Image of Béninese flag Andy Jacobson: Bénin, West Africa Image of Béninese flag

Image of map of Bénin

I served as a secondary school science teacher in the Republic of Bénin. Bénin is located on the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa, between Nigeria and Ghana. There are dozens of languages and dialects spoken in Bénin, but French is the language of official business--like teaching. Tant pis pour moi! I studied German in high school.

I didn't really plan on joining the Peace Corps...I was drifting through the union one day and I stopped to help a kindly old gentleman who was having some trouble setting up a recruitment booth. Turns out he was recruiting for Peace Corps, and the next thing I knew, I was on a plane to West Africa.

I completed my three months' training in Pagala, Togo, a country which shares a lot of ethnology, history, and a long border with Bénin. (The Togolese RPCV group, the Friends of Togo, is a lot more organized than we RPCV/Bénin slouches are.) My training consisted of language (French), job skills (teaching), cross-cultural awareness, and health issues. Towards the end of our stage (training), we moved to a private school in the Togolese capital of Lomé, where we practiced teaching to some very patient élèves Togolais.

I spent my first year teaching in Lokossa, in the southwest corner of the country about 40km north of Ouidah. The folk there were Adja, and their language was pretty similar to the rather well-known Fon. (You say odabo, we say edabo, let's call the whole thing off.)

In 1978, General Mathieu Kérékou ("le Chaméleon") seized power and declared that the then-Dahomey would become a Marxist-Leninist state called the République Populaire du Bénin. To some anglophones, Bénin became the "Cuba of West Africa". In France, meanwhile, Bénin developed a reputation as a haven for progressive thinkers, musicians, and artists, "la rive gauche" of West Africa. (Your average Béninois, of course, still ate the same ignames and mangoes, still went to the same fields or to the same market, and still suffered from the same malaria, guinea worm, and river blindness. My point is that like many--certainly not all--political changes in West Africa, life au village wan't much affected.

Bénin was in the throes of democritization when we arrived in country. It was fascinating to see a government in peaceful transition. In April of 1991, Bénin became the first mainland African state to democratically remove a leader from office. Nicéphore Dieudonné Soglo became the first president of the République du Bénin. (In April of 1996, the Beninese went to the polls for a second time, and promptly elected their former communist dictator as the second president of the Republic. Vive le Chaméleon!)

My second year was spent in the north of Bénin, in the mainly-Dendi town of Djougou (near Natitingou). The north is a bit more remote. At the time of my service, it was an overnight spine-wrenching ride on the daily bush taxi run to Savalou, in the northern Zou province. There were three taxis which made the daily runs, two "Dis Pour Toi" vans and one other guy's vehicle. On a given day, one bush taxi would go north from Savalou to Djougou, one would go south, and the third would be welded back together. As an anaszara (the Dendi equivalent of the Fon yovo, which translates roughly to "white dude"), I was given the seat of honor right up in fron next to the driver. On most bush taxi rides, taking the front seat was a dangerous privilege: sure you get more legroom, but there ain't no seatbelts, either. This isn't really much of a concern inside one of the "Atakora clippers", though, since the speed never exceeds 25 mph.

I taught at the College d'Enseignement Générale de Djougou. I was responsible for the première, seconde, and términale courses in chemistry and physics. My students were great...very patient with my mangling of the French language, and always curious. They sure did want to know about lightning. Sheesh, I must have tried to explain that a dozen times. "Uh, bon. Donc, en se frottant contre l'air, les nuages générent des charges éléctriques, et éventuellement, l'air entre la terre et les nuages ne peut plus supporter la tension..." Just try it yourself! Luckily, many technical terms translate directly: diéléctrique, éstérification, etc. I got by with lots of hand-waving and many complicated figures on the chalkboard. Classes were an intimidating two hours long, but I quickly learned that this turned out to be too little time with the students. I was the only one with a textbook, and they had to copy by hand every word I said into their cahiers (copybooks).

One of the most enduring images I have from Bénin is from my first week of teaching in Lokossa. I was coming back from an early evening exploration of town (motivated entirely by the search for rice & beans), and as I rounded the corner in front of my house I came upon a functioning streetlight. Five students were seated radially around the concrete structure with their backs to the pole, memorizing their copybooks by the free light. I paused for a while, amazed by their dedication, then realized that I'd better go home and check the next day's lesson for grammatical errors.

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Andy Jacobson
Last modified: Tue Nov 18 18:20:13 1997