A Balloon transcends language: in a village that sees in colour, look at what I’ve learned about race and racism.

Globe & Mail, Oct 20, 2000

When I signed up to spend three and a half months in the West African nation of Benin with Canada World Youth, it goes without saying that I was looking for something different. It was this sentiment, along with the desire to avoid university for a year, which united the nine young Canadians with whom I lived in the rural village of Sakete. And yet, as the plane lifted off from Montreal, I think we were all expecting to have enough in common with our new neighbours that the inevitable differences wouldn’t prevent us from integrating relatively quickly into the daily life of the village. After all, you can’t spend three and a half months with the mindset of a tourist.


A month later, we were having a great time, but I think the challenges of finding our place in Sakete were a surprise to us all. On my fifth day in the village, I had my first strong taste of the gap that still separates Canadian and Beninese.


I was sitting with a book under a tree outside the small, dusty house where I lived, trying to escape the scorching December heat. The ubiquitous goats and chickens wandered across the patch of dirt in front of me, occasionally glancing quizzically in my direction. As is often the case, there were two or three half-naked children in the yard, watching me with large and intent eyes as I read.


They would sometimes murmur among themselves in Nagot, the regional dialect. (French, which we all practiced in preparation for our time in nominally francophone Benin, is, as it turns out, only spoken by civil servants and substantial merchants.) I recognized one word, however, in the children’s whispering — “o-ibo,”which means “white.” We all picked up that one quickly, because the kids would chant it whenever they saw a Canadian on the street.


I wanted to get to know my young neighbours, but the language barrier was a formidable obstacle. So I ran back into the house and found in my suitcase a bag of rubber balloons, which my mother had presciently suggested I bring with me. After demonstrating how they worked, I handed three of them out to the children, who shyly accepted the new toys and ran back across the path to play. Before long, they crossed back over to my chair, instructed by some older relative to say “Merci.” It was a touching moment. I felt that I had connected with them on some level, and they seemed genuinely delighted with the balloons, which can be found there in the market but are beyond the means of most families.


My head was once again in my book, a few minutes later, when I was jerked suddenly back to Africa by a much louder and much noisier crowd. At least 20 children, some standing no higher than my knees and some almost my age, clustered around me on the dirt yard. They all wanted balloons. Some knew the French word, others mimed the act of inflating a balloon, looked at me imploringly, and asked “o-ibo ?” Intimidated, I took the bag from my pocket and placed balloons randomly in the mass of outstretched hands. With only four left in the bag, I retreated, flustered, into the house — and my journal.


The entry for December 16th reads: “Now, there’s about 15 of (the children) staring through the front door into the room where I write…. I just lied to a woman who walked right into the house and up to the table, and said there weren’t any balloons left for her to take for her child. I keep seeing little heads and shadows waiting hopefully behind the door and terrace. Maybe I should try to get a bag of 5,000 sent from home.”


One of the Canadians told me how hurt she was when a woman, who had, for a number of days, amicably said “Bonjour” as she walked to work, suddenly asked her, one morning, for money. Some of the children who yell “o-ibo “at me as I pass have learned the French phrases “Donne-moi un cadeau ” (Give me a present) and “Dix francs ” (10 Beninese Francs, a suggestion for an appropriate cadeau).


A few weeks of this can poison one with suspicion. When young men I’ve never met approached me on the street and asked me to correspond with them from Canada, it’s probably just an expression of interest and curiosity. Yet I had to consciously fight against my suspicion that they were hoping to get something from me. Each Canadian had received at least one offer of marriage in the month after we arrived. Were these mere jest, or does an airplane ticket to Canada really mean that much to them?


Growing up in downtown Toronto and spending six years at a highly multicultural high school, the approach to ethnicity that I had adopted was to pay as little mind to it as possible, because it almost never had much bearing on the character or outlook of a person. Racism still exists in Canada, but all 10 of us Canadians who were in Sakete are of the generation for which it is a fundamental creed that the colour of skin does not bear on the content of character. And yet, even if the children were just kidding around, the young men were just being friendly, and the marriage proposals were just flirtatiousness, there’s no denying that our nationality (or our race, as the villagers saw it) does make a difference. You can’t quote Martin Luther King Jr. to a child who can guess from the colour of our skin that 30 francs, which means a meal to him, means about six cents to us.


There is an undeniable disparity between our standard of living and that of the villagers, and Sakete wouldn’t let us forget that fact. As long as we expect them to ignore our ethnicity (and take it personally when they don’t), we probably won’t integrate beyond the status of o-ibo tourists. We must accept being treated differently because of the colour of our skin, a difficult pill for young Canadians to swallow. Being colour-blind at home wasn’t just a moral principle, it was second nature. I knew if we could manage genuine tolerance and real understanding in Sakete where race does matter, we would come home having been much more than just tourists.