Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Waters in Benin

This is a journal entry from a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin

It Smells Like Fish

09.24.2007 — Everyone around me said it was coming. Every four or five years, it happens, and this is the fourth of fifth year since the last occurrence. I kept saying that I hoped I would be here to see it, but today I saw enough to understand, and choose to no longer particularly want to see the real event. Since the previous entry, the rain hasn't really ceased. Every couple of days there is a break with sunlight, but soon enough the rain returns. All this rain on a river plain brings a flood, for sure and certain. Today, during a faux-break when there was no rain but the air was still wet enough to make my friends' hair look hoary, I fled the house on my bike, eventually stopping at the river. I had to brake earlier than usual as the bank had deteriorated and become dangerous. I was silenced. Water filled the ten-foot descent to the usual pirogue landing, which I thought looked calm but deceiving, knowing that the water was not only tearing away the bank, but was also on the brink of wreaking destruction. Straddling my bike on the crumbling bank of a swollen river in the twilight that evening was the most dream-like jungle moment I have experienced so close to home. I have had other jungle-like moments, but not so close to where I live. The river had reclaimed the Togo-side Palm Nut trees, and all the nooks and crannies along the way. The continual moisture had allowed for the toads, frogs, and crickets to become a constant background noise. The sunlight that remained and broke through the clouds made the air seem darker somehow as I watched the water. I took a couple steps back as I heard a crash and slide up-river; a few moments later, part of Benin floated by. That was when I decided that I didn't need to see more water. I am not in Kansas, and people do not have insurance. Fields have been invaded and crops risk to be ruined. People are harvesting while waste deep in water, some by pirogue, and some not at all because the crop is already gone. This morning I toured the wettest areas. The next crossing down river is underwater, except for a small island where the pirogues embark. I parked my bike with the displaced zemidjans, pulled up my pagne, and walked the submerged road to cross the ankle-deep water. Here, the usual descent to the boats is 12-15 feet deep, and today was beyond filled. Women were washing laundry and some men were washing their motorcycle or vehicle. People were still crossing in boats to Togo except the loading area was where the zemidjan hang-out usually should be, and the people who pushed the boat had to be careful for the now-hidden descent. Those of us standing on the island heard a big splash on the Togo side as barrels were pushed into the river. Men jumped in after and pushed the barrels across while swimming. As I stood there, about 20 men swam across, five at a time, and a stack of 20 or more barrels were still lined up in Togo. One man swam three-fourths of the way and became too tired. A man who had mostly crossed left his barrel and swam back into the current for the tired man's barrel while two boats, one from Togo and one from Benin, took off after the man, while yet another swimmer rescued the second barrel. It was an intense moment, but barrels, swimmers, and boatmen all returned safely to Benin. The barrels are full of Palm Nut tree oil, locally called red oil, which is a big source of trade. I biked on toward another village about five kilometers from the opposite side of town, but not even half a kilometer into the trip, a woman told me to not even try crossing. She had been up to her knees in water, assuring that the river is already passed its banks on that side. I returned home. The river has an emergency route very close to my home, so my house is the second to be engulfed, the first being the mayor's home. Mud homes that do risk to be in water are built up, and can resist most of a flood, but not all. I am told that it depends on the depth and the force of the water. In the evening I walked out to the market to stock up on foods. The ditches around my home where already full, and every 30 minutes later were more full. I had been considering the flood a natural disaster. I have never really been in the midst of one, which was kind of obvious in the end because I felt I was being dramatic in calling the flood a disaster. I am possibly the only person over the age of five in this town that has never seen the river flood. Mathurin told me that he likes watching the river flood, and that as a child he would sit on my house's porch railing to fish. Silly me, I was thinking of all those fields being ruined. He says he likes to see what happens, and to eat all the fresh fish, snails, and other animals chased out of the brush. So, I guess a flood is a flood; next year will be different. In the mean time, I have my camera ready for fleeing animals. I guess I still have a chance of seeing a hippopotamus in my front yard before leaving. P.S. As I type this out the night of the day I wrote this entry, the water has claimed my front yard and is still climbing, and it's still raining. P.P.S. As I edit this entry, I will add that the water only keeps rising, and I take a pirogue to leave my home. It rains about once a day. My dogs, who are shorter than my knees, must swim to leave and enter the house, so they don't too often. In fact, I try to avoid coming and going as well.

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