Last summer we went to Benin in West Africa to visit our French friends who have moved there for their work — they are malaria researchers. We met in Cleveland several years ago, when their daughter Annabelle and Minette were toddlers. It was friendship at first sight for children and grownups alike.
Meanwhile, they have moved back to Paris, then moved to Cotonou, the capital city of Benin. After having managed to get together a few times in France, we decided to go ahead with our Benin trip, as the country was mostly spared by Covid and taking sensible precautions all the same.
Thanks to the outings and excursions organized by our friends we were able to discover Cotonou and coastal Benin in a way we would not have managed by ourselves. It was also lovely to hang out at their house. On one of these occasions, I recorded a conversation with Annabelle and Minette in which we discussed various multicultural aspects of their lives.
Multiculturalism is a significant dimension of both girls’ existence but in different ways, so I thought it would be interesting to hear what they have to say about their respective experiences.
While Minette speaks several languages at home, Annabelle speaks only French with her family. While Minette has always lived in the United States and remembers just her present home (she was a baby when we left New York), Annabelle has already lived on three continents. She says she remembers Cleveland a little but her English “evaporated” as soon she came back to France four years ago. She was surprised to hear she used to play in English with Minette.
Annabelle says she finds Benin prettier than France and it has been easy to make friends there. Her parents confirm she and her little brother have adjusted to their new surroundings very smoothly. Looking at their airy house and tropical garden, and at the children’s relaxed everyday life, you can see why.
The lush tropical nature, reminiscent of South India’s to us, and Beninese friendliness are actually the two main takeaways of our trip. To put it in Minette’s words: “Behind Annabelle’s house is like behind the house of Thatha and Aachi.” and “Everybody seems to know everybody here.”
For Appa, finding the natural landscape very similar to where he grew up, along with people who look and behave very differently, was probably the most striking part of the trip. All of us were taken by the genuine ease and warmth with which Beninese people interacted with each other and with us.
Language was a significant topic in our talk. Annabelle told us about the various languages spoken in highly multilingual Benin. She even sang Happy Birthday in one of them, Fongbe, for us. Click below if you want to hear this and other snippets of our conversation (in French).
Annabelle goes to a French school mostly attended by French and Beninese children but she also has classmates coming from Canada, Japan, Lebanon, or Morocco. Minette’s class is less diverse that way but there are still quite a few families coming from various parts of the world. We wondered how many languages in total each of their classes could speak…
Benin French was also discussed, as it is spoken fluently and daily by the urban population. Benin is a former French colony, as you probably know or have guessed. One word in particular, used widely by everyone navigating the city, was mentioned. Doucement (gently) is the word of choice to make others aware you are passing by them and want to avoid any collision. In France French we would say attention or pardon. Doucement sounds way more friendly and relaxed.
This, our first trip to Africa was a treat in may ways. Because we were introduced to Benin by our friends and so could grasp much more than we would have on our own. Because we enjoyed being outdoors and near the water a lot. Because we felt casually welcome by the Beninese. A tiny amount of time and a tiny bit of Africa — but we have gained vivid memories and the appetite for more discoveries.