When I first told my friends that I was going to Benin, the most common response that I received wasn’t ‘oh that’s great!’ but instead, it was oddly ‘where’s that?’. And to be fair, I hadn’t heard of the country until two years ago.
Benin, a small, seemingly insignificant country in West Africa, had enjoyed a relatively peaceful history and a stable government. Formerly a French colony, there are many things that reminds you that it was indeed a French territory, from the language, to the structure of governance, and to their food (you can actually buy baguettes simply along the side of the road).
Upon arriving in Cotonou, the largest city in the country, it doesn’t take long for your personal space (which we so love in North America) to be challenged. Yet, personally I find that there’s a charm in the seemingly chaotic city. Motorbikes everywhere and people set up little shops by the side of the road. The smell of smoke and the sight of haze were prevalent where ever you go as they burn rubbish on the side of the road every evening.
My time in Benin was eye opening and convicting. Visiting the water wells provided by GAiN’s Water for Life Initiative have made me realized that there are indeed more pressing problems out there. Not only was I confronted with some of the greatest disparities, I was able to see the vibrancy and resiliency of its people. It certainly got my head thinking.
Whenever we are thirsty in North America, we don’t need to think twice about finding something to drink. There's always a plethora of options: distilled, filtered, sparkling or the tap (if you are really desperate). But, the majority of people in Benin still struggle to find something that's so basic. In fact, sometimes they would spend hours walking; literally risking their lives because they are trying to find swamps that are not even clean to bring back to their family.
We’ve spent eight hours in the car travelling to the north of the country and went to a village called Goro Bani. As we arrived there, we were greeted with dancing, singing and a speech by the chief of the village. It was obvious that these people were grateful. The chief said that women had to go cross a railway track and the main highway to get dirty water from the swamp, which was quite dangerous.
We then talked to a woman named Corimoo, who was one of the most expressive dancers when we arrived. She said she believed the well was there because of her daughter. She then told us the story: before GAiN provided the well, one night she and her daughter went out to fetch water at 2:00 am. There was a line up at that time as they had to wait till the water seeped into the hole they dug. She finally filled the first bucket and sent her daughter home with it and told her to bring the bucket back while she filled the second. Her daughter never made it home as she was killed crossing the highway. Just like that, an innocent life was gone.
Now the water well in Corimoo's village is literally in the middle of it. People just have to take a few steps to find clean and safe drinking water, eliminating any traveling time. Corimoo said she had no words to express her gratitude for the well. And to tell you the truth...she didn’t need to. I personally felt it and I teared up.
Water has so much more meaning there. Water means security; it means dignity; it means health. As they say it in Africa - Water is Life.
I’ve been back to Benin a few times since and I will never forget Corimoo and the transformation that the water well brought to her village. It was an absolute honor and privilege to hear her story and to share it with others. As I’ve travelled to many villages, I can truly see the difference that a well has made in people’s lives. I know that there are a lot more stories like Corimoo all over the country.
It’s easy to feel discouraged when one looks at the situation in Benin. There's so much more needed to be done; including their struggle for development. But one thing that I’ve learned is that we do have the capacity to act. While we cannot completely lift Benin out of poverty, there are things that we could do to make the situation better. To me, there’s nothing more meaningful than being part of a cause that will bring such tangible change in people’s lives.
Like I mentioned before, the Beninese are vibrant. They are also kind, caring and resilient. Even though they are confronted everyday with the realities of life and the struggle to have a better future, they remain optimistic; praying to their gods that one day their lives would be made better. I think we could help them with that. They have a powerful story to tell, stories that would inspire us to become more aware of the realities of the world and be agents of change. They really just need a platform to tell those stories. Perhaps it's best to allow messengers like you and I to tell it to others.