It was during the summer between grade school and middle school that my parents took me to Benin, a small country in western Africa. The purpose of the trip was humanitarian work: we were going there for a month to work on projects such as building a clinic and distributing medicine in prisons. It seemed like a monumental journey from the perspective of an 11 year old boy.
On the night of our arrival, the trickster gods blessed me with the double whammy of falling into a trench and puking my guts out. Running in the darkness of the village’s street at night, I had mistaken an irrigation ditch for a sidewalk. Careless with the excitement of being on a new continent, I jumped right in. A nail drove through my leg in the process, leaving a scar I still have.
I climbed out breathlessly and stumbled towards the building where our group was staying. After their initial shock of seeing me arrive in the common area with a rusty bloody wound, they got me all cleaned up, ointmented up, bandaged up, and off to bed I went.
Flash forward to the middle of the night, unsure if I’m asleep or awake and the dreamlike drumming somewhere in the distance wasn’t helping. The sound got closer, accompanied by chanting in an unknown language. The fear mixed with the malaria meds in my stomach did not fare well. I rushed to the bathroom, only made it to the living room, and lost my lunch all over the floor.
I would learn the next day that what I heard was a nocturnal Voodoo parade (this religion is actually very common in Benin). Turns out they were celebrating the country’s independence day. Needless to say this was a confusing welcome, and the whole trip turned out to be a kind of loss of innocence.
I had never traveled out of North America before, much less been to prisons in a poor country. Poor country might not be the right term, but the divide between the extremely rich and the absolutely poor is very sharp. In the villages where we went, seeing people with little or ripped clothing, untreated diseases and open wounds was definitely a reality check. The trench is not a sidewalk; Voodoo is not an evil cult; West Africa is not a some “exotic” land but a region that was broken by colonialism and brutal conflicts.