A Crash Course in Beninese French: Part III

You go to a restaurant. You spend quality time with your friends, you have a lovely dish of grilled barracuda with some wine. After eating, you ask for the check and you pay. When you get your change you ask for the toilets. And as the waitress wants to know whether you “wanna piss or take a shit” you suddenly realise that you are very far away from the images of a travel agency’s advertisement. Yes, you are in real place that is called Grand-Popo! And the waitress’ question is merely practical: the place to go at that point depends on the quality of your need.

A sign forbidding to take a shit on the beach in front of a restaurant in Grand-Popo. 'Scuse my French. Photo by Laura Pörsti.

A certain kind of bluntness is quite typical in Benin – or at least when the locals speak French. Or, one could also argue that the use of euphemisms is very usual in Western countries. Here in Europe we are more or less taught to speak about certain body parts or bodily functions only with close family members or trained medical professionals as if they were dangerous.

I’ll give you another example of Beninese bluntness.

One time, after I had missed a monthly concert at Villa Karo because of having… err… stomach problems, a person came to say hello to me the next day on the street. Although I didn’t know him, he quite typically new who I was, as there weren’t that many white people in town at the moment. By the way, when many people know you, what you have done, are doing or plan to do when you don‘t know them, you get a confusing feeling of being part of a strange live performance of the Bold and Beautiful. Anyway, after mentioning to the fellow that I had unluckily missed the concert, he replied that he knew that already. Why? He had heard from someone that I was “puking or something when the band was playing“. That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Some time later I was having a drink with a local musician. As the waitress came to bring us our beverages my friend was telling me that he had a cuticle infection that made his djembe playing difficult. When the waitress heard what we were talking about, she said that the infection could be treated by inserting the finger in a woman’s vagina. I asked the waitress if the treatment was common and she said yes. The musician nodded as a sign of agreement with her and the two of us resumed our conversation about Islam in Benin as if we were in a weird Aki Kaurismäki movie.

Of course, the manner of expression varies in Benin as it does in any place depending on one’s social, economical and cultural background. During my time there I’ve also met people that speak so overtly polite, correct and poetic French that they could be characters from a classic novel by Honoré de Balzac.

However, to me the interesting point about the anecdotes I’ve cited above isn’t really the way people talk in Grand-Popo. People talk in all kinds of ways all over the world and when words are taken from people’s mouths and put in odd cultural environments they turn into funny stories. What interests me the most is that on these occasions I obviously had an impromptu meeting with my own cultural boundaries. These situations created a reaction in me: they surprised me or made me laugh as they collided with my own notions of politeness or behaviour in public places and among strangers. The logical question at this point is: how often does my way of speaking create a reaction, whether good or bad, among the locals in Grand-Popo or any place else where I‘m a cultural stranger?

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