Part of the reason we bid Benin so high was because of my amazing college semester abroad in Niger. I was studying anthropology and development and wanted an experience worlds different than anything I knew. I picked Niger because it was ranked the second least developed country in the world at the time, and there wasn’t a study abroad program in the poorest, Sierra Leone.
Yes, the poverty and also the heat made living tough, but I also had probably the best and happiest four months of my life to date there, and that was because of all the amazing people who welcomed me into their lives.
Though they’re neighbors, Niger and Benin have their differences. Niger has a much greater Muslim presence. Benin has beaches and a port. Benin has a more stable democracy and is a bit more developed. Still, I can’t help but think back to Niger when anticipating our upcoming move to Benin. I’m sure it will be an amazing experience, but I doubt it will be an amazing experience in the same way my semester abroad was. It simply can’t be.
I’m eight years older now, and I’m heading abroad in a much different context. I won’t have the luxury of entire days to sit around drinking tea and getting to know people. Still, on evenings and weekends, will it be possible to connect with Beninois in the same way I connected with Nigeriens? I hope so, but honestly I’m not sure.
I’ve heard from many others that by nature of being a diplomat in a relatively poor country and living a comparatively cushy life, it’s hard if not impossible to do. I’m speaking generally — not about Benin in particular. I’ve heard that locals don’t think they can relate to you and won’t give you a chance. If they do, you have to sort out whether they’re really interested in you or whether they just think of you as a gatekeeper to something they want (a visa, money for a sick relative, etc.).
Difficult as it may be to build real friendships with locals, I certainly intend to try.