That’s the colour of parting, the pure chocolate of our Beninese experience, soon to be memory. What will linger on the palate, and how long? The books we have read on repatriation say that at first we will be full of stories, constantly associating and comparing what we re-encounter in our homeland with what we experienced while away. For some time people will listen, before too long they will have heard enough, and after a while even we ourselves will barely find occasion to reminisce. But now and then a memory will suddenly light up and the bittersweet will be there once more, diminished in intensity but palpable, only to recede under the weight of normalcy.
Bittersweet: a melange of what is basically unpleasant and of what is probably too good to be real. Sister Coosje used the word in a footnote to Marijke’s latest blog, and I thank her for it. (Hi, Co! You’re doing a bit of globetrotting yourself right now, aren’t you?) Bitter and sweet: our two years in Benin, this busy time of farewells, the period of adjustment which is fast approaching.
Today we were in Vovokame, one of the parishes in the Mono-Couffo which is dearest to our heart. Still not officially included in the communion of the ERCB, all but two of the 15 or so members as yet unbaptized, average age probably about 16. Without recourse to the ERCB’s church funds, but very serious about wanting a place of instruction and worship, they found and paid for the teak frame, one log at a time, they laboured with their own hands splitting palm branches for the walls and levelling the plot of land donated by senior member Grégoire: he of the two wives and therefore never to be office-bearer, but a beautifully devoted Christian. With a little financial help from friends in the Netherlands a roof was placed, and there the building stands! We were in Vovokame today, and comme d’habitude I was asked to preach. Philippians 4.1 was our text: Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends! I took them back to the origins of the church at Philippi, Acts 16, the miracle of God opening both hearts and prison doors, the inevitable departure of the Philippians’ pasteur missionnaire Paul, his certainty that despite the powers of hell ranged against the fledgling church he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1.6), and his insistence now that (whether he would ever see them again or not) they stand firm in the Lord. Paul did leave Philippi. We are leaving Vovokame. We will miss them, and they us. We will miss the rousing choruses there: no organ accompaniment, but the biggest and loudest drum money could buy. The drum was there today, new-bought with their own funds! A sweet first in the as yet unpublished history of the ERCB, we think: all the other churches have, until now, held out for mission funding of their instruments.
Mission funding. Money provided by well-meaning brothers and sisters overseas, and stridently demanded by increasingly dependent brothers and sisters here at the receiving end. There’s the bitter in our experience, something we were woefully inadequately prepared for before being sent to Benin. Vovokame is – as yet – an exception to the rule we’ve been struggling to deal with. We assumed that we had been sent to offer spiritual support, but an hugely inordinate amount of our energy has been spent managing material demands. Managing in the sense of trying to change expectations, but also in the sense of administering and controlling budgets. Now, as (and because) we are leaving, a financial expert has been sent to the field in order to set up a self-sustaining church administration with all the checks and balances required. He is doing a wonderful job. Hats off to those responsible for this decision. But this could and should have been done years ago. Our predecessors and ourselves would have been spared a lot of frustration and would have been able to devote ourselves properly to what we were good at; and the ERCB would have been helped to realize that they themselves are responsible - before God and men - for their own church affairs.
Yesterday we did good. We brought a maize-mill to far-off Tchangba, the most isolated and poverty-stricken village in the economic waste-land called the Mono-Couffo. Overhead are the high-tension power lines, bringing electricity from Togo – on the other side of the Mono – to the more developed parts of Benin. But on the ground below lies Tchangba, no electricity, to all intents and purposes stone-age. (Right, Hannah, family archaeologist?) From Tchangba, after the corn has been harvested, the villagers (and people from the surrounding villages) walk an hour or more – eastwards to Deve or westwards and across the Mono - to have it ground into flour for their staple pâte. At the expense of much time, energy, and an inequitable portion of the harvest. Julien of Tchangba, we discovered a few months ago, had managed to save for a mill; an achievement of months or possibly years. What was still lacking was the diesel plant to power it. And the revision of said mill so that it could actually be attached to the plant. And a small building to house the assembly. And assorted bits and pieces: total costs about 450.000 FCFA, or €675.
Thinking ahead to our departure, Marijke and I decided to offer these very poor people of Tchangba some help. Form a small co-operative, we said to Julien, and if you – together – can come up with 1/3 of the amount required (150.000), we will provide the other 2/3. No sooner said than done: a week later we received a delegation with a list of 12 cooperative members who had pledged the amount required. Obviously, we didn’t just give them our contribution: first make sure you have your part in hand, show it to me, and then we will get things underway. There was some disappointment at that, but my caution can hardly be faulted, I think. After that meeting, there was silence for about two months. Then we received another delegation: yes, said Jonas, we’re ready to get started. We were pleased, of course. Do you have the money with you? I asked. Well, not exactly, was the response. We have been able to find 40.000. But we were thinking… Three guesses. Right: Pasteur et Madame would up our contribution from 300.000 to 410.000. And Tchangba would contribute their bit. (Those of you who might wonder why we refused to go along with this proposition should read When Charity Destroys Dignity.) And then the delegation went back to Tchangba. We honestly thought that was the end of it; obviously, the 150.000 would not be found before our departure…
And then, a week and a half ago: bingo! Julien was here, with Pelagie, the treasurer. They had found the money! Yes: I checked, I counted, and there it was. To the last FCFA. So here we were: in the middle of packing our goods, and pressed for time, but with a promise that needed keeping. We made the necessary appointments, and we sent Francois (one of our watchmen, a fellow church member in Dogbo, and a good negotiator) along with Julien and Pelagie to the sellers of hardware, the technicien, the building supplies depot, the carpenter, the mechanic, the mason. Francois came back a few days later with a progress report: he had been able to undercut all the prices which Julien had originally given me by about 1/3. Well, I thought, good for me and good for Julien! The cooperative will have 50.000 which it can give back to its member-investors, and we will save about 100.000 ourselves.
But then Julien intervened: there were a few more things needed, after all, and they would amount to the amount we had thought we would be saving… This was last Friday afternoon. This time, he said, it would be better if we gave him the money directly, starting with the 25.000 extra which the technician in Djakotomey was now demanding. Francois, after all, was not available that afternoon, and there was some haste. Oh yes, and there was still 15.000 from yesterday, Pelagie accidentally took that home with her to Tchangba, and she is not here today. Could you give me that amount extra as well? By now, my olfactory organ was starting to warn me of the presence of a rodent. So I said No, let’s do that a bit differently. Here’s the money, but take our chauffeur Grégoire along with you to the technician. Then tomorrow, you will have Pelagie give me back the 15.000 she has, and after that we talk to the carpenter and the mason and the mechanic. Make sure that they’re there! It took some time for Grégoire to get back from Djakotomey. The technicien had been paid for his services, the mill and the diesel plant were in the back of the truck, everyone should have been happy: but Grégoire and Julien for some reason were no longer on speaking terms. Later we learned why. Along the way to Djakotomey, Julien had tried to talk Grégoire into holding back a large part of the money owed the technicien, then dividing the amount between them. Grégoire – yes, this is the same two-wife Grégoire from Vovokame – had refused, had appealed to Julien to remember that he was a christian, leader of the parish, and that this was no way of doing business. Grégoire had prevailed, and Julien had gone into a sulk.
On the way to Tchangba yesterday, Grégoire and we agreed on what to do: first the 15.000, then the unloading. After that, we would talk to the workmen, agree on the price, then pay them directly an advance of half the amount. No more cash money to Julien. There was obviously something complicated going on. Arriving at Tchangba: no Pelagie, no workmen. Pelagie had the 15.000 from earlier, but she was out in the fields somewhere. All right, we said, we’ll wait. Go call her. And we will leave the equipment on the truck until I have received the 15.000. Oops. Oh, yes, actually I do have it here with me after all, said Julien. Wait a moment, please… The moment ended up being a bit longer than most moments I have encountered in my 61 years on this earth. And it was filled with rather heated discussions between Julien and his wife Sulanie. This one, Sulanie, we have had to deal with before, by the way. About a year ago, she suddenly turned up in faraway Djakotomey, staying with her family and refusing to go home where she belonged. At that time there had been a thing with money too. Money she had borrowed (without her husband´s permission) spent on something other than had been agreed on, borrowed from another creditor to repay the first, and finally, with no way to repay the debt, fleeing to the bosom of the family and leaving poor Julien to deal with an angry creditor and a large brood of unwashed and hungry children.
This time she didn’t seem to be threatening to leave, but as she drew the 15.000 from her own bosom, she looked very, very angry… Money handed over, goods unloaded. Workmen still nowhere in sight. Last effort on the part of Julien: I have agreed with them on the price, if you give me the money now, I will be sure to pay them! No, they won´t be here in Tchangba today, they´re in Deve.
We had a better idea. Julien, you come with us to Deve, we´ll look them up, and we will pay them an advance ourselves. Resigned at last, but looking worried, Julien got on his moped and followed us to Deve. Great place, Deve. But no carpenter, no mason, no mechanic. Check.
But not checkmate. In Deve lives a wise man. Elder of the ERCB there. Salomon: what better name to have in this quandary? Dieu seul suffit, reads the plaque above the entrance to his tailoring establishment. 14 apprentices followed us with their eyes as we walked into the back room. 28 ears seemed to swivel in our direction as well, as we went into a huddle. We explained the predicament: we wanted to help with the project, Julien and we had already invested a fair amount, but we were kind of at a dead point… Salomon was no stranger to the project. Actually, he knew a lot about it. He had been the one guarding the money for the cooperative, and in the end, he himself had contributed more than a bit to get it off the ground. There really was a need for funds, and it wasn’t a small thing to install a mill, he said. At that point we said: Salomon, could we talk to you privately? Julien left through the side door. When he was at a safe distance, we took out the papers. Julien’s inflated estimates. The real costs. The whole history of Julien’s attempts to get the money in his hands without the controlling presence of a witness. Including the episode between Grégoire and Julien on the way to Djakotomey on Friday afternoon. We have been deceived and disappointed, we said. Actually, we would almost want to pull out of the project, were it not that that would mean the loss of what we have already invested, and all those dear people in Tchangba who are counting on the mill. Would you take the completion in hand? Here, this is the amount that is really still required to get the mill up and running. Use half for the advance, the other half when the job is done. Salomon agreed. And then he explained what the problem probably was. Julien found the money for the cooperative’s contribution by lending much of it. And now he has to pay these creditors back. I think, said Salomon, that that is what he wanted from you. Extra money, so that the loans can be repaid…
Bittersweet. If all is well, a maize mill will be running in Tchangba by the end of the month. The villagers will save a lot of time and energy and money. They will probably start making money when surrounding villages discover that there is a mill closer to home. But in the meantime we have been left with the feeling that good deeds are not necessarily completely good. And Julien, having miscalculated our credulousness, has been left with yet another set of creditors to harry him.
Almost there, at the end of our time in Benin. One more little episode. Friday afternoon, just before our meeting with Julien. Joseph, guardien, received his pay. Plus the Christmas bonus which we give towards the end of November. Plus his severance pay for the two years which he spent with us. For him, quite a lot of money. But he deserves it. We love Joseph. His quiet wisdom. His simple humour. His conscientious and absolutely reliable work ethic. For his prayer, every time we voyage, together under the paillotte in our garden. Joseph is a great man, and a wonderful Christian. I said: Joseph, deposit this money at the bank immediately! And I know I don’t really have to tell you, but use it wisely for the support of your family as you look for a new living after so many years as guardien. Joseph thanked me. For his pay. And for the advice. And then he continued. I have worked for Pasteur Jacques, he said. And for Pasteur Gerrit, before you. They were good to me. But if I think of how you and Madame have been like a father and a mother to me in this time, I’m sad that you’re leaving, but also I don’t have the words to express my thankfulness. And as for this envelope with money, he finally said, would you please pray for it and for me? So that I will do with it what God wants, and that his blessing will follow…
Bitter and sweet. What more could I want?