A Growing Library… With a Little Help from our Friends

Last week Villa Karo’s library received a fine donation from the University of Helsinki. This gift was passed to us through the helping hands of art historian Julia Donner who visited Villa Karo a month ago. Many, many thanks to Julia and the University of Helsinki! Now the books are waiting for eager couriers to carry them to Benin in their suitcases. I’m sure they’ll reach their destination in no time.

Art history, yes! And we must never forget about the children who may now hear and read stories in French from “366 contes de l’oreiller” along from the few dozen french-language children’s books that we already have in our library.

VK’s library holds currently about 2100 books. Each and every one of them  have been donated to our collections. Prose along with some poetry in Finnish is the most dominant part of what we have to offer right now, thanks to many writers who have visited our residence and to other donors such as LIKE publications and private people that have been helping us. Cheers to all of you! We also have many books about Africa in Finnish, English and French and a few (now twice as much!) about museology, art and especially African art. The French prose section of our library is limited to about 200 titles and very few of them are by African authors.

We are hoping to build a library that would suit the needs of both our scholarship holders and the people of Grand-Popo. What do we need?

1) Relevant and current encyclopedias especially in French, but also in English and Finnish. Internet access is becoming more and more common in Grand-Popo but is still quite expensive, not to mention the price of a computer that one must possess to be able to browse the web. And anyway: a book is always a book. It would be marvelous to offer to GP some encyclopedic literature that would have the entry “Benin”. The Encyclopedic series we have now knows only “Dahomey” which was Benin’s name until 1975. Information never goes old, but still…

2) Dictionaries. As many different types as there are and chiefly in French. A dictionnaire des locutions as well as a dictionnaire des noms propre would suit our library very well – not to mention many other possible ones… Perhaps a Larousse gastronomique would be nice as well… Lot’s of people in GP are interested in learning English, Spanish, Italian and German etc. (For some reason many people in Benin take me nowadays for a German and greet me by saying “Mein Freund!”, which is both very friendly and a bit confusing at the same time because I only know a few words of German. There has got to be something else, perhaps something in my demeanor… Who knoes what it is! But dictionaries in many languages – also in German – are nevertheless good.)

3) African novels in French. Needless to say, people always want to read about their own culture in a language they know. Wouldn’t you?

4) Children’s books in French. No explanations needed.

Although children’s books in GP’s most dominant local language called Mina would be even better. I don’t think there are any in the whole wide world, though. How come do I suddenly thank Mikael Agricola  for composing a written Finnish language in the XVI century that I’ve had the opportunity to learn to read and write as a kid? I also think about the Austrian-born music composer Herman Rechberger who compiled ten years ago the first Français-Mina dictionary while staying in GP.

Since I started about this matter,  I would also like to personally thank the Finnish author Anni Swan for her story Piilopirtin laspset and many other tales she wrote as well as lots of other Finns and Finnish translators who have produced me stuff to read and listen in my native tongue when I was growing up. Thank you Aila Nissinen for Hopeaveitsi and Kersti Juva for Taru sormusten herrasta. And here comes a question for our many Mina-speaking readers: why won’t you write down the stories you know? Or write your own ones? They are kind of important.

Well, what else do we need for the library?

5) Children’s school books. Very important. If you want to offer the books that are part of the official curriculum in Benin to VK’s library, do not hesitate. Many parents in GP can’t afford to buy the needed books to their children. Could we Europeans offer the children of GP access to these valuable things for development? Perhaps a couple copies of each of the needed books would help a couple dozens of children. This idea came out from the lips of VK’s transport manager Alphonse Bodjrenou. Good thinking, Alphonse!

6) DVDs. I’ve been asked quite a few times if VK’s library and movie nights could offer African films to their visitors. And I really don’t blame the ones asking. We have some African films in our collections, but new films would be very stimulating. We are also interested in any other kinds of quality films that aren’t of violent nature or don’t contain overtly sexual imagery.

7) Let people hear good music! Wanna share a part of your collections with the people in GP? We have a CD player but very few albums.

8) We also accept anything that is of good quality and could be useful in a library in Benin: fiction, non-fiction etc in any relevant language as well as maps, travel books etc. Also a nice globe would be great. If you know someone that has good things to spare, don’t hesitate to pass the word to that person.

So everybody! Books, CDs, DVDs, a library grant… Anything helps. And spread the word about our library that isn’t much yet, but could do a lot.

The easiest thing for us is to get the actual material, but VK also accepts monetary donations that are destined to a certain purpose such as the purchasing of school books for our library.

For any inquiries, do not hesitate to contact me at miikka.porsti(at)villakaro.org.

And what comes below is a treat for those our readers who already know medieval French. For the rest of you, you may get yourself a medieval French dictionary to get through this. And when you don’t need it anymore, I know many nice, eagerly studying people who will have use for it 6300 kilometres south from Helsinki.


Allez, on y va:

Hé Dieu, si j’eusse estudié,
Au temps de ma jeunesse folle,
J’eusse maison et couche molle.

    Mais quoy! je fuyoië l’escolle
    Comme fait le mauvaiz enffant
    En escripvant cette parolle
    A peu que le cueur ne me fent.

François Villon. Le testament, 22ème poème. XEe siècle.

Bonne semaine à vous tous !


A Crash Course in Beninese French: Part IV

The first scholarship holders of the autumn are already in Grand-Popo, and it’s time to continue our course in Beninese French. So here are some phrases you hear really often after arriving to Villa Karo.

“Tu es en train?” (“You are [do]-ing?”) is a commonly asked question and related to the expression “Tu as fait un peu?” (“Have you done a little?”). Both refer to working, and can also be seen as compliments of just “doing something” in general. Georgette Singbe notes often that it’s common in Benin to try to avoid silences, and so the silence is broken for example by asking somebody if “they’re [do]-ing” – the same way a silence is broken in a dinner table by wishing others “bonne digestion”, because of course there is no point in wishing “bon appetit” if the meal is already finished. “Tu es en train?” is also interesting because it is weirdly missing its end, the part about the verb “faire” (“to do”): “the normal” way to ask would be “Tu es en train de faire…” plus something. But, the end is missing and because of this, the phrase is actually, literally saying something close to: “Are you in a train?”

“Pas de quoi!” (“It’s nothing”) is an everyday equivalent of “je vous en prie” (“You’re welcome”) which can be heard in Benin almost only in restaurants. We Finns find this phrase very cozy, since we also like to say, in a “negative” manner “Ei mitään” or “Eipä kestä” instead of “You’re welcome” or “Ole hyvä”. For some reason “De rien” (also “It’s nothing”) is not so often used in Benin, “Pas de quoi” is much more common.

And then there is “C’est gratuit!”, which means essentially the same thing as “Pas de quoi” and which can be funnily used also in situations which, in fact, are not free of charge (gratuit) at all, like in restaurants. “C’est gratuit” expresses the doers willingness to help: “it’s on the house” (even when it isn’t).

The previous crash courses can be found here: number I, number II and number III.

So here you go, pas de quoi, c’est gratuit! More is in a train, mera är på väg!

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?

A Crash Course in Beninese French: Part II

As I already discussed in the first part of this writing, Beninese French is often used in a different way than European French. Here are some more useful tips for visitors of Villa Karo and Benin.

As words such as “bonsoir” sometimes find new meanings, expressions may also take new forms. That is the case of the exclamation “doucement!”. Literally this means “gently”, but the expression translates perhaps best into “behave yourself“ or “be more careful” in English. Whilst in France the phrase would be most often used by a authoritative figure such as a teacher to give immediate negative feedback to a raging pupil, that is not the case in Benin. Remember, that when you hear that word, it doesn’t mean that you’ve done something wrong. It’s merely something to say when, for instance, your napkin falls down from your knees. “Woops” would perhaps be the best translation. No need to apologize when you here it!

Phrases actually tell a lot about mentality. One of my favourites is the friendship- or deal-sealing “on est ensemble!” (Eng. “we are together!”). This one has multiple uses. It’s almost a substitute for goodbye. It’s a phrase to say when negotiations are going in a bad direction as a reminder that everybody want this deal to happen. It sometimes means “no problem” if you apologize for some harm that you’ve caused.

Another one I personally like very much is “le sang est rouge” meaning literally that blood is red. It has got something in common with “on est ensemble”, but this one is used when white and black people are doing business together. I’ve heard it as I’ve been bargaining at the market, in Grand-Popo, or discussing the rent with the landlord. Sometimes it is wise to state something that has real relevance: human beings come in many colours but blood is always red.

A Crash Course in Beninese French: Part I

La Francophonie, the community of French speaking people, is worldwide. French takes different forms all over the globe as over 250 million people speak it as either first or second language. For those of us who have learned to speak French in Europe, the Beninese version of the language has some interesting elements. Let’s take a look at the French spoken in Grand-Popo’s streets.

Although I suppose that “bonjour” is probably the most well-known French word in the world, you won’t hear it often in Grand-Popo. For a curious reason the locals prefer to employ the expression “bonsoir” at all times. And it’s almost always “good night” in Grand-Popo, even at 8 o’clock in the morning!

“Comment?” is the question you often hear in Benin when you meet somebody you know. Of course, this is a shortened version of the common phrase “Comment ça va?” (Eng. how is it going?). As you answer to the person by saying “ça va bien” or even “très bien” he or she may pursue with other questions that tend to be as short as the first one: “et la santé?”, “et la famille?”, “et madame/monsieur? “et le travail?” (Eng. “and health?”, “and family?”, “and the husband/wife?”, “and work?”).

But before asking you any questions, the person will greet you. If he or she is not using the typical “bonsoir” and especially when you arrive somewhere, you will probably hear the words “bonne arrivée” instead of the typical “bienvenu” (eng. “welcome“). Directly translated in English this means “good arrival”. Sometimes, in the morning, you may also hear people ask you if you’ve slept well or if you have woken up alright (Fr. “Bien dormi?”, “Bien réveillé?”). What a bunch of nice questions! According to Herman Rechberger’s French-Mina dictionary these are cases of the main local language, Mina, influencing the official one.

“Tu as fais un peu?” is a something you’ll hear when the day’s work is done. A literal translation in English goes “have you done a little bit?”. It’s always heart-warming to hear that the premise is that one has only time to do a little work during one day.

Last but surely not least comes “yovo”. Every person in Grand-Popo with light skin will very, very soon become very, very familiar with this word. Yovo is from Mina And Ewe language and it’s used to describe white people. Some say it also means “guest”. The word is part of a lilt probably known by heart by EVERY BENINESE CHILD (and some adults as well): “yovo, yovo, bonsoir, comment ça va, merci!” If you ever go to Grand-Popo or Benin, you’ll hear it.