[dropcap size=small]O[/dropcap]n my way to Takon from Cotonou last week a woman entered our taxi with two small children (1 and 3 years old perhaps) near Abomey-Calavi and headed toward a town called Seku. I was the only other person in the backseat and so when she was helping her older daughter into the car I instinctively took the girl onto my lap so that the mother could more easily sit down, holding the infant in her arms. She smiled but said nothing, and I held the toddler for the next hour before they reached their destination. We added another woman to our number, and sat comfortably together on the faded upholstery of a caved-in cushion.
As we abandoned the paved roads for the construction zone south of Allada, the five of us huddled under the protection of the mother’s pagne to minimize our exposure to the irritating red dust and dirt. The mother wiped the red sediment from my black dress just as naturally as if I too were one of her daughters, and we never said a thing about the entire experience except for a simple “Merci” when she left the cab.
Walking towards Houèglé, months and months ago, I passed a woman carrying a large metal bucket of bananas on her head. We exchanged the customary greetings, quickly exhausting my Fon, and walked alongside each other for several minutes. As I regained my original pace to continue my exercise, she held out a bunch of bananas in offering. I tried to mime my regret – no pockets, no purse, empty hands, a shrug – the universal gestures for “no money.” She placed them in my hand any way, holding them there for a moment, smiling, before she left me. I laughed and thanked her, in Fon.
It was the middle of February and I had just returned to Takon after a two-week vacation – the longest I had ever been out of post. Damien had some business to tend to in a neighborhood right next to the health center, and it felt like something of a homecoming to revisit all those familiar faces and homes. We stopped at the chief’s house first, where we found his wife cheerfully sorting palm nuts under the lemon tree that shades their compound. I sat with her for a moment, laughing about the possibility of marrying her husband so that we could be co-wives and never be apart. Her husband speaks French fluently, and some English as well, and I always enjoy my conversations with him. He has the stereotypical look of an old and wizened leader – a bit rough and grizzled around the edges, but extremely approachable and with a warm smile that betrays his sympathies.
We left them on foot, wandering from one compound to another, pausing for brief salutations, until we arrived at the home of a woman who greeted me as though I were a long lost friend (I do not remember ever meeting her before this encounter). Damien found it fit to leave me with her, as he continued to look for the man who had inspired this outing in the first place, and I was quite content to accept her hospitality. I sat with her and another elderly woman on a wooden bench in the warm sunlight next to their outdoor kitchen.
With our legs stretched out in front of us, we said nothing during the twenty-or-so minutes I was with them. At one point she got up, went into her house, and returned with several small bags of roasted peanuts for me. We laughed as we shared them, and I had the impression that they would have been doing exactly the same thing with or without me. I was an amusing yet insignificant addition to their routine.
I am beginning to appreciate many of these things that are taken for granted in Benin. You can sit quite closely with relative strangers, your arms or hips or legs or knees touching, intentionally laying your hands on one another in the course of conversation to emphasize a point or merely engage your confidant. You protect and provide for one another. You watch over the children. And all of this happens without any kind of explanation or verbal permission. On the one hand, I miss the in-depth, intimate discussions that language barriers often prevent. But at the same time, these moments of nonverbal communication and simple empathy make my two years here far richer than all the conversations I might have had. I would have likely forgotten any words we exchanged, but I will never forget the weight of that small girl’s body against my chest as she slept despite the jostling cab ride, or how sweet a banana can taste when it is offered in unconditional kindness.
Read Rachel’s first Dispatch from Benin about rain and an impulsive decision.
Read Rachel’s second Dispatch from Benin about helping with delivering twins.
Read Rachel’s fourth Dispatch from Benin about traveling in the country.