Archive for the 'Trips' Category

Colorful, Vibrant Nigeria

December 10, 2010

Deborah Robin Croft wrote

As we were flying over Nigeria, I couldn’t believe the diversity of the landscape below me. First, flying over the Northern part of the country, the desert below stretched endlessly for hours during the flight, with vast tan and ochre expanses sprinkled with ant-sized communities of human habitation. Slowly, the terrain became hillier and greener. Finally, muddy, rain-swollen rivers and pockets of water that must be lakes appeared. But the country is enormous and the flight seemed never-ending. When we finally stepped out of the plane, we were greeted by torrential rains because, at the end of October, it was still the tail-end of the rainy season.

It’s wonderful how green the planned capitol city of Abuja, Nigeria is during the rainy season.

Nigeria has many different tribes with their own languages. Some examples are the Yoruba in the northern part of the country and the Ibo in the South. One Saturday, our team at the U.S. Embassy in Abuja took a field trip to the Nike (pronounced Nee-Kay) Art Center where we were treated to a performance of traditional dances.
Nike is a famous artist in Nigeria. She is known for her hand-dyed cloth creations. So, our group of 20 had a class in tie-dye using dyes made from indigo, ground bark and vegetables. Nike’s artisans also showed us how to do wax paintings on the cloth using bird feathers as paint brushes.

In the month of November, right before Thanksgiving, the US Ambassador to Nigeria, Terence P. McCulley, traveled to several northern Nigerian towns to meet with local officials and leaders and to visit some USAID-Nigeria partnership projects. The experience was extremely rewarding and some of these projects are producing excellent results in fields as important and diverse as human health, international trade, and education. The best thing about Nigeria for me however, is the warm and vibrant culture and people.

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“This Time for Africa”: Soccer, Food, and Voodoo

June 22, 2010

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Danielle Skinner, U.S. Africa Command Public Affairs Office, is blogging from Cotonou, Benin while supporting a pandemic response exercise which brings together representatives from 15 African nations to collaborate on the development of local, national, and regional disaster response plans.

World Cup Fever

Awoken in the middle of the night to the sounds of Shakira’s “Waka Waka” song (This Time for Africa) I groggily walked to the window and saw a group of Africans dancing in the parking lot with the now-famous World Cup theme song blasting from their car radio.  They looked like they were having so much fun, I couldn’t even be annoyed at being woken up.

I am currently in Cotonou, Benin for U.S. Africa Command’s Pandemic Response exercise, the first one in West Africa. Civilian and military participants from 15 African countries will work together throughout the week to develop and assess their local, national, and regional plans for a potential pandemic disaster. I came a few days before the conference to get settled in and participate in a pre-exercise just for members of the Benin Armed Forces.

It is a wonderful experience to be in Africa at the time of its first World Cup. While Benin may be separated geographically from the activities in South Africa, they are certainly not excluded from the hype.  TVs at hotels, bars, and restaurants are displaying live soccer games or recaps of games and vendors are selling world cup paraphernalia.

On the way here, I noticed that the airports were also filled with people donning their favorite country’s flags and singing songs. I have never been a big fan of soccer (or “football” to the rest of the world) but the excitement here is contagious and I can’t help finding myself drawn in.

Spaghetti and more

Eating breakfast Saturday with a member of the Benin Army, I had to laugh when I asked him what kinds of food are unique to Benin. The first food he listed was spaghetti.  I told him, ” I always thought that was more of an Italian dish.” He explained that they make their spaghetti a special way with various spices added to it.  Since then I have noticed that spaghetti does seem to be a very popular dish here, and I have had at least one spaghetti dish each day so far.

Besides spaghetti, Benin’s staple foods are yams, rice, and corn.  I got to experience the local food when we visited the house of Firmine, U.S. Africa Command’s in-country representative for the Embassy’s Office of Security Cooperation.  Firmine is a local national who has worked at the U.S. Embassy for more than 20 years. She is such an interesting person and I enjoyed learning about the local culture from her.  She truly put together a feast for us!  We had beans with a tomato paste (a little spicy) and a flour powder that you sprinkle on top.  We also had pate, a paste made from cornmeal which is another staple meal in Benin.  The traditional way to eat pate is to use your fingers, rolling the pate into a ball and eating it with spinach or other greens.  She also served fish and fried chicken. Although I was stuffed after the first plate, I found myself going up for seconds. Delicious!

It was a really memorable night that we spent talking, eating, and watching Cameroon and Denmark compete in the World Cup.  Firmine recommended visiting a Voodoo village about an hour from Cotonou.  We took her advice and planned a daytrip on Sunday, our free day, to explore the birthplace of Voodoo and take a historical journey along the slave route used to transport slaves from Africa to the Americas.

Voodoo Village

When Americans think of “Voodoo” we associate it with something evil or cultish, sensationalized by Hollywood to include casting evil spells with the use of voodoo dolls.  I learned that voodoo actually originated in Benin and is an ancient religion practiced by approximately 60 percent of the population in Benin. Contrary to popular belief, voodoo is a peaceful religion centering around the veneration of ancestors.  According to my tour guide, the voodoo religion should only be practiced for good, never for evil.  Those who practice voodoo believe that life derives from the forces of nature: earth, water, fire, and air.

The birthplace of voodoo is a town in Benin called Ouidah, a former slave port on the Atlantic Ocean.  Our first stop was the Python Temple, a voodoo temple filled with pythons, which are sacred in Benin. I had the chance to hold one around my neck, which was a bit unnerving, but we were told it was a “friendly python.” The people in Ouidah believe the pythons protect the village and act as intermediaries between the physical and spiritual world. In return for this protection, people protect the pythons and allow them to roam freely.

We also visited the Sacred Forest where ancient trees are preserved as well as ancient statues representing the voodoo deities. Our guide explained that according to legend, the king of the voodoo gods never died, but took the form of a tree. He then invited us to touch the tree and make a wish (only good wishes allowed).

Voodoo was brought to the Americas by slaves from Benin. We traveled about four kilometers on the road that was used to transport the slaves to a beach area where they were shipped to Senegal. In Senegal, slaves were consolidated and packed onto ships headed to South America.

It was a somber part of the tour learning about the terrible conditions the slaves were forced to endure.  We saw the Memorial of Remembrance, a large wall with images telling the history of slavery in Benin. We also walked through the “Gate of No Return,” a monument separating the beach from the road in remembrance of the thousands of slaves who walked through there.

Benin or Venice?

One thing I haven’t yet mentioned is that it is the rainy season in Benin.  It doesn’t just rain, it pours for hours every day causing extreme flooding throughout the region. We were caught in the rain the entire time of our tour, which is why we look like drowned rats in some of our photos.

On the way back from Ouidah, we drove on streets that looked more like rivers, with people wading knee-deep in water in some places.  The water rose all the way to the door-level of houses reminding me of the canals in Venice, Italy.  I am told the flooding happens in Benin every other year, and it is unfortunately very hard on the people, displacing many of them from their homes.

That brings me back to the purpose of my trip in Benin–to attend a conference on pandemic disaster response.  I hope that the lessons learned by the Benin military and civilian representatives during this week will help prepare them for all kinds of emergencies–not only pandemics but flooding and other natural disasters.  It is great to see so many people from different countries, backgrounds, and jobs collaborating towards one common goal–enhancing Benin’s capability to respond to complex humanitarian emergencies.

I look forward to seeing all that is accomplished by the end of the week!