Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Magic of Discovery: Boys of Summer 2016

One of the best parts of Camp BRO Ouidah is the location. Ouidah is the perfect trifecta of culture, history and the beach. While Benin is known as the birthplace of Voodoo, Ouidah is referred to as the Vatican of Voodoo, the mecca that is all Vodun. In addition to the myriad of statues scattered around the city representing various voodoo deities, there are temples, sacred forests and almost daily parades of different costumed spirits. Although it sometimes feels like a sleepy beach town, the cultural scene is alive and well.

Where voodoo is colorful and lively, Ouidah also has a dark history as one of the main slave ports in West Africa. Slave traders from the north would collect slaves in Allada, a city about 1 hour away, and march their “property” to the shores of the Atlantic. The only building that remains today is a Portuguese fort, that was burned down and reconstructed as a slave museum. Today, you can tour inside the battered ramparts, where slaves were lined up, valued and sold before making their way to the ships.

Sarah is a brave soul!
Yesterday, we took the boys on a tour of the Fort. It was eerie and sad as we watched these young men realize the horrors of the past. Hundreds of thousands of slaves passed through the stone gates, being ripped away from their family, their ancestral lands and their rich African culture. The boys learned about the slave trade and the role of the Dahomey kings in the sale of their own people. At the end of the tour, they asked us, “why?” Sometimes, we don't have the right answer.

Coming off the sobering field trip at the fort, we left this morning to visit the Python Temple of Ouidah. Perhaps one of the most touristy attractions in Benin, it is also a very important site for Voodoo worshippers. Pythons are holy animals in Voodoo and the temple hosts upwards of 50, ranging from small little babies to, what I would consider, monster-sized beasts. Having become a hysterical wreck during my last visit to the Temple a year ago, I swore I wouldn't hold another python, but I entered the walled enclosure with the boys and watched as each bravely wrapped a snake around their neck and smiled for a photo. At the end of our visit, Lainey and I stayed behind and snapped a few pictures, but kept our distance.

From the temple, the group started down the slave route, a 5 km walk from the slave market to the shore. Along the path, the slaves were put through 6 stages of cultural cleansing in the attempt to reduce them to nothing but property for their journey to the New World. Walking in shackles, the slaves renounced their homelands, families and loved ones. Many slaves died en route and were buried in a mass grave where we paused and had a moment of silence. As we walked, the boys began to realize what the walk actually meant. We were doing it leisurely, in memoriam, but for decades, this was a route of pain, loss and suffering.

The last stage of the slave route is the Point of No Return. Now recognized as a UNESCO Heritage Site, there is a large arch that represents the gateway to the New World and a life of Slavery. We walked through the gates and were greeted by the sand and ocean that laid on the other side. At the sight of the water, the boys began running. For most here, this was the first time they had seen the ocean. It was magical watching them sprint down to the shores, coming to rest on the top of a high dune, poised right above the splashing waves.

The magic of seeing the ocean for the first time!
The boys stood above the water in awe of the majestic immensity of the ocean. The blue water stretched for miles and the horizon was just a thin white line in the distance. They looked terrified. One volunteer jumped off the dune and ran towards the water, signaling for the boys to follow. Moments after reading pure fear in the faces, it was all smiles. The boys leaped into the incoming waves, collected water in their bottles to bring back home and cart-wheeled down the sand. I have never seen such an intense reaction of happiness from children; it was magical.

Felix and I at the beach!
Camp is all about letting children learn in a way that's fun, giving them the opportunities to grow unencumbered, providing them with the teamwork and life skills to be productive members of society and empowering them to be leaders in their community. Throughout the week, we have shown these boys both the darkness and beauty in this world. I am so proud of my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, these boys and this amazing country I call home.

Camp BRO Ouidah 2016!

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