For three months last winter, Denny Hollick became “Yovo.”
It’s what the locals called him in Akodeha, a destitute lakeside village in southern Benin, a small, drumstick-shaped country in West Africa.
Yovo translated to “white” in the local Fon language, and being a well-meaning guest, Hollick didn’t argue.
The 23-year-old, third-year business student at Kwantlen Polytechnic University was on an exchange program with Canada World Youth, which is sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).
The goals: To learn about a local culture by living with a family in a Third World country to participate in a volunteer project within the host community.
The six-month program, involving nine students from Canada and nine from Benin, actually started in Canada.
For the first three months, the group stayed with families in Quebec.
Hollick describes it as a typically Canadian existence, and it gave him time to learn French, one of the languages spoken in Benin.
He expected a culture shock for the next three months in Africa, but Hollick felt like he had landed in a different world, one that would challenge his mere existence – let alone the lack of creature comforts he was used to back home.
There was the constant sweat, the (mandatory) taste of chlorine in his water, the diet of corn starch and fish parts, the latrine that was a hole in the ground and a bucket for a shower.
It would be his home for three months.
He and the other eight Canadians were jarred into survival mode.
“Frequent territorial crises and conflicts with animals that you live with,” he wrote on his personal website. “There is a rooster that is plotting to kill me, and a goat that won’t stay out of my room.”
But there was more to it, and the real learning began once he had “adjusted” to tending to his basic needs.
“In spite of all of that, after a few days of adjustments, you wouldn’t believe it, but I am actually alive,” he continued. “And it’s actually pretty cool here minus the lack of protein in my diet.”
Hollick began to absorb nuances of local culture.
Each night at sunset, following a voodoo temple ceremony, eight Guardians of the Night would act as watchmen to protect the village.
They would be men clad in straw-rattan costumes shaped like coned haystacks.
They would do magic tricks to convince locals that the vessels were empty before they started moving around in the dark.
The visitors also got a rare opportunity to witness rituals inside the tent of a hevioso, a voodoo priest.
(Hollick’s father, when called from Africa by his son, was taken aback at the story of human skulls being thrown, as well as death threats amid running crowds, during one dramatic religious ceremony.)
About 20 minutes outside of their main village, the Canadian exchange students volunteered to teach kids at a school about health and the need for clean water.
“There was no electricity and no running water. The kids went to school in literally a wooden shack – sticks of wood tied together with a grass roof,” he explains in an interview in the spotless, air-conditioned foyer of Kwantlen’s Fir Building. “This village in particular was really impoverished.”
It’s name: Tokan 2.
Due to civic politics, it was not recognized by Tokan 1, and was given no resources for education or infrastructure.
Hollick says local kids had never heard of the word diarrhea – an ever-present affliction – nor had any training in basic hygiene.
Boiling or filtering water was a priority if expensive well water was unavailable, the group explained to the locals.
Lake Ahémé was the nearest body of water, and unfortunately, a place for every imaginable human activity.
“The water was completely infested,” says Hollick. “You’d never want to go in there. We weren’t allowed to swim in the water at all. It’s full of parasites.
“And they’re fishing in there. They frequently bathe, drink…it’s a life source for them but unfortunately, it’s also where they threw most of their waste.”
When the Canada World Youth exchange students did a cleanup in one small section of the beach, they discovered that under the surface of the sand, there was an even, thick layer of plastic garbage bags.
“It was a massive amount of trash because they have no way of disposing it or dealing with it.”
Hollick says he learned much about how Western governmental and non-governmental organizations work in Africa, and how they can improve.
He says some groups spend too much money bringing in dignitaries for project groundbreaking ceremonies while not doing enough research on the local need for what’s being built.
He says that well-meaning Westerners often build schools that are soon abandoned due to a lack of teachers.
The more successful organizations are the ones that work closely with locals to determine their needs, teach them to fish (figuratively) and spend time living with them if possible.
The Canada World Youth exchange students, for instance, ate what the locals ate – cooked thoroughly, as was an organization mandate for the students.
Hollick’s Beninois host mother – he had to call her “Mom” out of respect – went to the market daily and bought two or three fish.
“They would just end up cutting those portions up for each person in the family,” Hollick recalls. “When you have a family of eight, 12 or 15 people, it’s not a whole lot to go around. Everything is shared, and definitely not wasted. If there’s a fish head on your plate, then that’s what you’re eating. You’re eating the eyeballs and everything.”
Despite the hardships in his Benin village, Hollick says the people were friendly, had a strong sense of family and culture, were resilient and generally positive about life, given what they had.
The were also adaptable.
“You’d be walking into a village, into somebody’s clay-built hut with a grass roof, and he’d be sitting there talking on his cell phone.”
For more details about Hollick’s trip to Benin, visit http://dennyhollick.com. To learn more about Canada World Youth, visit http://canadaworldyouth.cwy-jcm.com