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A summer in Bénin

Chris McCarthy, a Northeastern University student, working with a couple of students at Honvie Primary School in Porto Novo, Benin.
September 7, 2008

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Chris McCarthy, a rising sophomore at Northeastern University, spent his summer on a service-oriented educational trip in Bénin, that small French-speaking West African country located between even smaller Togo and Nigeria. McCarthy logged hours at primary schools, helped install a fence with a locking gate, and bought sleeping mats for students. But when he wasn't painting murals or cleaning the school's grounds with the students, McCarthy got a chance to take in Bénin's culture and change the way locals perceived at least one "typical American."

BELIEF SYSTEM: "Bénin has a strong and beautiful culture that impressed us all. They have a strong belief in the voodoo religion, but not the negative kind we think of that involves voodoo dolls; this is much more interesting and, when practiced, is only used for good things."

SHREDDING STEREOTYPES: Local university students "really blew us away with their intelligence," McCarthy said. "They were so dedicated to their studies and interesting to talk with, especially since we had so much in common. It was remarkable to share our outlooks on different topics and find how similar they were. They really broke any preconceived notions about who we would meet there, and likewise they said we helped to break the stereotype of a typical American."

LOCAVORE MENU: While touring a television studio, McCarthy got an invitation from a leader of a local ethnic group to dine at his palace. "It was here that we got our first real taste of the local cuisine of Benin when we were served grasscutter [a rodent the size of a beaver], fried minnows, and some sort of corn paste," he said, adding, "Definitely a meal to remember."

WHITER SHADE OF PALE: "The thing I will remember 20 years from now is the 'Yovo' song. In the local tribal languages 'yovo' means 'light-skinned' or 'whitey.' Being a group of Americans in West Africa, we were pretty much the only yovos around. Kids would get so excited to see us just walking down the street, they would chase after us and sing the song, 'Yovo, yovo, bonsoir, ça va bien? Merci.' Short and sweet - but we must have heard this song a couple hundred times everywhere we went. It is meant in a completely welcoming way, and it was strange to be treated with such celebrity just because of the color of my skin. I will never forget the amazement in the kids' eyes who just wanted to touch my arm and see what a white person felt like."

GLENN YODER