Development in action

More and more people are recognizing that the African continent will only develop through home-grown solutions and not by blindly copying imported western development models. So a successful African model is likely to be small scale, start locally and take into account the traditional African values of social cohesion, consensus and a collective sense of responsibility. But one newly universally recognised feature has to be added to these as it had not often been present in traditional African societies: the education of girls and women.

This is what Friends of Bonou is all about and you can read below some of the articles published over the years in our Newsletters and Annual Reports which explains the development goals we have pursued, the problems and difficulties we have encountered, the solutions that we have worked out and applied in conjunction with the follow-up team and the village and some practical development insights we have gained.

April 2013: Cultural differences: A reflection
February 2013: Preparing our hand over
December 2011: Embracing change
September 2011: The future of the Sonagnon centre
July 2011: Reinforcing the curriculum
December 2010: Cultural differences, a conversation
December 2009: Management of micro-enterprises classes
September 2009: Reviewing our ambitions
December 2008: First lessons of a direct partnership
August 2008: The parents’ participation and attitude
December 2007: Who knows best?
August 2007: The first cohort of Sonagnon girls


April 2013: Cultural differences: A reflection

It is a truism to say that "culture" is many things to many people but it is as much about the way people react and think, what makes them tick or what shocks them as it is about the grand traditions they have inherited from their ancestors and their history. Benin being a "collective" society, their outlook is very different from ours: here, our identity is determined by who we are as individuals. Not so in Benin where one's identity is determined by being part of a group. This has many advantages: a deeply-ingrained respect for the old, a non negotiable obligation to help family members in difficulty or in need, a sense that the "seasons of life" and community events are to be lavishly celebrated and actively participated in (not least with big financial participations!), the fact that you are never alone as there are always people around you with whom you can either strike up a conversation or just sit in silent companionship: "on est là" (we are here) is a common response in Benin when you ask someone how they are. No great psychological analysis of how they feel and no empty formulaic chit-chat about the weather but just an acknowledgement that they are here with you, for human company. To be alone is an impossible concept in Africa and a person without relations or a mere nuclear family of 2 parents and 2.2 children is even stranger! Descartes' profound insight "I think therefore I am" is very Western. The Kenyan theologian John Mbiti expresses what the African psyche is all about: "I am because we are and since we are, therefore I am." No western person could have said that probably but in a way it is not so different from what John Donne wrote "No man is an island"

But a collective society has also important negative side-effects: As the extended family unit and kinship regulate your behaviour, high value is given to the authority of older members and/or to "the Chief," a fact which can (and often does) stifle initiative and change. The power and prestige of high status and well-connected individuals is so taken for granted that even discussing one of their decisions can appear as a challenge to their innate authority and is therefore rejected and frowned upon if foreigners do it. The result is often a deep conservatism and an apathy which is difficult to shake. Another consequence of the general conformity that is expected from members of the group is that "face" and "honour" must be kept at all cost, so there is almost always a sub-script in every interaction and it takes time for people outside the group to become aware of it, let alone decipher it! We have had to contend with these cultural differences in Bonou: we have loved some of them and disliked others, on both sides of course, but I sincerely believe we have learned a lot and achieved a lot, both because and in spite of them. We are richer for it.

February 2013: Preparing our hand over

As you have been able to read in last year's communications, we have been studying adequate ways to prepare for the handing over of the Centre's responsibility to the village. With the new intake of girls, the third cohort, who will start their three years of training (2013-2015) in April 2013, we will begin a phased withdrawal of our involvement in Bonou by tapering down our funding over the next 3 years. While we were in Bonou in February 2013, we were able to start contacts with the local authorities and the region's Préfet who have pledged their financial support. It will probably not be quite enough and Dominique's follow-up team and the Elders will need to find some private funders. They have 3 years to do this.

There are two principles at the heart of what we have been doing during the last 10 years in Bonou: the first one was concentrating our main resources on ONE main project in order to create a critical mass and therefore avoiding the "sprinkling" of resources, putting a bit of money here and there, on many different projects; This is inefficient as it cannot make a real difference. The second principle was not to stay too long as this we believe, would create a new dependency culture. So we feel that it will soon be time to "let go" as we have achieved our goal to help local people do what they could not do on their own e.g. build the Training Centre + the dormitory facility adjacent to it and set up a local management structure in the village, therefore empowering them to do what they wanted to do. So it will soon be time for them to go "solo".

December 2011: Embracing change

Little did I know when I first put my foot in Bonou exactly nine years ago this January that the education of girls was going to be such an important cause for me, was going to take so much of my time and my energy, demand so much work and involve so many people! Nine years on, I am more than ever passionately committed and totally convinced that this IS indeed one of the best ways to help the development of Benin and of Africa more generally. And so are my "companions of struggle" (as it sometimes felt very much like a struggle!) e.g. my dear friends within the FOB committee and of course Dominique and his team without whom we could not have started anything.

It is thanks to all our supporters’ enthusiasm and commitment that Friends of Bonou is the charity that it is, an organisation "small enough to care, big enough to make a difference", still entirely composed of volunteers here in England, directly involved with people of a very different culture from our own but with whom we have a dialogue and from whom we know we can learn a thing or two as they, equally, know they can learn a thing or two from us.

We have gained fascinating insights, ridden the waves of very daunting problems at times and found our way by "doing" and experimenting and listening rather than through applying tested management methods. Indeed what we do in Bonou and for Bonou is not simply sending money and getting some facts and results through reports and e-mails. The decisions we take are based on conversations, discussions and interactions and yes. arguments as well! and of course on relationships, originally mainly between Dominique and me but also now, more than ever, between the whole of the FOB Committee, the village’s Elders, the girls, the trainers and the parents. as difficult as they have been!

Rest assured that these original traits which characterise the way we have been working in Bonou will endure but eight years is a long time and we all feel here as well as in Benin that it is time to pause, step back and reflect a little bit as like with every human enterprise, people evolve and move on to other adventures, other interests and other projects and their energy and their focus is not as engaged as it first was. This is actually a good thing and perfectly normal as none of us can stand still but have to embrace change.

And this is precisely what we want to do in Bonou: embrace change and ensure that a necessary evolution takes place in the way we manage the whole project. Volunteering is a vexed issue at the best of time as our Prime Minister knows very well when he tries to promote his "big society" and Benin is no exception: Dominique and Paulin are both passionate about the "cause" and so might other people in Benin but the fact that they both have a relatively secure financial situation allows them, contrary to others, to give a lot of their time for free. It does not mean of course that all people with secure financial situations are prepared to volunteer; we know that from experience, here too! But it remains that the majority of people of Benin cannot afford this "luxury" and Dominique has understandably encountered some difficulty in finding people who are ready and able to commit their time and money to help him. Besides, both him and Paulin (as well as several of us here) are getting busier and busier on other things. So we have come to the conclusion that we need to use some paid people in Benin to help us manage the whole enterprise. In other words we need to "professionalise" the general management of the project if we want to continue giving the best possible education to the girls.

As the Centre is now "cruising along" happily and the mad activity of setting it up has abated somewhat, we also feel that our role is naturally evolving in any case: we don’t need to busy ourselves so much in the detail of everyday work and we feel we should all concentrate much more on the strategic issues and forward planning: for example getting the larger village community to benefit from the Centre expertise through the setting up of "cours communautaires" (community classes) for existing women-artisans or strengthening the girls skills and facilitating better professional development for the trainers. But the very crucial follow-up week-by-week still need to be done, if not by us or Dominique’s team, by somebody else!

Of course we had already realised that such a necessary evolution towards employing paid people was on the cards when the paramount issue of proper transparent accounting could not be resolved by the villagers themselves. So for the last 2 and half years or so we have been employing Beninese professional accountants who go to Bonou every month and a lot of previous headaches have disappeared as our Treasurer, Mark can testify! As I explained in previous occasions, it is not that the villagers were dishonest and took the money for themselves (I am absolutely sure that it was not the case) but a written paper trail of every expenses, monthly balance sheets and yearly statements of accounts was not something they were used to doing nor had the know-how nor even understood the necessity for it! However the concept of "accountability to donors" is something that is slowly making its way into everybody’s consciousness in Bonou! We also of course already employ professional people for the training of the girls in each of the specialities, including a new teacher for "management of micro-enterprises" who has started his classes during the second year of the girls’ curriculum as we realised that starting during the third year was much too late. We have also paid for the trainers to attend some additional training seminars in the past.

But the new development is that we have now signed a contract with a local NGO with the necessary expertise and credentials called Gamadec who will take care of overseeing how the girls’ curriculum is implemented every week, their progress and difficulties, in what area their curriculum should be strengthened or changed and in what way etc. They will report to us every 2 months. Gamadec will also take care of the home-economics classes and finally, they will revitalise the follow-up process of the girls from the first cohort, especially brushing up their "management" and accountancy skills which leave a lot to be desired. That task was till now resting on the shoulders of the present "Directrice" but in spite of her best efforts and her total dedication she could not really cope with that task which involves quite a bit of travelling around: she is not only the Directrice of the Centre but also the food-processing trainer and a new mother so following up the former girls as well, proved too much for her.

As just mentioned, we hope that the new involvement of Gamadec will allow us and Dominique to be free from having to sort out endless details and that we can instead all concentrate more on the "big picture" e.g. strategic planning and monitoring. For that we intend to create a sort of "Management Board" comprising the FOB Committee + Dominique & his team, who will meet at least once a year but hopefully twice, once in Europe and once in Benin.

We have still to work out exactly the details of such an endeavour but once in place, it will hopefully allow us to be more attuned to the changing needs of the girls and of the village because our workload will be lighter and the day-to-day problem-solving will be done by others. We will also hopefully be more able to avoid problems before they arise, to resolve more quickly the ones which could not be anticipated and to carefully prepare the handing down of the Centre‘s responsibility to the village or/and to the local authorities. something which is still a long way yet down the line!

September 2011: The future of the Sonagnon Centre

We were faced in April/ May of this year with a problem of distribution of the girls in the different specialisations with 13 girls out of 19 wanting to go for hairdressing! This mini "crisis" was confronting us with a fundamental question: Is the training that the girls receive in the Sonagnon Centre designed to give them a more rounded general and technical education with the goal of transforming them into confident rural young women who can make enough money to stay in the village and therefore not go to Nigeria OR to churn out dozens of new professional hairdressers with a new "status" but who would more than likely want to go to the capital or to other towns as there would not be enough work for them in the village.

Of course asking that question is already answering it and it was for us and for the rest of the stakeholders (e.g. the village Elders, the follow-up team, the trainers and the Sonagnon Management Committee) the start of a profound reflexion about the future vocation of the Sonagnon Centre. So we organised another participative workshop which produced extremely interesting results.

We started by analyzing why so many girls wanted to specialize in hairdressing, the very element which initiated last May our own deep questioning. As I suspected, one of the reasons is that the hairdressing is much easier than the other specializations but, unknown to me, there were also problems with the hairdressing trainer, Sophie, who has been lobbying hard among the girls to get them to come to her workshop in order to try and guarantee her continuous employment as she had problems with the Sonagnon Management Committee who wanted her out!
We then worked on what necessary evolution and changes were needed in the centre. Some of the Management Committee members and the Elders’ ideas were pretty wild and not too realistic like starting admitting the girls @ age 11 or lengthening the curriculum to 4 years. So Dominique, Paulin, the Directrice and I had a private parallel discussion and suggested a few ideas that the B.E. and the Elders will ponder and that will be revisited in November when we are there again.

The main ideas we suggested are:

July 2011: reinforcing the curriculum

The girls are thriving and at the end of March they completed the first year of their curriculum (which is called in Bénin the "tronc commun") e.g. a year when they have a "taste" of the 3 different specializations (hairdressing, sewing and food processing) along with the general education in literacy, numeracy, health awareness, home economics and basic French before choosing the area they want to specialize in and study it for 2 years. So at the end of that first year, they have a proper "exam" (with outside examiners) to assess how they have assimilated what they have been taught (the marks were quite good for the great majority of them) but also, most importantly, to orientate them towards the specialisation they most like and are most suited.

And this is when a problem arose: Out of the 19 girls, 13 chose "hairdressing", 3 chose "sewing" and 3 chose "food processing". Why ? Because hairdressing is the easiest of the 3 activities as you can achieve some sort of proficiency fairly quickly, they don’t need much equipment and therefore can practice in their home once they have graduated and the raw material (hair) is all around them! Sewing is by far the most difficult of the 3 specialties and they need a lot of training and attention to become really proficient. Finally the food-processing activity, in spite of having been proven time and time again everywhere in the developing world to be the most financially rewarding in a village context, does not have the same "status" because it is something that women do routinely anyway, not at all to the standard they would achieve if they took up the further specialisation but they can dabble in it and earn a bit of money.

So the unbalance in these choices presented the teaching staff, the Management Committee of the Centre, the village Elders, the follow-up team and us of course, with a serious problem for several reasons:

  1. The hairdressing trainer and the workshop itself cannot cope with 13 girls at the same time
  2. The 2 other workshops for which we have provided quite a bit of expensive equipment would be under-utilized
  3. There would be an increasing danger of saturation within the village and within the wider area, with that amount of hairdressers suddenly released on the "market" and wanting to set up their own business: that in turn would result in an increasing amount of unemployment, for the girls first but also potentially for the already established hairdressers, creating therefore social problems and rivalries.
  4. The training that the girls receive in the Centre was always, since the start of the venture, designed to give them a more rounded general and technical education with the goal of transforming them into confident young women who can make enough money to stay in the village and therefore not go to Nigeria. It was never to churn out dozens of new professional hairdressers with a new "status" who would more than likely want to go to the capital or to other towns. So may be we should revive the idea considered at the beginning to allow those of the girls who would like it, to leave the Centre after the first period, with a simple "certificate of general training"

As a temporary solution in any case, it was decided to add six months to the first year tronc commun" and the girls will therefore spend a further 2 months in each of the 3 workshops. That will allow the Elders to explain to the parents and to the girls themselves the importance of choosing their specialisation with the future in mind. It will also give the trainers more time to observe the girls even more closely and see who among them would be more suitable to what.

And most importantly, this will in the medium term allow us and all the other stakeholders in the village to do some serious strategic thinking about the future of the Centre as maintaining its "community" vocation is what it is all about. But we must not be afraid of bold thinking and we might conclude that the Centre may need to be more widely open to girls from other areas or that the curriculum needs to be less ambitious and more general or, as I said above, shorter for some. We don’t know exactly what conclusions we will arrive at but rest assured that the final goal remains the same: give girls a future that they would not have without us and certainly very different prospects from what they would have if they go to Nigeria.

In a way this is the first real big challenge (a sign of maturity for our project may be.) that we are facing since we started in 2003, well, if you put aside of course the earlier challenge of the parents refusing to pay! So the present challenge as the one about the parents (which, I am happy to report once again, is totally sorted out now) will be resolved as well but it will no doubt require thinking "outside the box" in cooperation with the village Elders, the follow-up team, the trainers and the Sonagnon Management Committee.

December 2010: Cultural differences:
Laurence in conversation with Dominique Hounkonnou

During the thirty years or so I have been going to and working in Africa, I have always been amazed of how much (or how little in certain cases!) our respective cultures mattered and how much we all, Europeans as well as Africans it must be said, unconsciously assumed that the other, confronted with the same situation, is going to react the same way, feel the same way, think the same way. Not so! You might think that this could be said about most countries in the world. May be but in Africa I find the contrasts are much sharper because most of us in Europe know so little about Africa. and what we know are usually clichés, gross generalizations or even media distortions and bias! I have known Dominique for 15 years and these differences (and some similarities of course!) have figured high in our conversations. The last time I went to Benin, in January 2011, I thought of "formalizing" these conversations and interview Dominique for this Annual Report. After all this is how I met him, interviewing him, all these years ago, when I was still working for the BBC African Service and he was still working for the CTA, an international organization based in Holland working for rural development in developing countries. What follows is a summary of this "interview". which really felt more like another conversation!

Laurence: What would you say is the main cultural differences when Europeans and Africans work together in partnership?
Dominique: I think it is in the way we try to resolve problems: In our African societies, we strive to maintain "harmony" so we try, as much as we can, to avoid direct confrontations. Of course it does not mean that people don’t fight in Africa, of course we do, but generally speaking, we really look for a consensus and a solution which can be accepted by most people.
Laurence: Concretely, how does this "striving for harmony" manifest itself?
Dominique: Well. You have seen this in Bonou many times. People don’t state the problem point blank like "this does not work, this person does not fit or is not good enough". They talk around the subject to arrive at the conclusion that may be this does not work or this person is not the right person but not directly. In a lot of cases in Europe, the problem is stated in the first 5 minutes of the meeting, discussed immediately and tackled right on
Laurence: But there are many instances in Europe where people try to arrive at the same conclusions by using indirect means. In politics especially!!!
Dominique: Yes probably but from my experience of Europe, I know that the problems are exposed much more directly.and you might rightly say more "openly".and it takes less time certainly! I know a Parish Councilor in Lyons in France who goes to Senegal regularly as he backs a project there, like FOB with Bonou, and he told me that when he sits in the Elders deliberations, he is always full of admiration for the way the decisions are taken through consensus and how totally different it is from the way he is used to discuss the problems in his "Mairie" where the problem is exposed point blank, discussed directly, a vote is taken and that’s it, they pass on to another subject. Of course our African way takes a great deal of patience and a great deal of time.
Laurence:.and that is certainly a BIG cultural difference, the value given to time!!!! But do you think that the "African way" is better than the European way?
Dominique: Not necessarily.because time is certainly something that Europeans have little of.and it suits different way of thinking.Also you see, here in Africa, if you take a decision too quickly and sufficient time has not been given to people to get on board, that decision wont be adhered to, especially in a village situation where financial means and individual power are limited.
Laurence: But consensus is often construed as nobody being happy but everybody being obliged to accept a position which is good for the common good but which does take into account the individual’s feeling or thinking.
Dominique: well, that depends on the quality of the leadership, whether the leader is capable to get the real assent of the people but in a village situation where everybody knows everybody else, what I would call the "knowledge paths" are shorter and it is therefore easier to know what the other wants, even if you don’t agree. It is much more difficult between two people or two groups of different cultures..
Laurence: But in my experience, in Africa, as problems are often not confronted or discussed directly and what we would consider "openly", precisely because of that search for consensus, a lot of important things are left unsaid and the truth is "stippled": you see a bit and then you don’t see and then you see again but it often feels like you don’t have all the data, you don’t have the full picture to be able to make an informed judgment on the situation. It seems that there is always a "subtext". Is that a fair criticism?
Dominique: yes, I think it is quite true and I understand what you mean but would say two things in response to this: Traditionally, it is only in situations of total and absolute trust that you can say everything and that happens with very few members of your extended family or with some very rare childhood friends. In the context of our work with Bonou, it is more complicated because people in Bonou are not employed by us and we have perceptions of what they think or do but we don’t have any means of checking.
Laurence: But it is not only with people in the village, it is more general and it has happened with the follow-up team too: often, precisely because people are extremely polite and want to please us, as I know this is so very important in Africa, this politeness and kindness towards foreigners, people don’t say the whole truth: there is a first level that you can see but you never know the whole truth or the whole situation. It is not that people lie outright but because confrontation has to be avoided at all costs, the whole truth is rarely totally got at, and this is often quite perplexing and unsettling for us.
Dominique: Yes. well I think there is another element there, in the context of working together as we do, we can only relay the problems that we are absolutely sure about: We don’t want to burden you with every little detail; we have to "sieve" & to apply filters
Laurence:. mmmm. sometimes I think there are too many filters!!! In a lot of cases, these details are important to understand the process of development, even more than the results.And this, I think, is part of a different cultural way of apprehending reality
Dominique: I think this is quite true.For example, when we had a lot of difficulties with the parents not paying, we all felt the same way: fed up, discouraged, angry etc but the way we dealt with this problem and the way we expressed these feelings were really very different!!! And in our case that has to do with not loosing face. This is very important in African societies: rich or poor, you cant loose face and for example if you come to a village and you say: "I come to help the poor" very few people would come forward as this would be insulting to recognize that you are poor and inferior but if you come and say: "I would like to help you do what you want to do," then you will have a lot of people coming forward!
Laurence: Actually this reminds me: it is also true about an insult that Europeans would find laughably mild and that is really serious in Benin: it is when you are accused of being impolite: You loose face totally if you are insulted like that, apparently: Why?
Dominique: Ah.It is because "Impolite" is a translation of a Fon word, "jimakplon." = "Ji" means "born," "ma" means "not," and "kplon" means "teach." So what "jimakplon" really means is "born but not taught." You were born into this world but didn’t receive any social education. So this is serious because it is an insult against the parents of the person you’re talking to: "Impolite" is a slur on the parents of the person you’re insulting, who didn’t give them a social education.and this is a BIG face loss!
Laurence: And that of course has to do with the way that African societies (and this is a bit of a cliché but like all clichés there is some truth in it!) are more collectively based and I have noticed that in many obvious ways but also in the way of "accompanying" people who are in moral pain because of a sentimental problem or a bereavement. I have always been struck by how different it is here from Europe:
Dominique: Yes I think, pain is less "private" in Africa.or rather is less privately expressed. There is a "collective relay" when someone suffers in Africa... I remember when I was living in Holland, one of my friends with whom I was playing tennis regularly, died suddenly so I said to one of the people in the group "I will go and offer some flowers to his wife and seat with her for a while. The guy looked at me in amazement and said: "But she does know you, so why would you do that? It is not necessary and not appropriate... " In Benin, I would have done it automatically with everybody else... So in Holland I did not do it but as an African, I really felt bad not to have been able to express my sense of solidarity to the wife and the family, by my physical presence.
Laurence: Yes it seems that in Africa, it is very important in these circumstances to be seen to "do" something: visit the bereaved, bring flowers or food but very little is actually said (or written of course) to express what you feel . This may have to do with the fact that African societies are still male-dominated!!! I am just joking here.but it is common to even try to distract the person away from her pain by acting as if nothing had happened and talk about something else. In Europe, it seems, it is much more verbal so that absence of words is sometimes quite shocking to us.
Dominique: Yes, the physical presence is much more important than words, even kind words.We don’t find that necessary. I remember a close friend of mine in Holland, a priest from the White Fathers Order , told me that when he lived in Bamako, in Mali, he knew an old Bambara man, a basket weaver, and every Sunday, my friend went to see the old man.Neither of them spoke the language of the other but when my friend used to visit, the old Bambara man gave my friend a little stool on which he sat and some millet gruel to eat and they did not spoke at all. The old man continued to weave his baskets, looking at my friend from time to time and smiling but not one word was uttered. My friend was going through a difficult patch in his life at the time but he said to me that these 2 hours that he spent every Sunday with the old man in Bamako, were more healing than any conversations he was having with different people. so it can also work for Europeans!!!

December 2009: Management of micro-enterprises classes

The shy "village girls" that first entered the Sonagnon Centre three years ago are no longer! They have evolved into confident young women, well groomed and hopefully well equipped to tackle the world and start to earn money by using all the skills they have learned in the Centre not only in food processing, hairdressing, sewing and material-dying but also in literacy, health awareness and home economics. Most importantly they will hopefully be able to show their parents and their communities that educating girls is not only useful for themselves but for everybody around them

The start of the classes in "Management of micro-enterprises" has enabled the girls to think in a more practical way about their "projet d’installation" as we call their mini "business-plan." It is important to recognise however that for some of the girls, the notions of financial management and budgeting like planning the use of their income, the difference between income and pure profit or even the simplest notions of bookkeeping are still very challenging and they certainly will need more follow-up and help when they leave the Centre.

Nevertheless for all of them, their business-plan is taking shape and they have already worked on the following main areas:

Areas which need further refining and further help in the next six weeks from the trainers and the follow-up team:

September 2009: reviewing our ambitions

The original plan of having three years together in the centre (e.g. 60 girls together) has to be abandoned, for the moment anyway, for 2 essential reasons:

Now, you may justifiably raise an eyebrow at the amount of financial investment we are committing to the Centre for just 20 girls every 3 years. Well, I can only tell you that it is really here a case of "quality against quantity" and that only a reputation of excellence will ensure a long life for the Centre. It is better to have 20 girls really well educated and able to earn a living than 60 having a slight varnish of knowledge but unable to go very far and have only the prospect to returning to Nigeria at the first opportunity to earn money, exactly what we want to avoid!

The second reason has more far-reaching roots: In order to make the Centre work at full capacity and to keep it as an institution serving the community and not as a commercial school detached from the village, short courses for girls from the village and around will be organised every month. The beneficiaries will be girls/women already working in various small private set-ups in the area or girls who just want to acquire a short specialisation like embroidery for example or a special dying technique or adult women wanting to learn a bit of sewing for themselves etc. These courses could also be used as refresher courses.

This is an important development and still needs a lot of strategic thinking so to avoid launching ourselves blindly into a new enterprise, it has been decided that a real "field research project" will be organised to identify the needs in the area. To be realistic, the planning for it will only start after March 2010 when the next girls have started and are well settled into their new environment.

However a few initial criteria have already been worked out:

These short training courses are not intended to give the participants a job but to increase their existing knowledge and their general level of education.

December 2008: First lessons of a direct partnership

After 22 months of existence and in spite of the difficulties and problems that we have encountered and which, for some, are still unresolved, we can say that the Sonagnon Training Centre for Girls has achieved quite a lot.

The principle of direct support to "grassroots development" is talked about ad nauseam in international and national development organisations and is often heralded as the only durable and sustainable solution to the problems of our continent. But to put this principle into practice is extremely difficult

To avoid taking the position of "intermediary" or "development broker" is to choose to benefit the users directly and durably, to make them master of their own future but it is also choosing the path of collective and voluntary management at the village level, relying therefore on villagers whose knowledge (often quite considerable) and reasoning is however different from our modern and educated ways. This means accepting a much slower rhythm of "learning by doing" on both sides and continually adapting, as change has first to be "owned" by all concerned. It takes a long time to change mentalities and to effect real social change, in Africa as anywhere else!

But even if 22 months for a "direct partnership" project is still barely the initial phase it is a fitting time to reflect on the achievements and the weaknesses in order to move forward and to progress:

The things that are positive and are working well

  1. A real rallying-round of virtually everybody in the village for the common objective: e.g. to participate fully in the development of the locality and of the district through the education of girls who are in danger of being trafficked to Nigeria with disastrous consequences for them and their families.
  2. An effective training of the girls: In spite of some parents adopting a very unhelpful attitude, the girls are learning a lot of useful skills and are progressively blossoming into accomplished young women ready to face the world, a far cry from the "village girls" that they used to be!
  3. Good teachers/trainers convinced of the importance of their pioneering role: In the last ten years that I have been involved in Bonou (first to do some research for my PhD and then by being directly involved) I have been painfully aware of the high turn-over of personnel in the Health Centre. This is due to difficult village conditions for young men and women who are not used to them and the relative isolation of the place, far from any big city. The dedication of the 3 female trainers and of the Directrice is therefore especially praiseworthy: they all believe in their teaching "mission" and know that they are working for a better future not only of the girls they train but, through them, of the country as a whole.
  4. Determined, hard-working and skilled Northern partners: the Friends of Bonou not only give money, go out in all weathers to sell necklaces and bags at markets and work very hard at securing bids to get more funds but also do a lot of thinking and planning. Quite a few of the committee members are what some call "atterrisseurs" (from atterrir, to land), people who are able to land ideas and dreams, translate the vision into palpable reality and see things through.
  5. A dedicated professional follow-up team that I lead, made up entirely of volunteers, something which is almost unheard of in our cultural context: In most set-ups involving Northern and Southern partners, it is normal practice to deduct 15 to 20 % from the project money for the support-team or to pay some members directly on an ad-hoc basis. But since the start we have all chosen to give our time freely as our contribution to the "common cause".

Areas for improvement

  1. A more intense collaboration between the village Elders and the follow-up team in order to prevent problems before they occur: For example concerning the parents refusing to pay for the girls’ food, it was not impressed soon enough on the parents that Friends of Bonou was going to withdraw their support for the food after a year.
  2. A better communication system for a deeper understanding between partners: Good detailed communication takes time and because of normal cultural differences of perception, misunderstandings have arisen in the past. Our time constraints, things and services which don’t work properly, roads and power supplies that get often cut off and huge social obligations towards extended families which take a lot of our energy, are usually not fully grasped by Northern partners and Friends of Bonou is no exception. But our previous system based mainly on e-mails is being improved thanks to regular long phone conversations through Skype.
  3. Better forward-planning: Too often we find ourselves fighting fires which should not have started in the first place... A proper work-plan should go a long way to alleviate this problem.
  4. A deepening of our cooperation with the national and local authorities in Benin. This cooperation has started but is slow to bear fruit as the bureaucracies in most developing countries are still top-heavy and slow moving.

August 2008: The parents’ participation and attitude

The attitude of the parents still constitutes a big difficulty for us as some of them still do not pay regularly the small amount that is demanded of them (in cash or in kind) for the food and the education of their girls. The Directrice of the Centre, the village Elders and the Executive Committee of the Sonagnon Association have all tried their utmost to resolve the problem but at the last count, in June, there were still about half of them who did not pay regularly and even one who has paid nothing at all since the start ! Important meetings have taken place and they have partially worked as a lot of money has come into the Centre’s coffers since June but there are still a few who don’t pay. Is it that they cannot afford it? Well, yes and no.

As The Friends of Bonou had accepted, after great hesitation, to fund the food for the first year in order to give the girls "a head start" (but said that we would stop at the end of December 2007) some parents got "used" to not paying and got into the "habit" of not taking responsibility for their girls’ food as the " white people were taking care of everything". This is what some parents felt in any case and said so publicly and in retrospect us paying, even for a short time, was not a good idea. You live and learn!

But in fact the full reality is much more complex and as such, did not surface immediately: for most parents, having their girls in the Centre does not only mean paying money OUT but in fact it means losing money because girls going to Nigeria to trade and bring back money to the family is a very widespread custom.

So it is understandable that many parents are reluctant, especially fathers who are not interested at all in the education of girls, as girls are traditionally not as important as boys and are supposed to bring back money for the family: there is no pension scheme and no Incapacity Benefit in Benin and children are there to help when times are tough. So for quite a few of "our" girls, the mothers had to go against the will of the father (another interesting sociological consequence of the creation of the Centre!) to send the girl to the Centre to study.

December 2007: Who knows best?

In Bonou we start from the principle that local people know best. The villagers want what we all want, namely health and education. The council of elders told us they wanted a centre to educate girls in basic skills, a small maternity unit, a well stocked pharmacy and basic text books in the local primary schools. Through fund-raising we are helping them to realise these goals quicker than might otherwise have been the case and I am confident that the development we put into practice in Benin is real sustainable development

"Development" is synonymous to many people with giving money: rich westerners giving money to poor, passive hungry "victims" in Africa. Money IS important, especially when one realises that Africa is a net exporter of money to the North, receiving less in aid each year than it makes in debt repayment but the Africa we know is different and development for us is about partnerships: in the process of visiting Benin, talking to local people and exchanging stories and experiences we learn from each other and discover that we are all part of "the common republic of humanity." We have seen the richness of life in Benin: the sense of family, social solidarity, respect for the old, an ability at village level to resolve conflict, music and dance as a spontaneous communal expression of emotion, an attachment to the land and rhythms of life dictated by the seasons and the bonds of extended family. In short a rich life that would be totally familiar to our great grandparents and that we have lost.

On the other hand, the villagers in Bonou have learned that we do not have endless money and that we have to work very hard to fund raise (the concept of a car boot sale is hard to explain in Africa!) but also that financial accountability and rigour is paramount for us. and for them. They are unaware of the rich experience they offer us but see that we are genuinely interested in them and that we want to be involved in their lives. A mutual exchange of newsletters has been great fun as well as though provoking and interesting. We have made a commitment that we wish to keep.

The challenge for Africans is to develop while retaining their social and cultural richness. There is much to do and the challenge for small charities like ours is to scale up the small islands of success we have helped to create because what happens in Africa affects us all. As John Donne wrote: "No man is an island entire of itself. every man’s death diminishes me."

August 2007: the first cohort of Sonagnon girls

Our first intake of 21 girls are happy in their new environment and it was really moving to see how, after only a few months, they have already gained in self-confidence and assurance. They are learning 3 main skills: food processing, sewing and hairdressing. Basic food processing (essentially gari, a delicacy of the whole costal region of West Africa based on cassava flour) has been already mastered more or less satisfactorily in 3 months and they will graduate soon to more elaborate products like fruit syrups, cakes and special groundnut biscuits called Klui-klui.

Outside these "practical" skills, the girls are also taught literacy and numeracy, home economics, basic health and Aids prevention and basic French. They are keen to learn and while they seem quite at ease with the 3 "monitrices" (trainers) and with the Directrice. Soon some activities will be added to the study cycle: soap making, tie-and-dye, macramé bags and a few others. This means that the Centre will be able to sell the products they will make in these areas of activity but it also means more equipment for us to buy! The sale of the gari produced by the girls has already yielded some (small) revenue for the Centre, a fact which is well in line with our goal to gradually withdraw and to pass on the responsibility of the Centre to the local and national authorities.

The other important development is the realisation by all concerned that the Centre needs a purpose-built boarding block sooner rather than later. It has always been on the cards that we would need at some point to envisage financing this but the parents were adamant that since the start, the Sonagnon Centre had to be a boarding institution, first for the safety of the girls (Nigeria with its real dangers and its "wicked" attractions is only 30 miles away) but also because boarding creates an important bond, outside the extended family, between the girls themselves and with the staff and the village community and encourages independence, self reliance and self confidence. Those are qualities that girls of such a relatively poor level of education, don’t often have the opportunity to acquire and boarding becomes a real educational tool.

At the moment the 21 girls are sleeping in one of the 4 little "pavilions" that constitute the Centre but as it is not purpose-built, they have to pack everything away, fold their sleeping mats (there is no space for beds) and store the lot every morning in one of the little rooms. It is not satisfactory and can only be temporary. Besides, in March 2008, a new influx of girls will come in while the present one will start their second year. So where are they going to be lodged? It is therefore urgent to build the "Internat" (boarding block) but the present level of our finances does not permit yet another big capital expenditure as we have to pay the salaries of the staff, purchase quite a lot of equipment still and shoulder the running costs of the Centre. In view of this, we are looking for a special fund-raising opportunity as according to a first rough estimate, we will need to raise about £35.000 to build the boarding complex.

We have recently been sharply reminded how topical and important the creation of "our" Training Centre is, with the publication by The Times on Friday 23 March of a 3-page article on child-trafficking (especially girls) in West Africa in general and Benin in particular. It makes chilling reading but it also may comfort you in the idea that we are on the right track as we are allowing these girls to get a skill and an education, even if our small Training Centre seems to be only a drop in the ocean.