Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Don’t Go Around Breaking Young Girls’ Hearts

Cotonou was much more pleasant than I expected, so I spent a few more days than the average tourist. I then headed west for a day trip to the coastal town of Ouidah. Ouidah was one of the largest ports used in the slave trade back in the day. This city was run by a variety of colonists, all in the business of buying rural Africans from coastal Africans and shipping them across the Atlantic to Brazil, the Caribbean, and finally the US. The slaves brought with them animist religious practices called vodou, or voodoo in English, as well as a lot of musical inspiration which became the Afro-Cuban and Afro-Brazilian sound that I had heard in the past but had never thought about its genesis.
As I explored Ouidah and then Porto Novo, I found that the locals reacted to me much friendlier than the Cameroonians did. I still had to ask permission for photos, still got a man really pissed off for taking a photo of his black market fuel for sale, but largely didn’t get the look of suspicion I felt in Cameroon. Even the children seemed to have a friendly little song that they all sang to me whenever they saw me.
Yovo yovo bon soir! Ça va bien? Merci!"
It took me a couple days to learn that Yovo is a Fon euphemism for whitey… so the song goes “Whitey whitey, good evening! Are you well? Thank you!”
I can’t imagine the nerve or the violence that would result of anyone singing such a song to any other race in my country, but here they don’t mean any harm and to them it seems a perfectly acceptable way of greeting a stranger. Having singing and clapping youngsters lurking behind every corner is at least more pleasant than I have experienced in other countries.

Black market fuel from Nigeria

Along with the singing, I felt it nice to be travelling alone again. I was able to manage just fine, keeping myself out of trouble, figuring out the bus/taxi/zemi combinations required to get from here to there, and even getting countless marriage proposals. It’s a fun game to be offered someone’s daughter and to be able to speak enough of the language to joke around with their proposal. At this point, it is possible my family would prefer to hear that I am betrothed, but so far I have turned down all of the offers in the end.
On my own, I have been able to stumble through enough French to have a girl explain some voodoo fetishes to me, and even convince a local fisherman to take me out on his handmade boat for a little tour. On the placid lagoon of Ouidah, he stood perched in the rear of his long thin canoe, stabbing a long branch from a palm frond which looked like a giant’s eyelash into the shallow waters. We met his brothers who were using nets and rotting palm fronds to attract fish for their family’s meal and income.
A local family welcomed me into their courtyard and gave me a glass of soldabie, the local swill made of distilled palm. Even though I have been drinking straight alcohol for a few years now, I find this stuff hard to sip.
Africa’s got soul, there is no question about it. In general I have a whole collection of little games, stupid human tricks and the like to distract children asking for a handout when I travel. One time, in a little village built on stilts above a lagoon, the children were getting a bit intense and I needed something to do. I did a little dance move and saw the whole swarm imitate me. One kid started clapping a rhythm. Hm.
So I directed him to continue while I started grumbling the bass line to Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. I then pointed at more kids to have them clap, which they did. I then did the “hoo-hoo, hoo-hoo” rhythm vocalization that Jacko did, and after getting that going, pointed to a few kids to have them pick it up, which they did. Getting a few others to carry the bass line, I then did my best falsetto over the band to sing Billie Jean. All of us stomping in the dirt, and laughing at the end. It was the end of the Yovo chant and the money requests for a while and a great laugh for all of us.

A boy in Ouidah

Every one of my trips seems to have a brush with death in some way or another. As I was walking the road that the slaves walked to the waiting ships on the coast of Ouidah, I saw a group of youngsters ahead on the otherwise vacant sand path in a long forest of palms. The kids were all in their briefs and as I approached, they started shouting at me with a clear sense of urgency. They were speaking so fast that I couldn’t understand them. One seemed to be gesturing me away from the opposite side of the path, the side I was walking down. I had time to squeeze out one “Je ne comprend pas” before another boy in briefs and a blue t-shirt pulled over his head like Cornholio burst out of the foliage, running at top speed directly at me.
My first instinct said this was some sort of trap, a mugging, but within a fraction of a second, I saw that he was flailing his arms wildly all around his head. Was this kid totally nuts? Goofing off? I kept walking toward him. And then I noticed the black cloud following him.
My brain had enough time to tell me “African killer bees” before I turned, and started running too, flailing my own arms as a portion of the cloud diverted to me when the kid ran by. A few seconds later, my cloud was clear, sting-free, and Cornholio returned, obviously relieved that he too wasn’t hurt. I thanked the kids profusely for the warning and apologized for my not understanding, and they sent me on my way with big waves and smiles.
It’s too soon to say whether that is my only brush with pain or injury on this trip, but let’s hope so!

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