Benin : A mind blowing experience 6

This week’s post comes from DP intern Félix Lemetais. Félix is a French student currently doing the Eramus programme with DkIT studying Social Care.


P1060733A footprint on the red soil, here I am, Benin, Africa. I arrived full of questions and wondering who am I going to help. I left Africa two months later without any answers but with a thousand new questions about the world surrounding me and with the feeling that I have been saved. After a few months back in Europe, it is time to have a debriefing of this amazing experience.

Once I was back in Europe, it was impossible to remember everything, it was like a dream, everything was different from what I had known before, another planet with different colours, different people, different fragrances, and a different a way of living. It is only now, eight months after my journey that I feel able to analyse this experience and to remember the learning of my journey.


When your skin talks

Being a white person in a country where black is the norm can bring you close to understanding how it feels like to be an African who arrives in Europe for the first time. It is the first time I experienced the fact that my skin was “talking”.

There in Africa, being white is synonymous with wealth. I understood that when I had to pay double the price for everything, for example at the market and for the taxis. People asked me for money everywhere, I started to feel rejected, and that I couldn’t trust anybody, I feared people. I didn’t understand why, because of my whiteness, I was rich through their eyes, and I found out. My grants for my studies that I considered as quiet poor represent more than four times the average income in Benin.

So, yes my skin said right, I am rich in this country and then? I cannot help everybody! And when I am back in France I will return to the student status fighting to have some money left at the end of the month.

But even as a student in France, I am richer than people in Benin: I have roads, sewers in my streets, 3 water taps in my house, electricity day and night, a letterbox, a bank account, internet, even in the streets, vaccines, no mosquitos which can cause malaria and much more but I complain when the electricity bill and the taxes come. This wealth is printed on my skin. I knew that it was the first thing that people saw through me, even before we talked together.


The shame

When I understood that, I started to feel ashamed of being European. I am ashamed to use drinkable water to flush my toilets and to take a shower with the same drinkable water if I figure out that in the town where I was, women had to walk twenty minutes to get ten litres of water which was not drinkable for us without tablets. I am ashamed to see someone waste a piece of meat because it fell on the clean floor of his kitchen. When I compare with Benin, the only meat they can afford stayed 24 hours under 30 degrees on the floor, surrounded by flies. And I cannot see the full bins of our canteens, overflowing with beans, fries, meat and all the food some Africans cannot afford every day any more. When I was working in a school there, I asked the children what was their favourite meal? The teacher replied to me saying that no child can answer this question, because they are happy enough when they have something to eat, no matter what it is. The sense of taste is a European matter.

All these little things I learnt at home have never made any sense to me since I have lived in Africa.

The colour of my skin made me feel responsible for everything the evil Europeans did in Africa throughout history. I felt like I carried the weight of the heritage of my ancestors. We drew the borders between the countries, generating wars and massacres, we colonised them, supposedly to educate them, and we reduced them to slaves denying them rights. We installed dictators and corrupted leaders at the head of their countries, sold them weapons to keep them busy during the looting of their soil: diamonds, gold and petrol. I wonder if without this looting, Europe would be more developed than Africa nowadays. Africans have a hundred more reasons than white people to be racist and to discriminate against white people. But it’s the opposite of what we would believe, they tried to forgive us, and stay fascinated by European and American life style.


What happened to Europeans?

How can I explain that I never felt as much at home than I did in Africa? From my point of view, Europeans have forgotten how to live. The time, as Daire O’Dowd said in a previous article about Tanzania (Are we at the Mad Hatters tea party…….?) seems to run differently. It is like everyone knows how to appreciate every minute of life. When I walked in the streets, people asked me to eat with them, just to talk. They knew that I was probably richer than them, but they did not mind, to share is more important for them. I needed more than two hours to go to buy some bread, because I chatted with a teacher, a merchant, a mother who wanted to show me her baby and I helped a farmer to finish his fence.

People know how to welcome and how to live, because life is the most precious thing they have. Not a car, not an Iphone, but their life. Their doors are always open, because there is nothing to steal, and in some cases, because there are simply no doors. In France, if a total stranger comes to see you and asks you to tell him about your day, in the best way you would not have the time to answer, running against your watch, or you would be scared and not even answer him. The more wealth we have, the more we close ourselves off the others. The misfortune of others is not yours.

I talked with an old African who went in Paris one time, it was the dream of his life, and when he came back home, he was really disappointed by the way we treat misery in Europe. He cannot understand that we let people eat from the bins, sleep in the streets – in Benin everyone tries to handle his life by selling no matter what, or to help the needy, naturally. The only image that Africans have of Europe is from the movies and the TV, which shows mostly the “bright” part of our culture, the wealth and the luxury.


Learn from different culture

The way of life in Benin is so different from the European or American way of life than you can understand how it works only by going to see what happens there. You can enjoy it, or hate it but in any case you will be changed. And it makes you understand better how an immigrant can be lost in our culture. My purpose is not to put our culture on trial because it would be difficult to make do a U turn, and maybe meaningless because cultural diversity is the best thing which exists in the world. Understanding the way of life of different people can only open your mind and help to reduce discriminations. The key of the future might be in human relationships through multiculturalism rather than technologies. The social and environmental challenges are huge and nothing can change if our mind set stays the same. It is impossible to see the world through the narrow windows offered by the media the best way is to open this window and go to see the world by yourself if you get the chance.

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6 thoughts on “Benin : A mind blowing experience

  • Mwaka

    Being the daughter of African migrants in Australia I have to thank you for giving an honest account of your experience in Africa. Despite the racism I have experienced and continue to experience by white Australians I have been fortunate enough to go back to my home country Zambia with my husband and children! It was the best thing I did for my children because they got to see how beautiful Zambia truly is and given a chance we could do so much better to raise living standards for everyone. It breaks my heart to see and know that human beings continue to suffer despite all the wealth and technologies we have in the West.
    I appreciate the fact that you shared your experience with others.

  • Pascale

    Brilliant article !
    It’s very hard to analyze everything, it was 2 months intense. I think you explain very well what we lived. But we will discover a lot of new things with the time. It will stay inside us all our life.

  • RaK_EL

    I believe that when we are far away from our home and our comfort zone, we can get so much information in our senses that our brain isn´t available to process everything in that moment… Organize our feelings, emotions and cognitions it´s a hard task for such intense experience!
    I think this is the kind of experience that just after we came back to our world we start to see with other eyes what happened…. And with the time the experience replies in our mind again and again with new information and still keeps to give us a new perception.
    “Change is the only thing that never changes” I heard that sentence one day in my life and made really sense for me… I believe the change in our inner world is the really one that can change the world.
    I hope always this experience be an echo, that reminds you when you are living in our “rich world” and I believe your testimony can remains as an impulse for others participate in such rich experience.
    Well done!

  • Colm Durham

    Brilliant Blog Felix
    I found your point about how Europe is portrayed in the media in comparison to Africa. My views on Africa were totality challenge when I visited some of the greenest lands with some of the most generous people I have ever met in Uganda on the Insight program 2011. Which is in juxtaposition to my view before I had gone and visited for myself as my ideas were of dusty barren lands with malnourished children which are the main images we are subjected too by the media. Thanks for sharing your experiences

  • Mog Downey

    I really enjoyed reading your blog, Felix…thank you for sharing your insights and experiences. It is a very honest account of the time you spent in Benin and in many ways it echoes my own thoughts.