Archive for the ‘Beninese culture’ Category
Here’s a piece I recently wrote for an event where local authors read out passages from their books. I hope you enjoy it!
So, do they know it’s Christmas? The answer is most definitely yes, or maybe no. You see, it all depends on where you are. In the average African village, a day’s journey from the nearest city, Christmas morning begins in much the same way as any other morning: with cockerels crowing before the sun has even hinted it’s going to rise, goats braying tirelessly, and small groups of ladies – always up before the men – heading out down the narrow, rocky path which leads to the local well half a mile away, heavy clay pots perched skilfully on their heads. And as the huge, red semi-circle of the sun rises slowly and majestically on the misty horizon, dozens of white, wispy columns of smoke can be seen across the village, emanating from small wood fires in dusty courtyards. Within minutes, the warmth of the sun is felt, and long shadows from tall palm trees make the dirt road through the village momentarily stripy. Tropical birds, one by one, break into their usual exotic melodies to greet the new day, taking over – almost seamlessly – from the crickets, who’ve been chirping away non-stop since dusk.
If there’s a church in the village, it will probably have a Christmas service, though rarely an early one. Some will even sing somewhat Africanized renditions of ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ or ‘Silent Night’, accompanied by djembe drums, and with melodies somewhat modified to fit their pentatonic scale. After the service, they might share a ‘special’ meal of rice, sauce and chicken. Not particularly special though, as this is what they have every other day, alternating chicken with goat, or perhaps fish if the village is near water. No excitable children rushing downstairs to open masses of pristinely-wrapped gifts of all shapes and sizes. For starters, all the houses are single story! No brightly-coloured lights adorning the streets – this village still has no electricity, so that would be something of a challenge. And there’s none of the obscene over-indulgence the West deems both normal and acceptable as part of the ritual of celebrating Christ’s birth. These villagers consume the same number of calories in a week that the average Westerner would eat on Christmas Day alone. But they’re just happy to have some food in their stomach to get them through the day. And are they less happy than any of us on this special day? If anything, I’d say they were happier in many ways. They have none of the pressure which commercialization has brought to the Western Christmas and are just happy to spend time enjoying each other’s presence, and maybe doing a little less work for a day.
Now, if you go to urban Africa, then it’s an entirely different kettle of fish – or turkey if you’d rather. The swarming main streets of crazy Cotonou, Benin, are lit with brightly-shining, bell-shaped lights, alternating red and yellow for about a mile. Enormous Christmas trees – artificial of course – adorn the lobbies of swanky hotels, which pipe cheesy festive airs through every speaker at their disposal. And any white person outdoors at this time of the year, will be followed by groups of children carrying nativity scenes they have made from cardboard boxes (of varying quality, but never quite up to Blue Peter standard). As they scurry along behind you, they all sing the same song, in the hope of a coin in return. It goes:
Mon petit Papa Noël
My little Father Christmas
In many capital cities, a Christmas Market is held – for the ex-patriates of course, although some more prosperous Africans go along, often those who have lived in the West. The markets sell jewellery, wooden carvings, paintings, clothing, dried pineapple and mango chunks, peanuts – anything these ‘rich foreigners’ will spend their money on. At one such market, there was even the chance for my three children to go and see Father Christmas (for a small fee, of course). The queue was short and we were soon stepping into his tinsel-filled grotto.
You see, urban Africa has quickly learned that, at Christmas time, Westerners go crazy and spend even more money than they do the rest of the year. And so, every opportunity is taken to quite literally cash in on this. The larger supermarkets (still no bigger than your average Co-op) are adorned with giant inflatable Santas, reindeer or even snowmen. (How many local folk even know what snow is?) Inside, you can buy all manner of festive fare: French cheeses, wines, spirits, pâtés, chocolates – even Ferrero Rocher. Then there are Christmas lights, balloons, tinsel, party poppers, over-priced board games and endless tacky toys made in China, guaranteed to last at least until Boxing Day. Artificial trees – green, white or silver – take up a significant area of the shop floor, ranging from small and cheap to huge and expensive. I once even saw a real Christmas tree in a Lebanese-run supermarket in Bamako, Mali. Goodness knows what journey it must have made to get there. And it was priced at a mere 250,000 cfa – that’s three hundred English pounds. Tempted as I was, I decided I couldn’t quite justify blowing that much on a tree, however lovely it looked – or smelt! The best thing is that none of this starts until early December, when the supermarkets’ containers of festive goods finally arrive and are unpacked. Before that, there’s not even a hint of Christmas. And so, we get three weeks at the most of Christmassy goings- on, which is quite long enough in my book.
As a family, we always managed to recreate a pretty passable Christmas Dinner with what we could get hold of. Veg is easily available from any market: carrots, potatoes, beans – sometimes even broccoli. Brussels sprouts are something of a challenge, however, and can only be found in the tinned variety. They ooze out of the can, soft and brown and squashed, tasting even worse than the real thing. One British friend who spent an African Christmas with us almost a decade ago, still cites the ‘tinned sprouts’ as his most ‘memorable’ experience of the day. Mind you, he wasn’t there the year we bought a most interesting turkey from our Lebanese merchants down the road: My wife, Lois, was alone in the kitchen when she unwrapped the bird one sunny Christmas morning. She let out an almighty scream, and came running into the lounge, crying:
Intrigued, I went into our small kitchen, only to find an entire turkey, lying on the worktop: head, beak, claws – the lot. It looked just like, well, a dead turkey. It took me a good half hour of twisting, dislocating and chopping, before it even started to resemble a British supermarket turkey. And we got less meat than expected that year – I had paid for five pounds of ‘turkey’, but wasn’t expecting the first pound to be inedible.
If you gave me a choice between the three types of Christmas alluded to above, then I’d choose the urban African Christmas almost every time. I know I’d miss cosy log fire-lit pubs, the smell of real Christmas trees, and fresh sprouts. But an African Christmas is a much more relaxing affair, and does not invade your life for a quarter of the year, like back home. And you can choose to be Christmassy or not, getting together with like-minded ex-pats to enjoy a simple festive celebration, without the sometimes awkward obligation of spending a day with extended family members you hardly know. The weather’s warm and sunny too, of course, affording one the chance to sing outdoor Christmas carols in a tee-shirt (just don’t forget your mosquito repellent).
I love an African city Christmas, but, just occasionally – maybe every three or four years – take me to an African village for a Christmas untarnished by materialism, and where genuine love and hospitality pervade all aspects of life. For me, that’s what Christmas is really about.
Rob is author of “Adventures in Music and Culture”, available on Amazon in the UK and the USA, and globally in Kindle format. He lived in West Africa for eight years and is currently writing his second book, which is set in Mali.
Read an earlier blog post about Christmas in West Africa here (including a picture with Santa!)
Pictures of the turkey incident can be found on this blog post.
Rob’s first book, “Adventures in Music and Culture” has appeared in a number of publications and websites over the past few months. Here are some of them…
Have a look at the page here. It currently has a rating of 4.5 out of 5 – would you be able to rate it on there too?
If you are able, I’d be really grateful if you could share the book with your friends on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. Also, if you could review the book on Amazon or Goodreads, that would be really helpful too!
Rob’s Book, “Adventures in Music and Culture” is available on Amazon in the UK and the USA, and globally in Kindle format. Find out more here.
Now, before I start this list, a disclaimer: firsly, I LOVE Africa, even though there are things about it that I don’t like. Secondly, some of the things listed below are also reasons why I love Africa, because they are what makes Africa Africa. Finally, I leave this beautiful continent tomorrow and know I will miss it, so this is my own personal therapy to soften the blow somewhat. Here goes…
1. Being constantly conspicuous because of the colour of my skin
Rob’s book, ‘Adventures in Music and Culture’ is available on Amazon in the USA and the UK. Also worldwide in Kindle format.
1. Mobile phone scratch cards to top up your credit
1. How ‘outdoors’ everything is – people chatting on the streets, preparing food in their courtyards, selling all kinds of things, all outside. Streets are busy, active places. Few people own a car, and so the outdoors is where people meet each other. I guess it was like that in the West years ago too (though perhaps less in winter!)
2. How everyone is part of everyone else’s world. Unless you live in Yorkshire, you’re pretty unlikely to randomly address strangers in the street back home. Here, it’s completely normal. You can talk to anyone at any time, and you’ll never get that surprises – almost put out – look for ‘invading’ their personal space or peace and quiet. Community is still real here. I guess it was like that in the West once, too.
3. How nothing has a price (until you name it!) Visit a market in the UK, and you’ll see signs reading “Potatos £1.20 a kilo” or “Tomatoe’s £1” (and, yes, usually spelt like that!!) On an African market, there are not prices – YOU name the price you want and they will tell you if it’s high enough. If not, you discuss the price until you’ve reached an agreed amount.
4. Palm trees! Now, I’ve seen enough of these to know that they are not the ‘symbol of paradise’ many Westerners perceive them as. That said, there’s something wonderfully beautiful about these plants, and vastly different from any flora which grows in British climes.
5. How much dodgy wiring there is everywhere. In Britain, health and safety has gone mad! However, it does mean that you can put a plug into a socket without worrying that you’ll get zapped by 220 volts every time! I NEVER touch a plug with bare feet in Africa (once was enough!)
6. The absence of carpets. Why would you want them in a hot climate anyway? Rather, a nice mosaic-tiled floor, or even just polished concrete, does the job!
7. Flat roofs and white concrete walls. Now, where I live, it’s pitched roofs and red brick walls in most places. Not in Africa. Of course, there are mud huts and all kinds of other permutations, but the white walled, flat roofed building is number 1 in Urban Africa.
8. The sounds of an African night. Where I live is pretty rural. However, the nights are still silent, as far as animal life is concerned. In Africa, you can hear crickets, cicadas, frogs, fruit bats and all kinds of other wee beasties, all singing a delightful cacophony from dusk till dawn.
9. How clapped out most taxis are! Of course, there are some nice ones, but in many cases a cracked windscreen, poorly-fitting doors, missing seatbelts or non-existent suspension are the order of the day. This is what makes public transport in Africa interesting, after all!
10. How many warm smiles you see, in spite of adversity. British people smile sometimes. But usually when you’ve told them a joke or when they’re really happy. Africans are either happier in general, or just smile more. I passed a beggar in the street today, with little more than a few coppers in his small plastic bowl. He gave me the best smile I’d seen in a long time. Maybe it was like that in the West once, too.
Here’s another ‘sneak preview’ for those who have not yet got hold of a copy of my book. This was when I worked with the Bassar – or Ncam – people in Western Togo (Chapter 5 in the book):
“Whilst they are busy working on their songs – and as they ‘know the ropes’ by now – I take a few minutes to climb up the hill which continues behind the hotel. It’s a pretty steep one and there’s no time to make it to the very top today. However, I get far enough to admire a truly impressive view of Bassar, way down below, and the plain beyond it: lush, green and flat, extending to the horizon, many miles away. Parts of the distant horizon are marked by the undulations of tiny mountains, which I know are actually huge. Bassar itself is a mass of rectangular buildings with rusty brown roofs and small windows, punctuated by mango trees, teak trees, even a good number of coconut palms. The streets are long, straight and pale brown, and white smoke is rising from various locations across the town. Ladies are walking to or from the small market with bowls on their heads; muscular men, pouring with sweat, are chopping wood; children are playing with old motorbike tyres and old men are sitting in the shade watching the world go by. Weary, world-worn donkeys are pulling carts through the muddy streets as motorcycles whizz by, and small clusters of wandering sheep – like tiny balls of cotton – roam aimlessly through the town. Makeshift poles made from branches – not one of them straight – carry electricity to most homes, a mass of twisted cables dangling haphazardly between each. In one place, a lorry is unloading large sacks of charcoal and in an open grassy area, young people are playing football with great energy. This strangely idyllic view is somewhat spoilt by two large antennae, one at each end of the town, both painted the usual red and white. It is only then that I notice how many homes are equipped with television aerials; one or two even have satellite dishes!”
If you have read it, please write a brief review if you can. Thanks!
Here’s part of a page from the March/April edition of Idea Magazine, where my book is reviewed. (See it at the bottom of the page there?)
See the review here (on page 31)
Meanwhile, here’s what it says:
“This is an intriguing little gem of a book. It is part travel journal, part adventure story, part musical treatise. Baker is a ethnomusicologist and the book charts his travels and experiences in Africa. We hear about various journeys and the way local Christian expressions are using local music. Baker’s insight is that we need to use the music that means something to people. Then we can add extra meaning to the cultural patterns and resonances of the existing stuff. Too often missionaries land and try to get local folk to sing American soft-rock Christian anthems – but these lack depth in a local context. Baker’s book is really good on painting pictures and showing how music and culture are intertwined. He shows how Christianity thrives when culture is involved and this is a wake-up call to evangelicals who get all sniffy about culture. What strikes you most is just how likeable and engaging Baker is. His lovely little book makes a great travel companion. This book is like sinking into a comfy armchair. It is Billy Graham meets Michael Palin. A rare treat.”
Thanks Steve Morris for the cool review!
Or contact me and I can send you a signed copy for the RRP (+£1.40 p&p in the UK).
Thanks for reading!
“Adventures in Music and Culture” was released on 15th December 2012 and I’m pleased to say that folk are really enjoying reading it! Below are extracts from feedback I have received so far.
“Excellent travelogue. Well written with infectious energy. An absorbing read with just the right level of detail…as well as some laugh out loud moments. It also has some thought provoking points on culture. Recommended!”
“The book captures very well indeed the general experiences of Western expatriates working in not just the two countries covered but the whole west African region. Laced throughout with good humour. The book lies well alongside those written by well known travellers in the region such as Gerald Durrell.”
“It was a really interesting and enjoyable read!”
“It’s a good read.”
“A brilliant book about [Rob’s] experiences in Benin & Togo. If you have an interest in music, travel, mission or African culture then I’d suggest you add this to your reading list. It’s a really fun and interesting read.”
“I’m really enjoying the book. It’s bringing back a few interesting memories of Africa.”
“Very easy to read and I’d highly recommend it, especially if you have an interest in Africa, travel, music in different cultures and/or how God uses music to help people’s faith to grow.”
For other countries, try ordering from the above links, or contact me directly and I can post you a copy. Meanwhile, please share this blog post with friends who might be interested in reading the book. Thanks!
…so make sure you ask Santa for a copy!
Yes, I’m thrilled and excited to be able to share my African travels with you all, and to open people’s hearts and minds to the fascinating world of ethnomusicology. It will be available on the Ambassador International website soon, in paper and electronic form. Meanwhile, here’s an extract from the introduction to whet your appetites:
At last – I have an interesting job! One to which people respond: “Oh, how fascinating,” or: “Tell me more about what you do!” Although there’s not much money in it, it’s a job which is exciting, enriching, pioneering and intriguing. At times it can be frustrating, exhausting – even dangerous, but is never boring, tedious or repetitive, like some jobs I’ve had.
I used to have a job which I enjoyed, but which nobody else found particularly exciting. I would almost dread the inevitable party question: “What do you do for a living?”
So, this is why I’m delighted to have a job which is not only interesting to me, but for which other people show a genuine interest. It’s a job they can scarcely pronounce, let alone define or describe: I am an ethnomusicologist. “What does one of those do?” you’re asking yourself. See, you’re doing it too already!
Without going into too much boring detail, there are two main types of ethnomusicologist. The first is the secular type, who studies world music for the same reason Sir Edmond Hilary climbed Everest: because it’s there. Of course, this kind provides much vital information about music in culture and many useful anthropological insights along the way. The second type is the missionary ethnomusicologist or ethnodoxologist, who does the same kind of research as the first, but then applies this to Christian mission. “So, I’ve found this fact out about their music, how can I use it to help encourage local Christians and their churches?” The results – as I hope you’ll see – are often stunning, as people begin using their music, rather than something pertaining to a foreign culture.