Monday, April 27, 2009
I have made the very difficult decision to end my service in Benin. It's been a hell of a year. After experiencing difficulties with a homologue who was doing black magic on me in my village and moving to the capital and coming up on empty with my ONG and housing situation, I am really exhausted. The constant harassment I have faced has really worn me down here. It is difficult for me to walk down the street alone, go to the marche, the bank, etc. I have Zem's who are impolite, and am approached by strange men all the time. At first, it was just Yovo, or cherie, or I want to marry you. Then it was being followed and phone calls and being pulled off the side of the road by my wrists when I refused to respond to their advances. I've had people pull up next to me on motos, grab my wrists and say "I'm going to kiss you". I've had very inappropriate comments yelled at me from across the street. After a while it gets difficult to go places alone, and you start to lose your sense of security and freedom. While there are things I love about Benin and will miss dearly, my experience here has been at times heartbreaking. I spent a wonderful Easter weekend with my Beninese host family and friends. I never thought it would be possible to integrate into this society where I am actually considered a part of the family and not an outsider or even a guest. The conversations I've had with people have been eye opening and amazing and I am so lucky to have been able to make friends in Porto Novo where the French level is high enough that I can actually communicate with people on a real level. Peace Corps, they say has your highest highs and lowest lows. Easter weekend was definitely a high. But Easter Monday was definitely the lowest of my lows. Unfortunately, I am no longer willing to wait for the next high. I went to the beach with my host family and group of friends. There were about 3 families with us, several young people and older people. We had a pic nic and listened to music and we waded into the water together. The beach was crowded and we were all holding hands to try to stay together as we went into the water. (Note we were not swimming, we were just wading in about waist deep- the waves can be dangerous here and no one wanted to go out very far) There were two guys from the family who came with us, four teenage girls, my college aged sister, myself, my 22 year old cousin and 2 of his friends from the gendarme school, and my two host brothers, 15 and 20. We were in a group together and all the sudden I was being grabbed by the wrists and yanked away, being pulled by this group of guys we didn't know who wanted to take photos with me and were pulling me into the water with them. I managed to free myself, but they pursued. There were perhaps 10 of them. I was shoved in the middle of this circle that my host family and friends formed around me, along with 2 other girls. All the sudden these other guys were pushing their way into the circle and grabbing me, and touching me in sexual and inappropriate ways. Fighting started breaking out between my friends and the guys harassing me, my host mama was screaming, and some of the papas came down to break things up. It was completely awful. I had been grabbed, pinched, fondled and groped by 5 or 6 guys in broad daylight in front of hundreds of people including my host family. I felt completely violated, angry, and scared. I never would have thought people could act that way, especially when I was with a large group of Beninese people. This incident is not pleasant to write about, but I want to accurately depict my time in Benin, the good along with the bad- and why I have decided to go home. It was difficult enough dealing with the comments and harassment every day but now I know what can actually happen- despite the presence of Beninese people. It is still unfathomable to me- how could that have happened? It was a very difficult week for me after I made the decision to go home. I will miss my fellow volunteers, my host family and Beninese friends, and all the cultural exchanges I make on a daily basis with people here. I will miss certain aspects of Beninese culture, though the attitudes about women and the way I've been treated here is something I cannot tolerate. I will miss the music and dancing and the palm trees and igname pile with sauce d'arrachide and wagashi. I will miss bissap and phrases like "donne moi ca" "doucement" and " ah bon" I will miss the fetes and the crazy, loud tissu and how they think the most tacky things here are "tres jolie". When I think about the past year it is completely exhausting. I've had really tough times and really great times. I've learned so much in the past year and I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity to travel and live in another country and try to understand the way people live and think here. My memories of Benin will be bittersweet. I am still trying to comprehend how a day like Easter can be so perfect, and the following day a trip to the beach could be so completely awful.