“Yovo Yovo Bonsoir”

My mom pointed out to me that in my previous blog I mentioned being a “Yovo,” but didn’t go into any detail of what it meant. So as many PC Benin volunteers have ventured to do before me, I will try and explain the notion of “Yovo”. Here is my story of being a “Yovo”.

Before “Swearing-In” and becoming a Peace Corps volunteer, one spends three months as a Peace Corps trainee. This year, the PC Benin trainees lived in villages surrounding Porto Novo, the capital of Benin, with host families. Part of training is to integrate into the culture, and there is no better way to do this than to live and spend time with a Beninese family. Along with this, we had 8-hour days, six days a week, of intensive language classes, culture lessons, and sector-specific training sessions (this has nothing to do with my Yovo story, just a ploy to make you feel for us trainees). I’ll move on. The trainees in my sector, Rural Community Health (RCH), stayed in Dangbo, which is about a 15-minute zemi ride (moto-taxi ride) from Porto Novo. I lived with an older, widowed, loving woman, whom I called Maman Catherine and her son, his wife and their three daughters Happy, Love, and Peace. And yes, their names are really Happy, Love, and Peace. I have to admit there was something symbolically beautiful about that. We lived in a small concession that was behind the boutique and buvette (beer-bar) that they owned. For the first three weeks, Happy and Love stayed in Porto Novo with their aunt. This left Peace. Peace is the youngest of the three and is about 2 ½ years old. She is completely adorable… and was deathly afraid of me. There is a good chance that I was the first white person that she had every seen (or at least remembers seeing). My family would make me hold her, but she would just cry and cry. Sometimes they would give me booms booms (candy) to give to her. She would slowly take the candies, then make a run for it and hide behind her mother. Peace isn’t the only child astonished by the whiteness of our skin. Some kids get so excited when they see a yovo, almost as if they had just seen a magical creature that was only presumed to exist.
Yovo is a word in the local language, Fon, for white person/foreigner. Fon is the largest of the local languages in Benin, but I think that yovo has the same meaning in other local languages as well. In my village, Tcha is the local language and white person/foreigner is oyibe. But even so, yovo is universally known in Benin, so I have heard both in Agoua. Most, if not every kid can even sing the “Yovo Yovo Bonsoir” song, which I’ve been told began when the French colonized Benin. The Frenchmen would ask the children to sing “the song” and they would give them candy. The song being “Yovo, yovo, bonsoir. Ca va bein, merci,” There is even a specific tune to the song that, regrettably, I cannot easily include in this blog. Anyway, even the little kids, who can’t say very much of anything, can chant theses few words. There is no forgetting that you are a foreigner, because immediately you are reminded by a child hiding behind her older sister, who isn’t trying to insult you, but is just so excited to see the yovo and really just wants the yovo to see her. Sometimes when I hear the chants I almost feel like royalty, like something important. But other times I feel like an alien or monster and I want to show the children that I am the same as them, that the whiteness on my body is not paint and will not rub off, but that we are still all the same. Sometimes I even do. The other day, I had a few kids run up to me yelling, “Yovo, yovo,” but right as they got about 10 feet away they abruptly stopped. As if there were an invisible electric fence that wouldn’t let them come any closer. So I made a small step toward them and in tandem they made a small step in the other direction maintaining the 10-foot distance. So I stuck out my hand and watched their amazed eyes. Of course, the whole time I was also telling them things in French, but because of their young age they didn’t understand any of the words coming from my mouth. After a moment or two, one brave girl stepped forward and put her hand in mine. The others quickly jumped forward and followed suit, as if they were thinking, “Oh so you won’t melt instantly if you touch a yovo? I want to do it!” Now, I doubt that’s really what they are thinking, it’s just an outrageous theory made I imagine that keeps me amused. That is until I can speak Tcha and ask them what they thought would happen when they touched me.
Back to Peace. After about three weeks of countless effort made by me, her parents, random locals of the buvette, and Maman Catherine, Peace began to warm up to me little by little. It helped when Happy and Love (who are ages five and seven) came back from their aunts and would, literally, hang on me as I walk through the concession gate. Five weeks into training, each of us trainees went to our future post for a two-week visit. At this point, Peace had been letting me hold her (without crying) for about two weeks. I knew I would miss my little nieces, but I didn’t expect or even give a thought of them really missing me. But when I came back from my post visit my Maman Catherine told me that each morning while I was away, Peace would stand at my door and yell “Jayne” “Jayne” “Yovo”. She didn’t understand that I was gone.
Watching a little girl go from being completely terrified of me purely because I have a different skin color than her, to her realizing I really wasn’t all that different and scary, to her wanting to see me each day is an unexplainable feeling. But it reminds me why I am here. I could list a million differences between Beninese folks and American folks. And I don’t use “differences” in a derogatory sense, I think that many of the differences are beautiful once one truly explores and embraces them. But at the end of the day, we are all human, we all love, we all make mistakes, and we all feel joy and pain.  I think that sometimes in the States (or at least in my experience), we forget how different we all are. The United States is called the melting pot. It’s completely normal to encounter someone of a different race, ethnicity, or culture on a daily basis and not even give it a second thought. But we come from different culture, beliefs, and places and sometimes this is visible through our physical features. Now, don’t think I’m naive to the fact that there are times when we do acknowledge the differences and it’s to hurt another person, not to marvel at the beauty of our world. Which I think is exploitative and undermining to these differences. Thus, I don’t think this world would be as beautiful and wonderful without these differences. We wouldn’t get to learn something new each day. We wouldn’t get to feel something strange and original each day. But more importantly, we wouldn’t get to see a little girl learn and figure out for herself the wonders of life, with that bewildered and amazed expression on her face.

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