Monday, 18 February 2013


Dear reader. Today you have caught me at my uncharitable not-best. I just turned off my cell phone. Taking calls in French is kind of complicated at the best of times. I greatly prefer a personal encounter. But the kind of call that makes me turn off my telephone is the one that features a young lady delivering a pre-recorded message at top speed. The bits I can catch are MTN (that’s the network) and the phrase ‘pay-my-call’. That’s French for ‘This is a collect call; will you accept the charge?’ No, I refuse to press 1 for Oui. I have no idea who is calling me. And as it is, I have called back 4 people today already who began a conversation and were then cut off because their prepaid credit had run out. Credit can (and is) bought here for amounts as low as 100 FCFA. That’s 15 euro-cents. (Do your own conversion if you’re reading this in Australia or Canada or elsewhere. As I said, today you have caught me at my uncharitable not-best. And I plan to repent only after I have finished writing this blog.) The cost of a call here is 1 FCFA per second. Which gives you some idea of most people’s personal economics. Just enough credit to be able to call someone and then to hang up, with the idea that the other guy will call you back. It’s called bip­-ping. I tend not to accept the invitation. And I definitely do not respond to the MTN pay-my-call option. I mean: come on At least someone could invest a few FCFA in telling me who they are and then asking me to call back. Or not?
Okay, you’re right. I’m being hard-hearted. If I were living on  a few euros per day, I would cut every corner I could too. You’re right. I plan to repent. But I’m glad I got it out of my system, anyway. And it’s too late to press 1 for Oui this time, I’m afraid.
Expectations. Obligations. Especially financially speaking. That’s what pay-my-call is a metaphor for. Sometimes I think that Beninese society is held together by these things. Not necessarily the genuine love and concern which helps people go the extra mile for others. But the sense that if someone signals a desire for your favour, you simply cannot refuse. It’s something I find really hard to get used to. Mainly because I cannot grasp it. Where I come from, there´s nothing at all wrong with asking for help (within reason, of course). But the request always leaves you free to decide. Saying no is a very real option. It doesn’t work like that here. In order to say no here, you need to justify your refusal. The amount demanded of you as a loan is – malheureusement – required by your children. Sorry, but this month we had unexpected expenses due to the death of an aunt, and there’s really nothing left. Or: no, I would have called you back, but my own phone credit was just exhausted.
A dear brother had a great plan: it was to make a CD with gospel music. Mindful of the Lord’s exhortation in Luke 14.28, he swiftly concluded there would no doubt be many members in the community willing to contribute. So he booked a recording studio. He hired a band. He bought dazzling material and had beautiful robes made for the backing choir. He made a down payment and had a small production company produce a video clip. He chose a grand pseudonym (Bertinho, with an H!) and set about promoting his endeavour. Along the way, he attempted to score a loan from DVN (unsuccessfully), seems to have approached everyone in his circle of acquaintances (with some success), implicated the local church council by inviting them to a church service in which he performed some of the songs, and approached me once more with the demand for a large loan (unsuccessfully, again.)
And now, with the creditors at his heels, he has decided to hold a promotion party next Saturday. He’s managed to have the event, le lancement, announced in all the church services, with the request that all those who are not ashamed to stand up for the Lord be there. Along with the invitations, he has provided envelopes. Here in Benin that means: when you come, put some money in the envelope and leave it with the organiser of the event.
Now, where I come from, there’s nothing wrong with asking for help. But you do that before spending the money you hope to receive. And you never forget: it’s my project, so I cannot oblige others or expect of them that they will participate. It’s their choice. But not here. Our dear brother, who happened to be leading the service which we attended the day before yesterday, took plenty of time to explain to the faithful that they were expected to attend the lancement. That, in fact, it was something God himself was strongly in favour of, to put it mildly. And the faithful should make sure that they were there on time. Because, otherwise, if the good people of Dogbo noticed there was nobody there yet at three o’clock in the afternoon, they might think that the lancement had been cancelled. And that would mean dishonour to God, n’est-ce pas? And, oh yes, here are your envelopes…
So will the faithful be there next Saturday? To give you some idea: Pasteur Théophile also received an invitation. And you should know that Pasteur Théophile lives all the way in Cotonou. It takes him about 3½ hours to get here on his motorcycle. The drive here and back costs him a day-and-a-half’s wages in fuel costs. You should also know that at least twice a month Pasteur Théophile already drives forth and back from Cotonou to the Mono-Couffo for the weekend to do pastoral work, to teach and to preach. You’d think the guy would say: well, I do have a family, so I don’t think I can make it this Saturday as well… But no, expectations and obligations are strong here. If someone says, Pay-my-call, that’s what you do. Pasteur Théophile will be there. Including his envelope. And I expect that very many of the faithful will be there as well.
And what about me? No way, you say. But then you have forgotten something. Remember me saying that after writing this blog I would repent?
Yes, I will be at the lancement. On the other hand, I’m not absolutely sure about my envelope…


  1. Rude awakening, huh? After a while you get a little jaded, me thinks! The not-so-nice things became glaringly apparent. Maybe we are not so bad after all....

    Doesn't it irk you, though, when the gospel gets manipulated in this way? And how do you break that kind of mentality? Or maybe, it shouldn't be broken so much as gradually bent, like a recalcitrant sapling. What does God really want you to do? How do you best honour his name? It must be hard to sort through all that. I do not envy you. But! You have been called there to do his work! Even when it is hard and you are tired and weary of the nuances and undercurrents that you had not bargained for! But he will give strength to you! He promised! Believe it! Love you, Joe. Coba

  2. Thanks, Coba. You hit the nail on the head. Love you too!

  3. I can imagine that culture differences like that can start to annoy:) Love you papa!

  4. It's funny, you sound like your son-in-law, Allan. ;-)

  5. You mean Allan sounds like me... ?