Saturday, December 8, 2012

October 23 - Dancing for Small Change in the Marketplace

I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean
Whenever one door closes, I hope one more opens
Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance
And when you get the chance to sit it out or dance,
I hope you dance. 
My theme song for Peace Corps so far has been “I hope you dance” by Lee Ann Womack.  I’ve listened to it so many times on my ipod, especially when I need a little encouragement.  It doesn’t always feel easy to dance – to live all the experiences here whole-heartedly, instead of holding back and “sitting it out” every now and then.  But the rewards have been moments of amazing sweetness and inspiration.
There’ve been literal chances to take this song to heart.  One of these, a favorite day in village so far, was October 23 -  the day I made about 50 francs (around ten cents) for dancing in the marketplace.  When learning about Benin, I read that although about one third of all Beninese identify voodoo as their primary religion, unofficially everyone participates or believes in traditional religion, spirits and such.  I’ve definitely seen this to be true in Peonga, a very muslim village.  In my first weeks, I would hear drumming every now and then – sometimes at late hours like 3 am.  When I asked about it, I was told “that’s the fetiche.”  Little by little, I’ve been learning more about what this means.  One day, Nafisa from my concession invited me to go to the market to “see the people who dance.”  I was told that a woman who was possessed by a spirit had passed away, and they were doing a ceremony to find out which of her descendants would be possessed by the spirit.  A lot of people, including Nafisa and myself, went to the market to watch. All the candidates ran around in a circle for a while, and then crouched down in a line and waited for a long time, to see who would be possessed I think – Nafisa got bored and we went home. 
More recently, a friend from my women’s group invited me to come see a fetiche ceremony/celebration in the market.  A new group of girls had been initiated into the group in the village of people who have “fetiches”/spirits.  From what my friend explained, these new intiates had been sequestered for a month and we were celebrating the completion of their initiation.  We went to the market, where lots of people had come to watch.  She brought two stools for us, and we got great seats right next to the musicians (playing drums, calabashes, and stringed instruments called gogeru).  Being the only foreigner has it’s perks.  Everyone sat or stood in a large circle.  First, the new initiates – about 6 teenage girls – were led into the ring in a procession with everyone else who has a fetiche.  This way I learned that my host mother in village, the mother in my concession, has a fetiche.  Who knew?  In the south there are a lot of secretive voudou cults, but things seem to be very open here. My friend explained that something had been taken from the new intiates and hidden at the beginning of their initiation process, and today they had to find it.  They walked around the circle in a group, doing a sort of ritualized “search” stopping every few steps to crouch down and point at the ground, etc.  Then all of the sudden they ran out of the ring as a group, and everyone cheered – “they’ve found it!” my friend said.  They were carried back into the ring on people’s shoulders, like victorious soccer players, and gave some rings – the objects they were looking for- to a man sitting with the musicians who seemed to be important.  As you can see, a lot of the ceremony was me watching things and not knowing exactly what was going on. 
After this point, the ceremony was a celebration and dancing.  Sometimes everyone danced in a circle, around the ring, and other times individuals danced in front of the drummers.  True to my promise to myself not to “sit it out,”  I took a turn dancing in front of the drummers and was given more than 50 CFA!  When each dancer finished, people came up and gave them small change.  I was told to keep part of what I was given, and to give part of it to the musicians by placing it inside one of the stringed instruments they were holding.  To dance you had to take off your shoes, and stomp barefoot in the dusty red dirt in time with the drumming.  The drumming really fills your body, resonating.  There were quite a few babies strapped on the backs of the dancing women, and I thought how these children first learn to move to the music from the swaying of their mothers’ backs. 
In a funny way, what this all reminded me of most was the bluegrass music festival/competition I went to in Frankin, West Virginia right before leaving for Peace Corps.  Both were “culture” – the kind people study or tourists would visit – but both were living, not artificial or for display in any way. The form of the two festivals, bluegrass and fetiche, was very different, but the community feel was much the same.  Families came to watch, kids ran around, refreshments were sold, people brought chairs and tried to find good seats and cheered for each other as they danced. 
 When I first got there, I asked if I could take pictures.  Not only was it ok, but people kept encouraging me to take more!  I got some good video as well.  My ambitious hope is that the internet will smile upon me and allow me to post the video, but if not a few pictures will have to suffice.


  1. Thank you so much for sharing! I'm so glad you're not sitting it out. Your account of the celebration is so detailed and insightful, I feel like I'm reading an anthropological study...which I guess I kind of am. :-) Good for you, Bethany! I can't wait to read the rest of your blog!

  2. Bethany, this is incredible. Thank you so much for sharing both your detailed descriptions and the vibrant video clips. You are brave indeed, and I think you dance beautifully!
    Warm wishes,

  3. Bethany! This is so cool! Thanks for sharing.

  4. So wonderful, Bethany, to read about the mud stoves and see the dancing clip. Have fun with your marathon!! I send the very best to you!
    Much joy and love,