A Visit With the King

A statue of King Béhanzin, renown for putting his hand up and telling the French, “You can go no further than this.”

At the end of January, the King of the region of Abomey invited 40 Mercy Ships volunteers to come visit him and have lunch. Benin is a democratic country, but there are still regional monarchs through whom influence and wealth is passed down. The King invited us to thank us and honor us for the work that we’ve been doing in this country. Overall, this was a great honor for us and a neat way to experience another side of Benin’s culture.

Sometimes when there are cultural differences, what is expected and what actually happens are two very different things. When doing missions trips in other cultures in other countries, it’s always a good idea to hold your expectations loosely. When doing anything with Mercy Shippers, you’re easily dealing with people from 30 different countries and at least 5 or 10 vastly different ways of living and thinking. As we are learning more and more, “You have to be fluid, because just flexible is way too rigid.” One thing we did have was an excellent french-speaking coordinator, Pierre from Switzerland. Pierre met with the King’s officials and coordinators to set up the event.

The journey started with a bus ride. I’m going to describe it a bit to give you a sense of our everyday surroundings in Benin. With 40 people attending, this would have been quite a caravan if we had used the normal Mercy Ships land rovers, which seat 8 uncomfortably (2 people sitting in the bumpy trunk seats over the rear tires). This time, we were able to get large buses, which looked like city buses at home except for a few rusty spots, cracks in glass, noxious diesel fumes, and a huge spare tire in the middle of the aisle mid-bus.

The 2 hour ride was like any normal ride through west Africa. Along the way we passed streets full of colorfully dressed people selling items and carrying items on their heads, goats, chickens and an unending flurry of zemidjans (motorcycle taxis) zipping all around. The most common form of transportation here is motorcycle. Men ride motorbikes to work in suit and tie, or more commonly, in traditional brightly colored African style suits, which we lovingly refer to as “pajama suits.” Women ride in bright dresses. Children ride snuggled in front, back, or in between parents. Everyone rides motorcycles, including sometimes goats and chickens.

When we arrived at the palace, we were greeted with “bonne arrivée” (good arrival/welcome) and rhythmic singing in the local language (Fon). A group of women which we later learned were from a local cultural heritage group, made a gauntlet of greeting under the arches of a beautifully painted wall. The mansion was decorated with the scenes that we’ve come to recognize as paintings representing the kings of Benin. The Lion, representing the line of King Glele was most prominent, done in an almost cartoon African style, which draws from it’s rich heritage. The stork is also a prominent figure with a long beak and long seabird legs. Another prominent art piece as we came through the entrance hallway, was a larger-than-life statue of a pregnant women. Her brightly painted and emphasized belly and breasts jutted out towards us like spear points.  To say the experience was culturally awkward would be an understatement, but having spent the last 3 months in Benin, we are starting to come to almost expect and embrace this kind of event.

Despite us not really knowing where to stand or sit, or anything about the proceedings, we filed into the open air “court” inside the King’s house, and were seated in two very tight grids of plastic chairs, facing the middle, where the King’s wives sat on rugs in center stage. After some more singing, the King – dressed in bright yellow traditional robe and carrying the traditional staff – arrived with a small procession from his upper room and made his way to his throne. There was then someone there who served as the mouthpiece to the King, who welcomed us and invited us to eat and enjoy the singing and dancing.

We sat and ate lunch, listened to many tribal songs, and several of our party even got up and danced with the King. The local dance we lovingly refer to as the “funky chicken” is one part high stepping, and one part CPR chest compressions, and one part flapping your arms. This dance is of course made even more hilarious by westerners who don’t really know how to do it.

While the visit was a fun experience for the crew, it was also a time to interact and build relationships with government officials. In Africa, where relationships are essential and who you know is of paramount importance, these types of interactions are key to Mercy Ships making a difference in host countries. These relationships are years in the making. Before Mercy Ships sails to a country, there is a great deal of work done by the programs. They speak to country officials and find out what the country already has in terms of hospital and surgical support. For example, during 2013 in Madagascar, the team decided not to mobilize the “Eye team” because there was already adequate cataract and eye surgeries available in country, and they didn’t want to hurt or disrupt the system that was already in place.

Coming up this year, we will be sailing to Cameroon, in the heart of Africa. Programs teams have already been working extensively with the Cameroon government, and our Advance team (a team of ~10 crew) will go 5 months early to the country and start building relationships, finding resources, and setting up deals for internet, water, gasoline, and other services that are needed for a fully functioning hospital ship. We’re very glad to have a talented team of French speaking people to lead this excursion, as well as the good relationships with the officials here in Benin.