One month into the second phase of my Canada World Youth (CWY) exchange takes me to Allada, Bénin, located one hour north of Cotonou, the economic capital of the country.
Bénin, located on the West Coast of Africa, has a population of more than nine million people and is often referred to as one of the more stable democracies on the continent. Through the influence and affects of French colonization, Bénin's official language is French, although there are various local dialects such as Fon, which is spoken in the southern region of the country.
After a four-day orientation session where we toured Cotonou and settled into a new culture and environment, we arrived in Allada and visited each volunteer project before greeting our new host families.
Our family is well respected within the community as its original ties to the kingdom of Abomey, the largest royal kingdom in Bénin, lends itself to the their pride and traditional role as the official fabricator of all cast metals. Royal rings, bracelets, necklaces, figures and even the money of the royal kingdom were cast out of precious metals and made exclusively by the family. Although this function is no longer carried out directly by my immediate host family, the original link through an ancient king's brother tells a history of handed down customs and legends.
Once during a time of war within the territory, the king wanted to make sure his children were protected from the injustices of fighting. He sent an order to distinguish his children by marking two scars on each side of the forehead beside their eyes. These ancestral markings have been carried on for generations, but this tradition seems to be declining as the grandparents begin to deny the ceremony given the growth of the family.
Along with the knowledge passed down by my host grandmother, there have been many interesting first impressions during the initial month.
The local market comes to Allada every fifth day as it rotates each surrounding community, bringing commerce from around the region. With the market comes an influx of people buying the freshly displayed foods and local produce, tables of bright coloured fabrics and homemade carts full of a variety of products. The flurry of activity and movement of goods around Allada flies by as sacks of rice piled on a motorcycle, a basket of peanuts perched on a woman's head or a car jammed to the roof full of oranges. The fruit is endless and the dust is everywhere.
With just two months left we are already planning our midway project evaluation where we'll travel north for a four-day retreat. As the Béninois phase began with a new sense of energy for the program, our involvement within the community through our volunteer projects will continue to grow over the coming weeks as we discover a new culture and country.
Remember you can follow my exchange and CWY experience as my adventures continue in Allada, Bénin at www.nestman.ca.