Lately I have been dreaming of rain. In these dry months, that nevertheless somehow manage to feel humid, my eyes blur as I stare into the interminable haze and my thoughts wander to a day when I was stranded in the middle of a deluge.
I work with a man named Damien, the activities coordinator for our health center and the local counterpart chosen for me by the Peace Corps. Given the obvious complications that could result from having your work partner chosen for you, I consider myself extraordinarily lucky to work with Damien. He possesses boundless energy and enthusiasm, and is dedicated to improving the health and general well being of our target populations. We both studied anthropology, and with this discipline in common we have enjoyed myriad forays into the villages surrounding my home, simply for the sake of discovering whatever we may discover. These adventures are often accidental. My rainy preoccupations recall one in particular: an impulsive trip to find a meal (and a warm beer if we were lucky) in the neighboring village of Houèglé.
I was taking advantage of a bright, clear day by reading on my front porch when Damien approached me with his confident stride.
“J’ai trop faim. J’ai envie d’aller manger.”
My shrug said it all – I clearly had nothing better to do. Hop inside to grab my wallet and motorcycle helmet, hop onto the back of Damien’s Honda, and in seconds we are plowing through the sand at the health center and onto the dirt and gravel road, hastily disregarding small bumps and potholes. The village of Houèglé begins barely one kilometer to the west of the health center, but the first obvious manifestations of the town are much farther down the road – first a primary school, then a mosque, and finally a small market where the road dead ends. It was not a market day, so all the lean-to wooden stalls were empty, save one or two where women were selling cookies, fried snacks, some rice, fish, and other edibles. Climbing from the moto, Damien and I graciously accepted the shade and two plates heaped with rice, tomato sauce, and a hard-boiled egg. Two beers arrived shortly thereafter, slightly cooler than the stifling air that settled upon us in our suddenly lethargic state. Damien carried on in Fon (the local language) with the market women and moto-taxi drivers, and I, grasping only every fourth or fifth word, relaxed in the comfort of my convenient excuse for silence.
We had barely finished our meal when two young men arrived, precariously balancing what must have been the majority of their earthly possessions – squeezed into various bags and suitcases – on top of two moto-taxis. They were students returning to their homes for summer vacation, and Damien seemed very excited to learn that they lived in a small village across the Mono River, which lies to the west of Houèglé. “Allons-y!” he said, and before I could second guess our mission we were trudging into the high grasses and fields just beyond the market, following the tower of bags now perched on these students’ heads. We navigated meager paths covered by dense vines and plants that Damien identified for me, otherworldly fields of scorched earth with eerie versions of scarecrows guarding the barren soil, and muddy trenches delineating different homesteads. We walked quickly, and the scenery on either side passed in a pleasant green blur.
Finally we reached our destination: two pirogues (large, hollowed-out canoes) beached on the bank of a wide, glistening river that seemed like an intruder in this landscape. I could easily imagine an entire village underneath its slowly trickling waters. The trees that interrupted its surface seemed to have no right to be living in the middle of a body of water, no matter how insignificant or temporary. The men talked briefly as the two students loaded their bags into one of the wooden boats. During their conversation, Damien looked once or twice to the innocent sky and then told me that we should start heading back if we want to avoid the rain. The rain?!, I thought. There was barely a breeze, and only two stray clouds in the sky. Assured that we could make it back on our own, we left the men by the river for them to continue their journey to its other shore. Damien and I retraced our steps, even faster than before, jumping over ruts and puddles, passing a man who stood silently before a roaring tower of flames in his field, running, disregarding the leaves and branches that struck our arms and faces, running, me trusting Damien’s guidance implicitly as the first few drops fell heavily, running, focused on the ground and the direction of his feet in front of me, running, laughing as we were soaked by the rain, realizing we’re all the better for it, running into the open space of the market, pushing the moto under the cover of the lean-to where we ate before dashing to the sturdier safety of a vacant concrete structure. Out of breath. And never happier.
We made it just in time. Over the next hour or two the rain fell in heavier and heavier sheets. On one of four simple platforms of smooth cement covered by a tin roof, which had been financed and built by the Beninese government to expand and improve the Houèglé market (but which have never once been used except by the goats) we found our refuge and welcomed the others who had also been caught in the rain. One of them came with klui-klui, a traditional Beninese snack made by frying sticks of peanut butter, which were distributed. Our satisfied crunching and munching could not be heard over the deafening roar of rain on the corrugated metal above our heads. We leaned in closer to one another as pleasantries subsided and the conversation turned to development, altruism, reproductive health, and politics. I had goosebumps – either from the sudden chill of wind brushing my damp skin, or the thrill of an unexpected, riveting conversation. The goats huddled closer as well, equally grateful for some company.
The sky cleared, and the abrupt silence was like a wake up call. We left that place as spontaneously as we had arrived. I never learned who those people were, or why they were in Houèglé that day. They were strangers, certainly. Not from that village, or even that region. Fellow travelers. We waved to one another from the backs of our motos like old friends, wishing one another well on our journeys. Damien and I found the health center just as we had left it. Perhaps somewhat damper, but otherwise unaware of the surreal territory we had discovered, and unaffected by the enriching exchange we had had in the middle of the storm.
Here, the rain represents respite from any and all responsibilities. And that temporary suspension of the external world creates something. Whether the moment is shared with fellow stranded strangers in a previously abandoned market stall or in a brief moment of eye contact between two people pausing to appreciate the storm, this illusion of isolation connects you. And with nowhere else to go, you suddenly feel lucky to be right where you are.
Read Rachel’s second Dispatch from Benin about helping with delivering twins.
Read Rachel’s third Dispatch from Benin about communicating without words.
Read Rachel’s fourth Dispatch from Benin about traveling in the country.