To Benin and Back: Short Stories, essays and reflections about Life in Benin as a Peace Corps Volunteer and the Subsequent Readjustment Process
by Chris Starace (Benin 1995–97)
$29.95 (hardback), $19.95 (paperback), $7.69 (Kindle)
Reviewed by David H. Day (Kenya 1965–66; India 1967–68)
AS WORDS BEGAN TO TUMBLE off the first pages of Chris Starace’s new memoir of his Peace Corps assignment in Benin, I realized I was in for a riveting ride through the author’s two-year experience in this tropical, sub-Saharan country. I held in my hands a model of confessional humility, self-reflection and exquisite narrative detail this reviewer hasn’t seen in most recent Peace Corps writing. Page after page, Starace’s perceptual antennae tuned to every single cultural subtlety, nuance and innuendo of social interaction, I had absolutely no choice but to applaud this author’s incredible ability to savor every moment — even the hardships and privations — of his tenure in Benin.
Turning confessional about certain coping techniques he adopts while marinating in Beninese culture, Starace explains his deployment of humor: “I have to do and say many things I would not normally do . . . to help me navigate through the more challenging aspects of life in Benin.” When, for example, villagers ooh and aah over his spiffy Peace Corps-issue Trek mountain bike and its accompanying water-bottle (which no one else in the village has), he says —
I usually tease them by saying it’s Sodahi (their locally-made palm whiskey). I often put on a little show by taking a sip and acting as if it were whiskey by making a face and feigning the need for a chaser. They are usually incredulous and snatch the bottle from my hand to smell it. We all burst out in laughter when they realize I duped them. I have learned that having a good sense of humor is the only way to deal with living here and to have some fun at the same time.
So I thought to myself: I’d like to meet this guy!
Fresh out of college, Starace, a twenty-two year-old from Connecticut, accepts an assignment in 1995 to teach basic business management skills to Beninese small business owners: bookkeeping, marketing, principles of distribution. He’s had some background in French, some cross-cultural experience in France and Spain, but virtually no background in business. Nevertheless, by the end of his stint in Benin, he is regarded by his fellow villagers as “un vrai Beninois,” a real Beninese; they’re astounded at his ability to speak Fon, his masterful (and often hilarious) prowess on the dance floor, and his having been initiated into the local vodun cult called Fa, the latter a quite remarkable event for any westerner and a sign of the villagers’ affection for, and trust in, this stranger suddenly dropped into their midst.
Few westerners have ever been to Benin, and I confess I had to haul out my favorite Michelin map of Africa to refresh my memory of where in West Africa this small country was sandwiched in; Togo lies to the west, Nigeria to the east and Niger to the north. Formerly known as the Kingdom of Dahomey, the notorious “slave coast” from which slaves were shipped, Benin figured prominently in Bruce Chatwin’s acclaimed 1980 historical novel, The Viceroy of Ouidah, which dealt with the Dahomean slave trade to Brazil. (Chatwin’s on-site research was aborted by a Benin coup.) The fascinating spiritual tradition of vodun (“voodoo”) has its very deep roots in Benin and Starace harbors an almost anthropological interest in this misunderstood but vital religion. Sadly, Benin also saw recently the murder of PCV Kate Puzey and the attendant Peace Corps cover-up following her sexual assault at the hands of a Beninese co-worker. (There is now the Kate Puzey Peace Corps Volunteer Protection Act passed in 2011 by the Obama administration to protect whistleblowers and PC victims of sexual assault.)
Although the Peace Corps has had a presence in Benin since 1968, the country still is terra incognita to most of us; music lovers of world music might recognize the Beninese singer Angelique Kidjo, or the name of actor Djimon Honsou of Steven Spielberg’s 1997 film, “Amistad,” or his character in the film “Stargate. But only a glance at Starace’s map tells me that Benin’s capital in Porto Novo, its largest city, Cotonou. And the country’s poor infrastructure and general lack of tourist amenities entices only the hardiest of foreign visitors, and these are chiefly development workers.
Well-organized, with a “Contents” section divided into headings such as “A Bush Taxi Ride from Hell,” “On the Road to Agadez,” and “A Visit to the Not-so-Traditional ‘Traditional’ Healer,” and even further subdivisions, To Benin and Back includes maps, a glossary and several black-and-white photos. There are essentially two parts: the first half of the work describes Starace’s training, arrival in Benin, his gradual enculturation into life in the village of Allade, and ultimate departure. On the face of it, there’s nothing new about how this particular section of the memoir is organized.
The second half of the book, however, consists of at least four parts: a narrative of Starace’s trip north to Agadez in Niger, a farrago of anecdotes about Peace Corps medical kits, getting a village haircut, the village “library,” obtaining a loan, an audience with district King Kpodegbe Toyi Djigla, notions of romantic love, numerous stories of encounters with animals (mostly snakes, goats, pigs) and notes on local vodun. In a third section (and the most singular), Starace deals with his return to the Unites States, and then, in a final section, describes a return trip he makes to Benin, this time with his wife.
I’d like to focus on two particular contributions I think this book makes; the first is to our understanding of how, after two years of Peace Corps service in an exotic locale, one attempts to make sense of a world changed by that experience, and in the spirit of the Peace Corp’s Third Goal of “bringing it all back home,” how, exactly, one can do this. It’s a marvelous, highly introspective, searching delight. Starace’s second unusual contribution might be more specifically directed to students of vodun, as he was an exceptional witness to vodun rituals and ceremonies in the very land where they were born, an opportunity almost always off-limits to outsiders. Indeed, by Starace’s reckoning, vodun is alive and well in much of Benin.
It’s a truism that Peace Corps Volunteers differ in how easily they become enculturated to the customs, mores and expectations in their strange new settings. For some, it’s a rapid adjustment, a ready embrace, particularly during the initial “honeymoon” phase. For others, acclimation comes slowly, and for some, the struggle becomes too much and it’s either reassignment or a trip home. In what I feel is the book’s most valuable and lengthy section, composed upon returning to America (“A Stranger in My Own Life”), Starace writes “I would call myself ‘bien integre’d’, or well-adapted to Beninese life.”
He’s not shy, however, about sources of frustration, especially with his attempts to balance villagers’ high expectations of many previous aid projects that, to their way of thinking, have brought in infusions of cash for, say, a school project or snazzy tractors. Development aid like this, Starace points out, are often doomed to failure; buildings are disused, tractors rust away in the fields for lack of proper maintenance. Though the villagers equate white people with funded projects, Starace sticks by the well-known Peace Corps axiom that “The people have to want to help themselves in order for handouts to be of any use in the long term.”
In the third section of the book, he begins by assessing what he accomplished and what he learned, examining his own deeply-felt “reverse” culture-shock in considerably more detail and honesty than found in other Peace Corps memoir. It’s trenchant and provocative. For example, there’s a subtle assessment we Volunteers make of one another as we look for signs of friends who have “gone native.” Starace notices that:
Volunteers would often tease each other as they observed one another doing something uniquely Beninese with skill, confidence and panache; they would say,”Wow, you’re bien integre’d!”
Often, this is said as a compliment, but not always, and Starace admits to a certain pride in his hard-earned rapport with villagers Moreover, he anguishes in this beautiful passage over his impending return to the States:
I feared it so much that I had nightmares from time to time while I was still in Benin . . .. When I was in Benin, I knew I was changing, but I did not know for sure how I was changing until I was back in the U.S. and could make comparisons with my old self. I was afraid to come to grips with the new person I had become after spending over two years in Benin. . .. I worried that “Gandaho” [Fon nickname given him by the villagers] would cease to exist because I wasn’t in Benin any more. “Gandaho” was my alter ego and I had to leave him back in Benin. I wondered, “was he dormant and waiting for me to return to Africa to be re-awakened, or was he gone forever? Who would I be in the U.S.? . . . my old self, “Gandaho”, or someone In between?
Back in the States, Starace is shocked, of course, to re-encounter Doritos, Ring Dings, the plethora of TV channels, American efficiency (“everything works!”), as well as our respect for individual privacy, almost totally absent in Benin. He is vexed, however, by “how little meaningful personal contact we have with others on a regular basis.” Many, if not most returned Volunteers, will see here a mirror of their own feelings upon returning to the States, the apparent superficiality, the separation of work and play, and hustle-bustle, all common elements of “reverse culture shock,” but which assault us nevertheless. He’s also struck by our wastefulness and, (wonderful observation!) our obsessions with weather predicting and forecasts “Must we predict everything?” he asks; “Can’t we leave anything to chance?”
I so want to meet this guy!!
Starace’s second most important contribution lies in what he shares about his entrée into the local vodun cult and his experience with exorcism, both enabled by his complete willingness to sponge up even the most esoteric features of village culture. He is first aware of the pervasiveness of vodun in village life on the way to his latrine when a young boy shows him a statue of the important deity, Legba, familiar to students of vodun as the opener of the gate to the supernatural world, and protector of their village.
He later happens upon a complex, colorful Langbeto vodun ceremony, richly described, where, even during an astounding magical appearance-disappearance-and-reappearance of a masked dancer, he is stared at by everyone curious about the “Yovo” (white man) in their midst, though fully welcomed. “It makes me realize how much I’ve adapted to being the stark minority here because I would never have ventured here alone when I first arrived in Benin. It also helps me empathize with minorities in the U. S., as I have never been a minority before.” He feels that what he has seen here in this extraordinary ritual, is something “purely African” and “unaffected by western influence.” This reviewer might have wished for some insights into the position of this ancient, foundational religion vis-a-vis Benin’s Muslim, Evangelical and Catholic adherents. Just this past November, Pope Benedict addressed large gatherings at St. Rita’s Church in Cotonou — the diocese organized in the late 1800s that is mere yards away from a vodun temple.
Inevitably, perhaps, things go wrong. The author suffers an odd sudden loss of hearing in one ear that is serious enough to send him back to the States for a few weeks; on his return, still, evidently, not wholly cured, he accepts an audience with a local “bush” (traditional) healer. As Starace crouches before him, we are treated to one proffered folk remedy after another, each more outlandish (to western ears) than the next. Listening patiently, and even after returning to the healer for follow-up counsel, Starace ultimately decides against these vernacular (and quite possibly dangerous or medically useless) nostrums. But —
Although I did not let him try to cure me, I was at least able to get what I really came for: a better understanding of traditional medicine and an interesting story to tell. Mr. Hihonvi seems normal to me except for the fact that he has an over-active imagination, which is a good filler for hard scientific knowledge that is scarce in a country as impoverished and undereducated as Benin.
Starace is not naïve; while embracing cultural relativity, he’s glad to have access to modern western medicine, but acknowledges that the local healer may be the next best thing.
The country having cast a spell on him, Starace revisits Benin with his wife after a seven-year hiatus. He wanted to reconnect, see what, if any legacy his work there had left, to see which aspects of his “Beninese personality” he had retained and which had been, after all, only temporary adaptations to life in Benin. He quickly encounters — even with his facility in both French and Fon — one fiasco after another as he attempts to cash Traveler’s Checks, resulting in a series of confrontations with bank tellers behaving badly, every bit the consummate bureaucrats. Happily, after a raucous welcome-back shindig, he learns that some of the small business owners and cooperative societies he worked with had improved their lot, and notes the ubiquity of cell-phones and internet cafes. Roads are still rutted, air pollution has worsened with more Beninese able to afford cars, and Evangelical missionizing seems to have increased mightily.
Finally, with To Benin and Back, we have a fiercely detailed look at a Peace Corps life lived richly in a land refulgent with color, and teeming with the energy of nearly fifty ethnic groups on the cusp of modernization. This glimpse is brought to us through the honesty and self-awareness of the author who, looking back over everything, says that —
I am able to see past and think past the cultural boundaries of our [American] society . . . what had changed most was my perspective and I began to reconcile my newfound values with the values of the American Culture . . .. I still appreciate people more, I am still frugal, I hate waste and I am more flexible, although I definitely still appreciate the efficiency and convenience of living in the U.S. . . . Benin is in my blood and it will always be a significant part of who I am . . .
If, in search of a real adventure, I was to embark in a month’s time on a trip to Benin, I would surely want to have read this book.
Note: Chris Starace has posted numerous photographs of his travels in Benin on the web. See his three-part website www.Fon-is-Fun.org that contains Fon language lessons, and a documentary, “Discovering Benin,” along with more about the book. He has been interviewed by various Westchester County (NY) newspapers (Google him by name), and he continues to weave his Peace Corps experiences into his classroom teaching.
Reviewer David Howard Day’s most recent book, Ruffling the Peacock’s Feathers: Stories from Village India, is based on his Peace Corps experience in Uttar Pradesh, North India (Xlibris 2010). He has two previous books, A Treasure Hard to Attain: Images of Archaeology in Popular Film, and The Life and Death of a Family Farm: Archaeology, History and Landscape Change. He has also published in Sierra Magazine and Ms. Magazine, and lives in Rochester, New York where he is emeritus professor of anthropology.