Tales from Benin

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U of R student Alberto Ortiz travels to Africa.

Article: Liam Fitz Gerald – Contributor

Photos: Alberto Ortiz

Last week, I was fortunate enough to sit down with Alberto Ortiz, a University of Regina student who travelled to Benin, Africa, with an organization called The Humanity Exchange. Alberto came to Regina as an exchange student five years ago and loved the city so much that he decided to stay. He is majoring in political science and minoring in sociology. He has also been working on a French minor. He is a co-op student and was asked to do a fourth term. Instead of taking a job, Alberto went abroad to Africa to improve his French. He stayed in the city of Quidah Benin, “the voodoo capital of the world” for three months.

A: “Since I’m a political science major, I really like politics of underdevelopment and in my politics of underdevelopment class I learned a little about Africa, and I have many African friends here that I really enjoy talking to. Also, I really like Che Guevara and he went to Africa, and I wanted to see what he saw.”

I sat down with Alberto one afternoon and asked him about his time overseas and how his summer was:

1) Which organization did you go to Benin with, what do they represent and what was it about that organization that made you interest in going with them? 

The organization is called The Humanity Exchange. They were the only organization that I could find with placements in a French speaking country. That was very important to me. It was the only organization with good prices…I didn’t even pay $2,000 and I was there for three months, living in a house having two meals a day, sometimes three. I had to pay for the flight though.

2) Were you a volunteer or on an internship in Benin and can you describe that experience a bit? [The Humanity Exchange has two programs, a volunteer based one and a internship based one.]

I was a volunteer. Their programs in Benin are not that well established yet. They don’t have the same infrastructure and base organizations to help them have interns. I volunteered in many different projects. We were teaching English at a rural school. That was one of my favourite projects, actually. I was also teaching French. In Benin, if you do not go to school, you do not learn French. There are many local languages, but to learn French, the official language of the country, you must go to school. There is little infrastructure and resources to help handicapped children come to school. There was a school for handicapped children and we taught them French. If nobody teaches them French, they grow up and have limited opportunities.

3) One of the statements on the Humanity Exchange’s mission statement is “we connect volunteers to the realities of the human condition abroad.” Can you comment on that statement and tell me if you got a sense of the human condition abroad?

Yeah, definitely. Coming from Mexico, I’ve seen many, many things. I know a lot of poor and really poor people in Mexico, and it is comparable to the poor in Africa. Now, I understand there are levels of underdevelopment and Benin is something like 157/164 on the Human Development Index. So their pretty low and you can see that everywhere.

Going back to the statement, they actually do connect you to the people. We lived with a local family, sort of middle class. Middle class for Benin is way lower than the middle class here. I lived with a typical family. A dad, his wife didn’t live with him, but they were married. They had 3 children, two lived with the dad and one lived with the mom. They didn’t have space at their place to have volunteers so the dad moved him and two of the children to the place where he had a workshop. [Alberto tells me later that the father was a welder].

The house was built from brick and cement. There was a main living room. No fridge, but there was electricity, a small TV, and no washer or dryer. We washed and dried our own clothes. I went with another guy from Regina here. We had a room with a bunk bed and a mosquito net that covered our bed.

4) Were you concerned about malaria or any disease like that?

Sort of, but I was taking pills. When I got there I was really scared about malaria and when I saw the first person with malaria I thought “holy cow, that’s bad.” But as time went by, I started meeting way more people that had malaria. There was a moment when four of the people I knew there had malaria at the same time and they all survived. It changed my perception of malaria and I saw that it was a survivable disease.

5) What was a typical day like for you as a volunteer?

The weekend was usually off, Saturday and Sunday. I got involved in many projects and every day was different. But basically I would wake up at 6:30 AM and the family would prepare breakfast for me. Then we [him and his fellow volunteer] would bike to the Arts Center, a school, where we taught an IT class for women who wanted a class of their own on the subject. This was from 8:00 AM to 10:00 AM. At 10 we went to Impact, an organization we worked with. We took their motorcycles to the villages and did services there until 1:00 PM or 2:00 PM. We would come back and have lunch with some ladies that prepared food and sold it on the street. I would always eat 200 francs (40 Canadian cents) of food and have beans and wheat sauce every day. A little bit before 4:00 PM, I would go to the rural schools, all the children that lived with me came, and we would teach English there.

Alberto tells me the rural schools were quite small; one room class rooms with six wooden benches.

He tells me that before setting out for Benin, he skyped with The Humanity Exchange, which offers “pre-cultural placement” prior to departure. It involves a set of online readings about the country including books and guides on African culture and clothes to bring and wear. Alberto strongly recommends that anyone who wants to go overseas should read these.

We saw other volunteers that were shocked about many things these books had talked about.

6) I want to talk about the set up of the Humanity Exchange. It’s called a “Social Enterprise” a business with social objective. Can you comment on a business with a social objective? Is that a good set up?

I really like the way they work. It’s only three people and they don’t live in the same city. One lives in England, one lives in Canada and I think the other is in the United States. They hire locals to be local advisors and they also pay the families a good amount of money. Out of the $400 we paid per month, $150 was for the family and I don’t know how much for the local advisor. I met one of them and she told me that this job will not give me money for food, but I do it because I like it. I don’t want to be rich or exploit anyone, she said.

Apparently, the humanity exchange adopted the social enterprise model was to employ local people and to invest in local people and to partner with local communities and contribute to the local economy. It sounds like it was a really interesting thing to be involved with.

Yeah they definitely do that. We asked what is the best thing we can bring for donations and they say money. Bring money and spend it here. The money we bring can help the local economy grow.

7) What was the local economy of Quidah like?

Quidah is the fourth biggest city in Benin and 80,000 people live there. There were only two or three paved roads and one was the highway. It is impossible to drive there; you drive and you have to stop sometimes to avoid big holes or big bumps.

I don’t know exactly what the local economy was. Lots of agriculture, and there is a lot of carpenters and trades here. No big commerce or businesses there, really. There is no minimum wage, but the average wage is 30,000 francs a month, aka, $60 Canadian a month. There are people who make more and people who make less.

Some people told me they hadn’t seen a franc in a month. Some said they grabbed corn they grew and just ate that. They grow their own food and survive like that.

8) Was water a concern there?

When I got there, we were concerned about tap water and we bought water. But, then we thought this could be tap water just in a bottle. The person we lived with had a well with a filter on the property and he used chlorine to clean it. We never had problems with the tap water.

At the village, there was one well for fifty houses and they had no filter or chemicals to make it drinkable. They bring a lot of water put it in big bottles and drink it like that. This is something we wanted to educate people on. It’s hard there to be concerned about something you cannot see and it was hard to teach people about little things that could make you sick. We made a suggestion to the organization to educate the people on drinking water.

9) One of the statements on the Humanity Exchange’s website is “by volunteering abroad in a developing country you are choosing to spend time in a nation with widespread poverty. Crime levels are higher than those are home, especially theft.” Did you ever feel your safety was ever threatened at any point and were there any close calls was anything?

At the beginning I was scared because our exchange manager told us not to go out by ourselves. After some time, I felt safer than I had ever felt in Mexico. Seriously, people in Benin are so friendly that I never had safety concerns after awhile. But there was a girl who came with us and we went out and she had a backpack. We went out at night and we got robbed. I got hit on the head and they grabbed the backpack off her. They jumped on their motorcycle and left. She lost her camera.

It was scary and it sort of affected everyone there. I felt kind of sad because I had three weeks left. I had spent 2 months biking and walking at night without problems.

Also that night there were different things. At times, power is cut so there is no electricity. They cut those on our way home and there were no streetlights. It was at about 10:40 PM. After that, volunteers felt scared about going out, and I felt bad because they had wanted to stay longer and we had enjoyed our time without anything happening.

The man we stayed with was really good and he was really concerned for our safety. Many of the locals were mad because they felt it gave a bad image to the country. They like people to come because the volunteers really help them.

10) What did you do on your off days? Did you tour palace ruins, tour sights were the slave trade had occurred, go surfing?

A: Well, before going I thought I was going to swim a lot in the [Atlantic] Ocean, but one of the first things they told us was that was one of the most dangerous oceans in Africa. They didn’t recommend we swim.

Because of the sea life?

No, the tides. They will suck you in and you cannot get out. But, we travelled a bit. We went to North Benin and that was amazing. Very interesting country because in the north there are more languages and are more mixed, therefore French is the only language anyone has in common. Besides that, we went to Togo one weekend and that is a beautiful country. I love the culture and the food and they love tourists so we were welcome there.

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11) Is the legacy of the slave trade talked about there? Is it engrained into local memory?

The city we stayed in Benin had a monument called “the door of no return.” It was the last point when people would come from throughout the country, walked down that path and go on the ships to the Americas. It’s a touristy area, that path, you walk it and they tell you a story about statues and what they represent. Locals know a lot about their past, about slaves, and where they went. They are really proud about Cubans, for example, because a lot of them come from here.

Is there solidarity with countries like Haiti?

They really like Haiti because the voodoo religion went there. They listen to a lot of music from Haiti and that part of the world.

They do not attribute the slave trade solely to white people. It’s a shared responsibility; it was also the local Kings who sold human beings to the Europeans.

12) Can you tell me about some of the skills you learned? Did you feel like some developed and did you acquire more confidence in them?

I feel I improved my French a lot. What I really liked is the French you use in everyday life, and not the French at school, so it’s very different. I enjoyed the opportunity to speak it every day.  I actually started dreaming in French. This is the perfect way to get immersed into the French language.

13) What were some of the best parts of the trip and what were some of the worst?

One of the best things was the English class. It was really fun and I enjoyed working with rural people because they were really receptive. You would get to the classroom and they would be ready to learn. They would be like, “teach me!”

I really enjoyed the villages because we brought donations from Canada. We asked our friends here to make donations that we took to the people. Some gave us money, [and] some gave us clothing or toys. After we did a survey of 17 families as part of a project, they threw ceremonies. The families came to the public school. We used the donations to buy mosquito nets, and things like that. We gave away all of the donations and it was amazing how they received it. They were singing, and I have beautiful pictures in my head of all the people singing.

It sounds like there’s a lot of hope that things will improve and get better. Sounds like the students have a lot of hope.

My stomach was never happy with the food there. There was good food, I ate everything, but nothing I am craving right now. I really appreciated everything they gave me.

14) Was the University of Regina good about giving you credit for going abroad?

Yeah. It was wonderful, I went to the French department and they assigned me a supervisor. Professor Peter Dorrington was great. He gave me some readings to do and a paper to write. He enjoyed that I was going and gave me questions that made me think about what I was doing. The University was able to provide me with funds because I was registered. I have to write an essay and a report for the class.

15) Would you recommend other students take part in volunteer work like this?

Absolutely! I would encourage everybody to do something like this, especially if you want to improve a second language or your French. Seeing the cultural differences and learning about the way they live, people in other countries, it really opens your eyes and makes you see things differently. We have so much here that we could share, it was interesting seeing old things being just as important as new things. They still use record players and cassettes as if they are new technology.

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