By John McLaren
Longtime Mt. Tabor residents Donn and Karin Maier are faring well as they begin a new life in the remote West African nation of Benin. They have a three-year contract to direct and teach at a small but growing private school, where they were got off to good start, pleased to find “dedicated co-workers, faculty and staff,” according to a blog they are keeping.
The school was established at the request of the U.S. Embassy. Donn Maier, executive director of the Portland Lutheran School, is the school director, while Karin teaches the second and third grades.
“We currently have 32 students enrolled between Prekindergarten (3 years old) and 8th grade,” Donn says. ”It is truly an international school. English is the second language for about half of our students. There are 16 nationalities represented including American, Benin, South African, Congo, Dutch, German, El Salvadoran, Belgian, Japanese, Malaysian, and others.” Most of the students know at least three languages and have global outlooks, he says.
The Maiers arrived Aug. 1 in Benin, moved into their new home in Cotonou, the country’s largest city and quickly formed impressions.. Among the things they like about Benin, as reported on the blog, “walking to school every day,” “sweet, fresh, juicy fruit,” “Colette (a Cotonou resident) cooking for us twice a week,” and “interesting things transported on the zemidjans” (motorcycles that serve as taxis for people and cargo).
They also miss aspects of the life they had here such as “talking to our (grown) children whenever we can,” “reliable Internet service,” “relatives, church friends and neighbors,” “accessible exercise opportunities,” and “clean air and quiet”.
Following are excerpts from the blog (beininbenin.blogspot.com) the Maiers have been keeping since their arrival in Benin:
We’re here. After twenty-four hours of travel, we’ve arrived in Benin. We’re just getting acclimated to the weather, food, surroundings, almost everything! We hope this blog will give you an idea of the differences, and similarities, of a people and a country far from Portland.
We live in a four bedroom house with four bathrooms, several other rooms, and a water distiller in the kitchen. We looked out the window of our bedroom in the morning and the neighboring lot is bare dirt inhabited by a scene from a National Geographic show about rural Africa. Mom cooking over a fire, chickens scratching for food, tin roofing material put together to form a shelter, more tin for a latrine. We appear to be in a land of sharp contrast.
Several of the local school staff earn an annual salary, full-time, of less than $3000. Amazingly, with an average per capita income of less than $300/year this salary puts them comfortably into the middle class – if there is one.
Fernand (the school janitor) became our guide and mentor. He showed us how and where to shop. We have an idea of what is better to buy on the street (phones, fruit, pots) or in the store (perishables) and what sort of prices are right (the currency of Benin is the Central African Franc – CFA with a value of approximately $1 = 500 CFA).
When at the market we have to be careful not to spend too much money. It would draw too much attention to ourselves. Even though we have a list of things we need to outfit our kitchen, we will accumulate them over time. Yesterday we negotiated a set of three aluminum pots for $12,000 CFA ($24).
The cook at school, Colette, had cooked last year a couple times a week for one of the teachers. She wanted to know if we might be interested. “Heck, yeah!” was my response. She came by last Friday and cooked us our first Beninese meal – fish sauce with rice, pineapple and papaya.
Lizards are everywhere. They are all colorful in one way or another. We like them all because they eat bugs.
The gray morning clouds weren’t ominous enough to deter us from participating in a beach clean-up, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy and the Ocean Conservancy. It took us about 30 minutes to walk from our house with two other teachers to help pick up trash behind the Benin Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
The need for clean-up is tremendous here along Benin’s coast. The beaches are littered extensively, either with items that people just leave or with items that are washed up.
We set out on another “Hash” run/walk on Saturday. Donn’s affinity for running has apparently spread throughout the school community.
One of the parents (Norbert) invited him to check out a local running club called CASH (Cotonou Anglophones Saturday Hash). This time the trail was set up near and in the village of Podji les Montes.
The village started receiving electricity in 2009, thanks to two private companies from Germany and The Netherlands. We had a local guide lead us to (nearby) mini-villages. His presence on the trail with us helped us to feel more welcome and accepted by the villagers. He showed us signs of vodoun (voodoo) that is heavily-practiced in the area.
One part of village life that hasn’t been affected by the introduction of electricity is running water.
Villagers still walk to wells throughout the larger village area and collect water that way. Norbert, our Hash leader, informed us that perhaps two-thirds of the water is contaminated in some way, leading to incidences of cholera and other water-borne illnesses.
We took about two hours to finish this Hash run/walk. We are learning that with this group of people, it’s not about the exercise or the Hash rituals, but about getting together and learning the culture of the area. We feel fortunate to have found a fun group of people to do this with.
“On the Beach Road”: Apparently this road goes on for about 30 kilometers to Ouidah, a famous vodoun site as well as the historical exit for slaves sold to slave traders. We hope to get to Ouidah soon, once we have a car. We also walked by the airport. The runway literally ends at the road; hopefully the planes taking off are airborne by then!