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.


  1. That's a difficult one papa! But I guess if DVN-GoWa assisted in buying the piece of property and building the church there, it wouldn't be strange to expect that they could also assist with the "vaste lasten", right? That those "vaste lasten" happen to be of a slightly different nature than we are used to shouldn’t really matter, I think.

  2. sounds like a bit of short notice to ask all this, but I sure agree with Hannah! and if all the members donate to their own ability? and does this deceased person not have family? They should have money as the poperty was sold for money wasn't it?

  3. Make a certain amount of money available for "the churches" in Benin. If a church receives a part of this amount there is less left for the rest. That obliges that church to find a way to pay back the money some way or an other, be it in actual money or in some other ingenious way (srevices or other ideas). Let the churches be responsible for one another. This will let you give this church money on short notice and indebt them to their consience and to their fellow christians. Don't know if it will work there, but at least I've given my two pence.

  4. Ik hou het even in simpel hollands, begrijpen de meesten toch wel.
    Heeft DVN zelf hier geen ervaring mee of mening over? Ik krijg de indruk dat dit niet heel erg ongebruikelijk is in Afrika en wellicht in meer delen van de wereld. Zitten ook wel wat bijbelse aspecten in :).Primair moet natuurlijk de eigen gemeente gestimuleerd worden om zichzelf te bedruipen. Als dat redelijkerwijs niet op te brengen is lijkt het logisch dat DVN bijspringt omdat de verplichtinging in feite al is aangegaan bij ondersteuning van de koop. Maar waar hebben we het eigenlijk over? Ik heb geen idee wat een geit daar kost, maar is totaal 200 euri een goede schatting? Zou toch geen probleem mogen zijn...
    Lijkt me wel slim om te inventariseren wat voor soortgelijke financiele addertjes er nog meer in het afrikaanse gras zitten.

    Wijsheid gewenst en een groet vanuit een koud Sappemeer (nachtvorst..brrrrr)

  5. I agree with both Hannah and Alwin. And greetings to that beautiful little girl's excellent parents.
    Love you!

  6. I don't think I have anything wise to contribute, but I'll be praying today for the Spirit to give you wisdom to make a good decision. Allan.