Back to Benin

Give or take thirteen months. That’s about the time its been since a ‘rendez-vous’ that changed both my life, and that of the man I was meeting. Admittedly, mine perhaps more than his. At the time, I was doing volunteer work in Ouidah, a town in the south of Benin. Working at Beninois schools and a local NGO. That is, until Aminata — my run-of-the-mill French-teacher — told me about an asylum seeker that would like to meet.

I met Remedy at one of the many sandy trails somewhere at the outskirts of Ouidah, where he awaited me to walk me to our destination. As addresses don’t exist in that area, I had a djem-driver drop me off at some arbitrary vantage point, and had ended up walking around the in the scorching heat for a while struggling to find my bearings. Luckily, Remedy had anticipated this scenario.

As Remedy walked me to the “school” he had invited me to, he briefly shared his history. How, whilst being a Mechanical engineering student writing his dissertation, all of a sudden public life had become too dangerous. A professor had tipped him off as a class was about to commence, suggesting to permanently go into hiding from the government. The succeeding year or so he played hide and seek with its officials, scavenging around, whilst not being able to contact his family. Eventually, after several failed attempts, relatives of his girlfriend aided him in an attempt to flee across the border with Benin. Why had he been forced to do so? According to his accounts, because of his presidency of the student wing of a non-violent protest movement. This non-violent movement strived for environmental, social and economic self-determination of its people, as oil spills and gas flaring in their tribal lands had destroyed their environment and traditional ways of living. With Remedy, thousands of his tribe have been displaced, and hundreds fled his country in the late nineties. Those seeking refuge in Benin were sheltered in an UNHCR camp for a while, until it was disbanded. Unable to go elsewhere, most of them were, and still are, trying to make a living in neighbouring towns. One of those towns is Ouidah, where I encountered Remedy that day.

Aminata and Remedy at the school’s former location

An impressive and humbling account, which he would recount in more detail over the weeks that followed. I met his wife, the prior girlfriend which had gone after him to be reunited in Benin, as well as friends that had also followed suit. Given that more than a decade has passed, they all have young children by now. And that was the cause of me visiting that day. Remedy believed that the children need to be educated, so that their lives are not wasted because of the past events haunting their parents. Therefore, he had decided to rebrand himself as teacher. Trying to educate the young to the best of his capabilities, sacrificing his possibility to generate an income, and thereby relying on his wife to look after his family of seven. I was struck by that level of selflessness and moral imperative, especially given the conditions he was living in. Volunteering a few weeks in Benin whilst being from an affluent is one thing, but dedicating all of your time and the livelihood of your family to educate a new generation is from a completely another order. Long story short — He showed me the school, and asked for my help. I was sold straight away, deciding that my contribution at this school was more needed than at any of my other activities, and taught classes there for the brief remainder of the semester.

However, as became clear to me quite soon thereafter, that was not going to be sufficient. Remedy was overworked because of the high toll the teaching took on him, whilst at the same time not being able to afford proper nutrition. The school was in a run-down state, whilst the lease of the shed we were renting had to be paid by Aminata. Only having one room to give classes to all pupils at the same time, aged three to fourteen, was not ideal either, and the kids used a former double-bed as collective desk to write on. Moreover, I was about to leave within two weeks, and then what would happen? Therefore, I initiated a meeting with all those involved at the school — Remedy, Aminata, me and Clara; an American girl that had volunteered at the school as well — to discuss how to proceed. We agreed to set-up a project that would strive to improve the quality of education at the school, make it financially self-sustainable and become an officially recognised educational institution. As the school had been referred to as the “peace academy” by the children, that the name we chose to adopt.

Project Peace Academy was born.

A race against time ensued in the two weeks that followed, to set up a project structure that allowed us to continue to cooperate after Clara and I would leave. We raised some initial funds, build a second (temporary) school-building, got basic educational supplies such as books, tables and chairs, and teamed up with two members of a local NGO that would adopt the project as one of theirs for the time being. That turned out to be a great cooperation, as Felix and Anatole have been central to the success of the project ever since. Adding experience in this field as well as an understanding of local customs and networks. Last, we agreed upon the routine to be in touch on a weekly basis. Exchanging minutes and discussion questions stemming from meeting both physically in Benin and in the virtual realm via Skype.

Anatole (left) and Felix (right)

That was about a year ago, and luckily we have continued to make progress from there on. In February 2015, Gabriel — a Canadian software engineer—went over to volunteer at the school, and thereafter joined Clara and I as international part of the team. We’ve raised finance that was invested to improve the availability of educational resources at the school, such as the necessary books to follow the official curriculum set by the West-African Educational council. During the first wet-season we experimented with tomato farming on a one-hectare plot, a pilot to experiment with ways to generate a sustainable income to finance the school. Unfortunately the rains stayed out, and the pilot failed. Providing us some valuable insights on the difficulties and necessities in setting up a successful agricultural practice in the local environment. During that semester an additional teaching was hired, and we purchased a location with school building over the summer. Therefore, after the summer break lessons commenced in a building that was owned by Peace Academy itself for the first time! Continuously trying to improve the education also had attracted new pupils to the school, as the headcount rose from 30 a year ago to 62 children now. We’re glad that they are from both Nigerian as well as Beninois descent, as it stimulates the interaction between different ethnicities. Additionally, Erica — An American woman that recently moved to Benin — volunteered over the summer. She’s recently settled in nearby Cotonou, and has been starting to work closely with the local project members. At the time, after moving to Geneva, I’ve had the amazing support of two fellow graduate students —Kathleen and Craig — further expanding the project team, as well as the range of activities we can execute. Most recently, we have started a pilot with educational tablets at the school, which allow the kids to learn with modern technology and learning methods.

The children in school, before we moved to our own location

Bien. I am recounting this somewhat lengthy overview of project Peace Academy, as experienced from my vantage point, as I am returning to Benin. I’ve been reflecting on the interesting journey it has been so far, working on a project I deeply care about from a large distance. Sporadic photo’s and regular textual updates do provide a depiction of what has been going on in Ouidah, but I don’t suffer from the illusion that I thoroughly understand the occurrences ‘on the ground’. Which leaves me with ample questions on the eve of my return. First of all, I am deeply curious how everyone is doing personally. Unfortunately, Aminata has had to relocate to Bamako and won’t be there this time around, but the rest of the team is still there. All the kids will be a little over a year older, and I’d love to see how they’ve grown and progressed in their learning. Second, it’s incredible to realise how the amount of people involved in the project has grown. From those active on a daily basis at the school itself, to those working on facilitating them in their efforts, to all the individual donors that have been generous in their support over the past year.

However, I am mostly intrigued by how the project is really doing, the way it is operating within its own context rather than in my visualisation based on the provided digital information. What impact have we had so far? Has anything really changed for the better? Has our approach been effective? There are myriad little details that one does not get insight in when staying in touch via phone and mail — for example how the school is perceived within the community, eventually the whole purpose of the endeavor. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it is that my understanding of events differs widely from that of Remedy or Felix, if simply basically for our different cultural backgrounds and corresponding reference cadre.

Thereby, these deliberations prompt some reservations. I have no doubt our intentions are noble, but do our actions live up to them? I’ve seen, and read about, ample development efforts failing to enact their envisioned good-doing. On a more personal level, taking on this project and investing my time and talents has shaped the course of my own life. Has that choice been a wise one? Have I chosen a path that allows me to do the most good, or have I given in to the temptations of distance-bias? I don’t know.

What I do know is that I’m exited to return. To see how things have changed this time around, and that it feels like a momentum is swelling as more and more people become involved. Over the next couple of weeks, the challenge will be to leverage that momentum and try to make considerable progress — to get one step closer in realising the establishment of a self-sustainable school, of the integration and improved livelihoods of the group of asylum seekers in Benin. That I’m keen to try to further the quality of the educational curriculum. To connect with the representatives of different ‘camps’ of the community, as well as every single individual that is part of them and the colourful local Beninois that will cross my path. To set up a more effective organisational structure and establish an offical, Beninois, NGO with Felix and Anatole. And most of all, to tap into the entrepreneurial ideas from the locals involved in the project to find solutions for income and job creation, as well as establishment of a source of sustainable financing for the school.

It’s still gazing into the haze in terms of what to expect this time around — albeit I do know that things will turn out to be very different from whatever expectations I do have. How different? I’ll try to describe that in a subsequent post, a couple of weeks from now.

Oh and for more information, check: www.peaceacademybenin.org

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