“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
-Commonly attributed to Mark Twain
I promised Susan that I would take her to exotic places if she would marry me. She did, and I did, sort of.
After training in St. Helena Island off the coast of South Carolina, we ended up spending three years as Peace Corps volunteers in the country of Benin, situated on the Gulf of Guinea in West Africa. It was a life-changing experience for all on so many different levels. I would like to tell you a little bit about it.
We had been in country for more than two years, and the people in our village had more or less gotten used to us. Our good friend, Ignace, the son of our landlord, in a most formal manner invited us to a ceremony. The country of Benin was formerly known as the “slave coast” and was where Voodoo, or “gris gris,” as it was referred to locally, originated. It is the base fabric of their culture and underlies all their belief systems, including whatever formal religion one might profess, whether it be animism, Roman Catholicism, Islam or one of the Pentecostals.
Ignace asked that we not bring cameras, recording devices or note-taking material. We set out on foot to another village some distance from our place. When we arrived, there was a very large crowd standing around a large upholstered chair in which sat the tribal chief with women attendants fanning him with long palm branches and a large cleared area before him.
This country had been French-ruled during the colonial days, hence the Roman Catholicism, and they installed a western type of government which stayed in effect after independence and many civil wars and revolutions. The underlying authority was the old tribal structure intertwined with the Voodoo belief system.
This ceremony was to pay respect to their chief. There was much music which was chanting accompanied by drumming and the striking of metal which sounded like cow bells. Gifts were presented and long speeches were made. We were seated on a bench in the front row perpendicular to the chief, which was a seat of honor.
The most memorable event was a shuffling dance the young men made in single file into the clearing, around 25 of them stripped to the waist, circling in the clearing in front of the chief. As they danced/shuffled into the clearing, they went through a gauntlet of men, around five on each side, who beat them with switches that looked like weepng willow branches. The lashings left visible welts with some cuts drawing blood. I noticed that the young men never even blinked when the lashes landed. There was loud drumming, “bells“ ringing, loud chanting and clouds of red dust kicked up from the terra rouge. For a moment I thought I was in a National Geographic film.
When the official ceremony ended, plenty of food and drink were served to the whole crowd, and a spontaneous dance started in the middle of the group of attendees. To us, it looked like the chicken dance, in that the hands are put up in the armpits and the elbows are pumped up and down while dancing to the drums.
All of a sudden, Susan jumped into the group and joined in the wild dancing. A shot of white heat of fear hit me as the thought of what would happen if this were considered an insult.
It was customary that when someone provided entertainment in these informal occasions, as a token of appreciation people in the crowd would run up and press a coin to the forehead of the performer. The entertainer would then point to a child who would pick up the coins for them.
The people were running up to Susan and pressing bills to her forehead! She was a sensation!
Later as the evening wound down we were invited to the home of the chief’s mother. She lived in a traditional concession in a mud walled hut with a thatched conical roof, which was her choice, since the chief was a very wealthy man. We stood around a fire and enjoyed drinks of “soda bee” fermented juice from the heart of palm. When it was time to go, a guide was provided to guide us home in the dark night.
During our walk home the guide told us that the song maker, who recorded their history with verses, was composing verses about Susan dancing. It was the first time in their history that foreigners, had ever bothered to attend their rituals much less to dance with them! It was a huge deal!
Susan thought with her heart and her actions transcended any language or cultural barrier as it spoke directly to the hearts of the Fongbe (Fon) people.
So by a stroke of luck, a solid mutual respect was established that night between Peace Corps workers representing America and the Fon people, the most powerful tribe in Benin.
To get lucky, one must take chances and use your heart as a guide, and then you have a pretty good shot at it.
Sketch by the author.