Our Storyteller

Photo Courtesy of Judith Vlafonou

Madame Elise Agbaka

Originally from Dassa-Zounmè in the Coline Départment, Elise is a devoted mother. Through her work helping local families, she is an integral part of her community. The tale ”Avarism” presents an important lesson that has the ability to spread through the generations. Even though people are ungrateful, Elise believes that we must continue to be selfless and helpful to others. She hopes that this story will remind others of the value of helping others.


In Her Words

“My first name is Elise. I’m from Dassa-zounmè. At home there are many hills. I never went to school. In my village I helped my parents in the family fields. At the end of the seasons, my mother and I were going to sell our food in the market of Glazoué. It was after I married Rachelle’s dad that I came to Cotonou.”

“Currently, I am a cleaning lady in some houses in the neighborhood. I also make and sell soy cheeses.”

“Every day I will work with ladies in their homes. I do housework (washing dishes, cleaning the floor, collecting water … etc). I finish at around 3 pm and then take care of the work of my own house. 3 afternoon in the week I make cheese. 4 afternoon, I sell cheese. I feel useful in my community because of my work.”

“I was born from a polygamous family. My father has 9 children. My mother has 4 children including 2 girls. My parents are farmers. They live in Dassa.”

Madame Elise and Her Family
Photo Courtesy of Judith Vlafonou

“I had two children myself (Rachelle and Cedrick). I have my niece Florence who lives with us. So I am with 3 children. It’s my kids who make me happy about being a mom. I take pleasure in taking care of them.”


Our Story

Read the book!

Avarice Story

Listen to Madame Elise tell the story!



How To Make Soy Cheese

Madame Elise makes soy cheese to sell and eat. Here’s how she does it:

First you have to soak the soybeans in water for a while, after they are taken out of the water and crushed in a mill.

Then, sieve the paste obtained using water to extract the liquid from the soy bran.

Put the soy liquid in a large pot over the fire, and let it boil until it reduces down a little (so that the boiling liquid doesn’t boil over onto the ground).

Boil the soy liquid that remains in the pot until it becomes thick. Then add in corn water. (When I say corn water, it is the liquid that is leftover when one boils corn paste to make a dish called akassa. Some people prefer to use a mixture of water and alum, but I have never made it that way, I use corn water to thicken it.)

Keep it on the heat and when it seems to coagulate, it is ready. A strainer is used to separate the paste obtained from the liquid.

Then we tie it up tightly using grain bags, and weigh it down with a stone to press out all of the liquid.

Once it has been strained for long enough, I cut it into pieces, and put all of the pieces into a marmite (a large covered bowl) and season it with salt and freshly ground spices (sometimes ginger, sometimes hot peppers). Let it sit for a while until the spices have absorbed.

Fry the pieces in vegetable oil, and they are ready to eat.

Making Soy Cheese from Marcy O'Neil on Vimeo.

Making Soy Cheese from Marcy O’Neil on Vimeo.

Soy Cheese  Cedrick enjoying soy cheese
The finished product!   And Cedrick enjoying some cheese.
Photos and Video Courtesy of Judith Vlafonou

Madame Elise makes cheese once a week, all year round. Her cheese is very popular. It sells for about 25 francs (4 cents in US dollars) and she sells about 150 pieces each week!

We’re grateful to Judith Vlafonou for visiting Madame Elise, taking the video, and copying down the instructions.


Yam Farming

Avarice deals with yam farming, which is an important and integral crop in Benin.

A Yam Farm
Photo Courtesy of Judith Vlafonou

Madame Elise on farming: “Because I have farmed, I know a little about the seasons. In recent years, the seasons have changed. The planting and harvesting seasons for condiments (tomatoes, peppers) have become unpredictable because the seasons seem to be changing. Everything is expensive all year round. In January it rained and even until February there is harmattan.”

Harmattan“a punishing, chill wind that rises out of the Sahara carrying dust, debris, and sand, is seasonal. ” – Randall Wood – Into the Wild Spaces.

Yam Pilee – A typical yam dish:

Source: https://katieinbenin.wordpress.com/2013/12/13/wa-du-nu/

“Yam Pilee: Pounded yams. Yams here are white and very starchy – not the sweet things that Americans eat at Thanksgiving. This is a northern(ish) dish. It’s typically made by boiling peeled yams, then putting them in a giant mortar and pestle. Then three women or children take large pounding sticks and pound it in a rhythm: thunk – thunk – thunk! thunk – thunk – thunk! It’s a bit stickier than pate, and is usually served with a spicy, oily peanut sauce that is delicious. Yam pile is a bit of a delicacy here since most southerners don’t really know how to make it.”

Check out Prisca Kumako’s Food Blog from Cotonou!

More about Yam Festivals:

The New Yam Festivals of West Africa:


The Socioeconomic Benefits Derived From Festivals. A Case Study of Asolgi Yam Festival in Ghana:



More About Benin

Child fostering like Madame Elise has done with her niece Florence is common in Benin. It provides an opportunity for children to attend school and/or earn money working when they would otherwise not have the chance in their home villages. Read more about child fostering and the important differences between fostering and child trafficking here.

Learn more about Benin:

Gender discrimination and its impact on income, productivity, and technical efficiency: evidence from Benin

10 Facts About Poverty in Benin



We are grateful for the support and resources at Michigan State University that has allowed us to create our story, and the LEADR lab for providing the technology and assistance necessary for creating our storybooks. We are additionally thankful for the Peace and Justice Studies for emphasizing our role in globalization and for adopting this project that has allows us to implement the lessons learned in the classroom.

Additionally, we are thankful for Three Sisters and their love of Benin. They have prompted initiatives to better the lives of students and families in Benin. The Three Sisters believe that education is paramount, and they dedicate their work to making sure all students have the ability to learn and reach their highest potential.

Most importantly, we are endlessly grateful for our colleagues in Benin. From taking photos to offering their suggestions, their support is invaluable. We are thankful for Judith and Sandrine and their constant help, and for Elise for graciously sharing her story. Without their unwavering kindness and assistance this project would not be possible.

Learn more about the Three Sisters Education Fund: The TS Education Fund