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I have yet to venture from my sister’s home in Tallahassee since my return on Wednesday morning. I look forward to sharing once I know what to share…but at the moment, the thought of being around a large crowd of people where I may be asked many questions is very intimidating! So in an effort to prepare myself for questions, as well as answer them for those of you I may not get to see for a while…I am conducting a self-interview. 🙂 Here goes…

(Please note…I am in no way making light of these questions or discouraging anyone from asking them…they are important questions to be asked and answered and I so look forward to sharing with you in person!)

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  • “How was Africa?”
    – One-word answer: Beautiful.
    – Multi-word answer:  Amazing, Hard, Challenging, Different, Not what I Expected, Crazy, Uplifting, Depressing, Encouraging, Conflicting, Spiritual, Simple, Complex, Easy, Eye-opening. It was many things.
    – Every day I woke up thanking God for allowing me to be there and experience what I did. I was overwhelmed with thankfulness daily. The people were beautiful and I learned so much from them and their way of life. I pray that my heart is not hardened by the superfluity of poverty and pain that existed there, but changed, challenged, and open to Christ’s love, healing, and hope for all of our brothers and sisters around the world, with you and I as His vessels of change.
  • “How was your experience spiritually?”
    God Takes care of me. Prayer is powerful, and its power blew me away and grounded me all at once. (and is continuing to do so) The Lord’s love and power stretches to the darkest and loneliest corners of the earth. He cares SO MUCH for me…and no more for me than the five-year-old boy selling tomatoes on the streets of Cotonou, Benin…this is beautiful and challenging. If He loves them as much as me, what a responsibility that gives me to share with them what He has given me, and meet their needs. Christ is our only hope…trusting Him daily was my only strength. Trusting that I was there for a purpose and that He didn’t need me but chose to use me…and as long as I was available and obedient, His work would be complete, whether I saw it’s fruit or not. I continue to rest in that upon my return. I look forward to reflecting more and seeing what else He has to teach me and how He will grow me through this experience.
  • “What did God do?”
    Opened doors. Laid groundwork. Answered prayers. Protected. Healed. Shined His light in dark places. Spread smiles, hugs, kisses, and handshakes. Stilled fears. Shed truth on lies. Facilitated conversation. Spoke all of our languages.
  • “What did you learn?”
    On a personal note, the Lord revealed a lot to me about myself, which is always painful and will hopefully prove fruitful. God has made us all for a purpose…He is beckoning me to pursue that purpose for my life…this is part of the process. Life is easy and convenient here, it is very difficult and inconvenient there. We have no idea how much we have. It’s amazing how cheap and easy it is to help someone in a developing country. We live in a world completely different and painfully segregated from the Beninese people. As different and far apart as we are…we are all created and loved equally by God. I will be continually learning from this experience…it’s not over. This question will be answered in depth by blogs to come re: the day-to day experiences.
  • “What was the most important thing you accomplished?”
    Opening minds and hearts to challenge history, tradition, and poverty, with hope, love, and change.
  • “Challenges?”
    – The language barrier was the single most difficult thing about being there. Yes, there is poverty and hunger like I have not seen more than two times/places previously in my life…but without the ability to communicate about it…the feeling is hopeless to be sure, and the meaning and purpose for being among them gets lost in the lack of words to share with one another regarding life and love and truth and hope. There is something about connecting with other human beings that fills a void in our souls like nothing else can. (second to communion with Christ) It’s a hole God made…and He desires for our communion with each other to fill it positively. Whether it be easy or a challenge. He created us for this…among many other reasons. I do believe.
    – Lots of flooded roads and car trouble.
    – Avoiding becoming indifferent due to the overwhelming nature of the issues that stem from poverty. On the same token, avoiding being burdened so heavily that I become disgusted with indifference and bitter. There is a balance between taking on others burdens so heavily that you can no longer function healthily, and being so overwhelmed by others burdens that you give up hope that change is possible. I have yet to find that balance. (I don’t feel like this was very eloquent, it makes sense in my head…ask me about it in person and maybe I can explain it better)
    – Contracting a parasite. ’nuff said.
  • “Victories?”
    – Getting from point A to point B despite major rain/flooding.
    – Coping with/overcoming my fear of lizards despite being pretty much in arms length of the LARGE devils at all times.
    – No one getting Malaria despite multiple nights of being swarmed by mosquitos.
    – God got me thinking.
    – Despite weather, cultural hurdles, lateness, and car difficulties…the majority of our shows actually happened and on average we had 100 people at each.
    – God and love speak every language.
    – After seeing the film, much discussion and dialogue happened among the crowds. Many people shared stories of being trafficked or trafficking their children. People spoke up for the rights of the child and against the attributing factors to child trafficking such as polygamy. These conversations need to happen there and Unseen Stories film has been and will hopefully continue to be a catalyst for those conversations, and ultimately for change.
    – With our extra trip money we were able to donate to some of the centers that are helping kids, (sending them to school, feeding them, giving medical care, teaching them trades, etc.)  as well as do small things like buy medication for our friend Odette’s son Anzim when he became ill.
  • Favorite Funny Story…
    Two words: sleep deprived. SO…our trip TO Benin was a long one. We flew four separate planes, had five total flights and two twelve-hour layovers. (one in NYC and the other in Casablanca…both of which we squeezed every moment we could out of by sight-seeing in the cities, lots of walking with heavy bags) *PHEW* If you know me very well, you are probably aware that I am a very light sleeper and require ideal sleeping situations (comfort, silence, and darkness) in order to even have a chance at falling asleep. So I did not sleep a wink on our first 3 flights or during our layovers. Finally, on our last flight from Casablanca to Cotonou, Benin I got the window seat with a chair that actually reclined and I fell asleep…a deep sleep. Katie was sitting next to me. She gets the best sleeper award…(she could fall asleep standing up, I was so jealous of her skills) but for some reason she was awake at this point. She was minding her own business when out of the corner of her eye, she noticed my hands creeping up the wall of the plane. (Note: I was absolutely asleep and dreaming about something, I had earplugs in and a blindfold over my eyes to keep light out, and we were sitting in the emergency exit aisle.) She continued to watch in curiosity and amusement until she noticed my hands reaching the emergency exit handle…I then proceeded to pull the plastic covering that protected the handle OFF…she then grabbed my hands and woke me up. I woke up startled and pulled my blindfold off to find the plastic device in my hands, looked at her with wide eyes, said “WHAT AM I DOING?”, and quickly returned it to its proper home. I have no idea what I was dreaming, how this happened, or what would have happened if Katie was not awake and I had actually pulled the bright red emergency exit handle. But thankfully…we survived my sleep deprivation and live to tell about it. 🙂
  • Most Powerful Story…
    Took place in Ouidah, Benin. We went to the slave museum in Ouidah. The town of Ouidah was once known as Africa’s premier slave coast. It is where the majority of slaves were shipped from Africa to America. For in-depth history on Ouidah, go here: http://www.history.ac.uk/ihr/Focus/Slavery/articles/araujo.html
    – I learn and am impacted by hands on or visual experiences…which is part of why Ouidah was so powerful for me. There is a 3-mile path from the center of town that leads to the coast which was blazed by the slaves and the chains which linked them together in the height of the slave trade. This trail leads to a monument called “The Point of No Return.” This structure aims to mark the place where slaves embarked to the Americas. They walked the three miles, were held in small rooms with full of people and with no windows and doors for two weeks. If after the two weeks they were alive and not ill, they were considered fit and valuable and then walked to the coast, boarded ships and set sail. This was considered the end of their lives, their doom basically. Walking the path and through the threshold of the point (or “door”) of no return was an extremely poignant experience for me which festered many overwhelming emotions inside of me and then came out in tears of pain, confusion, anger, and gratefulness. I am thankful that slavery doesn’t exist like it once did…but burdened that it DOES still exist and feel responsible to play a role with my small voice in being the tangible hand of Christ in the lives of those who have been affected by it.
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  • People we made friends with…
    Damien -> our driver, or as Jen called him, “premier chauffeur in Benin!” He was my favorite! He had the best attitude all the time, a very jolly fellow. In his 30’s and a father of three. He loves to dance and loves music. His english improved greatly while we were there and he was so helpful to us. We couldn’t have done it without him. I love Damien! Here he is with his sweet 15-month-old, Lydia.
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    Odette -> was amazing! She didn’t speak hardly any english so it was very difficult for me to communicate with her. But we usually figured out what each other were trying to say. Odette was neighbors with Jen, Kaitlyn, and Todd when they lived in Benin for six months. While we were there this time, a year had passed since her husband Akim died suddenly from an illness the doctors never identified. She is a single mother of two children. Unseen Stories supports Odette and her children monthly so that she ca send her kids to school and give them needed medical care. Another way we were able to help her while we were there was to hire her as our cook and housekeeper of sorts. She made dinners for us when we were in Cotonou and did our laundry for us as well as helped us by cleaning the house and getting water for us. She was amazing. Such a beautiful woman and person, a hard worker, and a great mom, so sweet and such a servant. I was blessed to know her. Here she is with her daughter Fatia and son Anzim.
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    Martin -> Our translator/food orderer/bargainer/mediator in every way! Martin is very passionate about working to fight child trafficking and the work Unseen Stories is doing. He has been a HUGE asset to Unseen Stories and was such a help to us during our time there this summer. Martin is fluent in three languages (that I know of anyway!) and can also speak “Nigerian English” which is english but basically it’s own dialect due to all of the short-cuts and lingo added to it. (It sounds SO COOL!) Martin loves to sing, buy random things like shoes and sunglasses from street vendors and is a un guy to be around. 🙂
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    Aaron -> Peace corps volunteer, screening host, translator, friend, fellow American. Aaron is finishing out his two-year stint in a small village North of Cotonou basically in the bush where he works for an organization called ANDIA. It is a rehabilitation and training center for kids who have come out of trafficking situations. They get to go to school, and they learn skills and trades such as tailoring, weaving, metal working, agriculture (gardening), raising livestock, etc. Aaron is from North Carolina and plans to return their after getting married in a couple of months. He’s a great guy and was very helpful to us in our time there, as well as when I got sick!
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    Liz & David -> More American friends who speak English, yay! Liz is a peace corps volunteer who lives on the coast in Grand Popo. She volunteers some of her time with an NGO called “ATP” which exists to combat child trafficking. Liz set up five or so screenings for us with ATP in the local villages and was SUPER helpful to Unseen Stories and our tour. Her brother David happened to be in town visiting her while we were there. We enjoyed hanging out with and getting to know them for our week at the beach. It was nice to be able to speak english with people! This is them (with Jen in the middle) on a boat on our way to a screening.
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    – “The Boys” -> friends of Unseen Stories whom Jen, Todd, and Kaitlyn befriended when they lived in Porto Novo. They visited us in our last couple of days in Cotonou, we ate lunch and had drinks together on our back porch. Talked about what they want to study and do in their futures, how Unseen Stories can help them financially to reach those goals, and tried to teach each other english and french. They also taught me how to play a Beninese game called Domino which I bought at the artisans village. Super fun! Sweet boys. This is our team with the three of them…
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    Agnus -> My angel! Agnus is a french woman who runs ANDIA, where Aaron (above) works. She is an incredible woman and my hero! She took me in the night I got sick so that I didn’t have to stay at Aarons with no running water, beds, or toilet. 🙂 (PRAISE THE LORD) I got to sleep on a mattress and had access to her bathroom in my hours of need. haha. She is AWESOME…such an inspiration and passionate person. She works her tail off to get grants for the center kids at ANDIA. She is like a mother to all of them. I was so thankful for her compassion and care for me…and more importantly her heart for the children of Benin. Here she is in her back yard with her pet monkey!
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    Hassan -> Our Casablancan friend! We met him at the airport in the customs line. He is a high school principal in central Florida. He is from Casablanca but has lived in the states for 20ish years. Hassan and his family embodied hospitality. His mother and brother picked him up for the airport, gave us a ride to their house to clean up and let us keep our huge carry-ons there so that we could tour the city all day. He helped us exchange money, advised us on transportation, sight-seeing, and food spots. He hadn’t seen is family in a few years, but dropped everything to welcome and serve us. It was so cool…we were very thankful. Here he is on his mothers back patio.
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    MORE TO COME!!! Until next time… ❤ AL

So I have been home for over 48 hours now and have yet to journal or blog. I think I’ve been subconsciously avoiding it…probably for several reasons. (note: I’m processing this as I type, which could be dangerous, please bare with me as I hash this out in my head/heart, and forgive me for my honesty)

1) My month in Benin FLEW by…yet was jam-packed with an array of experiences and emotions. The idea of getting it all on paper is very overwhelming.
2) I have a lot yet to process before the idea of sharing will excite me…right now it gives me anxiety.
3) I don’t just want to give summaries of my days there…that will be part of this, but more-so I feel very responsible for the experiences and insights the Lord has allowed me, and I desire to share them with a heart that is heavy, yet hopeful for his beautiful people in Benin, therefore not just enlightening myself and others by revisiting my experiences, but leaving us all feeling Challenged and Responsible for the well-being of our brothers and sisters less fortunate than us worldwide. (That’s a lot of pressure! Know that I desire to give good responses to your questions and curiosities, well thought out, and full of purpose)
4) There’s so MUCH to write about!!!

With those feelings and thoughts disclosed…I want to begin by giving you a little taste of Benin via some facts and figures from trusty Wikipedia.com. I’m copying and pasting…so to cite my source, or if you would like to read more, go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benin)

Benin, officially the Republic of Benin, is a country in Western Africa. It borders Togo to the west, Nigeria to the east and Burkina Faso and Niger to the north. Its size is just over110000 km2 with a population of almost 8500000. Its capital is the city of Porto Novo, but the seat of government is the city of Cotonou. About half the population live below the international poverty line of US$1.25 per day

The economy of Benin remains underdeveloped and dependent on subsistence agriculture, cotton production, and regional trade. Growth in real output has averaged around 5% in the past seven years, but rapid population growth has offset much of this increase.

The majority of Benin’s population lives in the south. The population is young, with a life expectancy of 53 years. About 42 African ethnic groups live in this country; these various groups settled in Benin at different times and also migrated within the country.

In the 2002 census, 42.8% of the population of Benin were Christian (27.1% Roman Catholic, 5%Celestial Church of Christ, 3.2% Methodist, 7.5% other Christian denominations), 24.4% were Muslim, 17.3% practices Vodun, (VooDoo) 6% other traditional local religious groups, 1.9% other religious groups, and 6.5% claim no religious affiliation.

Population: 8439000 (2005 estimate)
Independence from France: August 1, 1960
President: Boni YAYI (Christian)
Official Language: French (among Fon, Yoruba, Dendi, Bariba, and Ge)
Capital: Porto Novo
Largest City: Cotonou
Dominant religions: Catholicism, Muslim, and VooDoo
Money: West African CF franc; US $1 = CFA 498
Interesting fact: Benin is the birthplace of the VooDoo religion, and it’s historical town of Ouidah was once known as Africa’s premier slave coast.

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– I bought things…and the prices weren’t negotiable.

– brushed my teeth with water from the sink.

– ate fresh fruits and veggies…and didn’t get a parasite (…yet…)

– drove a car. MY car at that.

– drank tap water.

– took a real shower.

– saw white people everywhere I went…and they spoke english!

– washed my clothes and dried them.

– two words: cheddar cheese.

– slept with a real pillow.

– made/received phone calls.

– WI-FI

– hot water was an option.

– running water AND electricity everywhere I went!

– didn’t have to swat at a single mosquito.

– air conditioning…everywhere!

– ate no rice or eggs in any form.

Things are so different here. I feel spoiled…or like a little kid in a candy store. Not sure what to do with myself. Keep a lookout for journal entries starting from day one of our trip…soon to come. ❤

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July 2, 2009

First beninese meal!

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buying “tissue”

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a screening with the village chiefs! cool!

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we had LOTS of fun with these kiddos. they kept yelling “YOVO!” (“whitey”) and we played and laughed and pretended to be chickens together. 🙂 most fun yet! 

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our 12 hour layover in Casablanca, Morocco! So much fun!

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Benin tidbits

July 2, 2009

Here are a few tidbits about life in Benin thus far…enjoy. 

– the toilet paper is purple. And its not serrated. Just one looooong roll.
– restaurants are very slow here.
– everyone has something to sell…and they know white people will buy it.
– On any given day, you can see someone peeing on the side of the road…if you look close enough, you can see poopers too.
– Everyone watches us because we are white. and to the kids…everything we do is funny (because we are white)
– when kids see us, they sing “yovo yovo bonsoi sava bien mersee” which means “whitey whitey how are you? i am well, thank you”
– i have slept for 12 hours on 3 separate nights. Not sure if my body is still adjusting to the time change or what…but I never sleep that long back home!
– everyone here welcomes us and smiles at us and tells us good morning or good afternoon. it’s very nice.
– it is not uncommon to see topless woman riding down the interstate on a moto.
– moto’s are the main form of transportation…there’s a TON of them, and LOTS of smog. They are called “zimmy jon’s” or “zim’s” for short. We aren’t allowed to ride them so that our parents won’t sue unseen stories. 😉
– it is also not uncommon to see a woman whip out a boob to feed her child. no shame. they are who they are…exactly how God made them. I think it’s great.
– we use our projector (for our screenings) to watch movies on our wall at night. it’s pretty awesome. – to make clothes, you go to markets where women sell “tissue” or fabric, and you buy them 1 or 2 “pagna’s” at a time. Then you take it to the tailer and tell him/her what you want. Everyone here where’s tissue in one form or another. Men where “bumba’s” which is a shirt & pants outfit. Women have dresses made out of them…or skirts, or they use the fabric as is for a wrap (skirt) or a baby carrying device.
– speaking of babies…they are most always seen wrapped onto the backs of women. it’s pretty rad and very functional.
– children are very well behaved here and babies rarely cry or act out. Students are very attentive and respectful, as well as eager to learn.
– Although they don’t have the things we have in America…they are very inventive with the things that they have. They find all sorts of uses for things…and can easily make something useful out of nothing.
– on the streets you’ll find lots of random things to buy. from stereos to clocks to shoes to bread to soccer balls to phone cards to bananas to gasoline to unidentifiable cooked (whole) animals. it is an adventure.  
– concept of time here is different from the states. the only thing they do in a rush is drive…everything else is chill. If you need to be picked up by 7:30pm, you tell your driver to be there at 6pm. 🙂
– they use their horns like it’s going out of style. But not out of anger like we do in the states…they honk to ask someone to move out of the way for them…or to let someone know they’re going by or coming through. There is constant honking of horns here. They drive crazy…but I have only seen 1 fender bender in our time here…and we drive most every day. So I guess they’re good (crazy) drivers???
– I have learned how to say: “good morning,” “good afternoon,” “thank you,” “i am sorry,” “goodbye,” “I am well,” “how are you?,” and “how much?” in french. I am learning, slowly but surely.
– if you bring out candy…you will be mobbed. (by children AND adults)
– as i type, I can hear the Islamic call to prayer over the loud speakers in our neighborhood. The three main faiths in Benin are Voo Doo, Islam, and Christianity.
– We have seen a couple of Voo Doo religious relics in smaller neighborhoods. (they are very strange looking)
– we have running water…but it is very rarely running. so bucket showers for us, “if it’s yellow, let it mellow,” and “if it’s brown (hope that you can) flush it down. 🙂
– It has been interesting to watch French news about Michael Jackson, and to watch USA play against Brazil in soccer from across the world. very strange.
– Our cook’s name is Odette. She lost her husband to disease a year ago and has struggled financially since then. So we pay her to cook and do laundry. She is about to paint our toenails as well because she does that and hair for a living.
– there are always goats, pigs, and chickens running around everywhere.
– someone down the road has a pet baboon in a cage on the street. It’s very sad looking. 😦 I feel bad for poor baboon.
– I AM DIEING TO SEE MY NEW NEPHEW!!! It’s very hard to be here knowing He has come into the world.
– I miss vegetables. most food we eat is carb-ish and heavy. Tey eat a lot of “filler” foods. but it is yummy…and i am thankful for it.
– One common food here it “pate” (pronounced, “pot”) which is a paste made of yams and has no nutritional value…but it will FILL YOU UP QUICK.
– The average life span here is in the mid 50’s. Grey hair is rare here. I don’t know all of the contributors to this here specifically…but I would imagine that it is the case for most 3rd world or “developing” countries. (I learned in my international social work class that “developing” is the new politically correct term to use for countries rather than “3rd world.”)
– The people here work very hard. From sun-up to sundown. working, always working. Selling their goods from 7am until 10pm, cooking, washing, working in the fields, taking care of each other. They are very hard workers…many of them always look tired and you’ll see people fall asleep in public (loud/busy) places often.
– There is a beautiful sense of community here like I have seen nowhere else in my life’s journey. Everyone looks out for each other and takes care of one another. Relationships come first here. Houses are close together, Everyone is always out while there is daylight, sitting on someone else bench with them, working, talking, laughing. Always people to be around. They are very open.
– No prices for goods here are final. You can always bargain. it is called “discote`”
– there are no trash cans anywhere here. the ground is for that.

 

I think that I will blog re: specific events/stories when I return. So much happens daily that I can’t keep up with it all via journal, so I just jot down notes in a notebook I keep in my purse to help me remember everything. Eventually I will get it all type out.