Published: September 22nd 2005September 22nd 2005
I live in a fairly sheltered home. Family Asse has a home on the edge of town, down a road shared only with the Eglise du Royaume du Jesus-Christ, (which is a kick in the pants itself), and a tall wall surrounding the yard. I am very comfortable here. Usually I don’t fee like an outsider, but there are times when visitors come and I realize, yet again, what a novelty I am. I knew before I left the U.S. that I would look like a sore-thumb in this African society, but I didn’t realize how hard that would be to swallow. I am bothered the most when I am reminded of the contrast while in my home.
I have already written about "yovos”, the word in the local language that means, “white person”. Even when we first arrive in country, volunteers told us about "yovo” and what it meant, and that usually it wasn’t used in a derogatory manner. At first I accepted that explanation and had patience with people calling me yovo, “Because,” I told myself, “They don’t know any better.” But after living with family Asse where I am called tata, or Grande-Soeur (older sister), I changed my mind on accepting “yovo.” When is it ever a good idea to address a stranger according to the color of their skin? And after "yovo,” there are the “educated people,” who say, “la blanche.” “Bonjour, la blanche.” Ugh. When I hear those words in my home with Family Asse my eyes cross. I am always caught by surprise when it happens in my home because it is so rare, but there have been a couple times when I have been sitting outside my door, reading or writing or whatever, and a friend of the family that hasn’t met me yet will greet me with, “la blanche” or “yovo.” There are polite words; sir, miss, monsieur, madam, tata. I am very self-righteous and think, “how dare you come in to my home and make me feel obvious?” I am prepared for these addresses on the street, but in my home, where I feel so accepted, I can start to see red.
But it does no good to be mad. I am guilty of qualifying people into “black” and “white” very often, especially while living here and being surrounded by those generalizations. There is no “black” or “white.” I am American, but many of my features are German or Scottish. With me are a French-American, and someone who is very much Yugoslavian. There are Chinese-, Japanese-, and Korean- Americans here. I have to remember how many different cultures are in the world. In Benin there are many different customs and ideas that create many different cultures. Classifying people by the color of their skin does nothing to describe their origin, and only makes that person or people being classified accordingly pissed off. There is a lot more to me than “yovo,” and a lot more to anyone than the worst description of the color of his or her skin.
I respond differently to “yovo,” depending on my mood and the circumstances. Sometimes people are so darn excited to see me, a “yovo,” that I can’t help but smile and say hello. Riding my bike or walking along the road brings many children out of the nooks and crannies of the homes to scream “yovo” and please please please will I just wave at them? Disappointing ten or more children, standing in underwear if they’re old enough to be wearing clothes and waving frantically, is a very difficult thing to do. Or passing a woman carrying more firewood on her head than I can stack in the woodstove at home, with a baby strapped on her back, who still grins at me and says, ”bon soir, yovo,” even if it is morning I have to say, “bon soir.” She has already put in too much effort in the day for me to be snotty.
The best plan of action to move beyond the “yovos,”is to really be part of the community. Not just live in a home here, but to make my home here, to really live in the community! To dance, to wear clothes like other people are wearing, to speak their language, which is not French but Mina, or Adja, or Fon, to eat the local food, and drink the local drink. In order to create anything sustainable, I must be almost entirely removed from the project. I cannot be able to see my name on any kind of work if I want to return in ten or twenty years and see those activities. Since I am a capable and proud person, I will learn patience and humility. If I am a successful volunteer, only the people I knew will remember what I did here. ebk
* I would like to add a disclaimer here: I am only two and a half months in to a 27-month stay. All of my impressions are firsts and are likely to change, and are very welcome to be laughed at, if returned volunteers happen to find this site. Know that I am open to criticism! I would also like to add that people here do not understand why I, or any “white” person, would not like to be called “yovo.” Even a religious sister called me that name, and I had a hard time swallowing indignation. But I did, and I writing is a good outlet. Okay, that’s it.