Members describe their visits to Bonou

Peter writes: "Having heard so much about Bonou from Laurence, it was with great excitement and anticipation that we arrived and we were totally overwhelmed by our reception: At the entrance to the village we were met by a group of musicians, drummers and girls dancing. With immense noise and energy they escorted us to the village itself where about 600 people were sitting waiting for us… In Europe we are used to images of passive helpless Africans but the reality we saw is a vibrant community with its effective democratic structures in place, which knows what it wants and how to get there. This is real overseas aid: direct cooperation with local people! Our joint financial contributions will make this project work. We are not giving hand-outs but sharing a journey with the people of Bonou. We were privileged to share their lives and to learn as much from them as they do from us. We are rich financially but they have immense social wealth that we have lost: family solidarity and social obligation, respect for the old and the sense that a child is a gift for the whole extended family and not just the parents, a way of resolving conflicts peacefully and fairly ... I have returned full of energy to do more and having had the greatest welcome of my life."

Mark writes: "Money is important to any such work, but one thing people in Bonou definitely do not need is help from any more "parachutists" – specialists who come in for brief assessment visits, file reports, make recommendations and then leave to go and do something else. What is essential is engagement with them in a project of their choice (since only they really know what they need), assisted by us who provide the financial seed-corn, and perhaps can help to buy in specific outside technical help, without any hint of patronising".

Sylvie writes: "Although Laurence had told us to expect a "warm" welcome when we went to "our" village in Bonou, even she, I think, didn’t quite expect warmth on this scale! For those among us who, being British by birth or by adoption, are of a more reticent nature, it was overwhelming but utterly contagious…What struck me most though was first the exemplary way the village is structured and organised, and has already set up so many self-help schemes: from micro-credit to training schemes for women – and secondly, something which the more sceptical among us find difficult to believe until they have seen it: this, what we are trying to do in Bonou, is not just about money – it’s about friendship".

Caro writes: "Just five days in Bénin and now for the big day: We are off to attend the inauguration of the girls’ Training Centre. After two hours hard driving we arrive in Bonou at 10.30am to see a large welcoming banner announcing the Inauguration in huge bold letters. As we climb out of the car we are immediately overcome by noise, excitement, colour and three zangbeto (Village guardians, voodoo characters made of heavy straw and reminding me of ‘It’ in the Adams family). It is extraordinary and totally exhilarating to be caught up in the crowd of smiling faces and noise. The sound of the drums, clapping and singing sweep us along and we are directed to a freshly built green palm canopy on velvet and wooden armchairs at one end of an open space surrounded by even more people. To one side is a collection of women bedecked in a riot of colours, deep pink, green, red, purple, blue, all bright but harmonious and energising in their exuberance. They are singing and making music and swaying. We are shepherded to the chairs, given the "water of welcome" offered to each of us in turn and we have to tip a little to the ground to honour the ancestors. The zangbeto begin their show of illusion overseen by a tall elegant man with cowrie shells at his neck and a spirit woman who moves with a graceful power. Finally the ceremony begins as the Préfet (the highest civil servant in the province representing the Minister) has finally arrived with her retinue… She turns out to be a rather impressive woman with a lovely manner and a strong presence. She tells the crowd that she had been charged by the minister to emphasise the importance of education for girls and reiterates the government’s promise to aim for free education for all. It is time to open both the centres and to cut the yellow and green ribbons before walking around the lovely pink and blue buildings laid out around a central "paillotte". After a feast of mutton, tomato, chilli and rice, we are taken back to the Centre to a meeting with the village elders under the palm shelter before the light fails and the evening falls. We sit in the easy chairs with the sun getting lower in the sky, so aware of this unique privilege, listening to the elders… Too soon we realise that sadly it is time to go. Darkness had fallen by the time we joined the main road to Porto Novo and on to Cotonou, but this unforgettable day will stay with me for ever as it has had a profound effect on me. I returned to Britain determined to do my utmost to help the village and to be an even more active member of FoB".

Patsy writes: "The students and staff of Dangbo Lycée fêted us with a wonderful welcome: students lining the road into the school, with drums and dancing … The purpose of our visit was to present football kit to the school in the hope that this is only the beginning of an ongoing relationship and friendship; we are hoping this will lead to a full and two-way school link with a secondary school in Oxfordshire and the building of a new library. Dangbo Lycée has 2600 students from a wide catchment area including Bonou, the students are taught in classes of 70-80; commitment to education is high but resources and infrastructure – particularly buildings – are poor. The celebration began with a group of six students – 3 girls and 3 boys - performing a colourful and expressive dance accompanied by drums and singing. This was followed by an amusing role-play by members of the football team on the theme of the need to have both talent and good equipment to make a successful team. The humour and laughter was infectious and thoroughly enjoyed by all. The formal business then followed with the presentation of the equipment preceded by the inevitable speeches of welcome and thanks from the Director of the school, the mayor of Dangbo and Laurence on behalf of the Friends of Bonou. The kit was very gratefully received by the team and following the presentations we were offered drinks and croissants from the staff. A female teacher approached us to let us know that she planned to set up a girl’s football team in the near future – a note for FOB to remember to fund their equipment in due course!!! We left the school again accompanied by drums, warm greetings and friendly faces and with increased determination to improve our link with Dangbo Lycée"

Mary writes: "My effervescent singing friend Patsy had been feeding me information, photographs and tales of Benin and in particular of the Sonagnon Training Centre in Bonou over the last two years. She invited me to various fundraisers for the project be they musical, gastronomic or bead-buying frenzies and she excited me with tales of her experiences in the little-known country of Benin and the fabulous work that was being done for the benefit of the girls at the centre. I was really impressed by the fact that it was such a co-operative venture, a journey together. The village was being consulted regularly and involved in the decision-making and it wasn't just a case of actions being taken because richer, educated and experienced Europeans considered their ideas were what the village needed and what would be good and right for them. When Patsy casually suggested that I might be interested in seeing the centre "for real" she must have spotted by the demented enthusiasm of my response that I would indeed be very interested! The opportunity to visit such a project and experience a country alongside and guided by people who were either heavily involved in the project or actually living in Benin was a cultural learning activity of which I wanted to be a part. November was the time agreed for the trip with the vital and totally amazing Laurence. I thought I was prepared for what I would meet there. It turned out that I certainly was prepared for much of what I would encounter in a country that was still developing and was short of much of the infrastructure and luxuries of our society but I was certainly not prepared for the amazing strength, positivity, vibrancy and generosity of spirit of the people I was to meet there. It was a truly awesome and indeed humbling experience, totally unforgettable and the cause of much reflection then, now and, I am sure, forever. I am so grateful to have been part of such a wonderful journey. There were so many spellbinding experiences that I could recount but I will concentrate on my first visit to The Centre. The whole adventure of travelling along the major road from Cotonou to Bonou was an eye opener in every sense of the word. Motorbikes by the thousand, cars and giant battered trucks all surged enthusiastically along the road, overflowing with people or goods, with seemingly no concept of which side of the road they were on, let alone any lane discipline! Alfred our "best driver in the world" was calm, assertive and determined while we British gasped and held our collective breath as we sped towards the oncoming traffic! I was very excited as we approached the village for the first time. We had turned off the smart new concreted road, bordered by busy shops stalls and markets, into the village and onto a dusty, bumpy, rutted track passing through an area consisting of quiet collections of straw-topped huts. The explanation for the unusual quietude of the track was clear as we climbed down from our 4X4: We were immediately surrounded by a massive cloud of colour, smiling faces, cheering, drumming and enthusiasm. Women and men were dressed in a riotous array of vibrant kaleidoscopic materials, a mass of exuberance and good cheer. These villagers clearly adored Dominique, Laurence, Paulin and Patsy but we, the "first-timers" e.g. Lisa, Chris and I, were treated to the same loving welcome. I was overwhelmed by the total joy and friendliness of these amazing people. For the first but certainly not the last time that day I could feel the tears welling. We were led in an enthusiastic, noisy and extraordinary procession to the centre of the village, accompanied all the way by singing, swaying, drumming and dancing. As a fairly quiet and shy Brit I was caught up in the contagious nature of this activity and was soon dancing along with the rest. As this mass of excited humanity approached the central area we were aware of three new participants in the crowd: the magical and mysterious Zangbetos. We were honoured by the appearance of three masked, illusory, guardian "haystacks." They were to perform again later and we were to be entranced, intrigued and slightly disturbed by the power, excitement and mystique of these voodoo characters. We were presented with a bouquet of local flowers and leaves then led to a canopied area where we were given pride of place under a canopy on the locally carved, wooden, padded chairs. There followed entertainment from several village groups. Firstly the girls from the Centre sang us a welcome song. It was simply charming and very moving. Even though we did not understand the words we could hear our names as part of the song. The rhythm and movement of the girls was terrific and their vocal harmonies entrancing. After more extraordinary dancing and singing it was time for some important speeches. Paulin translated for us from the local language, Fon. I was impressed by the clear support of the whole community for this project. This was clearly their project which the Friends of Bonou were helping them to realise. Laurence and Dominique replied to the speech and Dominique encouraged us all to learn together and to be open to the ideas and views of others so that we can develop effectively. We should also remember he said, that it is what we can give to society that should be the most important thing in our lives. After appreciative and enthusiastic applause the ceremony continued with more dancing and the reappearance of the Zangbetos. It was impossible not to be intoxicated and intrigued by these shaking trembling dalek-like haystacks. It was pretty perplexing to see that, when upended, there was no sign of any human dancer under the frame, only the appearance of various other animate and inanimate beings such as snakes, rabbits, tortoises and coffins! The Zangbetos were eventually led away by their ever- attentive minders. After an exuberant farewell song we were led into the peaceful haven of the centre to be shown around by the shy but delightfully proud students. They were very keen to display what they had learned and I was full of respect for what they had achieved. Everything we were shown and told made such perfect sense and I was looking forward to the workshop later in the week when future plans for the Centre would be discussed by the Village Elders, Friends of Bonou, members of the Management Committee and Centre Trainers. If only I had space to describe that stunning meeting as well but Lisa is doing this below in this report! We were shown the brand new dormitories for the girls. These were full of, not just any beds, but beautifully carved wooden beds. It must be fantastic for the girls not to be sleeping on the floor of the workshops any more. Finally we were treated to a fantastic lunch cooked by the girls and served to us with such grace and modesty under the watchful eye of their trainer. It was truly wonderful. All too soon we had to take our leave and set off on the bustling road back to Cotonou. This was a visit which has had a profound effect on me. It has left me with such a good feeling inside and a determination to be more thankful for my good fortune and to be less materialistic in a world which would surely benefit by learning from Bonou the true wealth of family solidarity, respect and social responsibility. I was certainly privileged to have experienced this welcome and I went on to experience so many other awesome happenings. It was simply the best time. I hope that I shall now become more involved with raising funds for this inspiring charity."