ABOUT THE AUTHOR

MÉMÉ VLAFONOU

Mémé Vlafonou is a loving mother of seven; Marie, Madeleine, Luc, Martin, Victoire, Raphaël and Galbert. She was born into a polygamist family in Covè, Benin. When she was young, her mother told her the tale of Ndeelu: The Food Calabash. Mémé Vlafonou wants to pass on her memories of Benin to the younger generation. Mémé Vlafonou has enjoyed watching her children and grandchildren grow over the years. Mémé Vlafonou speaks three languages including Mahi, Fongbe and Nago. Mahi is her mother tongue.

“I didn’t know that it [The Food Calabash] was going to be made into a book. It gave me great joy when I found out. My name will be known nationally and internationally. And I will also be considered an author.”

Ndeelu The Food Calabash-English-Pages

Benin

Map of Benin from Lonely Planet
Map of Benin

Benin is a country located in West Africa, between Nigeria on the east and Togo on the west, roughly 43,000 miles in size. It has a wide variety of climates and land regions ranging from the coastal southern part of Benin, to the Niger plains, and the Atakora mountains in the northwest. Just as diverse as the land and climate is the cultural landscape, with the presence of various distinct languages, dialects, and religious practices.

Formerly known as the Republic of Dahomey during the colonization period when it gained its’ independence from France in 1960. Benin’s official language is French, however many different languages such as Fon, Fulfulde, Mahi (also spelled Maxi), and Yoruba are still widely spoken. Prior to French colonization, there were many different kingdoms in Benin. Although the country gained its’ independence, children are still taught French in schools; and being fluent in the language is a must for getting a more “white collar” job. This creates many discrepancies between the citizens of Benin and more specifically between elders and younger generations. Someone who knows how to write and speak in French is considered to be of a higher social standing than speakers of local languages such as Fon or Yoruba, because of their education (Fanou, n.d.).

Climate change is a lingering problem in Benin. Specifically, in the large coastal city of Cotonou with a population of roughly 800,000 people, the effects of climate change are severely endured. Because Cotonou is so strategically placed, it has the potential to influence the economy of the entire republic of Benin. Recently, because of the rising sea levels and coastal erosion, there have been threats to infrastructure due to flooding, as well as agriculture, and even to the tourism sector. Additionally, the flooding greatly increases the rate at which illnesses such as malaria, cardiovascular, and various cerebral diseases are spread. However, the efforts by local farmers as well as governmental officials have made strides to combat these harmful effects.

EARLY LIFE/CHILDHOOD 

Polygamy

Polygamy, or more specifically polygyny (where the man is permitted to take multiple wives), is not uncommon in Benin. Although the law has not recognized it since 2004, men may still take multiple wives to indicate their economic status in the community. Although many women communicate displeasure with the practice, others find companionship with their co-wives, two or more women who are married to the same person, and appreciate the cooperation in taking care of their husband and children. While there is often a strong social stigma around polygamy in the United States, Benin differs in that the topic is openly discussed and often culturally accepted.

Mémé Vlafonou was born into a polygamist family in the 1930’s in Covè, Benin. Her father was the chief canton, who was the head of a French colonial administration a little bit larger than a village. He had 21 wives and approximately 80 children, 7 of which were born to Mémé Vlafonou’s mother with whom she lived. She felt connected with all of her siblings, with no divisions or bad feelings between them.

Farming & Food

Benin farmer watering his crop.

Mémé Vlafonou would often accompany her parents to the farm. This would be very similar to the lifestyle of other children her age, as close to half of the Beninese people are involved in agriculture. Many families and communities engage in subsistence farming, maintaining small farm lots to provide for the daily food needs. In Benin, these farms might include corn, yams, tomatoes, and greens. The cotton industry was thriving in Benin until the mid-nineteenth century, with over half of the country’s export revenue from this cash crop. However, because cotton was so widely farmed in Benin, it has resulted in some damage to the land which leads to exploring other areas of agricultural production. Since the 1980’s Benin has been producing more shea butter, palm oil, rice, and other crops to increase food security and rejuvenate the soil after it was damaged by the overproduction of cotton. Although these are some of the most popular means of agriculture, many other residents of Benin produce and sell other things.

“I like to eat pounded yam with peanut sauce and agouti… pate noir with escargot sauce…[and] pate rouge with fish “

Mémé Vlafonou enjoys many popular dishes served in Benin. Agouti refers to meat from a grasscutter or cane rat and is a very common part of the diet. French for “paste”, pate is a sticky starch served with sauce as it has little taste itself. Pate noir is made from yams, and pate rouge is made from corn flour (Butler, 2006). Pate rouge also contains hot ground pepper, onion, tomato, and oil in the paste. For more about popular Beninese dishes, see: Wa Du Nu!

Pate Noir

ADULT LIFE

Family

Family relationships are very important in Benin. While some families may live in nuclear structures, their connections to the extended family are still strong. The whole family, including the men and older siblings, take responsibility for raising the children. In fact, often the entire community views it as their responsibility to help teach and protect children (Jean-Jacques & Fall, 2015). Mémé Vlafonou has seven children of her own; Marie, Madeleine, Luc, Martin, Victoire, Raphaël and Galbert. She is also a proud grandmother and great-grandmother.

“Something that brings me joy is talking about my life with my grandchildren…I am always happy when I’m around my grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”

Informal Economy

Beninese woman selling clothing.

Along with 85% of the workers in Benin, Mémé Vlafonou works in the informal sector of the economy that is not regulated by the state. This sector is comprised of a wide range of activities, including but not limited to selling food or products, driving motorbike taxis, and hairdressing. In Benin, a majority of those working in the informal sector are women and children who receive financing from small associations. For work, Mémé Vlafonou produces and sells different spice, such as peppercorns, cloves, and hot pepper powder, or Alligator Pepper. She has not trained her children in her trade, but they all have their own careers and activities.

Music

Along with her job, she has many other hobbies such as listening to music. She particularly likes music that has a message and moral to it like Zinli, Tchinkounmè, Toba, Gota, and Akonhoun. Beninese music uses many different instruments such as an adjalin, alounloun, and even a calabash like the one she depicts in her story. An Adjalin is an instrument, constructed of bamboo, forming the shape of a rectangle which functions similarly to a guitar, and an alounloun is a stamping stick for rhythm.

Religion

Mémé Vlafonou is Catholic and a part of many different religious groups and churches associated with her beliefs. She is part of the Holy Family Prayer group in her St. Rita Parish and also a member of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, a Christian movement based out of Ann Arbor, Michigan. 

Christianity came to Benin as a result of European presence at the beginning of the slave trade in the 15th century. With the establishment of French rule in 1894, the Catholic church became the leading Christian church, with other denominations developing later. Now, approximately 42% of people in Benin are Christian, most of whom identify as Roman Catholic (Jean-Jacques & Falola, 2015).

Bon Pasteur Catholic Church in Cotonou, Benin

Around 25% of Benin’s population practices Islam. During the early Trans-Saharan trade, West African rulers adopted Islam as a royal religion in order to introduce Arabic accounting and literacy into their societies. The religion did not spread to the common people until an Islamic movement, often called the Tukolor, spread across West Africa. This movement reached its height between the 17th and 19th century when it was ended by French occupation (Jean-Jacques & Falola, 2015).

One of the most controversial religions in Benin is Vodoun, (also spelled Vaudou, vodon, Vodun, Voodoo, Voudou). Vodoun originates in Africa and has extended into the Americas as Santeria of the Spanish-Speaking Caribbean, Voodoo of Haiti, and Candomble of Brazil. Vodoun was brought to the Americas by way of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Many slaves were from West and Central Africa, and they used their religion to survive the oppression of colonialism. Today, Vodoun is often seen as evil and primitive by outsiders, but that is a misconception created to make vodoun less of a threat to Catholic practices in the Americas (Voodoo, 2015). For an accurate portrayal of a Vodoun ceremony, see Egun. Les revenants. 

Storytelling Traditions

As a child, Mémé Vlafonou and her siblings would gather around the elders and listen to their stories. Oral tradition is a vital piece of Beninese culture. History, science, religion, and values are passed down to each generation from the elders of the family or community. Oral tradition helps to teach children about morals and values and how to follow in the footsteps of their elders, as well as teach them skills to become more active listeners (Jean-Jacques & Falola, 2015).

“I agreed to participate in this book project because folktales and stories are disappearing. I think it’s a good idea to write them down. Even if I leave this world one day, the books will still remain.”

According to Mémé Vlafonou, children now are too busy doing homework at night and learn most of their lessons through workbooks and lectures at school, so they no longer spend evenings telling folktales and legends. The story of Ndeelu: The Food Calabash was passed down to Mémé Vlafonou from her mother, much like many other oral traditions. While she remembers many other stories told by her mother and elders, Mémé Vlafonou shared Ndeelu: The Food Calabash for this project as it is one that she remembers vividly and still brings her inspiration to this day.

MICHIGAN STATE UNIVERSITY

ANP 436 Project

Photo by: Anie Gandoto Semassoussi

There are thousands of languages spoken in the world, many of which have very few speakers, and even fewer books written in them. Some solutions in the past have been to simply translate existing western language books into various local languages. This poses many different issues in regard to content. If the content of these books is not relatable to the people they are given to, it develops a sense of disconnect. For example, a child in Benin reading a book translated in Mahi about two children building a snowman does not have the same effect as reading a story about a local tradition or something they do on a daily basis.  Additionally, it also builds an unnecessary dependency and sense of inferiority if there is a constant necessity for outside forces to swoop in and rise up the people of Benin. This project aims at fixing these problems.

Our class has created books of the stories that were shared with us from storytellers in Benin. We have been working with Bloom Software to make these books possible. Once our class has sorted out the initial issues that inevitably arise with any new program, we can help people in Benin create books with their own stories, in their own language, that they can share with their children, neighbors, and loved ones. Hopefully, this will slow down the rate of language extinction. Languages need to be preserved because  losing the cultural significance and the knowledge they contain would be a tragedy. Additionally, because we learned from Mémé Vlafonou just how many stories she knows, it makes the prospect of this software that much more exciting. We can only imagine how many books can come from just one Beninese author.

References

Butler, S. (2006). Traveling in Benin. In S. Butler, Benin: The Bradt Travel Guide (p. 68). Bradt Travel Guides.

Fanou, L. (n.d.). Benin Country Profile. Retrieved from http://www.bibl.u-szeged.hu/oseas_adsec/benin.htm

Jean-Jacques, D., & Falola, T. (2015). Africa: An encyclopedia of culture and society (Vol. 1). Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO.

Voodoo, Las 21 Divisiones and Los Misterios. (2015). Retrieved from dr1: http://dr1.com/articles/voodoo.shtml