8 Lessons in Appreciation from Benin

There hasn’t been much happening in the sense of adventures and fun experiences but there have been many a learning opportunity. I guess that’s an adventure of a sort!

Since everything is very different from what I have previously experienced, it has all come as a challenge. My dad was recently asking half serious, half jokingly ‘So you are out of your comfort zone then huh?’. I am out of my comfort zone on many counts. All day, every day.

This reminds me of a blog post a friend recently wrote about foreigners traveling abroad. Americans (and other Westerners) travelling in Peru to be exact. He was talking about a German guy who complained about the food, the locals’ customs, the infrastructure, etc.

Less than a month ago I would have probably fully supported my friend and joined in the rant. I stand here today though, having thought the same thoughts that German guy thought after coming face to face with everything local.

I have felt angry and scared and feeling comfortable and safe despite my best efforts has been a struggle (much improved in the last few days). I didn‘t want to remember Benin as a negative experience and I didn’t want to leave feeling glad and relieved that I am leaving. I didn’t want to feel that I had wasted a month of precious life. So…

Instead of complaining, getting frustrated and angry, I chose to turn my stay here into a lesson in appreciation. Benin lacks many of the things I sometimes take for granted back home and it has reminded me of how fortunate I am to be living the way I do. This list is by no means exhaustive. It only covers some of what I have personally experienced and/or observed Here are some of those things:

1. Internet connection
The connection here is appallingly slow (and that’s when it is there at all) which combined with the local setup at work has made my job very frustrating and at times even impossible. We tend to take a solid, incredibly fast and always available Internet connection for granted. And we also take everything that it helps us do for granted – talks to family and friends, maps, email, social media, keeping in touch, you name it.

Now, pause for a moment, look at the strength of the signal on your phone/tablet/laptop/desktop and imagine what it would be like without it. Imagine not having the whole world on demand at your fingertips 24/7. Imagine really wanting to talk to a close friend or family and not being able to, or imagine having a deadline to meet at work and not being able to because the Internet is not cooperating.

A good Internet connection is a blessing.

2. Customer Service
We are so spoiled when it comes to service. We are used to smiley, helpful assistants and waiters, we are used to our orders arriving within minutes, we are used to everyone rushing around and making sure we are happy with our customer experience.

There’s none of that in Benin. You are met with a frown, bad attitude and a ‘What you want?’. And that’s if you are lucky.

I have been able to get a smile and a greeting by not taking it personally and also by going out of my way to be polite and smiley regardless what that’s met with on the other side.

So let’s just be a little nicer to the people serving us because they do an awesome job and they deserve it.

3. Infrastructure
It is barely existent here. I have already mentioned that there are very few paved roads around here and the majority are hole-ridden, flooded, dirt ones. It makes for some amusing rides. And by amusing I mean uncomfortable. Walking is sometimes a challenge too because you get very dirty and some times you have to wade your way through an ankle deep puddle of dirty water to get to the other side.

Think about all the paved, clean lovely roads available to you every day. Think about how you can come home, put you feet up (with the shoes still on) and not get your sofa dirty because there’s not a spec of dirt stuck to your soles. Also think about all the smooth rides you and your car (and your wallet) can enjoy.

4. Electricity
Believe it or not something as basic (you would think!) as electricity is a problem here. It stops randomly several times a day. It hasn’t led to any major inconveniences but imagine what it would be like if the power went off while you were in the bathroom, or watching your favourite show. Not the end of the world but if it happened several times a day it might get a bit annoying.

5. Laundry
I have dutifully collected my dirty clothes in a plastic bag to take with me to my next (slightly more civilized location). I was thinking about finding a local place instead of paying higher prices at the hotel but I have now completely given up on it. Having seen everything else I don’t trust anyone with my clothes. What if they are ironed with an old fashioned iron running on coal? You think I am kidding? When I saw it for the first time I thought it was a nice piece of antique decoration in front of a tailor’s shop. How lovely I thought! How charming! What a great piece of styling! Two days later I saw a man iron a new suit with it.

Imagine having to do laundry by hand or not being able to at all.

6. Modern technology
There are air conditioners and some nice SUVs. That’s about it.

You know all that nice stuff you enjoy at the office – coffee machine which spits out lovely hot drinks on demand, microwave, fridges, water filters and that’s just the cafeteria. What about laptops, swanky desktops, tablets, mobile phones, printers, scanners and all sorts of stationery gadgets?

Hey how about cooking stoves and the gazillion other gadgets you enjoy at home?

None of that here. People cook in big old metal pots over a small fire on the side of the road.

7. Variety
I don’t even know where to begin on this one. Food, cafes, restaurants, arts, exhibitions, experiences, availability of services, transport, options, choices, you name it! It doesn’t exist here. Food is limited to rice, a blob made of yams, chicken, fish, burgers and pizza (and that’s because I can afford it).

There are a few cafes/bars/restaurants that are all very much the same and also basic.

Transport is limited to a small number of taxis and an infinite number of motorbike taxis (no helmets).

8. Health care
You know how you always hear complaints about the NHS, or maybe you even complain about it yourself? I wish you could see the local hospital and the medical staff that comes with it. I walked past it the other day and all I could think of was ‘Don’t get sick! Don’t get sick! Don’t let anything happen to you.’. It looked like a torture facility and I wondered whether the people dressed in long white robes (monk like) were there to heal you or offer comfort in your dying hours.

The NHS as imperfect as it might be (according to some) is a medical heaven compared to many health care institutions.

Furthermore, I have seen people living in shacks with dirt floors, part flooded and dark. Children running around naked in the dirt. Children working. Babies being whizzed on motorbikes strapped to their mothers’ backs. I can’t even imagine what it’s like giving birth here; many probably don’t even make it to the hospital. Rubbish is scattered everywhere and that the idea of hygiene does not seem to exist. Men have a habit of urinating in the street in broad daylight. People try to rip you off as a foreigner. Traffic is mad and nobody follows the few signs there are.

Now take a moment to look around you, think about the way you live and say thank you. Say it until you feel it. And then say it some more.

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