Intense emotion-rich and impressive.
Those words perhaps best summarize the immersion trip to Benin.
Benin is a country in full growth, with people who really want to move forward. But it drags a terrible slave past with it and fights against poverty, structural shortages, a whimsical nature, old habits, … every day.
From day one I experienced the most diverse emotions.
I was moved by the warm welcome in schools and villages, but I was shocked by the lack of school material and the overcrowded classes.
I was charmed by the inventiveness of the local population to install a hygienic system for washing hands with an empty plastic bottle, a string and a twig, for example. Or to design new things with discarded items.
I was shocked by the shortage of medicines and resources in dispensaries and hospitals, but admired the creativity with which doctors and nurses made the best of it.
I felt cheerful when I spoke to a few women who showed their vegetable garden, banana tree or goat farm with an infectious enthusiasm. And happy when I heard a schoolgirl tell how she visits malnourished children in the villages as ambassadors and accompanies such a family together with the village leader and her coach to a better diet.
I was completely upset and shocked when we followed the slave route with all those terrible stories about a not so distant past of abuse, trade and degrading conditions. How can people do something about each other?
I felt awe at the voodoo religion that is completely different from what we think about it in the West. Voodoo connects people and treats crimes and setbacks in a very superstitious but often wise, connecting way.
I was annoyed by some men who were lazing while their wives were working. And the fact that girls are expelled after a birth that goes wrong, or after a rape. In terms of women’s and children’s rights, a great deal still needs to be done here.
I felt pity for the children (mostly girls) who are selling things on the road instead of going to school.
I am white and only because of that I felt rich and spoiled. But unlike in other African countries, we were never called here to buy or give things. And unlike ours in Belgium, people laugh happily and, in their poverty or setbacks, show solidarity.
I felt honored when we were allowed to visit a local king in his royal hut. Benin is a republic with a president, but the local kings apparently still have influence.
I was pleasantly surprised by the modern art that we saw in a few museums. And the enthusiasm with which we were shown around the various works of art.
I was impressed by the lush nature: there was a lot of greenery everywhere. But that was because we visited Benin at the end of the rainy season, we were told: “Soon everything will be dry and brown.” But still …. why is there no more agriculture here?
I enjoyed dancing and singing together, both in schools and in a real dancing.
I admired the people from the Foundation (the local and Belgian team) for the determination and the enormous workforce with which they are fully committed to improving the projects every day.
This journey was an immersion in a surprising culture of a very proud people. An immersion in beautiful projects and initiatives, an immersion in warm human stories, sometimes stories of trial and error, but always testifying to a will to move forward.
Benin has a warm place in my heart forever.
Lea Van Hoeymissen
Foto’s Peter Verbruggen