Monday, July 9, 2012

July 8 - The Motto of Life in Benin: Doucement, Doucement

Doucement adv gently; softly; slowly

Definition courtesy of Collins French School Dictionary & Grammar
Two weeks into my life as a Peace Corps trainee, two weeks into my immersion in Beninese French.  As I go about daily life, there are certain words that I hear over and over again.  The most frequent one is “Yovo,” a term for foreigner/white person – one of these days I’ll count how many times I hear it, and then maybe it will be the feature of a post.  The second most frequent word, and the one I want to focus on right now, is “doucement.”  The definition above is the official French dictionary definition, but it doesn’t come even close to summing up how versatile and well-used this word is in Benin.  If I were to write Benin’s definition of doucement, it would be something like this:

Doucement adv/ phrase/ command/ exclamation Hey, watch where you’re going! I’m sorry.  Be careful.  Slow down.  Take it easy.  Don’t stress out.  

Whenever I take a zemidjan (motorcycle taxi) to get around Porto Novo, the driver almost always says “doucement” to me as I (still somewhat clumsily) get on or off.  If I almost run into someone on my bike, they’ll say “doucement”.  If someone bumps into me in a crowded marketplace, they’ll say “doucement” If my host mom tells me to come to dinner and I get up too quickly or rush, she’ll say “doucement”.  If someone sees me trip, they’ll say “doucement.”  When my three-year-old host sister accidentally hit me with her hand, her mother told her “You must say ‘doucement!”  It can be frustrating living in a culture where the same word is used for “hey, watch where you’re going!” as “Sorry I just ran into you, my bad.”  You never quite know if someone is blaming you for being clumsy, or just apologizing for being clumsy themselves.

Doucement has been sneaking into my vocabulary as well.  I say it to my little host siblings as we walk along our rutted red dirt road, and wryly to my co Peace Corps trainees when one of us stumbles.  And however maddening it can sometimes be, “doucement” is pretty good advice for us as we take our first clumsy steps into life in Benin.  Slow down, don’t rush, do things gently.  If you walk doucement along the road, you’ll be able to notice and step aside for cars and motorcycles and avoid puddles and ruts.  If you try to move “doucement” through life you’ll have less collisions and pitfalls.  I took “doucement” as my motto in getting to know my host family and figuring out how to fit into their home.  We’re encouraged to help with chores, so the natural fast-paced American instinct is to want to clear my own place and help with dishes and work in the kitchen from day one.  But that’s not how it is in Benin.  Doucement, doucement.  Every few days I offered to help whenever my host mom was doing something.  Every now and then I’d sit in the kitchen and watch.  And finally, today, I was allowed to chop tomatoes and onions for the salad!  
As part of our cross-cultural training, we’ve been told several times that in Benin interpersonal relationships are valued more than individual accomplishment or productivity.  As I think about it, doucement is a term that fits well in a collective society like this.  In an individualistic society like the US, it makes sense that I’ll say something different when I’m the one who runs into you than if you’re the one who runs into me.  But here, it doesn’t really matter all that much who is at fault.  We’re all on the same bumpy, crowded road or in the same busy marketplace, and everyone needs to be reminded to go about life gently.         


  1. Doucement is also used as a reminder to children to be gentle!

  2. I think I need more "doucement" in my life!
    So glad to hear you are done with PST and are now a PCT living in a house with two TVs. :) So glad you're posting updates when you have the time - I love reading about the Peace Corps world as it is one that I hope to possibly enter someday!

    When you have the time, I'd love to know if I could send you something as I think I will be sending small care packages to all of my Peace Corps friends this Christmas. When the time gets closer I'll probably ask you again so I can send you something specifically delicious and non-perishable.

    On another thought -I'd love to hear more about Benin's dance culture! Learning new dances are always fun :)

    Lots of love!


  3. What a beautiful post. I plan to share this with friends. In our hyper-scheduled culture, I think we could all use a good dose of "denoucement." That you, Bethany, for your clear-headedness, courage, patience, compassion, heartiness and generosity in sharing your reflections with us.

    Wishing you all the very, very best from Cincinnati!