Saturday, March 12, 2016

Elections in Benin

Perhaps you didn't know it, but our home away from home is having presidential elections, too! Benin's president, Boni Yayi, has served two 5-year terms, so it's time to elect a new leader in this young republic. Thirty-three people were in the running, with the first round taking place on March 6.

Elections were originally slated for February 28 but were pushed back one week to allow for distribution of voter cards. By some accounts that I've read, many still hadn't received their cards and were perhaps unable to vote.

Official campaigning began a little over two weeks before the election day and ended on Friday, March 4. With a window of only two weeks to persuade voters, candidate supporters posted billboards and plastered posters all over the city. It wasn't uncommon to hear and then see flatbed trucks loaded with supporters driving down the street, singing and cheering for their candidate. Some tossed money to bystanders to encourage them to vote (for their candidate!). Candidates had rallies and the media, namely television news and radio, also provided coverage of campaigning. 

Two weeks of campaigning! What would it be like if the US candidates had only two weeks to campaign? Hard to imagine, I'd say.

Another interesting tidbit is that the land border crossings were closed all day on the day of the election. No one could enter the country after midnight of election day.

We went out on Saturday, March 5 to take some pictures of the posters and billboards. Amazingly, almost all of them were taken down or painted over with gray paint! We found out that, because campaigning officially ended on Friday, March 4, all campaign materials had to be removed.

This billboard was for the father of one of our students.

The plastered posters were a bit more difficult to take down.
Our good friend and colleague, Chan, trained to be an official election observer and took some amazing and informative pictures of election day. The polls opened around 7 am and were open for 9 hours.

Election workers post the names of eligible voters at the voting station.
The voting booth
Here's the ballot, with 33 candidates!
To ensure that voters only voted one time, they had to put their thumb print next to their name on the voter list.
He has exercised his civic duty.

Mom and baby get into the action.
Chan and her fellow observers visited ten different polling stations throughout the day. After the nine hour time period was completed, the ballots were taken out of the ballot box, one by one, and counted in front of everyone!
Counting the ballots.
As the votes were counted, another official tallied the votes for all to see.

A tally table for 33 candidates?!
As you can see, voting in Benin is very labor-intensive, especially for the officials. Lack of voting infrastructure as we know it didn't deter 75% of the eligible voters from turning out. (Don't quote me on the figure, but Donn heard it from the school's attorney.)

Preliminary results (not yet confirmed by the constitutional courts six days after the election) indicate that there will be a run-off between the current prime minister and a prominent businessman, although the third place finisher might contest the results. Our local staff and friends tell us that they don't expect violent responses to the results, since historically that hasn't happened here. We hope that is the case!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Ganvie on Lake Nokoué

The year is 1717. 

What is left of the Tofinu tribe is being chased by the mighty Fon tribe, part of the Kingdom of Dahomey. All captors will be taken to the coastal town of Ouidah, where they will be sold to the Portuguese. Then they will become part of the massive West African slave trade. While running from the Fon tribe, they run into large, brackish Lake Nokoué that they cannot see across or around. 

Lake Nokoue, looking east (CJ)
Trapped. They pray to the gods of the lake in desperation. Out of the lake comes a giant crocodile, which carries the tribe to the safety of the lake. They know that the Fon warriors' religion forbids them from fighting on the water – so they are safe as long as they stay on the lake. 

Today, with a population between 20,000 and 30,000, Ganvie is the largest lake village in Africa. Originally built entirely on stilts, the town has a post office, bank, hospital and more. 

Mosque and, in the distance right, top half of statue of the founder of Ganvie. (CJ)
The town has imported soil for the school (think soccer field), and cemetery. 
School buildings of Ganvie
The cemetery is the only spot in the village that was built high enough to never flood. As we floated the “roads” of the village, we also noticed that some of the houses have built small dirt areas for chickens, sheep, growing maize, etc. 

These people had a garden growing behind the house. (CJ)
Shade trees? (CJ)
The closest city on the banks of the lake is 8 km away. That’s a 30 minute ride in a boat with a motor, and an hour with a sail. Rowing/poling across will take longer. That means that EVERYTHING must happen in the village. All of the daily activities people do get accomplished on the water. 

Floating market (CJ)
Looks like a mini-mart (CJ)
How about some flip-flops? (CJ)
Or some handbags! We saw many women wear big, straw hats like this woman here. Need to find shade somehow!
At some point, they did sink a deep well to provide fresh water. 
People lining up to fill containers with potable water. (CJ)
Fill 'er up! (CJ)
Children as young as 6 or 7 were paddling/poling boats expertly. Can’t walk or ride your bike to your friend’s house, can you? It seems that 9-10 year old boys learn to throw fishing nets while managing a boat. 

Ready, set . . . (CJ)
Throw! (CJ)
Hungry? Hang on, here comes a deli boat, complete with BBQ grill.   

I wonder what she's cooking! (CJ)
Keep in mind though, a lake village with no sewage system might not be picturesque; we did not see the children swimming.

Although many call Ganvie the Venice of Africa, we never saw a cute deli to have espresso. Benin is one of the poorest countries in the world. This is certainly true in Ganvie. Although many of the children smiled and waved, too many of them asked for money, some persistently. We were happy to eat lunch at one of the restaurants in the Village. 

At the restaurant, waiting for our meal of local carp with tomato sauce and rice. (CJ)
We also gladly made a purchase from a local artisan who personally produced his work.
Chez Raphael, another restaurant and curio shop. (CJ)

See the chicken just to the left of the cage? She decided to hop onto our boat as we went by. (CJ)
So, we turned around and took her back. Everyone was laughing! (CJ)
Lake Nokoué isn’t really a lake. It is a wide spot in the brackish lagoon that parallels the coastline throughout Benin. There are only a few natural connections to the ocean, though the French dug a canal to the coast, through the town of Cotonou, in the mid-19th century. This development caused Cotonou to be the important city of 2 million people it is now. For the right price, the boat driver could have delivered us to Nigeria or Togo on the same waterway.
On our ride back to the car park, the wind had picked up. Those returning from the "mainland" put up any matter of sail to take advantage of the wind. Many people didn't want their picture taken. You might notice that in some of the photos.

Casting a big net! (CJ)
In 1996, Ganvie was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. This designation makes Ganvie one of the most popular tourist sites in the country. Although, the day we went, we only saw 3 or 4 other tour boats. It is our hope that the people of Ganvie maintain a healthy balance of necessary tourism dollars while maintaining their unique history and culture.

We really enjoyed visiting this extraordinary place with our colleagues, Debbie and Craig Johnston. Thanks for sharing your photos, Craig!