– June 5th Our last Day in Bénin

Sadly, this is our last day in Bénin and Martin left last night to return to Calgary! But we have quite a treat awaiting us for our last day here. We are going to watch a football game between the Squirrels of Benin and the Elephants of Ivory Coast!

First we were spoiled to awesome bright yellow tshirts of the home country’s team and introduced to the hymns so we could almost fit in with the home crowd;)

What an experience it was. As Heather summarized it on Twitter: ‘’CRAZY experience @ Benin vs. Ivory Coast soccer game! Some would call it a near-death experience! Caroline and I stuck together & prayed!’’

It was madness. Too many people for the amount of seats in the stadium. Fans pushing to try to get through the gates and into the stadium. People climbing the wall leading to the seating area, police officers hitting them with sticks so they could not be successful. Then there were police officers and fans standing which prevented fans to see and there was constant yelling to have people sit down. We were scared a brawl would erupt. Although Heather and I would probably be able to take on most African men because she is stronger and I am bigger, we did not wish to witness an out of control crowd! One thing was sure, we would not be able to leave our seats to go to the bathroom during the whole game. What was surprising was that even though people were mad, they would always remain polite in their yelling at each other. For example, they would scream: ‘’Madam, Mister please sit down, I cannot see!’’ No swearing, no bad names! Not quite the case here in Canada when fans get angry! And we witnessed something I never thought was possible, a group of about 30 fans started to yell at a fan for him to STOP smoking! How amazing is this!? Smoking is not allowed in the stadium but to go to the extent of having the crowd tell you to stop smoking, that was incredible to see! Amazingly, not many people in Bénin smoke! I was lucky to be able to see most of the action, unfortunately Heather’s best view was the police officer standing inches away from her. The final score was 6-2 for the Ivory Coast. Lots of goals to witness, unfortunately not enough for the home team! After the game, we decided to wait for most of the crowd to exit the stadium! Still it was crazy traffic coming out in the parking lot. It was time to return to the hotel to shower and get our luggage. Then we went for our farewell dinner with the Right to Play staff. We smiled when we realized we were returning to the lean chicken restaurant where our trip actually started!

When you meet someone new, what you never know is what inspires them to study or work in a specific field. You can never find out unless you are let into someone’s personal motivations. You cannot imagine the extent of the tragedy someone has experience unless you are let in the story. Heather and I are quite the curious types and throughout the trip we asked questions on sensitive topics that we cared about to find answers on. During this last dinner, we sat with Marie-Joséphine who is the director of RTP Bénin and an extremely smart and kind women who has devoted her life to child protection in her native country of Bénin. We ventured to ask her if female genital mutilation is prevalent in Bénin. World Health Organization estimates that 100 to 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM. We found out through Marie that FGM is still prevalent in the north of Bénin. Sadly in Africa an estimated 92 million girls have undergone FGM. The causes of female genital mutilation include a mix of cultural, religious and social factors within families and communities. Shockingly, FGM is often motivated by beliefs about what is considered proper sexual behaviour, linking procedures to premarital virginity and marital fidelity. FGM is in many communities believed to reduce a woman’s libido, in the hope that she will remain faithful after marriage. Marie began sharing her own personal family story. I must warn you that it might be shocking and disturbing to some. Marie gave us the permission to share her story. One thing is sure, it is worth of being written and shared so we can hopefully educate on what is happening here everyday so we can possibly bring about social change and protect the children.

Marie comes from a clan from the north of Bénin. Thankfully Marie’s parents did not have her or her two sisters undergo circumcision. Why? Because both of them are proof that you can escape cultural traditions and still be successful. Her grandparents from both sides truly came ahead of their time and raised a family of strong and educated children. Many unthinkable cultural traditions are still practiced in small areas of Bénin. One of them is a child that is born bum first, or facing down, or at the 8 months mark is considered a witch and must be killed. The facts that Marie even exist is incredible, her mother was born bum first and her father facing down. Marie’s maternal grandparents hid their daughter in a Catholic nursery. Marie’s paternal grandparents had lost 10 of 13 children in childhood and refused to abide to the tradition and kill their son. The tradition is that if the son is not killed, the father will soon die. Unfortunately, this revealed to be true in this instance as Marie’s grandfather died soon after. Her mother was terrified her son would be killed by members of the tribe so she send him away to an orphanage ran by catholic priests. Both her parents received an education and later met in university. Being thankful to be alive because their parents helped them escaped cultural traditions, it was certain that they, as adults, would not abide to the customs. Sadly Marie’s mother underwent FGM when she was a young girl but she made sure in her adult life that her daughters would not go through that suffering.

Another traditional view is that crying during childbirth is a sign of weakness and it is believed that circumcised women will not be tempted to cry. Marie was determined to proof everyone wrong when she gave birth to her four children. She refused to cry to show everyone that there were no correlations between the two. Another unusual belief is that a child that grows his upper teeth before the bottom ones is considered a witch and must also be murdered. We asked what happened to the babies who were deemed witches. Marie told us they are placed in a closed room where hot peppers are put on a fire. The fumes are deadly when exposed to them in a closed area. Several years ago, a friend of Mary from university called her because her daughter started growing her upper teeth and she was convinced her husband would kill her if he noticed. We are talking here about educated people that sadly still obey traditions that have been unfortunately enforced and encouraged for decades. Marie’s friend was panicked and hopeless. Marie came up with an idea; she would take care of the young girl when the husband would be at home until the bottom teeth would start to show. So from the lunch break to right after work from 5:30-9:30pm, Marie would take the young girl and once the husband would go to sleep, she would return the baby home. For about two weeks they were able to prevent the husband from noticing. If he would ask where the daughter was, his wife would say that the baby was comfortable with Mary and that she enjoyed taking care of her. Incredible Marie figured out a plan that saved her life. Today the daughter is 18 years old and attending university. Today the three women share that unbelievably powerful secret.

Marie’s parents’ education empowered them to stop the cycle of mutilation in their family despite the peer pressure to preserve it. Their three daughters and three sons followed in their footprints and went on to all receive university degrees, in some cases master degrees and PHDs. Two of them are currently working on post-doctorate degrees. They have all the reasons in the world to be proud of their children, but so should they be equally proud of their parents and grandparents. Marie and her siblings are committed to protect children’s rights in Bénin. One of her sisters owns an orphanage. Marie has accomplished that mission through Right to Play where she has dedicated her life to child protection. I believe that we must share this story and talk about FGM. This practice reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of violence against women.

RTP is so lucky to have Marie in its organization and I am thankful she has shared her story with us. I am amazed by the inner strength of the Right to Play staff I have met in Bénin and the commitment they demonstrate in their daily actions to improve the lives of children.

What an incredible journey I have experience in Bénin with Right to Play. I am so grateful for the opportunity to have witnessed first hand the positive influences of the RTP programs in the lives of underprivileged children. Thank you to the RTP Staff in Bénin: Marie-Joséphine, Roméo, IB, Christiane, Gérald and many more. Thanks also to Robert, Martin and Heather with whom I truly have enjoyed this adventure and getting to know them. Wonderful people and advocates for Right to Play!

Thank you for following me during my adventure in Bénin! I appreciate it greatly!