Tuesday, 20 December 2011


Waiting. In a long dark hallway with chipped Formica tile floor. Sweat is beading my forehead, crawling down the side of my body under the armpits, and sticking my shirt to the skin of my back. Police Hospital in Cotonou. No, I am not in need of urgent medical attention. Urgent is a strange concept here, now that I use the word. Every zemidjan, every car, every bus apparently has more need to get its driver across the intersections than anyone else’s. But the result is such chaotic congestion that no one’s zem, no one’s  car, and no one’s bus moves at anything approaching efficiency. The same truth applies in queues at the grocery stores, the exits of parking lots, the desire to be heard in a crowd. Urgency, ever felt, never met.

And yes, here I still am, waiting in the Centre de Santé de la Police Nationale in Cotonou for the results of my blood test. Next stage in the process of obtaining a resident’s permit. We arrived one and a half hours ago, were sent to the secretariat, were sent back downstairs to the Caisse, sent back upstairs to the secretariat, from there to the lab and then back to the secretariat, and thence to the long dark hallway with chipped Formica floor. All of which sounds much more efficient than it was. Because the secretariat first said that malheureusement there was a coupu, so it would not be possible to print the necessary form, then sent us off anyway to make payment. The Caisse was a tiny barred window looking out of a hot, dusty and noisy courtyard: and those of you who have ever tried to communicate into a thus positioned black hole in a language unknown to  a person speaking indistinguishably will remember how well that works. And then the secretariat, having been returned to with proof of payment (two copies: one white, one yellow) first said that the doctor was not present today, so we would be better off returning tomorrow; and then was contradicted by someone more well informed, after which the secretariat said it would be a good idea to go to the lab but to be sure to keep the right copy of the proof of payment. Having  been both bled and relieved of our white payment slip, we were assured that the results would be ready in half an hour, after which the doctor would see us, but would we please go to the secretariat for further instructions. Secretariat suggested that since the coupu had not been solved yet, the analysis would not be completed until this afternoon at five at the very earliest. But she would be happy to phone us if there was any change in the situation. At which point all the lights came on. And it was the hall for us. Our waiting was rewarded. 15 minutes later two sealed envelopes appeared, and we were informed that the doctor was waiting for us in his office downstairs. Which he wasn’t, of course. But we were cordially invited to wait on the bench nearby. Which we did, of course. And lo, the doctor did appear after 10 minutes (just after we had opened the sealed envelopes from boredom). He acknowledged, us, more or less, and walked past into his office. We did not follow. Wrong decision. Venez, venez! He instructed, with a note of irritation, when he discovered we were not on the same page as he. Which we did, of course. Up on a cupboard, overlooking his hugely cluttered desk, a television on a sports channel, commentator effectively preventing our understanding more than a bare minimum of the doctor’s words. It did not take long for him to stop talking. One relevant question came through the babble: why did you open the envelope? The only answer I had: I always do that, didn’t really seem to satisfy him. That’s for me! he said. But then he proceeded to fill in the declaration, signed it, stamped it, and gave it to us. Relief! We were finished… But no. Please take this to the secretariat, he added. Which we did. Secretariat was happy to see us again, took our papers, stapled them together, reached for a ledger, and began to write down a few numbers and letters. Then she stopped. Not to pick up the phone, which had been incessantly ringing since we got in. But to begin a conversation with what seemed to be a colleague. Conversation became somewhat heated, then blew up into a tropical storm. Totally ignoring us the ledger and the documents, secretariat and colleague let the storm run its course for as long as it took. Ten minutes or so. And we waited.

What time did I say we arrived at Cotonou Police Hospital? Nine? We arrived at our next stop, the immigration office a few streets over, just before noon. With the required documents! Unfortunately, the Caisse there was closed for the day. So that was that. No resident’s permit this visit to Cotonou, since we have to go back to Dogbo tomorrow morning. It will have to wait. Like us.

I understand that mission work is largely a matter of waiting.

Thursday, 15 December 2011


Cute, isn’t he? Like those 15km/h little African kids in school khakis that come running after the 4x4 yelling Yovo,Yovo though impossibly white shining teeth with smiles that would light up the darkest night. Legba. Half a metre of mud high, eyes half-closed against the light of the sun, despite the palm leaf canopy built over him for protection, pouting protest against whatever has been smeared over him. Like a long-suffering Beninese snowman built for the tropics. And just look at those horns. Wouldn’t you just love to take him home?

Do not kid yourself. There’s nothing cute about Legba. This is a power figure. We spotted him just outside the village of Ayomi. The horns are real. In this case, they seem to be a replacement for the huge penis most Legbas have. Legba copulates. Legba eats. The bowl is empty. The remnants of Legba’s  supper, or many past suppers rather, blood of fowl or beast with palm oil and maize meal stirred into a thin paste, is what you see oozing down over his face and down where his sideburns should be.

We’re on our way back from Deve, where we’ve brought a used wheelchair to a 17-year old who’s never walked. Nanavi, she’s called. We spotted her a few days ago, in a hut made of the same earth Legba grows from. One of a triplet, of whom the first died, the second lived, and the third was Nanavi. She lives in the mud and the dust and the gore. Though spastic, she seems to react with normal intelligence. But she’s never been to school, spends her days as they happen to her. The wheelchair scared her. She trembled. At first. But when we left she was smiling. Legba does not smile. Legba is the reason some people have wrong triplets, I have heard. Legba rewards those who feed him, with bad luck towards others. Yes, there’s a reward in that: misfortune directed at someone else means that you are safe, for the moment.

It struck me, last Sunday, during our bilingual worship, how the name Legba was used. Translating  into Adja, each time representing the same word: Satan. Nothing cute about him either. But so many of those bright smiling little African kids are still growing up in a world where the Prince of Darkness sits under a palm leaf canopy, waiting to be fed. I wish I had a million wheelchairs.

Monday, 12 December 2011


Sunday mid-afternoon. Big Momma Dancing. Pelvis rocking like one of those oil derricks that once dotted the landscape at faraway Schooneveld. Showing off for the camera. Much skinnier partners in a dance of their own. Particularly good moves rewarded by loud ululations from the women spectators and raucous yells from the men. Little boys, hardly out of diapers, clothed for the occasion in the same family pagne, getting into imitatory rhythm. Little girl, large basketware tray on her head, determined to sell as many crunchy sweet deep-fried pretzels as possible. Me, Yovo, the only white person in sight. No surprise: the only other white person in Dogbo is Marijke, and she is at home trying to nap. I wish her well, because the music from the huge party tent – though 300 metres from our house – vibrates the floor and rattles the windows. Africans are incredibly loud! Especially when there is a ceremonie to be held.  This one is for someone´s uncle who died a year ago today. And to send him on to the next stage of the afterlife in style,  there is a street party. Street. The bache, the nissen-hut canopy, spans the entire street, and there’s no way through. Saturday afternoon preparations were already underway, Sunday morning the musicians came and the festivities began. It´s a blessing that this party is daytime: the last one started at nightfall and the music went on went on until past sun-up. Not that anyone was there during the early morning hours: also Beninese need to sleep, especially after starting on the sodabi well in advance of the party.  But the music (canned, in that case) was turned up a notch to compensate for the absent audience and continued. A powerful ancetre, deceased, needs a good ceremonie to keep him happy. And as long as it’s loud it’s good.

Dancing and loud music: we had it in church, too. The Reformed Church in Dogbo is on the same street as our house, about 600 metres the other way from the party tent. Titia was sick, Gerrit had to preach in a church in Bohicon, so Marijke and I went together, for the first time without company. We were greeted at the door by a small child, turned out to be Amos, son of Joseph BLEOUSSI, one of our night watchmen. Joseph was responsible for the service that morning: fulfilling the role of sexton and worshipleader combined. He was the only adult present at 9.15 (the official time to start is 9.00) and with him were his daughter Ali Clemence and a little neighbour girl called Felicitée. We talked a bit, waited some, read the text for the sermon in advance, and greeted others as they slowly drifted in. Yes, everyone was late (European time), but that was because of the harmattan. It didn’t quite become clear to me what the connection was, but perhaps it had to do with temperature? The harmattan is a dry wind from the North. Hot during the day, but cool during the night: the temperature dropping to perhaps under 20 degrees. We slept really well, because of that, but it seems the locals find it uncomfortably cold…

The predicateur, Emile, arrived, 9.30ish. After a little while he came up to me: would you perhaps like to preach this morning? he asked. I was honoured, I said, but probably it would be better if he himself did the honours, since for me French was still a bit difficult, and I was sure that he had prepared a very good sermon. He didn’t seem surprised at the answer, and I concluded that the request was probably intended primarily to show respect. I did have to go sit up front, though. On one of the two chairs behind the liturgical table.

The service started: Joseph, a relatively new Christian, did his part with dignity and enthousiasm. The liturgy is set out in a small booklet, including prayers and other fixed elements, but around the fixed ‘backbone’ was filled out with ex tempore flesh, in which members of the congregation also took their share: responding, praying, singing, making music, and dancing… And yes, it was loud. Reverently loud. Shout to the Lord! I remember reading somewhere.

The sermon was long. But that was partly due to the translation: Every sentence Emile spoke, Joseph translated into Adja. Children sat, amazingly well-behaved. No drawing, no fidgeting: listening! And we understood most of it!!! The French bits… Two-and-a-half weeks here, and suddenly we notice it isn’t a strange language for us anymore. Yes, we still have lots to learn, and we miss lots as well, but we can communicate!!! After the sermon Emile turned to Joseph, and Joseph asked me if I wanted to add anything. So I did. Not much, because it had been a good sermon, well-prepared, well-delivered, and obviously well-received.

Best part of the service: closing prayer. Joseph invited a girl on the front row to pray. She cannot have been older than 9 or 10. But she prayed. In Adja. Long and loud. No hesitations. And by the amens that the congregation uttered, what she said made sense. Out of the mouths…

11.30. And then the service was over. We thought. Until Joseph turned to me and told me that tomorrow all the schoolchildren would have an important day: some kind of test, in all the grades, which would determine what would happen for each student in the new year. If I, the new pasteur, would perhaps pray for them and bless them. All of the school-aged children came to the front, knelt down, and waited… So I prayed and blessed them. Mostly in French. Wasn’t quite the miracle of Pentecost, but perhaps a tiny little bit of it…

And then we went. Back into the world of voodoo and ancestors that need appeasing and Big Momma Dancing.

Friday, 9 December 2011


Delftshaven. When I first saw the bottle in a corner store in Cotonou last May, I thought it was an obvious fake. Cheap alcohol behind a label with a glaring spelling mistake. We used to live in Delfshaven, without the T. I’m becoming less sure, having seen the same label in all your better Beninese corner stores since then. Perhaps it’s the real thing, after all. Whatever: realizing I needed to make an important visit, and looking for just the right present to give, I splurged. CFA3500, about €5,20 worth of gin.

The bureaucracy in Benin is formidable, by all accounts. In order to obtain an extended visa, one needs the following documents, in the following order:  1.  Attestation de residence, 2. Certificate de residence, 3. Attestation de visite medicale, 4. Extraits de casier judiciaire, 5. Preuve d’activites professionelles… etc. etc. the list goes up to number 11. Without 1., 2. is impossible to obtain. It is the proof required at the beginning of a long process.  And for number 1, you need to apply to the chef de quartier. This person is the one who, in the past, would have been the village chief. Not elected, not appointed, not answerable to anyone, but with real authority. Anything that happens in Quartier Avegodu of Dogbo-Tota, where we live, needs to have his approval. Always handy to be on the right end of his humour. Gerrit had already taken me on a courtesy call a week or so ago, you might remember, introducing me as le nouveau pasteur.  Gerrit was otherwise occupied today, and – amazingly, considering what it felt like a week ago – I had enough confidence to go do the necessaries without him.

I took the fine bottle of Delftshaven gin suitably wrapped (as well as Marijke) and we walked over to the compound where he had been shucking corn with his wives last week. Co-co-co-co, I called at the gate, like every self-respecting Beninese does instead of knocking, and we walked in. The performance flopped, however: there was nobody there. We walked around the courtyard, peered into the various windows, but it really and truly was deserted. Fortunately, a young girl appeared through a gate at the other end, and when I asked after the chef, she beckoned us to follow and turned around to lead us to him. He was in a courtyard behind the courtyard through the gate, apparently discussing a building project with another man.

We waited respectfully until he was finished, I greeted him and said I wanted to introduce my wife. Yes, he remembered that I was the new pasteur, of course; and when I said that I had a small gift for him he led us back to the courtyard where we had begun, unlocked one of the buildings, and invited us to sit. We talked a while; yes, we talked! In a variant of French! And he was very pleased to receive what we had brought him, particularly when I explained that it was a product of Holland, where we had come from; and even better, a product of the city where I had been pasteur for six years! (I do hope it wasn’t a lie, that the gin is the real thing, and that Delftshaven really is Delfshaven…)

We thanked him for his hospitality, asked for his permission to depart, and then said: oh, yes, we have a small request… For our carte de sejour, we need a document, and we understand that you are the man who issues such attestations… Of course, he replied, and he led the way to the far end of the room, where from a desk piled high he removed two forms. He checked to make sure these were the right ones, signed them and embossed them with various very official looking stamps. I tried to offer him our passports for verification, but he waved them away. No need for that, he said, just fill the forms in yourself when you get home. And when I asked in my best French: combien le coute pour ces documents? he replied: no cost. It’s my gift to you. You are the new pasteur. You are a man of God.

From there we went to the next office (chef d’arrondissement), and from there to the next (mairie)…  There was some to-ing and fro-ing involved, but once we found the place where we needed to be, we were led past the long (!) line-up, straight to the desk of the person issuing the certificats, and with a minimum of fuss and bother we obtained what we were after. For these we did need to pay: CFA 2200, about €3,30. That seemed reasonable to me as well, not quite free, but close. Walking back to the car, however, looking at the duty receipt stamps, I spotted a small anomaly: what had cost us CFA2200, should have, in fact, only cost CFA1000. Free enterprise, Benin style. Make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon. And if all else fails, with Delftshaven’s finest.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011


Pasta, sauce (no meat: onions, garlic and tomatoes with oregano) and cheese
Yoghurt with dègè (a kind of millet porridge from the North, delicious mixed with yoghurt)

Third time we ate today. The second time was at a farm just east of the Togolese border; we had been invited there for lunch by the first Beninese I have met who can afford to eat anything he chooses. His choice was chicken and French fries. We needed to switch to 4-wheel drive to make it there; but the place was magnificent. He goes there for a week or more at a time to be away from it all. With one of his wives. The house is simple. Three rooms, I counted; and an add-on for the guardien, an otherwise unemployed man from a neighbouring village. If there is no guardien, we are told, the farm will be relieved of all its chickens and turkeys and Guinea fowl within a couple of days. Unless the farmer himself stays there all the time, which is of course impossible.

Around the house a palm-oil plantation: palm nuts are harvested, crushed and boiled and then the (edible) oil is pressed out. We were shown around, while the lunch was being prepared. Beyond the palm-oil plantation the farmer pointed out another, related type of palm, growing wild. There, he said, that’s what the savages do with those. A tree was lying on its side, a gaping hole cut in the trunk, a gourd wedged underneath to catch the sap. We continued our tour. The savages had cut down a whole forest, it seemed. Our friend was not perturbed. Look, he pointed out, the distillery. And there it was. In a small clearing an upended 45-gallon drum with a fire burning underneath it. A copper tube protruded, bent down, entered a successive series of water filled containers, and ended above a funnel stuffed with cotton inserted into a medium sized flask.

The sap harvested from palm trees is lightly fermented already as it comes out of the tree. The savages (it was his kind of joke) collect it and leave it in large fermenting vats to become palm wine. The palm wine is the base for a potent brew called sodabi. Our host said:  that’s English. It comes from so-that-be. There’s probably a bit more to be said for another theory: French, from eau-de-vie. Take your pick. Whatever: it’s strong. And if skilfully made, it won’t blind you. Sodabi is not really approved of among Christians: not because alcohol is frowned on, but because sodabi is associated with the voodoo cult. (Yes, I tasted both sodabi and palm wine. Not bad at all…)

We moved on, skirting the edge of our host’s farm. To the west lies a lake; attached (or not quite attached, it wasn’t really clear) to the Mono River, which marks the border with Togo. In the lake are fish (surprise, surprise) and hippos. But don’t worry, he said, they only come out at night. Pity.

After lunch we sat and talked for a while, then found our way back home by way of Lokossa.

The first time we ate today was breakfast. And it took all of the day between breakfast and pasta to make the visits (yes, the point was not just lunch, it was also to go by a number of villages where the churches to the west of Dogbo are.) I estimate we travelled about 40 km today, and we were absolutely worn out by the time we got home. Heat, state of roads, impressions. And the realization that three meals a day is an exception, really.

While I was cooking the pasta a prayer kept going through my mind, one which we used to say at table. (My brothers and sisters will remember this one.) O Vader die al ‘t leven voedt. (‘O Father who feeds all of life.’ But some more than others.) Kroon onze tafel met Uw zegen. (‘Crown our table with Your blessing.’ Not ours only, though.) En spijs en drenk ons met het goed van Uwe milde hand verkregen. (‘And nourish us and quench our thirst with the good things Your generous hand provides.’ God is generous, much more generous than anyone deserves, but sometimes it still seems unfair.)Leer ons voor overdaad ons wachten, dat w’ons gedragen zoals het behoort.  (‘Teach us to beware of taking too much, in order that we behave as is fitting.’ When is enough enough, when does my sufficiency cause someone else’s poverty?) Doe ons het hemelse betrachten, sterk onze zielen door Uw word. (Have us strive for what is heavenly, strengthen our souls by Your word.’ I’m not sure that my soul, for one, is strong enough yet to let go of what is earthly…) Amen.

I couldn’t stop thinking these thoughts, and when we sat down to eat, I told Marijke. She asked me if I wanted to pray that prayer, but I couldn’t. So she did. First time I have heard those words out loud for twenty years or more. Amazing, what this place does to me.

Monday, 5 December 2011



Dark. African night. The only light outside is from the half-moon directly overhead, and from the bright star right next to it, over the place where the child was. Inside the mud and thatch hovel. Her name is Mimi. She is lying inside on a mat, in the light of a small kerosene lamp, on a mat. Behind the hut a man is digging an oblong hole. Just over a metre long. Mimi is lying on her back, with her head tilted sideways, her eyes closed. In the corner of one eye a little drop of moisture has gathered, from her lower nostril trails a tiny smear, and just above her lip there is what seems to be a cold sore. Gerrit is sitting beside me on a rough bench; Titia is on her knees, stroking Mimi’s compact curls; across from me a semicircle of men and boys. It was the will of God, one says. The others make the singsong eeeh which indicates agreement in Adja. We pray, thanking God for the life of Mimi, for how she danced and sang, for good things which the extended family could give her, and for the knowledge that she was now with Jesus, dancing and singing and no longer suffering from the ravages of AIDS.

Outside someone begins to cry. Also a child, it seems. She is brought in by one of the women, and at the sight of her little sister her cry becomes a heartrending wail. Something something Mimi, is all I can make of her words. Titia takes her in her arms, and we follow them outside, where they sit down on a wooden bench in the light of the half-moon and the bright star next to it. Titia holds her tight and croons a song; Celestine settles down, sobbing Mimi, Mimi.

Mimi had just turned 9; Celestine is 12. Both their parents are long since dead from AIDS, and Mimi was all Celestine had left. Mimi had been hanging on to life for some time, intermittently  being provided with the medication she needed, living with her grandmother in Semanouhoué. The end had come quickly, unexpectedly.

We were on our way back from Cotonou when we got the call. Mobiles are everywhere in Africa, even in the remotest village. Nicolas, de facto elder in Semanouhoué , had broken the news of Mimi’s death. Around five that afternoon. We had ¾ of an hour to go to reach Dogbo. Gerrit and Titia were visibly shaken. She had been such a joyful child, despite the situation. Not so long before, after a short stay in the hospital, she had been sitting on the veranda here and had said tot Titia: I want to stay here with you… Impossible. But what did she have at home?

After unloading in Dogbo, we drove out to the village. Night driving is not recommended in Benin. People walking in the darkness on the road’s edge, vehicles in various states of disrepair, lights blindingly askew or not working at all, visibility through dusty windscreens minimal. Once we got off the main road at Gohomey that danger receded; but the track to Gohomey grew steadily less passable. Deep ruts, maize and cassava crowding in, and also here travellers on foot unexpectedly appearing in the headlights. The village was in darkness; power had gone out some time before. But the moon gave enough light to find our way to grandmother’s house.

Goats, children, cooking fires, low mud and thatch huts. I thought to myself that this was probably what, for instance, Bethlehem would have been like 2000 years ago. Where the Child was born, under a star which promised blessing and life renewed. Also for Mimi. And Celestine.

Thursday, 1 December 2011



Bulghur with raisins and bacon bits,
Lettuce, cucumber and beet salad,
Freshly cut pineapple for dessert.

Sound good? Today’s supper. As mixed as our experiences today. Spent the morning learning French, and practicing it over coffee and Milo with our housekeeper Mariette. She’s not only a diligent worker, she’s also a good teacher; good to have around! The coffee and Milo I had to go buy at the local grocery shop. Too far to walk, and the car was away with Gerrit and Titia. So what does one do? One walks out onto the street and hails a zem. Short for zemidjan, Fon for ‘get there quick’. Not only quick, but also cheap: a CFA100 coin (about €0,15) will get you anywhere within Dogbo. Powered by clandestine Nigerian gas, unfortunately. Crude oil liberated from pipelines and refined in primitive (and dangerous, as well as polluting) refineries, then transported past back-road border crossings and sold from bottles at roadside stands wherever you go in Benin. CFA300 sec/CFA350 mixed per litre, incredibly noxious, but about half the cost of gas bought at the pumps. What would you do if you had to support your family driving one of the there-are-nine-million-zemidjans-in-Benin-in-Benin?

In the afternoon we were going to receive a few key  women to discuss possibilities. Unfortunately they cancelled at the last minute, so we spent an hour rejoicing with Gerrit and Titia about the call they have received to the congregation at Den Haag-Zuid-Rijswijk (shh, don’t tell anyone until it’s official). Then Gerrit and I went to the telephone office to talk to the man about our phone, which has been out of order for over a week. He sat in his office, gleaming. We talked to him (well, mostly Gerrit, in French with the occasional Adja to help lubricate the gears) about his family and his fine office and his hopefully future good health before we got to the point of the defective phone line, relations being everything in Benin. After having received his assurance that he would personally come to the house tomorrow morning at 8.00 a.m. to see what might be the problem, we went to the post office next door, where there was a similarly gleaming postmistress in a fine office with hopefully equally future good health. And then we went to pay a courtesy call on the head man of Quartier Avegodu, he who must be informed whenever someone takes up residence or wishes to build a church or start some aid project. In Benin, as in much of Africa, traditional authority structures and postcolonial administration intertwine, elected and appointed officials on the one hand, and old village family heads on the other. The head man wished us well and went back to shucking corn on the porch. We went to see our landlord about the present contract, but he wasn’t at home; so we talked  to his wife instead. Yes, about the family and their fine house and their hopefully future good health.

By the time we got home, the afternoon sun was hovering just over the roof of the  house across the road (different landlord) which we would still like to rent, possibly. No rush, it was telling us. How much time did you have this afternoon? What had you planned? What did you do? Get it? Nothing goes quickly in Africa. Except zems. And meat going bad. But that’s another story.

Tomorrow we are going to Cotonou: there are officials to visit, there are things to buy, there is Sinterklaas to meet at the embassy, and there is the church family there.