The Red Oil
Location of the Story
The image below illustrates where the story was created and where the story takes place.PDFMAP
(Image created by HaEun Choi)
Biography of the Author
An author’s positionality is an important part of understanding a story and the narrative that the story is trying to portray. The author of The Red Oil is a women from Cotonou, Benin, named Madame Vlafonou. Madame Vlafonou was born in Covè in February 1988. She is a part of a large family of eight and she has four brothers and three sisters. Her father is a farmer and her mother makes products from cassava (like gari, tapioca, cassava starch) and peanut cookies called kluiklui. Madame Vlafonou is married and is the mother of two girls. She is highly educated and speaks Fongbe, Mahi, and French. In addition to that, she went to primary school in Zangnanado and then attended secondary school in Cove.
Madame Vlafonou is currently a schoolteacher and loves working with children. She said that she is the happiest when she is surrounded by kids. Along with her family and teaching, another aspect she holds close to her heart is her faith. Madame Vlafonou is a member of the Celestial Church of Christ. This is an evangelical church that started in Porto-Novo, Benin right around 1950. Devout members will wear all white when they go to church and so it is easy to see who is a celestial.However, while Madame Vlafonou is very religious, she does not go to mass and therefore doesn’t wear all white. Outside of the classroom, Madame Vlafonou is an avid reader and likes to watch television shows for fun. She also likes to listen to both modern and traditional music, with her favorites being zouk, salsa, and tchinkounmè. An average day in the life of Madame Vlafonou includes, housework, teaching class, and prepping for work the next day.
Digital Storytelling Project
The story of Madame Vlafonou is being told by five students in ANP 436: Globalization and Justice, an anthropology class taught by Professor Marcy O’Neil at Michigan State University. Our names are Erica Teklinski, HaEun Choi, Anna Backman, Sara Terico, and Mia Askew. While we have all have varying majors and college standing, we all share a common passion for globalization and justice.
The main goal of this project is to create bi–lingual children’s books that are created and used by the citizens of Benin. Through our school’s LEADR lab, we have been able to use a program, called Bloom, that allows us to take the stories of Benin and turn them into literature that reflects everyday life and issues of modern West Africa. Our mission is to accurately represent Madame Vlafonou’s story in a way that reflects her real life experiences. To do this, we have been in direct communication with the storyteller. We have asked her open- ended questions both about her life and her story. We have also directed questions to Professor O’Neil, who has been working and living with families in Benin for twelve years. Please note that Madame Vlafonou speaks French, Mahi, and Fongbe, and the members of our group speak primarily English. Therefore, our questions and Madame Vlafonou’s responses were each translated through an interpreter. Our interpreter was Margaret Born and Sarah Teppan.
We feel that is it important to let you, the reader, know who we are because we recognize that we come to this project from cultures that are different from Madame Vlafonou’s. We wish to tell her story as true as to her own experience as possible, but understand that our own cultural experiences may at times affect how her story is told.
Interpreting the Moral of the Story
In the oil story, as told to us by Madame Vlafonou, a woman finds a pool of red oil in a field. She begs it to become human, and it transforms into a girl. The woman takes the girl home to become a companion. However, although the girl tells the woman that she cannot do work, or be in the sun, after a few days the woman insists that the oil/girl help her haul wood. As soon as the girl begins to work in the sunlight, she turns back into oil. The woman begs the oil to become human again, but it refuses, saying, “Did I not tell you that we cannot tell the truth to mankind?”
As our group read this story, we found several different ways to interpret the moral. In our first interpretation, we took the oil to be a superhuman being. In this way, we saw the story as pointing out the shortcomings of humans when compared to the supernatural. We also feel that the moral of the story can point out the importance of respecting other peoples’ limits. We found that Madame Vlafonou took a slightly different approach to the moral. When asked (through an interpreter) what the moral meant to her, she replied (also through an interpreter) that it shows the difficulties of telling your neighbor what you are feeling on the inside. It highlights the wickedness of human nature. Even after the oil admitted its limits to the human woman, she asked it to toil in the sun, an act that led to its destruction. Telling your problems to your neighbors can lead to your destruction.
What is Red Oil?
Red oil is regarded as the most nutritious edible oil in its purest state. It contains high amounts of saturated fat, vitamins and antioxidants. The quality of red oil aids in its versatility. High levels of carotene and lycopene gives the oil its reddish color. Its resistance to heat allows for cooking and its nutrient profile makes it useful for creating traditional medicine for viruses such as smallpox. It is also used in the production of soaps and detergents and cosmetic products. Red oil comes from two types of oil palm trees: Elaeis guineensis, common in tropical west and central Africa, and Elaeis oleifera, which is common in South America. It is extracted from the fruits of the trees. The fruit grows in a spiky, pine-cone-like pod. Producers of the oil use objects such as machetes to hack at the cone until the fruit is loosened. The fruit are then boiled and pounded to get the red pulp of the fruit. The pulp is then mixed by hand or foot, heated and mixed again. Lastly, the oil is filtered for use. Refined red oil lacks the nutritional benefits pure oil offers. When the quality is compromised during the purification process, it turns the oil white stripping it of its most beneficial properties.
Please see the image below for a step by step guide that illustrates the Red Oil making process (Image designed by HaEun Choi).Red Oil MakingPDF
In this video, ZINSOU Christine from southern Benin, West Africa demonstrates how to make unrefined red oil from palm nuts. This video was taken by Judith Vlafonou.
The main character in our story is a woman who works in the field and is unmarried. Wanting to contextualize this experience, we thought it was important to understand the role of women and marriage in the society as a whole. The state of Benin has taken several policy-driven actions to equalize women’s role so that opportunity becomes more equally accessed across gender barriers. The 1990 Constitution of Benin, for one, prohibits discrimination based on race and sex in addition to granting men and women equal economic and social rights. There is also the National Policy for Gender Promotion, adopted in March 2009 that set goals for equity between men and women in pursuit of sustainable human development by 2025. While policy actions such as these are necessary for a well governed society, they do not necessarily guarantee cultural accordance.
In the case of Benin, many anthropologists such as Douglas Falen, have noted the commonality for locals to support a woman’s autonomy and role in several work spheres, both public and private. Another component of the female experience is the role of marriage, to which Benin and the US differ. In Benin, it is not uncommon to have a polygamous marriage, in which a man has several wives who often co-parent their children together. Like all relationships, this style has both advantages and disadvantages for those involved, and opinions of these change regionally and from individually. It is not uncommon to see monogamy as a western import, and an allusion to colonial ties, which for many is enough to make polygamy the more appealing option. Still, monogamy can mean more resources for the singular wife, which is an obvious draw for women. While no research was found on the commonality of a woman remaining unmarried, such as the character in our story – it is apparent that the Beninian culture of marriage and relationships is diverse as it is nuanced.
Benin, Wikipedia. Accessed 24 Apr. 2017.
Celestial Church of Christ, Jean-Michel Clajot. Accessed 24 Apr. 2017.
Falen, Douglas J. Polygyny and Christian Marriage in Africa: The Case of Benin, African Studies Review. Accessed 24 Apr. 2017.
Lets Build A Library, Bloom. Accessed 24 Apr. 2017.
MSU Today, Michigan State University . Accessed 24 Apr. 2017.
Palm Oil, Union of Concerned Scientists. Accessed 24 Apr. 2017.
O’Neil, Marcy. Deception, a black cat, and an unexpected friendship. As told by my housekeeper., Medium. Accessed 24 Apr. 2017.
Zouk La Se Sel Medikaman Nou Ni. 2009. Accessed 24 Apr. 2017.
Zounzoin Mon Gbéto. Accessed 24 Apr. 2017.