Being There: vol. 9

For the past few weeks an eight-year-old girl, who we’ll call Dee, has wandered into our house when she’s not hanging out in our yard or doing homework on our porch. She’s a student at the school that shares a gate with the house and the daughter of the school director’s girlfriend. Last Sunday, I realized that I hadn’t seen her mother or the school director in a few days, and that she was hanging out later and later. Then it dawned on me that Dee hadn’t been going home at night. I learned that she was spending nights on a straw mat on the floor of the school’s office, waking herself up in the morning, putting on her school uniform, and crossing the gate to go to school on her own. On the same Sunday, she helped us hang Christmas lights and stared in wonder when she pressed the button to turn them on. She pressed the button over and over to see the different settings until I felt like I was suffering from the things they warn you about with strobe lights. That night, I decided she’d sleep at our place.

When you build a house in Benin, the first thing you do is surround your land with a wall. Later, you add a gate, but first there is the surrounding wall—  usually made of concrete, usually gray. I never liked this. Walls have always signified barriers that keep people out in a way that seems antithetical to community. They feel oppressive. But everyone tells us that, for security and privacy, having a wall is non-negotiable. The only work-around I’ve come up with is that for our future house (the one we’re building), the surrounding wall will be brick and that it will have fragrant flowers, like jasmine, growing alongside it.

Except, here in Benin, walls seem a bit more permeable. People move in and out of each other’s space in a way that makes community seem like an undeniable fact of life, one that is so ingrained that people barely ever think of it. I, on the other hand, think of community constantly. Just the other day, I found myself in an argument with a friend, each of us furiously sending recorded messages saying in so many words that the other’s notion of community is flawed—  mine too theoretical, her’s too unimaginative. I wondered after days of exchange if I was losing touch with reality. How do I stay connected with friends and family when we live so far apart, how does one imagine that I can have empathy when I had the audacity to move to a country that most people I know have never visited, and may never visit, I wondered.

When it comes to maintaining community, it’s not the distance really that is a bother; technology takes care of that. But texts, voice memos, and video updates aren’t really the stuff of community. The technology-assisted ways of connecting definitely cut through isolation, but what binds people is more about the unseen forces that make sure the threads stay unbroken. And we never really know what those unseen forces, the Guides of the Universe, are up to...until one day you hear from someone who you were only just thinking of, and the friend who calls manages to feel that thing you’ve been just too afraid to feel and then tells you about it in words that sound like poetry. That there is Guides’ work, for sure. But what is to be said about the concrete ways of being there, the bodies to help make decorations for holiday parties or babysit difficult toddlers so their parents can feel alive again? For my community in the states, these things are mostly out of my domain. And that is community too—  forgiving and accepting the ways that you simply can’t be there, especially when your presence is needed, and giving thanks for all the ways you can be.

When I was a kid, black girls with short natural hair didn’t get many compliments when it came their hair. So when I sat down to do Dee’s hair a few days after we hung Christmas lights, I made sure to proclaim how beautiful her hair is because she has the kind of short natural hair that didn’t get much love when I was her age. But she just shrugged her shoulders like I’d said the sky was blue. “Yeah. It’s just my natural hair. No chemicals,” she said matter of factly. I think I detected some pride in her voice, but I may be embellishing. Her tone was even as she settled down onto the cushion on the floor between my legs. Then she leaned her head against the inside of my knee as I began gently detangling.  

I haven’t done anyone else’s hair since my babysitting days, so doing her hair was a privilege. But here in Benin, things like these are normal. I don’t mean to make it seem as if people here live some sort of idyllic village life, without boundaries. Our house is no doubt surrounded by walls (gray, concrete) and fronted by a metal gate. But Dee’s sudden presence in our lives is not unique. One night a few weeks ago I visited a friend, an American from New York who’s doing research in Benin. And there in her apartment was her neighbor’s toddler who her neighbor had left with my friend hours earlier with no advance notice. My friend supplied paper and crayons and the boy sat on the floor scribbling away. When he was hungry he made his way to my friend’s lap and she fed him snacks from her kitchen. We laughed at the randomness of her having a baby dropped on her, but we knew that that’s just how life is here. I thought of another friend in New York with a toddler the same age and how convenient it would be if she could drop her son off at a friend’s place unannounced knowing that he would be received with open arms, without judgement.    

Still, the fact that Dee had been sleeping on a concrete floor at night and that she went for days without seeing her mother didn’t sit right with me. To me, children are put to bed at night by adoring parents who’ve bathed them and read them stories (notwithstanding: my parents never read to me). Dee, on the other hand, does her homework with the help of the 20-year-old guardian of the house, the person who’s hired to open the gate and generally maintain the house. Sometimes, hours after Mat and I have eaten dinner, the guardian quizzes her on her homework, drilling her on facts to prepare her for school the next day, while she responds in a voice that is barely above a whisper. At the time of writing this, she hadn’t seen her family in four days.

While I was mulling over the Dee situation and speculating over what’s going on with her family for the hundredth time, it dawned on me that nothing is going on with her family. The reason her mother never told us anything is because, to her, nothing is wrong. And the truth is, when I put aside my American-conditioned thinking, I get it. Somehow her mother knew that she was around adults who would not allow harm to come her way, that she would be fed, that she would do her homework, and that she would go to school...and that was enough. Of course, for Mat and I things like attention and quality time are also important, so we spend time with Dee that has nothing to do with school and study—  playing games, doing art, making meals together, and playing music. The point is that Dee is surrounded by community— a community of adults that feeds her, makes sure she’s done her homework, that she eats dinner, and has a place to lay her head at night...and besides this community, she’s a part of another one that makes sure she knows that her hair is beautiful just as it is (for girls everywhere, this part is a big deal).

In August Wilson’s play Fences, the character Bono says of Rose, who holds the emotional core of the play, "Some people build fences to keep people out…and other people build fences to keep people in." Rose is the latter, he concludes. Here in Benin, it’s refreshing that walls, though built to keep people out, never really do. As my new community grows, I challenge my notions of the old one. And then I am grateful to be exactly where I am.