The question Mat and I usually get when we tell people that we’ve decided to go all in and move to a country that some people struggle to locate on a map is, “Why Benin?”
Even people in Benin do a double take when we explain that we plan to adopt their country as our own. After all, this is a place that people who attain success usually leave (if not permanently, then at least long enough to forge foreign ties). Though there is a growing contingent of young Beninese people returning to the country after living abroad or who are children of Beninese immigrants who grew up in France or the Caribbean, there aren’t many complete foreigners who have, at will, picked up and moved to Benin. Most foreigners are volunteers or entrepreneurs with ties to their own countries. We, on the other hand, just like it there.
That’s what we say when people ask us why we’re moving.
We diplomatically look upwards as if we’re thinking of the question for the first time, as if our pending move hasn’t already made us completely accustomed to interrogation. Then we sigh a bit and settle on saying: “We just like it,” which always proves unsatisfactory because the only logical follow-up is: “But why?”.
Moving to Benin is not moving to France, or anywhere in western Europe for that matter. It’s not moving to another city or another part of New York. If we were moving to Seattle, for instance, the questions wouldn’t be so tough. For most people, Seattle brings up some images, however accurate or inaccurate. You might ask the moving party a few questions about their reasons, pull up a Seattle-related memory/ story/ relative, and move on to another topic.
My stomach currently has five incisions. Until last week they bled into the little surgical bandages that were, along with my newly damaged abdominal muscles, holding my entire abdomen together. I put my hand on my stomach when I wanted to laugh, which was a lot when friends came to pay post-surgery visits. Having been forbidden to make me laugh, it seemed that looking at each other was all it took to make us do just that. I put a hand over my stomach, smiled widely, and did a sort of internal laugh that involved no breath and very little sound.
The surgery was for the removal of 7 uterine fibroids, benign growths which beset the uterus. It is a condition which affects up to 80% of African American women. A few days before my procedure, I was at brunch with my octogenarian aunt whose memory is getting bad. She told me that three aunts, a cousin, and my older sister have all had surgeries related to uterine fibroids.
When I reminded her that I’d be leaving New York soon to move to Benin, she put her fork down, lowered her head to her chest, and feigned speechlessness.
“You’re doing what?”, she said using her voice’s lowest register. “Does your mother know?”
I assured her that my parents know and have even seen a video of the land that we are purchasing. I didn’t bother to remind her that she also knew.
We considered several other places to move before we decided on Benin. There was New Orleans, Lisbon, Toulouse, Marseille, and Dakar. But Benin was a common denominator; even when we thought of those other cities, we always imagined that we’d live there part-time and spend the rest of our time in Benin. And then there were logistical factors: Benin could be the perfect place for me to work as a freelance international reporter. It doesn’t have a lot English coverage and there are plenty of stories to be told. Plus, it’s well situated for travel to other countries in the region. Mat works remotely for a nonprofit based in NY, so he can live anywhere. We could build a house in Benin debt-free for less money than a few years of NY rent. And...we just like it there.
Falling in love with a place is like falling in love with a person. Countless factors, tangible and intangible, converge and gaining substance, stick. It’s the feeling of what sticks that stays with you, what makes you return and yearn for something more permanent. And so it is with Benin. We love the culture, the food, the people, the landscapes, but mostly we love that unexplainable feeling of familiarity which came to us the first time we visited.
On the first day after my surgery, a wave of pain rattled me as Mat helped me out of bed. I looked up at him, feeling an awful helplessness that would be embarrassing under other circumstances.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” I cried.
“Well, you are doing it,” he replied.
It made me think of our move to Benin. We’re doing it, for better or worse. Explanations be damned. We’re doing it.