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…