Saturday, 20 October 2012

It takes a village to raise a child

“This ancient African proverb teaches eternal truth….”  I read somewhere. And somewhere else: This proverb exists in different forms in many African languages. The basic meaning is that child upbringing is a communal effort. The responsibility for raising a child is shared with the larger family (sometimes called the extended family). Everyone in the family participates, especially the older children, aunts and uncles, grandparents, and even cousins. It is not unusual for African children to stay for long periods with their grandparents or aunts or uncles. Even the wider community gets involved such as neighbours and friends. Children are considered a blessing from God for the whole community. Inspiring, isn’t it, African wisdom?

Take Synthia, for example. Eleven years old. Only just starting to become a bit self-conscious about the tiny growths which have begun to appear on her chest. Yes, she is reaching the age of particular vulnerability. So, when we heard from her mother that she had now already twice tried to run away, we immediately began to worry. Synthia wasn’t living at home with her mother. But with an aunt, the sister of Synthia’s father, who had died when his daughter was but a toddler. Indeed, ‘it is not unusual for African children’ to stay for long periods with closer or more distant relatives, sometimes loved, sometimes exploited as little servants, sometimes abused in all the ways you can imagine. We had once visited the household where Synthia was staying: various family members and apprentices and vague hangers-on around Synthia’s aunt, whose tailor-shop at Azove provides the breadwinning. Why would a young girl start running away, if she is happy and safe there, we wondered?

What was she actually doing there to begin with, you wonder. Well, when Synthia’s father died, leaving his wife a widow with three young children, Synthia’s mother lost her home as well. African wisdom suggests that an official marriage is not really that necessary. Which means that the mother, in this case, had not actually become part of the family. And the house, built in their village by the father, was not hers but theirs. Even as he lay in hospital dying, they had arrived to begin removing the furniture. And after he was dead, the house was taken.  Synthia’s mother had the good fortune that she soon found a job with Médecins Sans Frontières, so she was able to keep the children. But then her job became redundant. And there is no unemployment insurance or welfare in Benin. Stefan, the oldest, went to live in Dogbo, with his maternal grandmother. Louis, the second, went to Bohicon, to a great-aunt on his father’s side. And Synthia was taken in by the aunt in Azove. Synthia’s mother found a home too, in Lokossa. A man, already married, took her in. For services rendered. Services which soon left her pregnant, in conflict with the man’s first wife, and trapped. Exaucé was born: God has heard my prayers, his name was meant to say.

But not all her prayers. Bad news came from Bohicon. The paternal great-aunt there had succumbed to a stroke. The family blamed Louis. He had begun running away, staying away two, three nights and then reappearing without much of an explanation. He’d been with friends, he would say. One of those friends died. Or rather, was killed. Particularly gruesomely. His body is still at the morgue to this day, two years later, Louis’ mother told us. Only his body. Not his head. That had been taken by the murderers, criminals who specialize in the sale of body parts. No, not for transplanting. But for voodoo practices. A young boy’s head has particular power and is therefore worth a lot of money. You will understand that the great-aunt worried, each time that Louis was gone. Is he coming back? All of him? And then she had a stroke. Louis’ fault, the family said. And his mother actually thinks so too. So he was sent away from Bohicon. By default, back to his mother in Lokossa. Another mouth to feed. Another body to clothe. Another contribution to pay at the local school. Another reason for the first wife to take offense.

Synthia’s mother stayed in Lokossa for about five years, until earlier this year, at last, she found a dwelling in Dogbo. A job she already had, part time. House help, four mornings in the week. Enough, just enough, to start dreaming of life as a real family again.

The first to come home was Stefan. 18 years old, almost a man. He actually moved in before his mother did. Because moving away, for her, was more difficult than you might think. Though she was but a concubine, Exaucé’s father was her man, her protector, her sometime provider. To leave, to burn this bridge behind her, rickety as it was, in the hope that she would be able to make it on her own, not just now, but until the children were raised…?  But the conflicts continued, her dreams and hopes grew, and the new house, where she spent more and more nights away from Lokossa, felt more and more like home. A few months ago, after a particularly nasty argument with the first wife, and the discovery that their mutual husband had been seeing yet someone else as well, she came to a decision. After the summer holidays she and Louis and Exaucé would join Stefan in Dogbo permanently. She would find a solution for the increased expenses, she would economize wherever possible, and at least most of them would be together. Not Synthia, but all of the others.

No sooner had she decided that, than a creeping suspicion grew. How long had it been since her last period? No, that one time… ? Yes, that one time… Pregnant again. And still she persisted. She would manage, God willing. And she did. Stefan could continue at his old school, Louis was enrolled there as well with a bit of help from us for the inscription fees, and for Exaucé a kindergarten nearby was found.

And then came the news that Synthia was in trouble. Running away. Being brought home by the police. The Bohicon nightmare loomed again. What if something like that happened again? No, Synthia’s mother did not say, what if Synthia is kidnapped (although of course this was a very real fear). She said:  I do not want another one of my children to be the reason someone has a stroke. Take a moment to reflect on that. Here is at least a little chink in the armour of the village that raises the African child. Not the well-being of the child, but the possible effect on the well-being of the village is what counts.

Synthia’s mother worried. Her own mother said: bring her here to live with me, in Dogbo. I need someone to help me with the housekeeping. Jocelyn, the girl I have now, is starting to look at boys, and is getting more and more disrespectful by the day. Jocelyn, another story. A distant relative, taken in by grandmother a few years ago. Fed and clothed and sent to school, but in fact there as an unpaid domestic. It is not unusual for African children to stay for long periods… Synthia’s mother didn’t see that as a good alternative. If she’s going anywhere, it is to be with us, where she belongs. But how to make that work? Louis’ new school, a public school, was not working out at all. Two weeks now he had been leaving home each morning, and each day he had been sent to wait under the trees in the schoolyard while the teacher and the group to which he was assigned that day tried to find a classroom in which to work. To no avail. Even with 80 or more children crowded into a single classroom, there was not enough room for all the grades, and Louis, as a newcomer, was always in the wrong group. How long can this go on? his mother asked. And what am I going to do about Synthia?

There are times when you discover that there is only one right thing to do. It is not possible to take all of the world’s problems and injustices on your shoulders. But here was a situation that needed more than an occasional hand-out on our part. We said to Synthia’s mother: if you are ready to bring Synthia home, we will commit ourselves to the education of all your children. Stefan is in the final year and doing fine. Let’s see if we can find a place for the others at the local private schools. We’ll pay for the uniforms, the school fees, the books and school supplies. You be a mother as well as you can, raise your children with your heart and soul, and trust God to do the rest.

Synthia came home last Sunday. Not without difficulty. She wanted to come, but her aunt didn’t want to let her go at first. It took us some time to grasp the intricacies. Synthia’s mother didn’t just go and take her. She negotiated. She asked permission. Not just of the aunt. But also of the aunt’s husband. One of the factors, she explained to us, is this. The girl is mine, she said. But her value is theirs. She’s eleven now, and it won’t be long before a marriage can be arranged. And when the time comes for that, the bride price goes to the family, which has raised her. That’s the bottom line. A girl is raised by the village. Not necessarily for love. Money counts double.

It takes a village to raise a child. Sounds good. Everyone gets involved. Everyone is responsible. But sometimes that means no-one takes responsibility in the way the child deserves. And no-one gets involved unless there´s something in it for them. We’ve seen too many examples already. Of lonely children who do not know what really belonging means. Who only know what they’re running away from, not what they could be coming home to. Of lonely mothers who are powerless to do what mothers are for, constrained by poverty, unjust power structures within the family, and the almighty draw of self-interest. I hope and pray our small contribution will make a difference.

Sunday, 7 October 2012


Admit it. You want to take her home. This gorgeous little Beninese beauty. (Thanks Jurrien, for the amazing photo!) You want to take her home and keep her forever and try to make sure she grows up safe and happy and well-educated and well-fed and all those other things which are permanently unsure in this country. There’s no way of knowing what will become of her here. Of course, to be completely honest, there’s no way you can guarantee any of the above where you are either. Maybe God did know what he was doing when he placed her in Norbert and Elisabeth’s family at the south end of Dogbo. Where she came running into my arms when we arrived at her home this Saturday morning. Mama Elisabeth had given birth to a little brother at the beginning of this week, and we were there with well-wishes, a few baby things and a prayer. TOLEKON (surname comes first) Jerome Mawulolo (God is great, in Adja) is his parents’ fourth child. Third surviving, since Norbert and Elisabeth lost a child a bit more than a year ago to one of the many sicknesses that threaten Third World babies. He is as beautiful as his big sister. From his healthy head of black curly hair to the pink little toes extending from the colourful pagne his mum has him wrapped up in. Yes, pink. We had a good laugh about that: his toes and for that matter the rest of his feet are our colour, the rest of him theirs. We agreed that he was clearly part yovo.
We had a good visit. Papa Norbert was not at home, but we spotted him later near the market. Thank you so much for visiting, he said. And he obviously meant it. And then he said: you won’t forget the other thing, will you? And it’s really the other thing that I need your advice on, dear reader.
Last night Norbert had come by to speak to me. About many things of greater and lesser importance to the churches (Norbert is elder in Agame). And then, at the end of his visit, the thing that was troubling him the most. Pasteur,  he said,  the church at Agame has a big problem. I starting imagining all kinds of things ecclesiastical. But this was a thing ecclesiastical I could never have imagined.
A few years ago, the congregation had bought a piece of property (with help from DVN-GoWa) and built a church there (also with help from DVN-Gowa).  And now, he said, the man from whom they had bought the property had died. And what you should understand, he continued,  is that here in Benin, when you buy property from someone, your relation with that person becomes something like… he is your father-in-law. Which means, and I braced myself for what I knew was coming, that… yes, should he die, you are expected to do what other family members do. Contribute to the funeral ceremonies. But our problem in Agame is, we don’t have the means to pay for that. And obviously, then came the request. Would DVN-GoWa be willing to  help the ERCB in Agame make this payment?
He started digging in his pocket for the paper which all those who at any time had bought property from this landowner had received last Tuesday. Before he found it I had the chance to ask two questions: what if you don’t pay?  The answer was that you can then expect problems. ‘Problems’ with an influential family translates in Benin to everything from petty annoyances to intimidation to in the worst case terror. And what if you go to the police to say that you are being extorted? The answer is that the police will say that there is no law which requires you to pay, but everyone always pays so they advise you to do what custom dictates.
The paper came forth.
1.       One goat
2.       10 bottles of beer
3.       10 bottles of soft drink
4.       10 bottles of sodabi (90-proof palm-wine moonshine)
5.       One ½ pagne (6 metres of wax hollandaise)
6.       40.000 FCFA (about €60)
7.       One chicken
This all to be received no later than 12 October at 18.00.
I know what my immediate reaction was. No way will we even think about giving in to an extortionate demand like this. But I have learned here not to follow my first instincts too hastily. What do I know about the validity of local customs? What happens if the church at Agame becomes the target of intimidation? So I said that I needed time to consider the request. One: I needed to verify that this is indeed an obligation. Two: if it is, I need to think about whether that makes the problem DVN-GoWa’s problem. Norbert said he understood, but that he certainly hoped my response would be favourable.
Today I had time to verify. And yes, this is universally accepted as one’s obligation in case of a property vendor’s death. Tomorrow and the next day I have time to think.
So there it is, everybody. Is this what you give your hard-earned offerings to Mission for?
Best answer gets a reward. I’ll put in a good word for you when you ask Norbert if you can take her home. The gorgeous little Beninese beauty.

NOTE: Okay: this is what I've decided, after consultation with you all (thank you!) and colleagues Theophile and Richard. I accept that what may seem like extortion is in fact a dictate of local custom, known and accepted by the church at the time of purchase, and therefore an obligation. That does mean, however, that the church cannot claim that it was unforeseen. They should have made sure of having a reserve, or otherwise discussed it with DVN-GoWa at the time of purchase. That makes it their problem, not ours. The furthest I will be going, in this case, is to offer them a loan with money otherwise allocated to purchase/construction/maintenance. In other words, a loan from the ERCB-in-general's reserve. Which makes them responsible to the other churches, and the other churches responsible for making sure the amount is paid back as possible.

Monday, 1 October 2012


This is Bertin. There is a lot of drama in this man. Sometimes he drives me to drama as well. Saturday morning on the way to the meeting of the Consistoire. Richard and I stopped in at Bertin’s house. There was a little question of money not yet quite repaid. Yes, but, said Bertin, I’ve been working on a project that cost me quite lot. So if it’s all right, next month…? The project, he explained, is a CD. Christian music. New songs for the members of the ERCB to sing. And hopefully many other Christians. I didn’t tell anyone I was working on it, but we’ve been in the studio, and all we have left to do is make a video clip. Tomorrow, in Djakotomey, during the church service.
Richard and I resume our way to the meeting. Not a bad idea, actually, I think. If there is something the churches here can use, it is an expansion of the musical repertoire. No, I’m not sure that to be true churches they need to adopt the Genevan psalter. But what a welcome thing it was to actually sing psalms during the six week break in Holland from which we returned just yesterday. I don’t even think our brothers and sisters here even know that psalms are meant to be sung. Or for that matter, that hymns, judiciously selected, can complement and reinforce the message preached. Enthusiastically and completely from memory, the congregation praises God using the same selection each Sunday morning of about a dozen songs, French, Adja, Ewe (no, not a language they actually speak, but the tune is catchy), totally unimpeded by any liturgical awareness or suggestions on the part of the preacher.

Bertin shares the dream. And arriving himself at Consistoire, he informs the brothers that tomorrow there will be a special service at Djakotomey, and everyone is invited to be there to join in dancing and singing for the video clip. For a moment I think to myself: who will lead the services in the other places if all these brothers actually heed the invitation? But then Bertin turns to me and says: and would you, Pasteur, please be able to transport the instruments and sound system to Djakotomey. I realize that I have been ambushed. Normally speaking said equipment – common property of all the churches and intended for use at the quarterly culte d’ensemble as well as conferences and conventions – is stored far away in Kpodaha. But just before our departure to Holland six weeks ago, there had been a youth conference in Dogbo. And at the close, there had been some discussion about  what to do with the instruments. The storage at Kpodaha was dirty and damp and needed attention, said Bertin. And a little later, he came to me with a request from the church council, or so he said: you will be away for a while, Pasteur, so the office will not be used. Could we possibly store all the equipment there temporarily? Which I graciously allowed. Now I know why. To facilitate the removal to Djakotomey in the DVN HiLux for Bertin’s project.
(By the way, in doing so it seems I had also facilitated an infestation of mice in the office. How many mouse gestation periods go into six weeks, actually? During our absence, a number of Kpodaha-based rodents who had found a home in the speakers had gone forth and multiplied. Several applications of poison later, our domestic help Mariette thinks most of them may have been eradicated.)

But this Saturday morning I prevaricated. Oh, I’m not sure I will be making it to Djakotomey tomorrow. I want to talk to Madame first. I knew what I wanted. This first Sunday, still tired and trying to acclimatise, I wanted to go to a simple service in the closest church, Dogbo. Nothing complicated. And certainly not having to load up the HiLux with three cubic metres of electronics early Sunday morning, getting to Djakotomey and waiting and waiting until it was finally connected and working, then waiting for the congregation to arrive, then having an unusually extended service, then waiting and waiting for everyone to be done so that we could load up again… No, you should make other arrangements this time, I said to Bertin. He looked slightly pained, then said thank you politely and the meeting proceeded.
Much later that afternoon, however, we discovered that there would be no church service on Sunday morning in Dogbo. Everyone had been invited to go to Djakotomey. So no, we would not be able do what I wanted… What else could I do but call Bertin and tell him that we would be going to Djakotomey after all and if he would make sure to be at the office at 9 o’clock to load up? He agreed joyfully. No, he had not arranged for an alternative means of transportation. Bertin is a man of great faith.

Sunday morning 8.45. The telephone goes. Pasteur, this is Bertin. Could you please ask your guardien to load the instruments? No, I did not think so. How was Gomaise to know what needed to go and what needed to stay? No, Bertin, please make sure that you are here yourself to do what needs doing. At 8.50 the telephone goes again. Pasteur, my wife Carole needs to ride in the vehicle with you. I cannot think of an adequate reason to refuse, but something in me wants to very badly. Okay,  I say, see you in a few minutes. 9.00: no Bertin. 9.05: no Bertin. Four or five others have gathered around the HiLux, most of them young men. Could we catch a ride to Djakotomey with you, a few ask. Well, I think, if Bertin is not here to load the vehicle, and these young men are, we will let them do the work and catch the ride, and Carole can walk. 9.15: I call Bertin to see  where he is. Meanwhile all of the equipment is being loaded. Yes, yes, I’m coming, says Bertin. And there he comes. At 9.25, or so. When the back of the pick-up has been completely filled and tied down, and there are more heavy electronics spread across the back seat. The young men have said they can manage with these on their laps. Bertin has Carole and a little neighbour girl behind him on his moped. Carole dismounts, and looks into the back seat. I take pity and say to one of the young men: here, you ride with Bertin, and Carole and the girl can take your place. But no, that isn’t good enough. Bertin shakes his head dramatically. Get on, he says to Carole, and they ride off, leaving the little neighbour girl standing there.
It turns out, when we all get to Djakotomey, that the instruments and the equipment don´t need to be connected at all. It´s not meant to actually be used. There is a large stereo in place, and the pre-recorded songs have their own musical accompaniment. Bertin sings along, the congregation joins in, but it’s all just for the cameras. The musicians pretend to be playing. There is no need for the microphones. No need for the monstrous speakers or the mixing table. It´s all simply window dressing. I feel a bit let down. Or perhaps I should say: I feel like blowing up. This is Bertin. Stringing me along, asking for a finger and taking everything up to the shoulderblade. And all for whose greater glory…?

But then I get caught up in what’s happening. I realize how good the music actually sounds. I watch Bertin gyrating and shouting praise to the Lord of mice and Hiluxes and video cameras and little neighbour girls. The music starts up for the third take. I still don’t understand the words, but I hear myself shouting along. I join the dance. At the director’s cue, I stand with the chorus line of elders from Agame and Migbowomey and Tokpohoue and Djakotomey and Pasteur Theophile from Cotonou and we turn our heads to the left, extending our hands  towards the congregation (and the cameras) in unison. We take a step and do it again from a different angle. We go out of doors and do it again in the sunlight. There is a great deal of hilarity. And then we go back in. The congregation sings one more song. We pray for the children who will be starting at school again tomorrow. We are blessed with the Trinitarian blessing. And then I realize I have truly been blessed. Bertin comes up to me with a huge smile on his face. I embrace him and say that I will be buying at least 100 of his CD’s. You really have a gift! He says: don’t worry, we’ll be leaving all the equipment here in Djakotomey. Thank you so much!
Anyone want to buy a CD? It would make a great gift…