Monday, 25 June 2012

Basic needs

when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home…” There he stands, trembling with fury. Beyond comprehension at his father’s folly. The shamelessness of it. Whores, one after the other, have devoured half of the family fortune. And no, the old man not even in his grave yet, here is the younger son back with his hand outstretched for more. Who wouldn´t agree with the elder son's harsh judgment? I always did, to be honest. Until I realized, one day, that I had read too much into the younger brother’s return, just as the firstborn had. Where does the mention of prostitutes come from? There’s no way anyone could know that, even if it were true. And the story doesn’t say it. He squandered his wealth on wild living, the NIV translates. But even that is actually a bit more than the text says. Yes, the young man was improvident. No, his part of the family fortune was not invested wisely. And in the end there wasn’t even enough left for basic needs. Saying more than that is too hasty a conclusion, without having examined the facts. Who knows, the young man may have married. Fathered a child. Been away one business trip too long. Returned to a wife dead of a fever and a three-month-old child too far gone for saving. And desperately experiencing a father’s grief first-hand, lost his way completely.
There is a limit to our right and our ability to judge. And still we do. Still I do. Last weekend being a case in point. What is there to see in the picture? A coffin, and a young woman feeding her infant son. Basic needs are simple, at that age. The young woman is the sixth of the man’s wives. The infant is the youngest of his thirty or more. What was he thinking, marrying yet again, in spite of every civil and church prohibition? At his age, when simple statistics alone suggested he would be leaving mother and child, along with many others, bereft long before their time? Who would see to their needs now he was no longer there? I judged, and I was angry.
But there was more that angered me. The whole funeral. It was enormous. It had been two weeks in preparation and was three days in execution. Arriving at the wake, the previous evening, I had found at the centre of the compound a garish glass aquarium-like structure, a display refrigerator four times the size of the largest to be found at Costco’s. Through the steamed up windows (moisture outside, of course) there was the coffin open and propped up for display. Under – there must have been a quarter of an acre of it – tarp and steel tube constructions called baches, hundreds of chairs for the guests milling around and waiting for the proceedings to begin. Outside the compound, other baches had also been erected with tables where these and many other guests would be fed and given to drink. There were a brass band, amplifier installations, loudspeakers fit for a music festival. Whole families arrived dressed in matching outfits clearly tailored for the occasion. I shuddered to think of the expense.  I judged, and I was angry.
Because, for example, one of the family’s children, a little girl of 6 or so, is blind. And for the past year has been at the institute for the visually impaired at Djanglamey. Her only opportunity to receive suitable education, so that her life and future may be more than just darkness. Only, not at the expense of her parents. Much as it was sincerely desired, there was no way the family could find the money for a year’s tuition: the equivalent of €150.00. No, definitely impossible. Without the financial aid of Christian brothers and sisters overseas, no provision for her… Knowing this, I watched, and fumed. Basic needs for the living not met. And here, for the dead, such blatant squandering. I thought to myself: almost better if the family property had been squandered with prostitutes… Then they at least would have been enabled to provide for the needs of their families.
Disquieted, I spoke to the congregation's elder. He listened well. He had no answer that could satisfy me. But his reaction made clear: even basic needs are relative. I judged, within my frame of reference. He did too, within his. And while he did not try justify how the family fortune had been allocated, from his perspective a funeral like this one was a basic need…
Sometimes the elder son may have all the reason in the world to be angry. But even then it is not his to judge. He doesn’t have, will never have access to all the facts. And he will never be the Father to this child.

Tuesday, 12 June 2012


Hotel du Lac. A balmy evening in Cotonou. The terrace, there must be at least an acre of it, is a wonderfully relaxed place to be. The sun has set in golden splendour behind the warehouses on the other side of the channel. A slight breeze carries the sounds of what seems to be a service in progress over in the fishing village snug up against the ocean on this side. We’re here for the night, we’ve had a dip in the pool, and are now into the first course of the traditional Sunday evening Lebanese smorgasbord. Well, Lebanese... there are more than a few other world food traditions represented on the well-stocked side tables. Yes, slightly decadent, I agree.
The clientele does seem to be mostly Lebanese. Women in chaste head coverings chattering with their friends while their Beninese dada’s keep the children (the majority slightly overweight) out of harm’s way. The terrace being as large as it is, the children have taken along their rollerblades and electric ride-in convertible cars and shiny tricycles, and are happily zigzagging  between the tables. A dark-eyed girl, perhaps a year or two old, has for the last few minutes been trying desperately to throw a plastic bag through the railing into the water below, only to have it promptly returned by the breeze. Again. And again. She stamps her feet and picks it up once more. There, she decides, forget the water: into the planter, tucked under the foliage. Gone.

What a world of difference from Tchangba this morning. We were there for a special service, an action de grâce: all the paroisses of the ERCB in the Mono-Couffo had been invited to send a delegation with a financial contribution towards the cost of benches and ­tam-tams for in the church. Once again, Tchangba is the remotest village of the lot. Accessible over a track barely passable. Thankfully it hadn’t rained for a few days, so four-wheel-drive was sufficient. And no surprise: we got there a bit late. But equally no surprise, there were but a few children present, and a cobbled-together sound system blasting distorted music through loudspeakers which had seen much better days. Probably. Whenever. Not on mains power, by the way. That will arrive in Tchangba probably sometime next century. No, there was a portable generator (with its operator) brought in for the occasion.
Having time to spare, we walked into the village proper. Thatch roofed mud houses. Cooking fires fuelled by stripped palm fronds. Goats, dusty children, chickens, more children – clearly not well-fed, women stirring cast iron cauldrons with steaming and bubbling bouillie, children again, men reclining under a shady tree, everything you ever imagined about an African village in the year 1845. And the centuries before. Nothing, nothing at all in common with the terrace at Hotel du Lac with its Lebanese smorgasbord and plump children in electric ride-in convertible cars.
Except perhaps for the portables. True, not the third-generation smartphones the men at the adjacent table in Cotonou are conversing with while smoking their water-pipe and picking at their falafel. But mobile phones none the less. Stone age village and hotel terrace: the two are united courtesy of MTN, Moov, Glo, Zekede and Bell-Benin. Some of the time, at least. Seeing as there are two obstacles to remaining connected in Tchangba. One: recharging your phone. Two: topping up your credit.
Concerning the first, the special service this morning had an unexpected bonus: the generator. There was a line-up for the 15 slots on the extension cord. But as long as the generator kept going, the phones kept charging.
Concerning the second, the cash economy  arrives at Tchangba only occasionally. In the shape of the odd 100 FCFA piece. That’s about 15 eurocents, for those of you who don’t have a currency converter among your favourites. Good for 100 seconds of communication. Or 1½ text messages. 100 seconds go a long way, if you do as the Beninese do. Call someone’s number and terminate the call before he or she answers. In the hope that the person who missed your call returns it. Assuming he or she has bought more than 100 FCFA credit, of course. I’m not sure if the Lebanese in Benin operate the same system. They’re certainly on the phone a lot. When they should be talking to their wives over supper; or if not, paying a bit of attention to their children. But then, they have dada’s for that, don’t they?

Not that I am at all unhappy about the ubiquitous portable. Far from it. Today is Alice’s birthday. As well as Maarten’s. Here we are in Cotonou. Unpacking our bags, we find a message from Hannah, who is doing an archaeological survey in one of the remotest areas of Jordan: Hello! How are you? What are Maarten’s and Alice’s phone numbers? And what time is it in Canada right now? XXX Hannah. I am amazed once again at technology’s reach. From Stone Age to slightly decadent. From the Middle East by way of West Africa to Amersfoort and Empire Corners. Thank God - yes, literally - for the portable.

Friday, 1 June 2012

Deux Bidons

Monsieur, I would like to ask a favour. Would you be able to find me a Bible? I have never been to school, but my boys can read it to me. Great question to ask a missionary, of course. But consider who just asked it: the pastor of the Celeste parish this side of Majdre. Eglise Christianisme Celeste, a homegrown Beninese cult  5 years older than myself, said by some to be a syncretistic mix of Pentecostal prophetic claim and pagan belief. Here was one of their pastors asking me for a Bible, which he couldn’t read himself…

We were on the terrain to visit Rosa, who was there for treatment. Don’t ask me to explain the complicated situation which resulted in her being sedated by herbal remedies in an environment marginally Christian at best. Having arrived, we could not avoid presenting ourselves to the centre’s leader, clothed in a voluminous white robe and seated on a highbacked chair before two men humbly reclining on mats before him. In the intervening space, a single cream-white taper flickered hesitantly in the semi-darkness. No, you’re not disturbing us at all! These two are here for a vision. Please do come in, be seated. The supplicants waited good-naturedly as another chair was brought in for me and placed at the pastor’s right hand, with a bench for Marijke near the door. I was introduced as Rosa’s pastor by our guide, and we exchanged pleasantries. After what seemed an appropriate time, I asked permission and we took leave to go on to Rosa. She was actually doing very well, we found, and we arranged to come back in the afternoon with her husband and children.
It was as we were leaving that the request for the Bible came. The séance was over, apparently. Once again, great question for a missionary, so I immediately promised to take one along when I returned later in the day. I subsequently thought: while I’m at it, I can take along a few other items as well… Just as we were getting into the HiLux, however, a young man came running up. Our guide translated: they’re having trouble with the water supply here, and they’re wondering if perhaps we could take along some fresh water when we come back. Well, why not? If not for any other reason, to ensure Rosa would not get intestinal parasites on top of her psychiatric problems.

Driving back to Dogbo, we shook our heads at the impossibility of a pastor leading a church without being able to read the Bible. But we were also excited at the chance to share something of the authentic gospel  with those who had apparently had no access to it independently. I said to our guide: how much do those bidons cost that you use? And having heard that the cost would be no more than 75 eurocents apiece, I generously said: well, buy two for me, will you? We’ll fill them up and take them along this afternoon. By then, an inkling of an idea was beginning to form.
Right after lunch, we had another destination. Tchangba. Further away than Tchangba you cannot get in the Couffo, without falling into Togo. The track to Tchangba was passable this afternoon. But just. In 4-wheel drive. We arrived there after about three-quarters of an hour of severely being shaken about. Jonas, the elder, was not there. Agnes, the deacon, was. Only adult we could spot in the entire village. Children there were plenty of, as usual. Hugely intrigued to see a car, two pale-coloured people, and a watermelon. We had taken the latter along as a present, but we were glad to be gone before its having to be shared among so many… Agnes took us to the church and we talked about the affairs of the congregation. The children all tagged along. They understood more quickly than we did, perhaps, because Agnes speaks no French. Fortunately we did have an interpreter and he also assisted ably when we turned to the children and asked them if they could sing for us. Could they ever sing for us! And clap! And dance! Mon Papa est fidele... And his children can be loud, Tchangba proved.
At four o’clock we got home. In time for the bidons. Well in time. We had to wait a while. And we were on our way almost three-quarters of an hour later than we should have been. But we did have with us, by that time, not only the bidons, inscribed in indelible ink with two appropriate texts, a Bible,  and a New Testament, but also a book of questions and answers on the Christian faith, and a shorter evangelistic booklet written by elder Bertin of Dogbo. All were ceremoniously handed over to pastor Philomène. I had trouble recognizing him at first. For he had changed, in the meantime, into more conventional dress. The Bible you asked for, I said. And I thought perhaps you would also like these other books to help you in your preaching. He was immensely pleased, and handed the books over to his elder son, the one who reads to him. I was glad of that. Who knows what God will do when this son, who seemed intelligent and truly interested, starts reading reformed literature to his father? And who knows what God may do with those two bidons, with the texts inscribed on them for everyone to read when they come for a drink of water? Everyone who can read, that is. Or perhaps be read to.