Thursday, 26 January 2012


Brilliant sky-blue. Someone was once proud of that wall. Perhaps it was the first wall to receive paint in the couple’s new home in Quartier Avegodu. Paint is not common-place here. Red mud serves most people well enough. But for a special room in a special house: paint. Brilliant sky-blue paint.

Matches well with yellow. But not today. The yellow is an angry roaring bulldozer leaving a trail of destruction through the quartier.  Papaya, banana, cistern, bedroom: all is crushed beneath its inexorable progress. Some are pleased: for verily, it is not easy to wind one’s way through the maze of Avegodu. And vehicles larger than the ever-present moto or the manpowered push-push:  not just difficult, impossible. So yes, the quartier needs access. But others are hurting. Tonight they will be sleeping in the open, if their family elsewhere won’t have them.

Second time here in Benin I’ve seen the hurt caused by an raw bulldozer gash. Two weeks ago in Cotonou as well.  No camera then. Quartier Fidjrosse. Five families of fishing folk from Grand Popo found shelter there fifty-eight years ago. Legal shelter. They still have the  documents granting them permission to build their shacks, to ply their seaborne trade, to occupy and fill their equatorial Goshen. But these didn’t stop the bulldozers now.  Thinking of the future, of potential hotel magnates and tourist revenues, the city decided the beach needed access. Progress tore thirteen strips, a neat one hundred metres apart, through the belly of Fidjrosse. There was no money for lawyers.

And today it was Avegodu’s turn for progress. What can one do? Not much more than be there with the people watching their homes being destroyed. The quartier folk don’t understand progress very well. The mairie, or the gouvernement, is just as yellow to their blue as the bulldozer is to the naked wall. So if their house has to go, go it will. But they do seem to appreciate the strange yovo Pasteur being there as it goes. All in a morning’s work, first road finished before lunch.

We go to Lokossa, on a visit to a baby born yesterday. Thinking comfortable thoughts about the second access road skirting, not crossing, our property. Naturally. These things happen to the poor, not to the Pasteur. And come back two hours later to much of the quartier gathered around our house. Not a bulldozer in sight. But sledgehammers are breaking down the wall just outside our bedroom window.

Yes, our wall! The wall underneath our mango tree. The wall behind which we park our HiLux each evening, the wall with the gate before which sits our guardian from sunset until sunrise, the wall which keeps the quartier out and us safe in the dark. The owner of our house, Robert Sodovo, he who counts on being mayor come the elections next June, is exhausting the batteries of his portable, but the sledgehammers do not let up. The surveyors have spoken: our wall is outside the property line, right where the second access road is to be drawn. It was a nice wall. Not that we were proud of it. But it did what it was intended to do. Until today. And then it had to come down. Not just metaphorically speaking. Somehow it feels right, for a missionary. The quartier is not to be kept out. When one member suffers, all members suffer. Where did I hear that before?

Thursday, 19 January 2012

All Things Bright and Beautiful

Today the workmen arrived to start preparing our new house for us. Five young men in their twenties, in an old van, with rollers and brushes and great plastic buckets of paint. We are renting the house across the street for our own personal use, and keeping the present house as DVN office, guest quarters, conference room and lesson hall. All being well, we will make the move March 1st, by which time the goods we shipped from Holland will hopefully have arrived as well. The house across the street has one great selling point: room around the house. Where we are now, we are so close to the house next door that when the neighbour wakes up at 6.30, we can hear him brushing his teeth, by way of speaking. Where we are going, there is a garden all around; presently boasting banana, mango, avocado, and orange trees, and plenty of space for vegetables and a paillotte. That’s a thatched-roof shade hut where my afternoon nap will enjoy itself immensely.
But as I said, today the workmen arrived. The house needs to be finished: a paved driveway, ceilings installed, plumbing in the kitchen, and paint inside and out. You ask: but wasn’t all that there already? No, it wasn’t. The house has been empty for the past year. Before that, it was lived in, after a fashion. But it had never been finished. The present owner is an 18-year old student. His mother had had the house built to live in it herself; but then she died. Nd that changed everything. Lacking the finances himself, William was only too happy to find us willing to move in. An advance of a year’s rent was needed, however, to complete the necessaries: €1000. I wondered about that. Would €1000 be enough to do it all? Yes, it would. A tradesman here - painter, bricklayer, carpenter, plumber – is more than content with a day’s wage of 3000CFCA, or €5, I learned yesterday.

Marijke and I went over to make acquaintance. And to discuss the colour scheme. Bright and beautiful, that’s what we are looking for. And that was not hard to arrange. Friendly, cooperative workmen made sure they were clear on exactly what we wanted. Truth be told, what you discuss and decide upon here is not always exactly what you get. Gerrit and Titia, our predecessors, for instance, had a barbecue made for themselves. They took it along with them to Holland, so those of you who doubt my word can go look for yourselves. It really and truly was not intended to be the size of a small buffalo! But okay, this afternoon we decided on just the right colours.

And then I happened to mention that I was Pasteur. And the reaction humbled me. In that case, one of the workmen said, matter-of-factly, you can pray that all the painting and the other work is done well. And no, he was not joking. And no, he didn’t mean: pray and hope for the best. He meant: right now. So our work will be blessed.

The workmen put down their brushes and rollers. We stood in a circle in front of the porch. And I prayed to the good Lord who makes all things bright and beautiful. Even if the colours perhaps don’t turn out quite the way we expect, we got off to a good start with the house across the street.

Monday, 16 January 2012


Okay, for all of you with dietary concerns: rice. Yes, again. But this time cooked together with beans. Makes an excellent, high protein combination called atassi. Going clockwise from there on the plate: tomato, red onion and corn salad. Then tuna and sodja (the local version of tofu) boiled in sauce. Pronounced: sowce. We stopped by Didi’s shoe stall on the way home this afternoon, and she was cooking a great marmite full over a charcoal fire. All for you? I asked. No, it’s for my children and grandchildren as well, she said. Didi, the grandmother, feeds a huge family. And no, we couldn’t leave without accepting a little pan full for our own evening meal. Sauce with poisson and sodja.

But actually I wanted to tell you about Eugene. Eugene dropped by this morning to greet the Pasteur. And to talk about his problem. Remember? he said. At the culte ensemble? I couldn’t, of course. Eugene comes from Noumonvihoué, and is in the final year of the local equivalent of High School in Djakotomey. I know where Djakotomey is. Yes, Eugene has a problem. He hasn’t been to school since New Year’s, because he cannot pay his school fees. I explain to him that our program for aide scolaire has been discontinued, for all sorts of good reasons. But having ascertained his very pressing circumstances, I agree to make a contribution from a tiny ‘special cases’ fund. When the equivalent of €23,00 makes the difference between being able to graduate or not, good reasons do not weigh as heavily as they might.
But, I say, you can do something for me in return. Perhaps you would like to show me your school? I will take you back to Djakotomey in the HiLux… I think: if for no other reason, it will save him the price of a zem. The price of fuel has tripled since the problems in Nigeria erupted, and even a motorcycle taxi has become a very expensive proposition.
Eugene gladly agrees, and we go to the vehicle. Did you realise that there are quite intelligent young men of 17 who have no idea how a seat belt works? Well, since this morning, there is one less. As we drive towards Djakotomey, we talk. About the meaning of Adja place names. About Eugene’s family. His father is old, he says. And his mother is a cultivateur. That means she grows the crops the family depends on. That is why we have no money. There are too many children. I become curious. He had just said he has one older and one younger sibling. Yes, his father, now 90, has 30 or so children. Eugene’s mother is the youngest wife of three. The figures don’t add up for me. But it turns out that children is a very loosely defined term in the village culture of Benin. Some are actual offspring.
Is your family Christian? I ask. No, just Eugene and his brother have become members of the Reformed church. He explains, in less than two minutes, what the essence of the Christian faith is and why it has become his faith. I am silenced. And then he goes on to explain that polygamy doesn’t work out in practice; and what else would you expect, he says, since God has made it perfectly clear that one man and one woman should live their lives together harmoniously, as one flesh, in true love and faithfulness?
We reach the school. He takes me for a tour. Shouldn’t we go to the office first, I ask, to pay your school fees? No, he explains. That is only possible on Thursdays, so he will have to wait until then. And after that, he will be allowed to attend classes again. But he does take me to his class, to introduce me. Austere concrete block construction. Blackboard. No books to be seen. One wall poster warning against the effects of AIDS. 40-plus students in khakis rise to attention as we are given permission to enter. Greetings are exchanged. We leave. Is that the school canteen? I ask. No, it is a roofed-in area where locals come to sell food to the students. Kind of a school canteen, in other words.
But Eugene does not eat at the kind-of-school-canteen. He eats what he takes along from home on Monday morning, making sure it lasts until Saturday, when he returns. Maize, mostly. Yes, of course he will be happy to show me where he lives. As we drive, I ask him: do you ever talk to your fellow students about Jesus? I cannot remember ever having seen such undisguised amazement. But of course, he answers. That’s our job, isn’t it?
About three kilometres from the school is a huddle of huts in which Eugene has rented a room. Together with another student. The price: 2000 FCFA per month, equivalent to €3. That’s a bargain, isn’t it? I say. Eugene agrees. And how do you earn that money? Well, he says, doing this and that. Mostly harvesting manioc. One manioc root earns him 5 FCFA. When you hear manioc root, do not think: kind of carrot. A manioc root is 5 kilos of convoluted misery refusing to come out of the sunbaked clay. Next to the rent, he also has to pay for the weekly return by zem. Used to be 100 FCFA, is now 300 FCFA, one way.

I take him back to his home village. He needs to be there to pick up his things for Thursday. Noumonvihoué is happy to see us. The inevitable Yovo, yovo! (white, white) sounds. But I am prepared  with Ameibo, ameibo! (black, black). Hilarity all round. We exchange greetings, and Eugene leads me on, I know not where. But then of course, the church! A metal roof, 6 by 9 meters, supported by undressed teak posts. Perfectly well kept, and clearly important to Eugene. Surrounded by children, teenagers (shouldn’t these all be at school?) and a few adults, I suggest: why don’t you sing for me? We’re in church, aren’t we? And off they go. Clapping rhythmically with just a hint of dance, unison to harmony and back, effortless transition to the next hymn, and perfectly timed ending.
As Eugene and the singers walk me back to the HiLux, I am accosted by successive village men: can you help us improve our houses, can you help us work on the access road, can you…? I explain what DVN-Gowa does (and doesn’t do) and try to keep them from having unrealistic hopes. But, I am driven to say, houses, food and clothing – though they are important – have never saved anyone. The only one who does that is Jesus! Listen to what Eugene and Clementine (another beautiful young member of the ERCB in Noumonvihoué) have to tell you about Him, come to church to hear more and to worship God. Then you will be truly blessed! But perhaps you would like me to pray with you now? We don’t have to be in church for that.

And the village becomes quiet…

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Severin and Conforte

Rice. Hot, spicy rice. My guess: cooked in water with a generous amount of red palm oil, Maggi cubes, and ground red pepper. A carefully measured portion of salty deep-fried fish laid on top. Lavender-blue plastic plate. No fork, knife or spoon. Well, there are two spoons in the house, but that is not quite enough to go round. The house is this one room, 3 by 4 metres. Spotless but completely bare. The colour scheme is African earth red. The walls have been smoothed to a beautiful finish by the bridegroom. Broken only by a little ledge on which lies the Bible. Light comes in through the door, framed by a flowery linen curtain. Furniture has been brought in piece by piece as the guests of honour arrive. A kitchen chair, a stool, a simple bench, one after the other. We number about 15. Outside the village waits and watches. Drummer boy leads a procession of more guests to the house.

We talk. Or rather, everyone else talks. In loud, animated Adja. What are you talking about, I ask in my best French, at a certain point, when the laughter peaks. About Guillaume’s forthcoming marriage? The room explodes. Amazingly, I have understood perfectly. It’s kind of a running joke. Guillaume is one of my favourite elders. Not quite as blind as elder Moïse, but getting closer all the time, as his progressive eye sickness inexorably moves towards its goal. (By the way, yesterday before church council, blind Moïse wanted to try riding my bike. So he did. First time he drove into the bushes. Second time he hit the church. But he had as much fun as we did.)

No, today is not Guillaume’s marriage. Today Severin and Conforte were married. Guillaume is celibatair. His fellow elders are constantly threatening to marry him off to the first desperate village girl to be found. They have just told him that at the next culte ensemble, when the elders are introduced at the beginning of the service, Moïse is going to announce that Guillaume is looking for a wife, and that after the service applications will be received.

But today is Severin and Conforte’s day. Last Thursday evening I had visitors. ‘There’s a petit mariage in Ayomi next Sunday’ I heard. ‘And we are here to ask you to conduct the service.’ Gulp. You mean me? ‘Yes, monsieur Pasteur.’ At this point I am thankful that 8 weeks in Africa have already greatly enhanced my negotiating skills. The upshot is, once the negotiations are over, that someone else will lead the service and hold the sermon, and that I will perform the actual wedding ceremony. I remember having seen, in Gerrit’s files, a version in French of the marriage form we use in Holland. I expect, with some adaptations, to be able to work with that: to offer some wise counsel, to take the marriage vows, to pray for God’s blessing, and to pronounce His blessing.

Okay. But what is a petit mariage? you ask, as I did. That is the kind of marriage which has to suffice in cases such as this one. Severin and Conforte do not have the means to hold a traditional marriage, with days of feasting, registry at the courthouse, exchange of bride price and all sorts of other expenses. Severin is a simple tailor, widowed several years ago when his wife and baby died in childbirth, if I have been well informed. Conforte is a young single mother with little education and few prospects; I discovered today that she had been working in Nigeria some years ago, fell pregnant and was promptly abandoned by the father. Having returned to Benin, she knows she is hugely blessed to have found a husband in Severin.

And as I see them before me right now, I know that is true. They are obviously very much in love, poor as they are.

The bride rode with us to the church this morning from Dogbo. The service was to begin at 9.00, but we arrived at approximately 9.30. Not by design, but because for the first time in Africa, this morning of all mornings, we woke up to a flat tire on the HiLux. That, was fun. Really! I knew where to find the jack, more or less. While trying to work out where to place it, I was joined by the first person from neighbourhood. And you know how seagulls somehow sense that someone has left a lunch bag open somewhere and appear in great numbers from nowhere in no time? Well, it was a bit like that. I had lots and lots of help changing my tire. The spare turned out to be not quite inflated, but that was solved as well, and we got to Ayomi by 9.30. Which was in plenty of time, because as we drove up, the groom walked off. Something had been forgotten, something had to be arranged, I didn’t exactly discover what.

The service eventually began at about 10.45. It was brilliant. Song and dance and prayer and preaching, as exuberant as usual, but even more so. The predicateur, Bertin, had a really good sermon, based on Mark 10.6-9, about the institution of marriage, the relationship between husband and wife in marriage, and the indissolubility of marriage. There and then I decided to leave out the first part of the Marriage Form. No need for it. And that saved time as well. Which was a good thing, because we didn’t get out of church until quarter to 2. With no complaints from anyone, man, woman or child, all of whom were there in great number. I remember thinking: this is Reformed worship! Joyful and humble at the same time. Not only SAYING that the service is everyone’s worship, but actually making sure that everyone – man, woman AND child – has such an active role that there is no fidgeting or scribbling or sleeping or counting of lightbulbs.

Severin and Conforte were married well. And here we are, eating rice in their house. With our fingers. An unexpected surprise. We had counted on going home after the service, but no, the leading elder informed us that now we were going into the village for the blessing of Severin’s house.

I’m not sure of the liturgy for such an event, but I was happy to go along. What a wonderful practice! And as it turns out, not a great deal was expected of me. We read Psalm 128, and I pronounced the last verses of the psalm as a blessing.

And then it was time for drinks. The master of ceremonies came in with a crate of twelve bottles of Coca-Cola. He quietly said that the groom had not had enough money to buy more, and if we could please share, two person to a bottle.

Severin and Conforte proudly watched their guests drink. They took nothing themselves. Marijke asked: what about you? And they shook their heads. So we found two cups and poured Coca-Cola for them as well. We talked to them about wedding customs in our country and in others. I remembered having seen, somewhere, a bridal couple offering each other something to drink. So we showed them how to do it. The reaction was overwhelming: everyone in the room started laughing and clapping, the family came crowding in to watch Severin and Conforte share their drink, and we were thanked again and again…

Around 4 in the afternoon we returned to the HiLux. At the head of a joyful procession.

It was a good wedding. There was not enough to drink. We did talk about how turning water into wine would have been great. But we agreed that shared Coca-Cola is fine too.



Rogatien. His second visit since we arrived. Earnestly greeting us with wishes of happiness, health, wealth and all good things for the new year. A week after New Year’s Day: almost anyone we speak to, stranger or acquaintance, still greets us with Heureuse Année, Bonne Année, or the expanded version of Rogatien. Greetings are never hurried, New Year or otherwise. Greetings are savoured, repeated, chewed on and enjoyed again. Last week we were taken to meet the police commissioner; exchanged greetings, spoke of our families and their families; traded phone numbers, shared a drink and after an hour went our separate ways. But the courtesy call is not really finished: tomorrow, I will phone M. David and thank him for le derniere fois. And he will ask me how I am, and how Marijke is, and how the children are, and that I can call him anytime I have a problem; and then it will be my turn for all those same questions, and then we will hang up. Greetings are serious business in Benin; and the youngest of children are already adepts.

Back to Rogatien. He has come to explain to me what his plans are for the cooperation between his ONG and our church. Not that there has been any talk of such cooperation from our side. But he is passionately earnest. He has a dream for Benin, and it is important that we find ways to work together for the advancement of the church and of the Beninese. Especially the orphans. These are the proposed beneficiaries of his ONG. No, there are no orphans currently being supported or assisted. No, he has no experience with orphanages. No, he has no funds… No, actually he has nothing but his own private ONG. And if he can only find the right partners…

Rogatien is 25. He is  student at the University in Cotonou. Well, he was student, but presently he is somewhere between years, in search of the money to pay for tuition. His plans for his own personal future are entering the diplomatic corps. That, and taking care of Benin’s orphans. What he would also like to talk about is the possibility of moving to Canada for the next ten years or so. To advance his education, particularly his command of English, all the more effectively to work with the churches and other possible sponsors.

Look, he says, opening his briefcase, I have a letter saying that there are good possibilities. I read  the letter. Emailed in response to his (free!) registration on Our organisation is well-placed, the letter says in spotty English, to help him fulfil his objectives. No, at present he does not exactly meet the requirements for a student visa, but there are excellent possibilities, and if he will please take the next step in the registration process, they will be pleased to assist him, as they have ably assisted hundreds of others before him. Yes, there is a slight expense involved, for administrative purposes, but he can have full confidence in a beneficial outcome.

I explain to him that not all emigration experts are bona fide. He seems genuinely surprised that this particular club is not part of Canada Immigration or any other government agency. That it is, in my estimation, a moneymaking venture specializing in dashed hopes and broken dreams. I explain to him that he is better off checking out the official Canadian government websites. And that obtaining a student visa for Canada is probably beyond reach, unless he can demonstrate that 1. he has sufficient financial means, 2. he has been accepted by one of Canada’s universities, and 3. he has made all necessary arrangements for health care insurance. His eyes widen: but that is my problem, I have no money, I cannot apply at a university at this time, and what exactly is health care insurance…? And then I add, in response to a feeble suggestion, if someone does have a student visa for Canada, he is not allowed to take employment under any circumstances. But then how can I pay for my studies and for my living expenses and for my plane ticket… and for my health insurance? Exactly.

It is not nice to be the bringer of bad tidings. But Rogatien does not become less polite. He is a true Beninese. Brimming with creativity. Adept at the fine points of etiquette. And eternally hopeful.

*This blog was written a week ago, as you can deduce, during the long internet outage which hit most of west Africa. I never got round to posting it…