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Benin Diary

Sunday, June 3

Left Greensboro, NC, at midday and flew to LaGuardia; transferred to JFK; flew Air France to Paris.

Monday, June 4

Flew Paris to Lagos, Nigeria, and on to Cotonou, Benin, arriving around 5pm. We were greeted by Sylvain Boko and Father Nzamujo Godfrey and taken to Novotel, Cotonou, where we were to stay. After checking in, we were driven round Cotonou and then taken to a Chinese restaurant where we ate well and became acquainted with Castel, the local beer.

Tuesday, June 5

Down to business right away. After breakfast we went over to CODIAM, the conference center where the Wake students were based during our stay. Brad Braxton kicked us off with a dynamic lecture on "Old Time Religion", an introduction to African American Christian spirituality with reference to its African roots. John "Bick" Riley, Country Representative for Africare in Benin, then gave a talk explaining the work his organization is doing in the country, with emphasis on the basic development areas of food, water and health, as well as the promotion of democratic governance and women's education.

Next we visited the office of the Catholic Relief Services (CRS) where we spoke with the director and her assistant. CRS has been helpful with the WFU Benin program and Sylvain was hoping that we could develop the relationship, in the form of internships with CRS for interested students. The director, however, did not encourage this idea. She explained that they had tried this in the past and it had not worked: the organization did not have the manpower to train interns, and felt that without suitable training students would be unable to make a helpful contribution.

We concluded the afternoon with a visit to CAPE, the Cellule d'Analyse de Politique Economique or Economic Policy Analysis Unit of the Benin government. CAPE, which was created in 1998, is staffed mostly by economists with one political scientist. Staff from CAPE have given lectures to the Wake students, and we spoke about possible ways of developing our relationship. Collaboration in research seemed to be an attractive idea to the CAPE staffers: they were eager to find means of getting their studies into the economics journals.

Dinner with the students at Mama Benin's. Met Peace Corps volunteers.

Wednesday, June 6

We began the day with a visit to the Minister of Education, who greeted us cordially and spoke of his admiration for U.S. higher education and his hopes for cooperation. He arranged for us to meet the vice-Rector of the National University of Benin. He also, however, warned us that the current state of the University was "shameful".

Our next engagement was with Moustapha Soumare, UN Resident Coordinator and Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Benin. M. Soumare explained the UNDP's priorities: democratic governance, poverty reduction, and the development of information and communications technology. Unlike CRS, he seemed open to the idea of internships with the UNDP for Wake Forest students. The meeting was very encouraging.

We then returned to CODIAM and the students, and Sally Barbour lectured on Francophone poetry, with reference to the works of Léopold Senghor (Senegal), Léon Damas (French Guyana) and Aimé Césaire (Martinique) -- including a collaborative exercise in interpreting the selected poems which got everyone involved and thinking.

In the afternoon we drove out to the National University campus where we met the Vice Rector, Aminou Wabi Taofiki, and Olory Bienvenu, the person in charge of inter-university cooperation. The meeting began somewhat stiffly: it appeared that the University administrators had been "told by the Minister" to meet us, but didn't really know what was going on. For our part, we had expected to meet our counterparts in the various academic disciplines, but only the two administrators were present. After Sylvain explained the background, however, relations thawed. An arrangement was made for us to meet faculty from the National University on Tuesday.

Drinks at the "Titanic" rooftop bar; dinner at restaurant "Berlin" with guest Abdel-Wahab Bakary, broadcaster, translator and interpreter.

Thursday, June 7

8:00 Allin Cottrell: lecture at CODIAM on free software and economic development

9:30 Met with US Ambassador, Pamela Bridgewater. Sylvain explained our desire to extend Wake's relations with Benin and the Ambassador promised her help. She also confirmed what we had been hearing about the National University of Benin from other sources, namely that the University is quite chaotic and attempting to work with it can be very frustrating.

10:30 Met with Mission Director to Benin for USAID, Harry Lightfoot. Mr Lightfoot explained USAID's operations in Benin, telling us that one of their main current projects is reform of the education system, starting at the primary level. They are helping the Benin government to replace the old French system (described as authoritarian and based on rote learning) with a system allowing for student initiative and active learning. This also involves replacing the old textbooks, imported from France, with locally written and published materials (the language of instruction is still French). The actual reform work is contracted out, and it struck us that there may be an opportunity for Wake Forest's Department of Education to get involved, if there is interest.

USAID also sponsors the training of Beninese government officials in Western accounting and financial management practices: Jack Wilkerson suggested that we should look into the possibility of sending some of these people to Wake's Calloway School, and Mr Lightfoot seemed receptive to this idea.

After the USAID meeting we returned to CODIAM for lectures by Toussaint Houeninvo (CAPE economist) on a plan for controlling air pollution in Contonou; Pia Wood, on the history of French colonialism in Africa; and Mouftaou Laleye (CAPE political scientist) on Benin's colonial legacy and changes since independence in 1960.

We ended the day with an interview with the President of the Benin Chamber of Commerce, Wassi Mouftaou.

Friday, June 8

Made a 6am start for Savalou (see map), and our first visit to a Songhaï site. On arrival at Savalou we first visited the new telecentre, one of several linked centres that Songhaï has set up in Benin. We then drove out of town to the Songhaï farm and had an extensive tour.

After lunch -- an authentic Beninese meal of fufu, goat and okra sauce at a little roadside restaurant -- we drove on north to Parakou. This town, at the end of the railway line from Cotonou, is an entrepôt for trade with Niger and Burkina. After the chaos and pollution of Cotonou, it seemed orderly and pleasant. Again we visited the Songhaï telecentre and toured the Songhaï farm, where we saw highly diversified agriculture and animal husbandry, as well as food processing and education (a class was in progess at the main communal building).

As we left Songhaï, a storm that had been brewing during the afternoon finally broke, with spectacular lightning and torrential rain. But we made it back along the dirt roads to Parakou and checked into the hotel "le Majestic". Fr Nzamujo took us to the restaurant "le Papini" for a fine meal.

Note: For further information about Songhaï, look here.

Saturday, June 9

Returned from Parakou to Cotonou by way of the Abomey Historical Museum abomey
image.

Dinner at Novotel with guests Toussaint Houeninvo and Mouftaou Laleye of CAPE, and Eric Tevoedjre, founder of afrikinfo.

Sunday, June 10

Since some of the students were unwell, and the rest of us thoroughly exhausted, we cancelled our planned trip to Lomé. In the afternoon we visited Ouidah, slave port and center of voodoo (pictures here). Quiet dinner at Novotel.

Monday, June 11

Back to a schedule of meetings. Our first engagement was with the Minister of the Interior, who greeted us graciously and said he would direct the Général de Police to take care of any security needs of the Wake Forest program.

Next stop, the Cotonou office of the Peace Corps, which has also been helpful to the Wake Program.

In the afternoon we drove to the capital, Porto Novo, to visit the original Songhaï site, and fell in line behind a visiting Nigerian dignitary (Governor of one of Nigeria's larger states) who was also there to see what Songhaï has to offer. Besides the agricultural systems we had seen at Savalou and Parakou, we also saw the machine shops where they make locally-designed food-processing machinery. After the Nigerians left, Fr Nzamujo was able to "abandon protocol": we kicked back, sampling Songhai's fine grilled pork and ginger beer by way of appetizer for a farewell dinner enjoyed at the Songhaï restuarant.

At Songhaï Porto Novo we also had a chance to talk with Alfred Frederick, Professor of Curriculum and Instruction at SUNY-Oswego. We had heard from the US Ambassador that Frederick was working at the National University (a two-year stay), and we chanced upon him at Ouidah. He hadn't known much about Songhaï, and we invited him to come join us on our visit. He may well be a useful contact for the future.

On the way back to Novotel, Sylvain and Pia Wood stopped to talk with people from Bowling Green State University who also run a summer study program in Benin (we had heard of this at the National University); it seems there is scope for useful cooperation with them.

Tuesday, June 12

Boko and Cottrell met with the Général de Police, Raymond Fadonougbo, to discuss security matters. Our way was smoothed by the fact that M. Fadonougbo turned out to have family in Greensboro, NC. He was very cooperative, and offered to send a security person with the students when they visit the north of the country. (In fact, he also offered a motorcycle escort for the students when driving around Cotonou, but Sylvain though this would not be necessary!)

After lunch at the Caravelle restaurant with Karim Okanla (of the West African Newsmedia and Development Centre, WANAD) we took some time to shop for souvenirs as the artisanal market, then paid our last visit to CODIAM to bid farewell to the students, who were in the process of heading out to the various family homes where they would be quartered for the next week.

Left Contonou at 9:15pm and flew to Paris via Lagos.

Note: We adandoned our arrangement to meet with faculty of the National University, which had been scheduled for 10am Tuesday. Sylvain called them the night before, and it was not clear that faculty would actually be present. We were also very pressed for time on our last day in Benin. But there's a bit of a loose end here...

Wednesday, June 13

Arrived Paris 6:15am. Pia Wood and Jack Wilkerson headed off to Bordeaux to make contact with a business school that has recently entered an exchange relationship with WFU's Calloway School. The rest of us flew on to New York, where Sally Barbour left us to meet family. The remaining four of us transferred to La Guardia, which had been slowed to a crawl by bad weather on the East coast: our original flight was cancelled, and after waiting on the runway for almost four hours we eventually arrived back at Greensboro after 30 hours travelling -- thoroughly exhausted, but our heads full of ideas and impressions of Africa.

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