Have you ever had an experience that was so powerful, so moving, that it changed the way you look at life, and then tried to put that experience into words? Though it is a challenge, and inevitably loses something in the translation, please journey with me as I recount my recent trip to West Africa in this first of a three-part series.
When the Catholic Relief Services invitation came to travel with them to visit CRS projects in Benin and Togo, I suspected that it would be a life-changing opportunity, and I was right. We began our journey with a day of orientation at CRS headquarters in Baltimore before starting the long trip to Cotonou, Benin, via Brussels, Belgium. We learned that Benin and Togo are very different countries in many ways, despite the fact that they share a common border. As the standard of living is slowly improving in Benin, conditions in Togo have deteriorated markedly since the end of the cold war. Benin is now one of the few functioning democracies in Africa, while Togo remains, in practice, a military dictatorship, described as being “in transition” toward a multiparty democratic system. Benin is one of the few countries where political and social stability help support the challenging process of economic and human development.
Our group of two CRS national staff and diocesan directors from Saginaw and Fort Wayne-South Bend was met at the Cotonou airport by the CRS/Benin assistant country representative, Mourad Aidi, and two men we all came to consider dear friends, Didier and Gervais. Didier (pronounced Dee Dee Ay) and Gervais are drivers for CRS/Benin and carried us safely throughout Benin and into Togo over the course of the next two weeks. This is no small feat in a country where there are many more deeply rutted dirt roads than paved ones, and where hundreds of mopeds zigzag between ancient trucks overburdened with cargo of every description.
The poverty is staggering
CRS has been working in Benin since 1958 sponsoring a variety of development projects focused on education, peace and justice, human rights, health (including maternal/child and AIDS) nutrition, food commodities, women’s promotion, and microfinance. The poverty statistics for Benin are staggering: one-third of the population live below the regional poverty level, and almost one-fifth live below the food poverty index; almost three quarters of all Beninese women have no formal education (nearly nine out of 10 in rural areas); the infant mortality rate is 94 per 1,000; the mortality rate of children under 5 years is 165 per 1,000; almost one-third of all Benin’s children are malnourished, one out of 10 severely so, and less than one-tenth of the rural population have access to safe health care. Nearly three quarters of the adult population are not formally employed, but rather work daily to sustain themselves and their families by whatever means they can. Though not exactly rampant, infanticide, female circumcision, forced marriage and the child slave trade are still serious human rights concerns. In spite of these inherent challenges, CRS efforts have made a significant impact. In cooperation with the local church, Caritas and other nongovernmental organizations, CRS assisted more than 169,000 people in 1999.
Our first site visit
As we approached the village of Tekparou, north of Cotonou, we were greeted by a large, lively group of mostly women who were dressed in the same colorful fabric. Here, CRS and an international partner work together to sponsor a microfinance project called the village “bank.” The project works to raise the standard of living, creating sustainable, household food security by increasing access to financial resources. Small loans (around $30 U.S.) are made to women who form solidarity groups and use the money to build their small businesses, which range from buying fish or bread and reselling it in a local market for a profit, or gathering firewood to sell by the side of the road, to distilling homemade alcoholic beverages. The purpose of our visit was to observe a monthly reimbursement to the bank, and to get to know the women and better understand their small triumphs and daily struggles.
This particular village bank has been quite successful, with a 100 percent repayment rate. The women in a solidarity group cover each others’ loan payment if someone is unable to pay one month. They have been able to save a significant amount of money by Benin standards. Their pride and pleasure were evident, and they named their bank “An tii sua” which means “Wake Up!” in Fon, the local language.
One by one we introduced ourselves through our interpreter, and in response the women would clap five times and extend their hands, palms out. We learned that the proper way to receive these good wishes is to bow slightly, crossing your hands over your chest. When asked what the village bank means to them, they responded that the bank has completely changed the way they understand money (saving and investing were new concepts to them), and consequently their lives and the lives of their families. The revenue from their projects allows them to send their children to school with a few francs left over to buy food along the way.
When all the business of the day had been accomplished, the singing and dancing began again. This time we were invited to join them — an important sign of solidarity. For my part, I was relieved to be serving as the photographer since dancing is not my long suit. The women did have one request of us, however: Could we help them get a well for their village? Currently, the women must walk more than three kilometers to get water every day. The cost of such a well — about $500 U.S. Think about that — one tithe, one week, from one parish. The issue of safe water is a tremendous problem throughout Benin and Togo.
Canteen Scholar/Education Project
The next day we visited a school in Gbegourou, where CRS sponsors a community-owned canteen. The parent association has responsibility for managing the canteen and making in-kind and cash contributions. CRS provides training for the PTAs and additional food, kitchen equipment, and technical assistance. The children receive two healthy meals per day, consisting of a soy/wheat blend, or lentils and rice.
Again, we were welcomed as honored guests and treated to singing, dancing, and a speech about the school by a young man who was diligently practicing his French, the official language of Benin. CRS is currently serving more than 7,500 people through its formal education canteen programs in Benin. The program’s goal is to improve access to education for all children, particularly in poor rural areas, to increase attendance, decrease the drop out rate, and improve equity between girls and boys. Currently, only a little more than half of the eligible girls are enrolled in primary school. The strategies used in the School Canteen Program include community ownership, community resource mobilization, and collaboration with other organizations.
In the area of informal education, CRS and Secours Catholic France support BIBD (a Catholic interdiocesan development organization) in the implementation of Women’s Promotion Projects. The goal is to improve the women’s living conditions in the dioceses of Kandi and Parakou by helping them achieve financial autonomy through improved literacy, human rights education, income-generating activities such as sewing and weaving, and instruction on better health care practices. These activities are carried out in villages and in girls’ vocational training centers. Human Rights projects are aimed at teaching people about their civil rights and responsibilities, training local resource people as “parajurists” in human rights, training police on human rights and improving relations with the communities they serve, and providing legal defense for Human Rights violations. CRS is working to instill a culture of peace in a country where regional and ethnic divisions and political and social tensions too often lead to violence.
We ended each day by gathering together for the evening meal and an hour of prayer and reflection. I will share more of my experiences in West Africa and information about the new peace-building and advocacy campaign, Africa Rising! Hope and Healing, sponsored by Catholic Relief Services in my next article. Please keep our brothers and sisters in Benin and Togo in your prayers.
Dorothy Grillo is the director of Social Ministry for the Diocese of Charleston.