Sunday, 25 March 2012


Waiting for the ceremonies to begin
This was the week of the enterrements. But first I would like to say  that the generator we inherited from our predecessors, unused and long interred (the generator, that is), has been resuscitated and is now installed under a tin-roofed shack at the edge of our yard, right up against the wall which separates what’s ours from the road up front. It’s running right now, making a heck of a racket, but supplying us with 5000 watts of energy while the rest of Dogbo has none. Which means we have light to see and power for the computer. Not to mention the air-conditioner, which I finally connected this week as well, giving us at least the respite of a cool bedroom in this warmest and most humid month of the year. Waiting for the rainy season to arrive, we sweated through three changes of clothes a day, and had the added burden of a particularly spotty power supply: most days the power was out for at least half of the day and night. No ventilators, no light, not much of anything. Until now…
Welcoming funeral guests
Back to the enterrements. Maybe this wasn’t the week of just them, on reflection, but they were what spurred me to writing this blog. Last Sunday it began: a member at Deve asked if he could come to speak with me concerning the funeral of his father-in-law. We made an appointment for early Tuesday afternoon. Tuesday evening, just before supper time (I was cooking), he and his wife finally showed up. Realizing that the passing of a loved one is distressing, I of course didn’t refer to the inconvenience and offered my sincere condolences. They were accepted very matter-of-factly, neither daughter nor son-in-law seeming very distressed, actually. As it turned out, the departure had been a good two months and a half ago, perhaps that explained something. However, it was deemed important that I be invited to the enterrement Saturday next (now past). Obviously I was pleased to accept the invitation, curious about funeral arrangements and customs surrounding death, and willing to share in the family’s grief, such as it was. As circumspectly as I could, I inquired after the deceased and what exactly had transpired since his passing and now. It turned out that the father(-in-law) and most of the family was pagan, and all the traditional obligations were completely intact. Enterrement without all the ceremonies required had been out of the question, so the deceased had been in cold storage while arrangements were made: food, drink, sacrifice, travel of kin from throughout the country and across the border, and so on, all of which required great sums of money. Meanwhile, the daily cost of storage at the morgue was rising to unbelievable proportions. If the good man wasn’t interred quickly, the family might well be bankrupt soon…
And that brought us to the more pressing reason for distress on the part of my visitors. Not grief at the passing, but at the debt which had already been incurred, and the expenses which were still to be expected. The family was not small. There were more than a few adult children, as well as brothers and cousins and other kinsmen. But just this one visitor of mine was already out of pocket 300.000 FCFA, he said. Converted to euros, that may seem reasonable: about €450. But if you consider that in Benin a day’s wage for a labourer is 3.000 FCFA, and for a skilled tradesman about 5.000 FCFA …
More guests arriving
In short, the real reason for the visit, and for the accompanying invitation to the enterrement, was not so much need for pastoral assistance as a very urgent request for cash.

And guess what the visit by another brother the next evening was about? Indeed, another enterrement. And yes, the very pressing need of service in the form of a loan, if possible, of CFCA 100.000. Similar circumstances, similar dues, similar financial straits, and unthinkable to avoidfamilial obligations. Tell me about your father, I said to this visitor, determined to inject at least a small pastoral element into the conversation. What did he mean to you? No, came the answer, not he, but she. My papa adoptif was a woman.
That set me back a few notches, as you can imagine. The real father had died many years ago, when my visitor was still a young boy. And custom dictates, he explained, that someone else take the role left vacant. Man or woman, anyone with authority and the willingness to be in for the long haul. In this case the family had determined that a great-aunt would fill the position. And it was this woman who had died, now a month or so ago. And yes, the enterrement would not be for another four weeks, there were expenses already made and more to come; my visitor, as 'child', needed to take his share. The dot, for example: a sum of money and a new pagne for an undisclosed number of family members. Food, drink, travel costs – sometimes for days before and after the occasion – for dozens of aunts, uncles, cousins, present all day long to offer emotional support and share the hours of lunch and dinner and the late-night drinking sessions which invariably are part of the whole proceedings. The rental of the bache, a huge canvas and steel construction under which the party takes place, sound equipment and a team to operate it. Money which may have been set aside for schooling of children, medical care, food and shelter: all give way to honouring the deceased’s memory with an enterrement  nobody can afford.
How should I respond? How did I respond? Best not to let your left hand know what right right hand is doing, I read in Matthew 6.3. But in an entirely new light, I also think of Matthew 8.22: allow the dead to bury their own dead…

Saturday, 17 March 2012


Okay, technically I should say it’s rozijnenbrood. No currants available, plenty of raisins. And it being Saturday, well, naturally, I bake krenten/rozijnenbrood for Sunday morning. Like I always do. This morning we had Canadian style pancakes for breakfast, with genuine artificial maple flavoured pancake syrup. Tomorrow morning we eat krentenbrood. Okay, rozijnenbrood. Same as usual. Normal.

There we are, back to normal. More than a month after my previous blog. At home in our new house. Maybe I should stick to the facts about the past months. Who, what, when where, why. In summary.
Our first visit back to Dogbo I described. The next was a few days longer. The next wasn’t a visit, but a return. And yes, we stayed. Until Maarten and Evelene came, courtesy of DVN. Five days. Exactly right for us and for them. We started in Cotonou, or rather, just outside Cotonou, at a mini-resort on the beach called Chez Rada. We had two bungalows for two nights. Swimming pool, reasonable food, massive waves down at the beach. The day between the two nights, on Thursday, we visited Cotonou city, most memorably Dantokpa, the biggest market of West Africa, an overwhelming maze of stalls and not-quite-stalls selling everything you could possible imagine, from voodoo attributes to automobile parts liberated from the port to children. Yes, children. Dantokpa is  one of Africa's nerve centres for child trafficking. According to UNICEF, about 500,000 children between the ages of five and fourteen are victims of this shocking trade in Benin. (Check out if you’re interested)

Friday we drove along the coast road (sand track hugging the beach, an amazing drive!) to Ouidah, and from there to Dogbo. We arrived in plenty of time to visit the market in Dogbo, but not before sharing a traditional West African meal (beans, chicken, sauce) prepared by Mariette in honour of our visitors. Saturday we visited a home for people with a mental handicap/psychiatric illness, hung around a bit at home, and in the evening we had another traditional African meal with Didi. Sunday we went to church in Dogbo and in the afternoon did a circuit of villages where the ER CB has churches, including Djakotomey, Tokpohoue, Deve and Ayomi. And Monday we drove back to Cotonou, getting there in plenty of time for Maarten and Evelene to catch their flight back. It was a really, really good visit: for them, for us, and for the people here.
Thursday of that week, our goods arrived. Meanwhile the main work on the house across the road was almost done. We were able to stow our goods in one of the bedrooms, sneaking a peek in any number of boxes as we arranged them. It was just like Sinterklaas, when we finally got to unpacking proper. Treasures newer and older, absented for four months, and every one with its own reason for having been packed. So good…

And now, we’re a couple of weeks on. We’ve moved in, hung curtains and light fittings and towel racks and all those other bits and pieces which make a home function. Internet works, so does the satellite TV/radio receiver (Dutch programming!), and so does my Assistant Original, the Swedish wonder machine. A full horsepower of kneading and meat grinding attachments. So yes, things have got back to normal. Including krentenbrood on Saturday evening.
We are really, really thankful. It is good to be here.