landscape surrounding it is lush and green.
the view from La Casa Grande 
pineapple fields

running through the fields behind La Casa Grande

Cotonou is a bit noisy in comparison.
next-door neighbours' house in Cotonou
But this last night offered me an opportunity to record the various night sounds of Cotonou. Here are some, along with the approximate times:

11:00pm - dishes clanking, spoon on bowl, child crying, balai sweeping
11:30 - goat crying (have to listen well to distinguish this from a child's cry)
2:00am - woman with dementia next door crying, sobbing, saying something in Fon over and over and over again
2:30 - goat/baby crying
3:00 - rooster crowing. Get a clock, rooster.
3:30 - woman with dementia crying
4:00 - woman crying, rooster crowing
4:30 - motorcycle honking
5:00 - balai sweeping dirt and concrete, rooster crowing, child yelling, mother yelling
5:30 - dishes clanking, spoon on bowl, child crying, rooster crowing, water running, hammers pounding, mortar and pestle pounding maize flour
6:00 - water being poured into bucket from well, cars honking, goat crying, another goat crying, hammers pounding
6:30 - motorcycles driving by, hammers pounding, saws sawing, drills drilling, balai sweeping concrete

more Cotonou from another rooftop

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Zoe writes: children in Benin

These are some things I noticed about children in Benin. Not every child is like this, but this is what I saw in a lot of the children there.

  1. They never complain to adults that they're bored.
  2. They respect their parents and people older than them.
  3. They take responsibility.

  4. They don't have a lot of toys.
  5. Only adults have cellphones - even teenagers don't have them. And they just use them basically as phones, not really for games or for texting.
  6. They don't have a lot of extra-curricular activities.
  7. They really enjoy school and work hard. 
    teenage boys at La Casa Grande on vacation - keeping up their studies together
  8. They like to sing and dance.

  9. They don't have to be asked twice to do something, they just do it -- even praying out loud or doing chores.
  10. They don't have a playground at their school.
  11. The adults are more strict and sometimes kids get hit if they're misbehaving.
  12. They don't have adults patrolling them all the time at recess.
  13. The children and teenagers know how to make meals. They serve meals to guests first before eating. 
    Bonaventure's family (2 of the kids are gone to university)
  14. In Ganvié, children learned to swim, fish, and drive their own boat when they were about 6 years old. And they don't wear life jackets!

Friday, 21 June 2013

school in Benin

We had the privilege of visiting 3 elementary schools in Benin. We visited 2 schools that were just outside of Cotonou. We just stopped in for very short visits. The third school was one we got to know much better. It was called École Les Leaders and was on the La Casa Grande children's home property. I spent some time at that school observing the classrooms and helping out a bit, and then presenting a lesson about Canada to each class.
during recess
Only the classroom on the left was used this year for the oldest class.
Next year, the middle one will be used for the oldest class.
Each year, they add at least one new class as the students move up the grades.
They hope to build another level on top of this one to house even more classrooms.
This first level was built with this in mind.

This is the building that holds the 3 younger classes.
We also had the honour of attending their last day of school party on June 7th. All 140 students and some parents gathered in the dining hall to watch a program that included songs, dances, skits, and speeches. I was asked to give a speech in that program to give "counsel" to the students - to encourage them over the holidays. So that too was an honour. The program was wonderful - even the principal got up and danced! Very celebratory and a fun way to end the school year.

saying something wise and inspiring, I'm sure. HA!
Paulin, the director of La Casa Grande, is beside me here.
sitting with the principal in the seats of honour
Zoe, Eden and I taught a song to the kids that Eden had learned in her French immersion class in Canada. It's sung to the tune of "Swimming, swimming, in the swimming pool" and describes hockey. This was new French vocabulary for the children there: hockey, rink, puck, skates, skating - even the word "sweater" was a foreign one. To my delight and surprise, a group of kids presented this song at the fête. But they added a distinct Beninese flavour to the song, complete with actions - I doubt I'll ever hear it sung like that in Canada! It was a real treat (it's on the video below).

Derek and I also had the privilege of handing out some awards to the top students. This is a difference from Canadian schools to Benin ones, and one that Zoe really appreciated. In Benin, students don't automatically move on to the next grade like they do now in Canada. They have to work hard to pass. So at the end-of-year fête, the "passers" were announced for each class, with cheers around the room. Then each teacher gave gifts to the top 3 students from each class. Zoe really liked this idea too, and thought we should do this in Canada. She thought it would make students try harder.

the principal giving an award to Gildas

giving an award to Eugenie
This felt a bit odd, and I felt sorry for the ones who hadn't passed. But as an educator, I have mixed feelings about the "pass everyone no matter what" policy we have in Canada. I'm not sure that the "everyone wins" philosophy really makes for better students in the end. While it's great to reward students for their hard work, I know that some of the non-passers were children who had tried very hard that year too. Maybe even harder than some of the "passers." School, both in Benin and Canada, is not set up to make every child successful - it clearly benefits those who can communicate easily through reading and writing. Some children are clearly intelligent, but their marks at school do not show that.

I came away wondering: how could we have the best mix of this "everyone wins" philosophy + healthy competition? How can we have schools and teachers that impact children and motivate them to work hard to learn? 

The principal at L'École Les Leaders asked me to comment on ways that their school could improve. He wondered what they could learn from Canadian schools. I blathered on a bit about multiple intelligences, and active learning, and the various learning styles and bla bla bla, but in the back of my mind, I kept thinking of the question the other way around: what can we learn from schools in Benin? 

This year the parent committee at our local school in Canada was fundraising to provide a Smart board (interactive white boards) in every classroom. I compared this with the items that are on the teachers' wish list at this school in Benin: a library of French books, a paved terrace for playing games, and more classrooms to expand the school.

Do we really need a Smart board in every classroom? Are iPads in each room really improving the level of learning? Or do they just make us think we're smarter because we have these cool tools? Are students more motivated, more inspired to learn? Learning more? Understanding how to better access information?

It strikes me that these things are a bit hard to measure, and I'm not saying these tools are bad - I love to use them! But just because we have the tools, doesn't necessarily mean we know how to best use them to maximize the learning in the classroom. I think that sometimes they can be a distraction rather than a help.

I left this school in Benin feeling in awe of teachers who can use basic materials like a chalkboard, slates, and chalk to teach their students for an entire day. And inspired to do what I can to help them realize their dreams. 

Zoe and Eden created a video for you to see what school is like in Benin:

ecole les leaders from Rebecca Seiling on Vimeo.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Derek and Rebecca write: Benin Bible Institute's Agricultural Site in Oumako

Zoe told you about our visit to Songhai Agricultural Project, which has been running for about 30 years. This place inspired BBI to start their own agricultural program for their students, a dream they've had for years now. BBI purchased land about a 1.5 hour drive from Cotonou, where BBI is located. It's a beautiful site, and Dominique is a former BBI student who spent 18 months at Songhai studying their agricultural methods. 

This dream of having an agricultural program has been unfolding for years now.
  • 11 years ago, they purchased 4.6 hectares of land near Oumako 
  • 8 years ago, Bonaventure (BBI's director) planted trees around the property, including fruit trees like mango, papaya, and banana
  • 3 years ago, Dominique started to study at Songhai
  • 10 months ago, Dominique moved onto the land to start creating an operational farm on the land
We really enjoyed our tour around the property with Dominique. He is a wonderful person - engaging, inspiring, and very knowledgeable about ecosystems, plants, and animals. It's clear that Songhai taught him well! He has been living at the Oumako site for about 10 months, and they now have many vegetables, trees and crops planted, a well dug and a water tower in the works, a house for Dominique and volunteers/guests, a chicken barn, and a rabbit barn.

Dominique with a tree seedling
looking at day-old rabbits
2 week-old rabbits
holding the big rabbits
Dominique and Bonaventure
okra plant
aromatic leafy plant, good for making sauce

Dominique pumping water at the well
Dominique talked about how important it is to build relationships - to establish healthy "human ecosystems." And now that he's been there for 10 months, people in the village are getting to know and trust him. Many women from the village come to the farm to get fresh water from the pump, or pick vegetables to sell in the market. The women pay Dominique for the produce they pick, and this money is used as income for BBI. This provides financial support for BBI, and helps them to keep their student tuition rates low enough so that they are affordable.
a woman from town picking chili peppers

a family from the village coming to the farm for water and vegetables
At first I didn't understand this connection between a theological/biblical program and an agricultural project. But now I get it, and I think it's such a wonderful idea. Many pastors who study at BBI and pastor congregations work without any pay. Since there isn't enough to pay a pastor in some churches, agricultural skills can give them another source of income. At the same time, teaching them things like sustainability, crop management and plants/creatures that work well together can benefit their whole community, not just one pastor. The idea is that these methods will keep spreading through Benin - that you can start small, and that anyone can farm to make a decent living.

Dominique holding a tiny red fuzzy creature that Eden found
So the goals of this project are many:

  • to provide a teaching/training place for BBI students to learn valuable agricultural skills
  • to provide an income stream for BBI
  • to extend BBI's reach to villagers in various communities through the teaching of sustainable agricultural practices
  • to nourish bodies and souls
In BBI's Baccalaureate program, students will be required to take a course in agriculture. Dominique teaches BBI students about growing seasons, species compatibility, and ecosystems. He knows about native plants that are good for health, for cooking, and for fruit. He is experimenting with the grafting of citrus trees, and is mixing local and imported species of chickens to produce a heartier breed for meat. Something interesting that we learned is that if you graft a grapefruit or orange branch onto a lemon one, it produces a bigger, better fruit than if it were just a grapefruit tree. Dominique is also experimenting with various species of plants planted beside each other, like yams and maize corn.

Because Benin is a tropical country, there can be multiple growing seasons in one year.

As we often experienced in Benin, there are immediate plans and bigger dreams. Some of these dreams include:
  • finishing the water tower. This will create a way of irrigating the plants in the dry season. Right now, much of Dominique's time in the dry season is spent carrying water from the pump to the plants. With an irrigation system set up, this will free up his time to expand various other projects on the farm.
    water tower, currently under construction
  • creating a pond for raising fish. Dominique is engaged to be married next year, and his future wife specializes in fish/pond management. These will be very useful skills as they create a fishfarm on the property.
  • creating a snailery for raising snails. Both fish and snails would be sold at the local market for food, just like the chickens and rabbits are now.
  • purchasing a pick-up truck. We experienced the ride from Cotonou to Oumako. To say it is bumpy is a HUGE understatement. The road is not paved, and in the rainy season the potholes are MANY. BBI has dreams of purchasing a vehicle to use for trips into the village of Oumako, as well as trips to Cotonou. 
  • purchasing more land adjacent to this property to expand their crops and farming practices. Land is quite costly for them, at about $10,000 per hectare.
  • building a small residence for BBI students on the property
  • expanding their "cash crop" of plants that can be sold for more income, like the laurel plant (sold at a good price for perfume, soap, etc.), and a forest of trees that provide valuable woods (like teak, eucalyptus, acacia) for building furniture
  • expanding their training. People in the nearby village have been asking Dominique for training on how to use these agricultural methods themselves.
    "tree of life"
    tree seedlings
local and imported varieties of chickens
compost pile
Plants feed the chickens, the chickens' manure enriches the compost, the compost feeds the plants, and the plants provide feed for the chickens. A closed loop, beneficial at many levels. In the same way, teaching skills that provide an income for pastors will connect them with the broader community, provide employment and visibility, and an opportunity to explain why they are doing this, which in turn "grows" more church folk, including potential future pastors who will farm and tend plants and souls. We left inspired by this dream for a vibrant, healthy socio-theological ecosystem and look forward to continuing to support this project so that they can realize their dreams.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

sing me a new song

"Sing me a new song." 

We heard these words often at La Casa Grande. The children there LOVE to sing, and love to learn new songs. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that every child there (including the 2 year olds) knows about 60 songs off by heart - church songs. Quite possibly more. And anyone, from the toddlers to the teenagers, can be called on at any morning devotion to choose and start a song for the group. Same goes for praying. Any of them can be asked to pray before the meal, and they all do it. There's no such thing as saying "no" to this request.

telling a story at morning devotions
Because it's expected - that anyone can sing, and anyone can pray. 

Our 2 children are not used to being called on in these ways, so there were stunned looks when they were asked to lead a song or pray in front of the whole group at La Casa Grande. I usually intervened and helped them out, but these experiences gave me pause. They made me wonder (again) why we don't expect more of our children.

Zoe already wrote about the expectations for doing chores and being involved around La Casa Grande, and this is another example of the children's involvement.

I think that sometimes in our circles, we don't want to embarrass someone or put them on the spot by asking them to pray out loud or lead a song - even adults. But this is a foreign idea to people in Benin. While Zoe and Eden were embarrassed to be asked to do these things, their Beninese friends were asking them to do them as a sign of honour, respect, and inclusion. To deny would be to imply we didn't want to be included.

It's a stretch for me too, praying out loud. Especially in French. :)

During this past month, our children have learned more about prayer. They thank God for the new experiences of every day. They pray when they are worried about their parents not being able to flag down a taxi in time to get us all to the Paris airport. They prayed at Ouidah, the slave port in Benin, pleading with God that this type of tragedy will never be repeated. They prayed when they were feeling sick on a bumpy car ride to Cotonou. They prayed that they would somehow see their friends from La Casa Grande again.

When our friends dropped us off at the Cotonou airport, they sang us a song. At our farewell evening at La Casa Grande, they went around the circle and each of the 31 children said something in appreciation. Many of them sang a song - some were solos, and some started songs and the others joined in. These children have the language, even the 2 year olds, to bless others. They said things like "May God bless you, and may God accompany you in your journey home."

Singing is part of every day, from morning devotions, where 3-4 children are called on to choose and start singing a song, to singing while you are doing chores, to singing in their bunks at night. One of the sweetest sounds I heard in our time in Benin was the singing that came from the girls' house at bedtime: beautiful, pure voices joined together to thank God for the day, mixed with the sound of crickets. And still, if I pause for too long to think about it, I get all choked up.

Our friends in Benin sing all the time, and they pray all the time too. Before leaving on a trip, you pray. When you get back from a trip, you pray. When we visited a hospital in Benin that was started by Mennonites, we prayed for the ongoing work of the hospital. Before someone speaks at morning devotions, you pray. After someone speaks, you pray. After a visit at someone's house, you pray. You can never pray too many times in the day in Benin.

And honestly, when you've driven on the roads here, you can see why you pray then thank God for a safe journey. But it makes me think about the control that I think I have - how I don't pray before I drive somewhere in Canada because I think I'm in control. This "pray every day, pray all the time" kind of mentality orients your day in a different way - towards God, towards something bigger than yourself.

I've put together a few snippets of music - some at different church services, some at La Casa Grande children's home - for you to hear a bit of Beninese singing.

stomach souvenirs

Some things that our stomachs and taste buds will remember from our last month:

Eden, so excited to have her airplane food on Alitalia flight to Rome

foods in Rome

so excited to see some grocery store items we liked from our time in France 3 years ago:
muesli with chocolate and coffee yogurt
fresh drinking water fountains all over Rome
the flight to Cotonou: ah France, even your airline food is palatable, 
especially the children's menu

breakfast in Benin: 
bouie, a rice soup that you mix with sweetened condensed milk
 yummy fresh bread every morning
ingredients for our hot chocolate every morning at La Casa Grande:
cocoa, sugar, powdered milk
 fresh coconut

cooked salad, always so pretty in presentation

the cooking fire at La Casa Grande, where all meals were made

 a poisson croissant, a fitting mix of French and Beninese (has fish filling)

fresh tilapia fish with rice, plaintain, and mango juice

 a meal at La Casa Grande: rice, fish, and escargots

pate rouge (made from maize flour) and tomato onion sauce

Mama Doréa and Doréa making pate rouge
 pate rouge with turkey wings
 plantain chips
 palm nuts and leaves: ingredients for a yummy sauce

 tiny, bite-sized fish that you eat whole, with salad and fries
Derek's father's day breakfast in Paris

Derek's father's day supper in Paris: escargots and cheese plate