In 2004, Benin officially outlawed polygamy.

This doesn’t mean it doesn’t still go on, of course. Existing polygamous marriages are grandfathered in under Law No. 2002-07, and obviously, six years isn’t long enough to change a millennia-old practice.

I have at least two good friends who are the products of polygamous marriages (I may know more; it’s not something a cosmopolitan 20something Beninese will easily admit to a Westerner these days). They’ve shown me pictures of their proud papas surrounded by their nombreuse progeny: 28 children in one case, 22 in the other, kids ranging from two to thirty-two. Mothers nowhere to be seen. Sometimes these families are like an alternative-universe Brady Bunch. Though drama between co-épouses sometimes, understandably, could best Jerry Springer, it’s true that co-spouses are sometimes best friends, even sisters, who just happen to share one man’s bed.

The 2004 law that supposedly will put an end to such relationships is called the Code des personnes et de la famille (Code of Persons and the Family). This code, the CPF, also acknowledges formally for the first time that all people are equal before the law. (A Beninese friend pointed out, though, that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. The CPF, while explicitly declaring equality, codified certain inequalities. For example, children must take their father’s name by law; a man can get divorced and remarried in a single day while a woman must wait 300 days before taking a second husband; the dot, which I will explain later, is both legally binding and obligatory.) However, the fact that the CPF was passed at all is a step, and a remarkable one at that. My hope is that the CPF will prove to be one of those forward-looking laws that, in a generation or two, succeeds in changing cultural norms (like the repeal of Jim Crow laws). But for the moment, it hasn’t changed the daily reality for most women.

I see some positive signs: female military officers, female Rotary Club presidents, I’ve been told that nine of Benin’s 77 mayors are women. The country had a serious female presidential candidate before the United States; there is a female member of the Constitutional Court; twelve of the 28 students in my master’s program were women. The government has started a reasonably successful campaign to underwrite girls’ school fees.

But instead of being an equitable amelioration of the human condition, I see a line drawn in the sand, a demarcation between paysanne (peasant woman) and femme instruite (educated woman). Men discuss the marriage options available to them: is the wider skill set and higher earning power of a femme emancipée (emancipated woman) worth the trouble she’ll cause? (The two men with whom I’ve had this conversation decided yes, that they’d seek out educated women, so the times, they are a-changin’.) We have to ask ourselves frankly: what is the alternative to a “free woman”? Isn’t it a slave? Maybe not a slave in the physical sense (though such cases are not unheard of), but a slave to her husband’s life choices and her own ignorance.

A few weeks ago, I spoke about some of these issues with an American prosecutor and some Beninese classmates. The American told us that, at last year’s International Women’s Day, the president of the Republic of Benin opened his remarks by saying, by way of appreciation and admiration: “Wow, I’ve never seen so many beautiful women in the same room!” I cringed. “Ew! I can’t believe he said that, and on such an occasion, no less!” My Beninese friends looked at us expectedly. “Wait, what? What did he say?” They didn’t understand that to draw attention only to a woman’s physical appearance demeans her strength, her intelligence, her skills.

The objectification of women is so deeply embedded in Beninese society that its members don’t recognize its existence, much less its consequences. It’s true that to call a woman beautiful is complimentary, a pleasant thing to say and to hear. But it’s an objectification nonetheless, an implicit degradation, if not equally applied to all people. My Beninese classmates staunchly refused this characterization of what, to them, was a simply a kind word.

So in honor of International Women’s Day, I wanted to share with you a few of the disheartening things I’ve seen, heard and experienced about women in Benin. Be forewarned that I provide only anecdotal evidence. I’ll try not to editorialize too much and let the experiences speak for themselves.

1. I don’t know a single Beninese woman who wears her own hair. Nearly everyone I see wears a wig or plaited weave, giving them the choice to drastically change their hairstyle every week. I wanted to experience this for myself. So in January, I got my hair braided. Though it was nice afterwards, not to wash my hair for two weeks and to feel the wind on my scalp, the braiding process itself turned out to be a five-hour, $20, almost unbearably painful experience that I likely won’t repeat (the old adage “suffering for beauty” took on new meaning). But while I was in the salon, a man entered, presumably a friend of the stylist. He exclaimed over my hair. Then he said, “You have such long hair. It’s good for a woman to have long hair, so that a man can l’arracher (literally, tear her away) as she’s walking down the street and take her home with him to have his way with her.” The hairstylist giggled, so I did too.

2. I attended a Mass for the tenth anniversary of a devoutly Catholic couple I know. The Mass was in Fon, but upon realizing that some Bangladeshis were in attendance, the Beninese priest recapped his sermon in English. (Linguistically, this was fascinating. The French missionary spoke Fon, the Beninese pastor spoke English, and no one spoke French, the official language of the country.) In his sermon, the pastor congratulated the couple on ten years of marriage and admonished other couples to emulate this relationship based on mutual respect. Then he gave some practical advice: it’s not good for a man to beat his wife for no reason. A woman should dress up in the home and always “stay beautiful” or she shouldn’t be surprised that her husband seeks out other women.

3. A few weeks ago, a Beninese professor emphasized to us the importance of stage presence when defending our theses. Yes, the quality of the work is important, but it must also be presented clearly and convincingly (advice my fellow law students have heard thousands of times). As he wrapped up his lecture, he said: “By the end of your presentation, the members of the jury should be ready to give you their daughters in marriage.” Later, I tried to explain to some classmates why I found this shocking (of course, the practice of arranged marriage is shocking to a European-American these days, but it also presumes that the presenter is male, something almost equally disturbing when you’re talking to a class of 12 women and 16 men). They tried to reassure me: it’s just an expression. The professor’s daughters are already happily married anyway.

4. I’m taking Fon classes. My teacher is a wonderful guy from Zoungoudo, in the region of Pahou, just northwest of Cotonou. During one of my first lessons, he explained basic introductory questions: Nε a nò nyi? What’s your name? Fitε a no nō? Where do you live? Azotε a nò wa? What kind of work do you do? A δo asu/asī à? Are you married (Lit., do you have a wife or husband)? He cautioned us that a woman, married or not, will say yes. A man, married or not, will say no to signal that he is open to a new relationship. Since I’ve witnessed a good friend nonchalantly pick up a woman in a nightclub and bring her home to the house he shares with his wife (and heard of dozens of cases secondhand), I can only imagine this is true.

5. One of the most infuriating conversations I’ve had here started at a birthday party. I can’t even remember what the initial topic was, but a friend of mine off-handedly threw in: “But of course that’s how it is, because women only seek out things that are easy.” A murmur of general accord went around the table. I smacked the table with my palm, and six shocked heads turned toward me. Haltingly, since this was within a month of my arrival, I said, “Do you mean that all women look for easy things, while all men seek challenges?” My friend, a law student, nodded like this was old news. “For example,” he said. “Tell me why women don’t study science.”
“But women do study science,” I said.
“Sure, but not as many as men.”
“Don’t you think it might be because people like you tell them they shouldn’t?”
“No,” he said. “Women just look for things that are easy.”
“Are you saying science is hard?”
“Yeah,” he said. “And that men seek out things that are hard?”
“Then why don’t you study science?”
“Oh, it doesn’t interest me.”
I stopped arguing. I tried a new tactic, which was met with the same response I get every time I use myself as an example.
“But I am here. I am in Benin. It would have been much easier for me to stay in the United States, but I sought out a challenge.”
“Yes, but you are a yovo, a white woman, an American. You are different from Beninese women. They look for things that are easy.”
“But look at ‘Mary,’ your Beninese classmate. She is getting her master’s degree, same as you, which is hard.”
“Yes, but it’s only because she’s trying to be Western.”

6. There is a Beninese family with whom I visit frequently. The two children are 13 and 15 years old, a girl and boy, respectively. I’ve remarked that the boy is articulate, confident, active, but the girl seems to languish. She is a nice girl but tongue-tied, immature, reluctant to express opinions. This could be the product of their ages, or their individual personalities, but I don’t think so. I’ve noticed that when relatives come over, the girl is relegated to the kitchen. The relatives address the boy like most relatives do: “How is school? What do you think you might want to be when you grow up? What’s your favorite subject?” On the contrary, no one asks the girl to express her hopes and dreams. When the family eats together, the girl doesn’t speak and isn’t spoken to. Perhaps it’s a question of chicken-and-egg.

7. I have a good Beninese friend who is remarkably intelligent and who earns some of the highest grades in her class. Unfortunately, she is also strikingly beautiful and conducts herself with elegance. This has led to some uncomfortable situations for her. She accompanied a (married clergy) professor to a foreign city for research, and he entered her hotel room uninvited. Fortunately, when she refused his advances, he relented. But she introduced another professor at a public lecture a few months ago – where I was in attendance. She and this professor, a fifty-something married man, were seated behind a table onstage and my friend had some papers on her lap. The professor, in retrieving one of these papers, took the opportunity to feel up her skirt. He then sent her a wildly inappropriate text message. (A caveat: of course, of course, there are individuals who behave this way everywhere in the world, but here, they happen without even the potential protection of sexual harassment laws.) My friend believes she cannot do anything about these experiences, because any action she took would only serve to close the already limited job market to her.

8. Hodgepodge: a large minority of Beninese magistrates believe that spousal rape is not possible because a woman gives blanket sexual consent upon marriage. I have heard of a mother who brought her eight-year-old daughter to the hospital in Calavi to get a rape test solely to see if she could still market her as a virgin. A person I know who conducted field research told me a woman in a polygamous relationship was sad when her husband beat his other wife more because it showed his love for the co-spouse was stronger. A classmate from Ménontin told me that he knew a woman who paid the dowry for her husband’s second wife herself, just so that she would have someone to help her with the household chores. In northern Benin, the practice of levirat is widespread: a widow is made to marry her husband’s brother upon his death to keep the property in the man’s family. In a book I read about voudon, or voodoo, the predominant indigenous religion, a woman who cooks a meal for a man other than her husband will have her head shaved to show her shame.

9. Here, a marriage cannot be legally sanctioned without the payment of the dot, the dowry. (Customarily, there must be parental permission; in my experience, it’s extremely rare that a couple will marry against the wishes of their relatives). The legal dot is 10,000 FCFA or about $22, but families with means pay much more. A woman receives jewelry, pagnes (cloth) and shoes, her family receives money, and most importantly, her paternal uncles receive bottles of alcohol. In wedding albums I’ve seen, the woman is wrapped in cloth and guided to her husband’s family’s home, where she is unwrapped. A few months ago, a Beninese professor asked the women in my class if they really wanted equality. He said, “And how many of you would marry without the dot?” They all shrieked with laughter; the idea was simply absurd. At first, I was judgmental. But the value of the dot here is about the value of an engagement ring, which most American women wouldn’t give up; the portion that goes to the woman’s family may equal the cost of the rehearsal dinner (customarily paid by the groom’s family chez nous). Perhaps it would make more sense to give women sensible things like clothing, and their family a useful thing like money, rather than diamonds and a fancy meal.

Though I didn’t know exactly what I would find here, I expected to be shocked by anti-feminist practices. I didn’t expect learn to understand polygamy or the dot, why Christian women aren’t free to date Muslim men and vice versa, why infidelity is encouraged, or why a family’s word can annul a marriage. I expected to teach but not to learn, and I was wrong. American women may be the freest in the world, but we ought to know how we got to be that way and what other choices are out there.

In the United States, we live with veritable gender equality. Has something been lost in the process? Should women choose to do the things men do? Do they lose something of their femininity in doing so? In ignoring the differences between men and women – because we do this in the U.S. – do we devalue both sexes? Shouldn’t a politician be able to acknowledge female beauty? Does equality mean sameness? Some of the things I’ve witnessed here make the current fights we have in the U.S. (though not necessarily those of our suffragette ancestors) seem ridiculous. We owe it to other women to stop quibbling about misunderstandings with well-intentioned men and use our equal footing to help our tatas (sisters) catch up.

These are hard, perhaps politically inappropriate ideas for a feminist like me. But I just finished a collection of letters penned by the German writer Rainer Maria Rilke (a book given to me by the feminist English department at Nerinx Hall). Rilke says many remarkable things, but one of the most remarkable is the following passage:

The girl and the woman, in their new, individual unfolding, will only in passing be imitators of male behavior and misbehavior and repeaters of male professions. After the uncertainty of such transitions, it will become obvious that women were going through the abundance and variation of those (often ridiculous) disguises just so that they could purify their own essential nature and wash out the deforming influences of the other sex. Women, in whom life lingers and dwells more immediately, more fruitfully, and more confidently, must surely have become riper and more human in their depths than light, easygoing man, who is not pulled down beneath the surface of life by the weight of any bodily fruit and who, arrogant and hasty, undervalues what he thinks he loves. This humanity of woman, carried in her womb through all her suffering and humiliation, will come to light when she has stripped off the conventions of mere femaleness in the transformations of her outward status, and those men who do not yet feel it approaching will be astonished by it. Someday … someday there will be girls and women whose name will no longer mean the mere opposite of the male, but something in itself something that makes one think not of any complement and limit, but only of life and reality: the female human being.

Agree? Don’t agree?

Benin is stumbling along on the path to women’s empowerment just like we are, and we don’t know yet who will finish first.

Happy International Women’s Day.


Collective Thoughts

February 4, 2010

A few months ago, someone told me a story about his neighbor. This neighbor had installed solar panels on his home. My acquaintance told me he had long recognized the potential of solar energy capture in Benin, where sunshine is free and plentiful more than half of the year. But he hadn’t known, until he saw his neighbor’s house, that the technology had progressed to the point where it was now affordable to attach solar panels to single-family homes.

He approached his neighbor. They had a lively conversation about the changing world, the preservation of the environment, the price of the solar panels, the investment in efficient energy. My acquaintance asked his neighbor for the name and contact information of the company that had installed the solar panels. His neighbor apologized; he had left the business card at the office. They set another date to talk in greater detail and parted ways. When my acquaintance arrived at his neighbor’s house at the appointed time, the neighbor wasn’t there. Since that time, the neighbor has refused calls and visits from his friend. My acquaintance sighed; he said he knew that would happen.

“But why?” I interjected. He shrugged. The solar panels were his neighbor’s idea, not his own. His neighbor wants to be the only one with solar panels, for others to commend his for his good idea, to be revered for his idea. He wants to ensure he gets the respect he’s owed, my acquaintance said. Sharing the idea would dilute – if not the sunshine – the real reason he installed the panels: to be envied by his neighbors.

At the time, I took the story with a grain of salt. I figured this neighbor had some issues, and I left it at that.

Fast forward.

This week, my classmates and I turned in our 30-page partner papers on democratic transitions. My partner and I met, discussed our theme, did considerable research, agreed on an outline and split the work. He took the first half; I wrote the second. The day before the paper was due, we met to put the parts together. I scanned his half, he scanned mine, and we printed the paper. Later that evening, I read over his section again, in order to prepare myself for our eventual presentation. I realized, after this more careful reading, that it was plagiarized. Not one sentence, or one paragraph, but all fifteen pages, from the first word to the last. Not from the same source, mind you, but a copy-and-paste here and there to glue together the thoughts of various authors. Furthermore, if he had taken a paragraph from Author A, who cited Author B, he inserted a footnote for B (as A had done), but included no reference for A himself. I was chagrined – my name was on the paper! It was, at this point, due in eight hours. I have a lot of confidence in my ability to meet deadlines, but even I can’t rewrite fifteen pages in a foreign language without sources or a computer in a single night. I went to sleep in trepidation.

The next morning, fortunately, after providing some guidance on the subject, the professor gave us another month to correct our work and turn in a final version. I gently approached my partner. I pointed out various passages (tactfully avoiding saying “you plagiarized everything you wrote”). I told him that for me, in my culture, plagiarism is very, very serious, especially for a journalist or a lawyer, and I couldn’t turn in this work. I told him firmly that we would have to redo his section. He listened respectfully, and at the end, he told me that he didn’t quite understand what I meant, but he agreed that work could always be better and he was ready to help me make the work meet my standards.

Then I popped my head in the office of the administrator. “What are the rules about citations here?” I asked casually. “I don’t think I’m quite familiar with them.”

She looked at me, annoyed. “Didn’t you have a class on research methodology?” she asked.

I nodded.

“Well, if you use someone’s words, you use a footnote. Didn’t your professor tell you that?”

“Yes, but it happens so often with my classmates that I didn’t know if I’d understood correctly.”

“Well,” she said. “Work can always be improved.”

So I’ve realized, finally, that “forgetting” a reference, or fifteen pages of references, is viewed like poor writing, misspellings, or incomplete research. It’s just a typo.

My program is counted among the most prestigious in West Africa. It’s where the current Beninese minister of justice earned his master’s degree. The current president of the Constitutional Court is one of our avid supporters. Its establishment was underwritten by UNESCO, and NGOs from Germany and Italy, and a Danish governmental commission, provide its operational budget and small living stipends for the students. More than 250 students apply every year; around thirty are accepted.

I’m not saying that every student plagiarizes. But I’ve been confronted with this problem in four of my five group projects; this 15 pages just happened to be the most flagrant violation of copyright.

So why does it happen?

When you combine a culture of collectivity, a culture that insists that young people their ideas are worthless, a culture colonized (which tells everyone that their ideas are worthless), with a lack of research training, an inability to use the Internet, a library that doesn’t loan books or permit photocopies; when you take my partner, who had two exams the Sunday before our paper was due for classes rescheduled from the year before, this is the recipe for plagiarism.

Back to the solar panels.

Now I can understand the neighbor. I sympathize with him. If everything you say or do or wear or eat or build becomes communal property, for others to criticize or praise or claim as their own, it’s no wonder he wanted to keep the solar panels to himself. It might be the only idea he’s ever gotten credit for.

If a culture agrees that ideas are collective and references superfluous, that’s fine. A lack of credit, though alien to our conception of research, is not a problem in itself. Rather, if you don’t cite, it becomes easy to hid the fact the you are contributing nothing, that you are moving sideways at best in a given field, that you are at best compiling (and badly) the ideas of others. It’s difficult to move forward. But when that’s all that’s expected, or even desired, of you, by professors who did the same thing throughout their education (and look how they turned out; they’re doing well enough for themselves), it’s hard for student or professor to even recognize the problem, much less recognize or welcome a new idea. That is, students are not taught to think. I always dismissed as empty that “critical thinking” prong in the high school and college graduation requirements. But now I know it’s possible to have classes, even at a high level, that pretend to impart real knowledge, without incorporating critical thinking skills. It’s like how I used to play school in the basement with a hand-me-down chalkboard.

Add families that get impatient when their 20-something-year-old isn’t supporting himself, a closed university faculty, a closed Bar, a closed diplomatic corps. The incredible amount of will, confidence, ambition, intelligence, diplomacy, faith, juggling it takes for a Beninese man to even graduate, much less find a job (less than 10 percent of Abomey-Calavi graduates work in a career related to their field of study) is incredible, even incomprehensible for Americans. And to become a leader in the community? To change the system that you just fought tooth and nail to beat? The chances are one in a million, and half that for women.

The saddest thing is that these students are very smart. I’ve had conversations with my plagiarizing friends about philosophy, the rule of law, international relations, sociology… These are the students who have pressured their families to let them stay in school, who scraped together their nickels to make photocopies of textbooks, who read Rousseau and Montesquieu in their spare time, who earned scholarships from foreign NGOs, who each landed one of the 30 coveted spots in this program, and who are studying not accounting or business, but human rights. They want things to change. If they were just given a slip of a chance, they could turn their communities right side up.

Un Seul Mot

December 12, 2009

A few word-related musings, lest you think it’s possible for a linguist to ever stop thinking about language.

Most days, I find myself trying to fit unfamiliar phenomenon into my same old American schema. That is, I observe something and think: “This is weird! Why do people say it this way when I would say it another way? What shared goal do we have that our cultures (or climates or collective memories) make us express differently?”*

This works relatively well with individual words and phrases. For example, ça va? Has (which means, literally, “it goes?) is the pragmatic equivalent of how are you? But it’s often replaced with Comment tu vas?, Chez toi?, Tu es en train? Tu es en forme? and even just Comment? (literally, How do you go? From your perspective? You are in the middle [of doing something]? You are in good shape? And how?) This is a little confusing. I sometimes wonder why they don’t just stick to one thing. But grafted onto the English language, it makes perfect sense. We say not only how are you? but what’s up? What’s new? How’s it going? How’s life? How (are) you doin(g)? and even How is it [today]? with same goal: basic greetings. Thus, I can make sense of the varieties by fitting them into the linguistic patterns I already expect.

Mawu, il fait tellement chaud!**

But I have to abandon my schema to understand the relationship between different languages here. Diglossia (that is, two languages used simultaneously within a community) is diametrically opposed to my linguistic cognizance. You can drive a thousand miles in any direction from Missouri and still speak English; even a Georgian and a Bostonian can understand each other. We tend to exaggerate our regional pride (three words: soda vs. pop) in our linguistic differences because there are so few. Outside immigrant communities, fluency in a second or third or fourth language is something of an aberration.

Here, though, life is totally crazy. Between Fon and French, everyone is bilingual***. Figuring out when to use what (if I were able to do so) would be a fascinating process. I’m reminded that the basic purpose of speaking is communication, and the reason we communicate is to get things done. I would sacrifice the subjunctive for the names of Cotonou neighborhoods any day.

I’m commonly with a Beninese friend trying to negotiate something with a person in a service profession (a zem driver [kakéno in Fon], a waiter, a shopkeeper). My friend will start in textbook French out of courtesy to me. But after realizing that their street cred is dwindling (and therefore, they’re not getting a deal), they switch to Fon, sometimes leaving a few key words in French (prices, for example) so that I can still follow the discussion. When speakers mix the two, it reminds me of Jemez, New Mexico, where Native Americans speak Towa but mix in English words for modern concepts like “marker” and “third grade.” It’s like linguistic symbiosis.

Many people speak a third language. On more than one occasion, I’ve heard a conversation flit lazily back and forth between French, Yoruba and Fon, depending on which is appropriate for any given remark (for example, a joke about the Togolese government — and believe me, there are a lot — might be in Fon, a reference to the Nigerian pop-gospel group Styl-Plus in Yoruba, and a recap of the day’s classes in French). If that weren’t enough, it’s not unusual for me to find other university students who can stumble passably along in English or Spanish. But French is the lingua franca, the language that allows my Togolese and Malian classmates to adapt to school in Benin as easily as I would in Illinois.

In our Anglo-centric orbit, I tend to forget that other languages exist and that other countries communicate just fine without interference from the United States. (Why, despite listening to The World on KWMU every day, was I mildly surprised to find Japanese-Beninese cooperatives and Dutch NGOs in Cotonou? How embarrassing!) But French has long been called (more or less deservingly) the language of diplomacy. At the rentrée solennelle of my department (the ceremonial start of the school year), the panel of five speakers hailed from Benin, Gabon, Denmark, Germany and Belgium. They all spoke French fluently, of course, though technically only the Belgian is (I assume) native. Pretty neat.

A few more technical notes.

(If you don’t also dream of the day you have a paying job so you can subscribe to the Oxford English Dictionary, stop reading. I’m a nerd.)

French has, quite literally, thousands fewer words than English. If we assume that speakers of all languages think the same way (rejecting altogether, like most linguists, the weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), this means each word is imbued with more meaning.

Take something as basic as bien, which means, most simply, “good.” It complements all of these phrases: Tu es bien rentrée?  (You got home okay?) Il était bien content. (He was really happy, somewhere between sincerely and very) Tu veux y aller ou bien? (You want to go or what? [but without that impatient note in the English version]) Bien, on peut aller? (So can we move on?), and Le cours, c’était bien passé? (Class went well?) (Not to mention the noun version, as in the translation of John Rawls’ theory of justice, biens primaires: primary goods.) And this is a word that means something similar to its English cousin, benefit.

Faux amis

The words that look like English but mean something tangential, or totally unrelated, are the trickiest. They’re called, fittingly, faux amis (false friends). Here are a few common examples; I’ve taken just their most fundamental meanings. Actuel means “currently.” Réunion and séance both mean, simply, “meeting.” Normal means, often, “proper.” Susceptible means “capable of.” Sûre means “safe.” Quartier means “neighborhood.” Range means “pick up.” Essence means “gasoline.” Salarié means precisely its opposite: “hourly wage-earner.” Evident is stronger than the English; it means “obvious.” Monnaie means “change.” Collier means “necklace.” Crayon means “pencil.” Sensible means “sensitive.Secte means “cult,” but culte means “religious sect.”

As you see, shared roots don’t necessarily make the learning process easy. English may be a West Germanic language syntactically (see “classification and related languages”), but superficially, it’s an incurable romantic: more than half of English words derive from Latin. It’s been hundreds of years, though, since the Battle of Hastings. Languages are too fidgety to sit still for a millennium: we don’t even say groovy anymore.

Sounds and noises

Since French, for better or worse, made its debut here hundreds of years ago, there are plenty of West African peculiarities on all levels****. There’s an evident rhythm to Fon-accented French, since Fon is a tonal language. To my untrained ear, its pitch rollicks up and down, up and down, phrase by phrase; whereas in France, speakers always accent the penultimate syllable of declarative statements. The Beninese rhythm distorts the standard pronunciations of words (think of the English “record” the noun and “record” the verb). It’s easier, consequently, for me to understand my friends who speak Yoruba natively and Fon as a second language, rather than the other way around. Yoruba, though it’s also part of the Niger-Congo language family, sounds more mono-pitched.

I’m sure you’ve heard “ Language is only seven percent of communication!” repeated ad nauseam (e.g., uncited in fashion magazines advertising confidence-building mascara). But it’s true that the first thing I noticed about communicating in Benin***** were nonverbal cues: to get someone’s attention, you make an elongated “pssssssst” or a series of tongue-clucking kissy sounds, like the tsk-tsk you make to a cat or dog. It makes sense to me to use these noises to call a zem driver over (or rather, under) the din of traffic. But they’re also used, with no disrespect, to attract the attention of waiters, police, even professors. Also, to express surprise (where we might gasp or screech What!?), the Beninese have a high-pitched ehhh! (as a consequence of tonal Fon, it’s always the same pitch) that I’ve already accidentally adopted.

A word or two.

Now that I’ve been here a while, I can affirm that the differences are more than sound-deep. Morphologically, for example, the Beninese say fréquenter à for “visit a person,” while in standard French, it’s “visit a place.” And they tend to say doucement! for “Be careful!” or “Watch out!” instead of the standard French attention! The word is translated directly from Fon’s dédé. Both dédé and doucement mean, literally, “gently.” I can imagine it leads to some cultural confusion. A Beninese person will say doucement after running into you, by way of “Excuse me!” But to a French person, this might seem like an accusation.

I’ve noticed a few generational differences: my French host mother says emission for “television show,” her children say serié, and my Beninese friends, more often than not, say film.

There’s also the apporter/amener split. Both words mean “to bring,” but my textbooks told me amener was for people (“I brought him to the airport”) and apporter for things. But most people here use amener for people and things. I’ve been corrected for using apporter!

Most French speakers have the tendency to add quoi (literally, ”what”) at the ends of sentences, and the Beninese do it a lot. It took me a long time to figure out its semantic purpose, since it can’t go with just any sentence. I triumphed in the end, though. I think it’s the equivalent of the Japanese yo (よ), more or less a shorthand “you see.” It’s used by way of explanation, to reinforce that you’re offering new information. In its barest form, it’s used to contradict: “There’s a lot of traffic because of the rain.” “No, it’s because of that accident near the stadium, quoi.” Now it’s expanded, quoi. I also have been searching for an equivalent of the “like” that, like, peppers our speech. The closest I’ve come is fin. If you speak French, let me know if this is accurate.

Finally, I’m learning textspeak: tt is tout (all); 1e is premier (first), s8 is suis (am), o is au (at the). It’s basically phonetic, but it took some getting used to all the same*****.

How you know you’re getting somewhere.

All this would be meaningless if I weren’t internalizing, right? It’s sort of like waking up really, really slowly: I knew how to communicate, suddenly forgot, and now am gradually regaining consciousness. My biggest problem now is that I know I’m making progress, but it takes every neuron I’ve got. So I’m engrossed in conversation when it abruptly occurs to me that My gosh! I’m following this complicated conversation! I’m so awesome! Then boom — the concentration train derails. Here are my six stages of language learning. I’m somewhere between steps four and five.

(1) You dream or talk to yourself in the second language.

(2) You remember the meaning of what someone said but not her exact phrasing (and it’s not because you only caught the key words). For example, you might recall Vous devez aller rather than Il faut aller. In context, both mean “you have to go.”

(3) You can think of a handful of ways a native speaker would say the same thing, like pays x ou y, tel ou tel pays, n’importe quel pays, and pays quiconque, which all mean “a given country.” (literally, “X or Y country,” “such and such country,” “no matter what country,” “whatever country”)

(4) You understand even when you’re not really listening (conversations overheard on the street, snatches of radio, your sociology professor).

(5) You can follow a dinner-table conversation and a TV show at the same time.

(6) You can understand Nietzsche quotes read aloud after six hours of philosophy of human rights class.


* I do this with all things nonlinguistic too. For example, all shopkeepers always put your merchandise in a black plastic bag, no matter how big, how small or how unnecessary. But the explanation is simple: like everyone else, the Beninese want their purchases to be private and secure. But here you mostly travel on foot or on a motorbike, so you might have to carry a lot, and the bags have to be opaque. (We’ll leave aside, for the moment, the proliferation of plastics, and all the discarded bags, which fulfill a role for Cotonou much like tumbleweeds did for the old televised West. We’ll also leave aside that certain Beninese people complain voraciously about the black plastic bags, which they blame on covert Nigerian imperialism.)

** God [Fon], it’s so hot outside! [French]

*** This is a little bit of an exaggeration. Everyone should be bilingual, since school is both obligatory and taught entirely in French. But in reality, not everyone goes to school. That said, in Cotonou, even the unschooled have a limited working French vocabulary.

**** Language is like an animal. If you introduce it to a new ecosystem and let it develop independently from its original environment, there will obviously be mutations over time. The variances I mentioned above omit those things that arise just from climate and culture. For example, even speakers with a meager French vocabulary invariably know the words for “dust,” “mango tree,” “cobblestone,” “muffler,” and “ripe,” even though these might not be essential in French-speaking Europe.

***** After I noticed that all types of businesses — when they’re named at all — have very funny (often devout) names: God Is Everywhere fish shop; Jesus Loves You barbershop; Pleasure construction supplies; Peace Love and Good Taste restaurant; Fire of the Holy Spirit clothing store. 

****** Notice I haven’t even talked about slang, my growing Fon vocabulary, the chasm in comma use between French- and English speakers or the honorific form of “you!” It’s like a cliffhanger. It’s to give you the fun of looking forward to a sequel.

(Un seul mot, by the way, means “just one word.” It’s the title of an uber popular Beninese hip-hop song that has become something of a catchphrase. I’ve even seen it in white-out on a bathroom stall door at an upscale conference center. It’s a bit ironic,  so I took it here to describe the length of my blog entry.)

Qui sait l’avenir

October 23, 2009

Who knows the future? A clunky yellow taxi bumped past today with that piece of wisdom painted on the driver’s door.

Now, I wouldn’t generally take a taxi whose driver espoused that particular view.

Maybe I’ll get you to your destination. Or maybe we’ll crash. Maybe I’ll double the rate upon arrival. Qui sait l’avenir.

But it was a timely reminder of why I came to Calavi: to learn, to explore, to live, to assimilate, to discuss, to absorb, to share, to be — because qui sait l’avenir? Who knows when or if another chance like this will come along?

That’s not all, though. More importantly, qui sait l’avenir embodies a subtle kind of patience, a contentment, a sangfroid, that, in general, Americans are not known for, and that I in particular have eschewed.


Late last Thursday afternoon, I finally scrambled out of the Cotonou airport, full of ungrammatical apologies for the Rotarians because my flight was more than (two days and) three hours late. But I never got the chance to wow everyone with my repertoire of regrets. There wasn’t even the barest hint that anyone had been bothered. Qui sait l’avenir.

A few days later, Rotaract member Angelo kindly loaded me onto the back of his motorcycle, took me to downtown Cotonou, and helped me buy a cell phone. On the way back, I inquired about buying minutes for the phone. He was obliging, but seemed surprised that I would want to do it the same day. My days of multipage to-do list seem both geographically and stylistically very far away.

I could regale you, chers lecteurs, with more examples of Beninese serenity, but I’m not sure that would reinforce the point. It’s more the attitude that allows one to stand on a porch for hours and watch curtains of rain turn to rivulets in the dirt roads; to sit on a curb at noon with the woman selling limes and wait for the sun to sink a little in the sky; to be truly hospitable without keeping score; to listen conscientiously while every person has a chance to speak at a meeting (which makes for four-hour meetings) but also to quibble about the cost of a taxi ride ad nauseum while one’s motorcycle eats up liters of gas.


I brought just one English-language book with me. As I knew I would have limited space in my carryon luggage, I wanted to choose a book to last me a while. I picked Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. I hesitate to characterize it; in the prologue to the new edition, Hofstadter chastises his reviewers for consistently misstating the book’s theme. But it’s a Pulitzer-Prize-winning nonfiction book that, like me, strives to show that there are overarching themes that connect academic disciplines we generally think of as distinct.

It’s sort of like this: Say I want to explain what qom is. I have two choices: I can explain it independently by listing some of its features (cream-colored, sticky, edible, bland, made of corn) or interdependently by analogizing it to something you’re familiar with (like an uncooked hush puppy or a ball of cornbread dough). (Qom is really good dipped in a spicy, tomato-based fish sauce.)

Generally, experts are preoccupied with the tiniest details of their field, which they must describe with scrupulous precision; therefore they choose to describe things independently. That’s why each academic discipline has jargon the rest of us don’t recognize (voir dire, ETOH, isomorphism, etc.). But Hofstadter took the other route, describing logic in terms of music, art in terms of geometry, linguistics in terms of computer programming. There are other authors who have done this, of course, but Hofstadter stands apart because he delves into details, and still shows that the processes of understanding and appreciating language, music, art, literature and mathematics are largely the same. It seems that his ultimate goal is to get to what intelligence means. (I’ve still read less than half.)

Hofstadter concludes — as have many others — that intelligence is, in part, the process of changing how one learns. That’s why no computer has yet to pass the Türing test: computers are programmable. They can complete unthinkably complex tasks, but their abilities end there. They can learn only insofar as we program them to do so.

Now, what does this have to do with Benin?

Intelligence in Calavi

I don’t want to be an automaton here.

In order to be an intelligent being in Calavi, I have to reprogram myself to learn things I thought I already knew. For example, I have to recognize that I no longer know how to cross the street. Crossing the street is sort of like the video game Frogger, if it had bumpy clay roads, no lanes, and you threw in — for good measure — a few dump trucks, a veritable fleet of motorcycle taxis, some goats, and throngs of unflappable women with towering pyramids of pineapples on their heads (or carrots, limes, coconuts, sunglasses, pens, blankets, bottles of water, radios, suitcases, bundles of sticks, loaves of bread, oranges, pots of stew, jars of gasoline, or clothing racks). I have learned to hold someone’s hand when I cross the street, especially at night, when the electricity s’est coupée and some vehicles have no headlights.

I also have to make my own connections, ferreting out the bits and pieces I have in common with people here: Jehovah’s Witnesses, gesticulating men on Bluetooths driving black-and-silver H2s, Guinness billboards, Obama campaign posters, and the muffin joke. (Ahh, the stuff of true universality.)

Hofstadter compares locating the gene(s) that shaped his nose to pinpointing the note(s) that contain the emotion of a piece of music. I imagine finding a way to adopt Beninese patience is a similar pursuit. Right now, not only do I not know how to live like this, I don’t even know how one might try. As I am not a deterministic computer, I still might learn wrong, or not at all. But that’s the whole point, I think: Qui sait l’avenir?

P.S. There is one thing, chers lecteurs, that I do know about the future: I will get more bug bites. I count 49 on my legs and feet alone. I sleep under a mosquito net; I practically bathe in bug spray; I keep the fans on, to no avail. Bugs love me.


October 7, 2009

Yesterday I accidentally wound up on a tour of the fishing village near my hotel.

As self-appointed promoteur Samba and I were walking down a narrow path in the village, he stopped to tell me about the 600-year old baobob tree to my right. When I looked up to admire the tree, I saw about three dozen Harry-Potter-sized spiders. (Okay, maybe not quite that big. But at least the size of my hand.)

I whimpered. Samba laughed. They’re not aggressive! he assured me. They’re very nice.

No way, Samba. I’ve just discovered that they are, in fact, deadly Senegalese leaping spiders. They spray neurotoxins at their victims before they reach them; they’re the most venomous in the world; etc., etc.

Leaping Spider


The Observer’s Paradox

September 24, 2009

Less than two weeks now, and I’ve been doing a good deal of thinking about the observer’s paradox, named initially by sociolingust William Labov, but a phenomenon that mars the integrity of research in both the social sciences and the “hard” sciences alike.

Roughly speaking, the observer’s paradox states that observation itself changes the outcome of research. This is common sense: we behave differently when we’re in the company of others than when we’re alone. But the phenomenon is not limited to individual human beings: it also plays out on a tiny, microscopic scale and a larger, demographic scale.

Margaret Mead

Maybe the most well-known victim of the observer’s paradox — and a personification of the “knows just enough to be dangerous” adage — is Margaret Mead.

Mead published a “groundbreaking” book in 1928 called Coming of Age in Samoa, in which she argued that prepubscent and adolescent girls in Samoa were free of the emotional baggage that she attributed to backwards U.S. attitudes about sex and sexuality.

But Mead did not count on — or underestimated the commonness of — recreational mendacity in Samoa, particularly to outsiders. That is, the girls she interviewed were lying. (There is a protracted controversy about how true Mead’s claims are, but I’ve seen a video of several merry elderly Samoan women, interviewed by Mead as young girls, crowing with laughter at their fibs, and I believe they did indeed make things up.)

We can partially attribute Mead’s misinformed research to her ignorance of a widespread Samoan cultural practice. But it also helps explain how the observer’s paradox comes about: the reason someone is researching something (or someone) is because she doesn’t know everything about it. If she knew everything about Samoan culture, Mead would have ceased to be an observer.

So it’s rightly placed curiosity — admitting we don’t know everything — that leads to research in the first place. And research, like it or not, ends up creating an observer’s paradox.

Changing the parameters

Particle physicists, who accept the observer’s paradox as “quantum indeterminacy,” start with a different premise. It’s not that we would describe the behavior of objects one way until we observe them and now we have to describe their behavior a different way, it’s that any description is necessarily incomplete.

That is, the act of observing — not the effect on those being observed — changes our description of things.

Roughly, it’s like taking notes on a lecture: by writing some things down, you necessarily forgo others. Your notetaking is necessarily incomplete. Even if you transcribed every word, you’d leave out the professor’s intonation. Even if, perhaps, you took a 360-degree video recording, you would not be privy to the thoughts of the professor that led her to make certain statements. You’ll never get the full picture of the world from someone else’s — or some other object’s — perspective.

Emic research

So why try? The sort of quantitative research that Mead and particle physicists conduct is called etic research — categorizing things from an outsider’s point of view. Some linguists, anthropologists and psychologists favor emic research — describing things in a way meaningful to insiders. Though etic research is sometimes called “culturally neutral,” I don’t believe it’s an apt description. By describing a culture on any terms besides its own, you necessarily attack its intrinsic value.

Emic research is a way — perhaps the only (though imperfect) way — around the observer’s paradox, because emic research allows you to be a participant. If Mead had gone to Samoa to live as a Samoan, and not to answer a research question she had already formulated upon arrival, she would not have been taken in as she was. But she would have ceased to be an observer in the strict sense, because she wouldn’t have been observing — she would have been participating.

As a full participant in a culture, you are no longer an observer, which allows you to meet head-on both symptoms of the observer’s paradox  — that others respond differently to observers and that you observe imperfectly. However, you also have to give up your expectations, your cross-cultural comparisons and the innate tendency to judge another culture by your own culture’s standards.

This is my goal: to become a full-fledged participant in Cotonou culture without strangling my experience in the strictures of my own culture. If this goal marks me as a cultural relativist, so be it. We are all historical relativists, and space and time aren’t so different, after all.