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
pagne (6 metres of wax hollandaise)
FCFA (about €60)
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.