There were certain questions Madame Odette didn’t feel comfortable answering or, more specifically, “qualified” to answer – on the role of women in her life, on the role of women in Benin. The reality is, some women have never had the luxury, of time or opportunity, to think about who they are and why they are in any depth, and the circumstances that shaped them.
Mid-way through the interview, she suggested we speak to her friend who would be “better able” to give us “good” answers.
She instructed her son to take us to the home of Madame Tokpo who, we quickly learnt, is a Voodoo Priestess. Self-assured and self-possessed, she spoke without prompting for about 10 minutes before summoning her grandson to bring a stack of old photographs taken over the course of her life. Each picture captured a moment of joy or celebration or worship, individual milestones, little capsules of time that together revealed the full extent of her existence.
Image: Madame Tokpo looks pensive as she goes through a stack of personal photos.
We came to Madame Odette via our friend-turned-translator, Layo, who in turn came to her via his friend, her son, who led us to his mother’s home.
Weaving our way through a warren of alleyways and side streets in the centre of Ouidah, we sat down with Madame Odette in the forecourt of the family compound where, for the first time, she openly reflected on the events of her life that made her who she is.
Listen in as Ernest, Seth, and I reflect on a week in our work in Benin, where we attended the annual Voodoo Festival and had many fortuitous encounters which led to meetings with women with powerful stories to tell:
“[The Voodoo Festival] was such a rich display of culture and I love the sense of pride with which the people celebrated the whole event,” Ernest Ankomah
“I feel like I’ve come to a society that’s much closer to the land. It’s the closest you’ll get in terms of authenticity to an African culture,” Seth Avusuglo
“I’ve had my misconceptions about Voodoo totally blown with the reality that it’s an all-encompassing belief system that governs your way of life,” Sylvia Arthur
7.45 pm. Heading home from Avlo. Utter darkness. We walk for about 50 minutes through the village dirt tracks and along the main beach road in search of a zem. Nothing.
Mr Addra asks if I’d mind getting on the back of a tricycle. He has a friend who owns one further up the road who he’d ask to give us a ride. We stride purposefully in the direction of his friend’s house, where we encounter a woman with a basket of fresh fish, the day’s catch, and a man with a hoe standing outside, waiting, hoping Mr Addra’s friend will emerge from his home and shuttle us all to the town.
Ten minutes pass, then twenty. Our equipment is becoming heavier by the second. After half an hour, we perch on the edge of a well, take the weight off our feet, the load off our backs. “I just went to the house to call him,” Mr Addra says, seeking to reassure us. “He says he just got home from work. He’ll come soon.”
Forty-five minutes later, the tricycle owner emerges, singing raucous songs of work and play that disturb the relative peace of the village night as he loads his passenger’s assortment of goods onto the tricycle.
We thank Mr Addra and wish him good night, journeying home safe in the knowledge that patience is not only a virtue, it’s a necessity, as is the kindness of strangers who soon become friends.
The first stop on Mr Addra’s tour of his ancestral village was his aunt’s house, about a five-minute walk from his own. Kougbla Agninssi, an estimated 86 years old and physically strong, despite first appearances, was sitting alone on a bench in her compound when we arrived at her door, peacefully passing the time, the image of serenity. Mr Addra explained to her that we had come by to say hello, and she looked at us curiously before inviting us to sit down. Though she wasn’t expecting us, she received us well.
Mr Addra didn’t think his aunt, his father’s sister, would have much to contribute to the project. “She’s too old,” he said. “She doesn’t remember much.” But we insisted that, if she was willing to talk, we were eager to listen. She said yes, and we sat down beside her and began the process.
Our conversation lasted about an hour and, in her native tongue, Mina, Madame Agninssi had a lot to say – about her childhood and family life in pre-independence Benin, about Avlo, the village she was born in and never really left, and about her husband and her five children, most of whom are now deceased.
Mr Addra was surprised at his aunt’s articulacy and desire to tell her story. I wasn’t. I’ve met many women in villages, towns, and cities across the region, who were more than willing and able to tell their story, but who’ve never been asked. Kougbla Agninssi had something to say. All we had to do was ask.
Pictured above: (L-R) Seth Avusuglo, my Mina (Ewe) to English translator, Kougbla Agninssi, and me, Sylvia Arthur | Avlo, Benin | 11.01.23 | Images by Ernest Ankomah
Sylvia Arthur, Kougbla Agninssi, and Mr Addra | Image by Ernest Ankomah
Trying to get home from the Voodoo Festival was a trial. After the proceedings drew to an official close at around 2.30 pm, everybody dispersed as they set off for their villages – by bike, by car, by foot, by boat – for their own private house parties. I tried stopping many a zem (moto-taxi) to get the one-and-a-half kilometres back to base camp, but they were all (over)loaded with three, four, and five people on one bike. Divine intervention was needed.
I saw an older gentleman sitting alone on his moto, thinking he was a zem driver looking for a passenger, but he said, no, he wasn’t a driver, he was heading back home. “I’ll help you find a zem, though,” he assured me, in immaculate Beninoise French.
While we waited, we got talking. Between several unsuccessful attempts to find a free zem, I mentioned in my rusty French that we were in Benin working on a project to document the stories of West African women aged over 60 and he immediately lit up. He told me that we could interview his mother, who lived in the village about 10 minutes away, and that there were plenty of women of senior age there who would be more than willing to speak to me. After another 10 minutes of waiting in vain, he offered to take me home on his bike and we set off on the beach road.
When we arrived about eight minutes later, we exchanged numbers and arranged to meet the next day when he’d take us to his village and introduce us to the matriarchs in his community. Sure enough, the next day, at about 4.30 pm, an hour-and-a-half later than we agreed (our fault!), we arrived by zem in the village of Avlo, not far from the Bouche du Roy, where the River Mono flows into the Atlantic ocean.
After gently chiding me for our late arrival, he welcomed us into his home, showed us around the family compound, introduced us to the family shrine, and walked us around the village of around 442 inhabitants, mainly of the Xwlah ethnic group, many of whom are his family.
His name is Addra Justin and he is a man of his word.
(P.S. Walking on sand (gracefully) is not easy!!!)
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This picture of Madame Hannah (right) and her daughter-in-law was taken in Bolgatanga in November 2019 when my friend, Betty Vandy (@bettyliciouscooks), my sparring partner, Seth Avusuglo (@barrist) and I travelled to the Upper East region of Ghana with the intention of meeting women farmers and learning about their lives, their joys and their challenges.
With the assistance of Abu, our tuk-tuk driver and translator, Hannah generously welcomed us onto her land and spoke to us about her life and her work. Surrounded by her fellow women farmers, she explained how she had been working the land since she was a child and, though she had made many sacrifices, it had served her and her family in terms of sustenance and in providing the financial resources needed to send her children to school.
We spent about three hours with the women – talking, laughing, and bonding despite the language barrier – and I knew then that the impact of this encounter would be lasting, even if I didn’t yet know how.
If I can pinpoint a genesis for African Women Are History!, then it would probably be here, with these women, in this place. Their humility and dignity in their service and contribution to their community’s and the country’s development with no recognition was a lesson in resilience. Whether we choose to see them or not, they are here. They’ve always been here. And now it’s time to hear them too.