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Happy Valentine’s Day

February 17, 2013

Any female Benin Peace Corps volunteer will tell you that dealing with the men of his country is one of the most frustrating things about being here. As always, though, humor remains one of the greatest coping mechanisms. So, in honor of Valentine’s Day and without further ado, here’s a collection of some of my best encounters and stories.

Ok I lied – one last caveat that it’s important to note: I’ve never feel threatened in any of these situations– irritated perhaps, but never fearing for my safety. Likewise, these stories and stereotypes by no means represent all Beninese men. I’ve met a lot of upstanding guys who have never been creepy or disrespected me as a person. It’s just that after a few of these experiences, it gets harder not to write them all off.

• Sexism is ugly. And I’ve grown tired of the constant question, “C’est Madame ou bien Mademoiselle?” It’s a question posed even before any attempt to learn my name and often before any greeting of any kind. The worst is when it’s accompanied by the command of, “Cherie, wa” (come dear) – as if to call over a dog – or when it’s uttered in the mocking high voice Beninese think mimics the way French people talk. My standard response is to keep walking: I will not respond to catcalls of dear or sweetheart or any such endearment, and I certainly refuse to give the time of day to people who are impolite and who do not respect me. After all, just as I am more than my skin color, I am also more than my marital status.

• A fellow northern volunteer (who crucially was not as familiar with the city) and I were on zems headed back to the Cotonou workstation. The drivers stopped, half in an attempt to clarify directions and half in a ploy to raise the price mid ride (a jerk move of an entirely different kind). As I tried to interject, my driver stopped me with the command, “Be quiet, cheri-coco (sweetheart), the men are talking.” I swear I almost jumped off the motorcycle to walk the rest of the way home.

• On my way to visit another volunteer’s village, a twelve year old boy sprinted after my zem for about 50 feet yelling, “Tu es belle, Madame, tu es belle” (You are beautiful, you are beautiful). Quite flattering, even if my helmet and the speed of transit meant he was really only commenting on my skin tone.

• Another day, I met another young boy on a walk exploring my own village:
Boy: Hello madame. Do you like eating pate?
Me: Yes. Especially with sauce legume.
Boy: Ok. Well do you want to marry me?
Kudos for trying to think of my long term comfort staying in Benin, but a better question may have been, “Can you prepare pate?” To which I hope I would have had the wit to laugh and reply, “Why no. That’s what a husband is for!”

• That’s one approach volunteers use – agree to become a wife, but only if the man is willing to do the work and become a lower tier third or fourth husband. We’ve jokingly decided that 4 is a good number: the first you actually like, the second for cooking, the third for cleaning, the fourth for laundry, and I suppose eventually a fifth for child care. The real payoff comes from the flabbergasted look on the man’s face as he tries to compute the idea of men doing those tasks or the even wilder idea of allowing polygamy to go both ways.

• My own strategy, one again suggested and used by other volunteers, is to claim a preexisting boyfriend back in the states. I had not originally thought to use this ruse, but after answering truthfully my host family’s inquiry about my relationship status and receiving an exhaustive list of all of their available male relatives (complete with promises to introduce me), I quickly changed my mind for the sake of simplicity. Since then, the scheme has served me well although the questions do always seem to follow the same trajectory. After bringing up my fictional man, my conversational partner quickly moves to ascertain 1. His location – the US; 2. His occupation – student; and 3. We immediately skip any other details about names or such to begin a concerned conversation and line of questioning regarding his fidelity. For example, a conversation with my directrice’s daughter:
Her: So do you have a boyfriend?
Me: Oh yes. He’s in the state’s finishing his studies.
Her: But when you’re over here, how do you know he won’t find someone else?
Me: He won’t. He’ll be faithful.
Her: Michelle, (giving me a look) how can you be sure?
Me: I’m sure.
Her: Michelle, (continuing to give me concerned looks and switching to a more serious tone) are you sure?
Me: (still semi smiling) Yes.
Her: (again – this time in English to make sure I understand) Are you sure?
Me: (trying vainly to remain polite) Yes.
Her: (pause as she processes) Well do you have any boyfriends in Yevie?

• I met my exotic fruit lady on a walk one morning. She insisted I accompany her to see a house her family was building. I saw the floor plans and returned home…only to receive a visit an hour or two later as my fruit lady had arrived with a zem to ferry me to meet her older sister who had come in from Cotonou bringing cement. I again complied, thinking it was a saluering thing. Instead, I got my first proposition of the day as they wanted to set me up….aka get me engaged…to a son currently living in Canada. Granted, it would make the geography easier, but never the less, I apologized by bringing up my fictional boy. Another win for my imaginary love life. Then their own apologies started, “Oh we’re sorry – we didn’t mean to disrupt your schedule. We thought you were single. You can go now.” So you wouldn’t have wanted to meet me if I were married? To top it off, on my walk back home (no zem for the return trip) an older man (60s maybe) provided the second proposal by greeting me, shaking my hand, keeping my hand, and dictating – we need to get married. Again, quick excuse that I’m already taken, retrieval of my hand, and a remaining walk of suppressed laughter. After all, what else can you do? I’m going to take it as a compliment that so many people want to see me as a bride.

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