At less than 40 miles and just over an hour by road, the distance between Grand-Popo and Lomé is so short, it’s possible to live in the quiet Beninese fishing town and work in the bustling Togolese metropolis, as thousands do every day, traversing the border. Yet the process of crossing the frontier, of leaving Benin and entering Togo, and vice versa, is so fraught with frustration, it unnecessarily lengthens the journey and dampens any enthusiasm for the fallacy of frictionless travel, the reality of a borderless ECOWAS region ultimately betraying the dream…
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It’s fair to say that we were not prepared for the story Madam Gbedegbe would tell us. At all!
From the moment we walked through her front gate, to the moment we left, she was ready to let us into her world of heartache and pain, stoicism and strength. We all felt all the emotions – rage, sorrow, sympathy, affection – as she recounted her struggles as an unexpectedly single mother in 1980s Benin doing her best to bring up her children, and herself, in the most bizarre circumstances.
We left the interview somewhat dazed but satisfied that we were able to listen to Madam Gbedegbe’s story and, after all these years of keeping it inside, she finally felt heard.
Image: Madam Gbedegbe speaking to Sylvia Arthur and Georgette Singbe at her home in Grand-Popo.
Madam Akpoe’s movement is restricted. Confined to the environs of her home due to an illness that has reduced her mobility, she spends her days looking after her grandchildren and making sure the house is in order.
Of all the women we interviewed, she was one of the few who went to school but, like many of her female classmates, she eventually dropped out because her parents couldn’t pay the fees.
Ever since, she has worked as a trader, selling everything from fish to liquor.
Image: Madam Akpoe speaking at her home in Grand-Popo, Benin.
Madam Gagnanto is something of a public figure in Grand-Popo. As the former headmistress of the local government school, she has helped shape the lives of many of young people from this coastal town over the past four decades and is the go-to person for advice on community matters.
Now retired, she continues to work hard, owning a block of stores on the town’s main high street and volunteering her time to teach children from her village in the school holidays. She’s also campaigned locally against the phenomenon of skin bleaching.
Image: Madam Gagnanto in the compound of her home speaking with Sylvia Arthur and Georgette Singbe, translating from Mina to English.
Listen in as Ernest, Seth, and I reflect on a week in our work in Benin, where we talk about women we met who made a particularly big impression on us, grapple with how to make the women feel at ease behind a microphone, and try to find the words to describe a transcendent encounter with a Beninese musical legend. Enjoy!
What a rollercoaster ride Madam Hoenoussi’s life has been! We sat down with the matriarch extraordinaire for over two hours during which she recounted every aspect of her gripping life story. More in our audiocast this weekend!
Image: In the compound of Madam Hoenoussi’s home alongside her grandson, son, youngest daughter and Seth Avusuglo and Sylvia Arthur.
Madam Doussou was in her room when we stopped by her home in Avlo mid-afternoon. One of the tenants in her compound house had to knock on her door to let her know we had arrived before she emerged, walking stick in hand, out into the open.
Though she is uncertain of her age, one thing Madam Doussou knows is that life has been difficult. She was widowed at a young age and became a single mother while some of her children were still small, which meant she had to work even harder to cater for her family. The physical scars she bears, the disfigurements she pointed out on her left arm, are evidence of her ‘tukada,’ or struggles.
“Madam Dossou is a different personality to the other women we spoke with. She’s very intense and a little reserved but she’s generous in spirit and, when asked, she was open with her answers. Life has given her many knocks, but she’s remained stoic,” Seth says.
Image: Madam Dossou leans forward as she speaks to Seth Avusuglo in her home in Avlo, Benin.
On the veranda of Madam Danoyossi’s home, work is taking place. In the far corner, a young man is perched on the end of a wooden stool making a fishing net to be used by the men of Avlo, a community that sits on a peninsula between the Mono river and the Atlantic ocean. Opposite, Madam Danoyossi is sitting on the floor, legs outstretched, weaving a mat made out of straw harvested from the River Mono. This is what she does to pass the time now, to contribute to the family coffers. Though no longer the main breadwinner, at 80, she remains the head of the household. Surrounded by adult children, teenage grandchildren, and men of various familial connection, it was clear from the moment we met her a week ago that she is in charge and what she says goes.
“Madam Danoyossi is sharp,” says Seth. “Very charismatic, extremely opinionated, and she commands a lot of respect from all around her. She’s lived a full and varied life as a trader of smoked fish, which has taken her from Benin to Cote D’Ivoire and back again, and has helped her to take care of her family.”
Image: Seth Avusuglo laughs with Madam Danoyossi on the veranda of her home in Avlo, Benin.
Avlo in Grand-Popo has become a focal point for our work in Benin this time around. Research Assistant, Seth Avusuglo, has been key to our process of meeting women from the village, many of whom speak Mina, a language similar to his own, Ewe. We returned to Avlo to again meet with the women who Mr Addra had introduced us to, to talk to them in more depth and get to know them better. After extensive conversations with the women, held in their homes and places of work (yes, many still work!), Seth says, “The elder women of Avlo remind me of the women in my village – strong, charismatic, and exuberant, still in control of the house and the family. You can see the respect they command.”
Tasivi store, one of the only shops in the village of Avlo, is a focal point for the community. Schoolchildren flock there to buy sweets during their break, older women gather there to commune and gossip, girls and women of marriageable age pop in to pick up foodstuffs and household supplies, and men of working age bound in for a tot of local liquor before sauntering out to face the world. In the 40 minutes we’re in the compound house in which the store takes centre stage, we encounter all these characters and more for whom Tasivi is a hub and a lifeline that means they no longer have to travel the eight kilometres to Grand-Popo for essentials.
The store is run by Affi Dossou, the 50-year-old daughter of Madam Bessanvi, 70, a lifelong trader. Seth spoke with the elder woman at length in preparation for our interview. “What I found most interesting about Madam Bessanvi is that, at the age of 70, she’s still very active and selling goods in the family store. The way she commanded the store from a seat in the corner was impressive. Her memory was also good and she had a lot to say about how things have deteriorated in the country since her day.”
Image: A scene from the store, Tasivi, in Avlo, Benin, where we spoke with Madam Bessanvi and her daughter, store owner, Affi Dossou.