July 30
I'm a lawyer in my past life, who got the kids through college and decided to try something different and a little more fun. A used book store sounded like a good idea, so that's where I am for now. I just hadn't counted on a recession or E-readers and am a little afraid there's going to be a third act. In the meantime, I have plenty to read and a little time to write. Not a bad way to spend a day.


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FEBRUARY 28, 2013 10:02AM

Arriving in Africa

Rate: 25 Flag

They arrive in small groups. Each group in uniforms that differ only slightly from girl to boy, but greatly between groups. A few with head coverings for the girls. Several with school emblems or insignia on pockets. Some dresses; some pants; no real consistency except neatness.

Black shoes and white socks appear almost a requirement for girls, although styles vary. Ruffled socks and patent leather Mary Jane's being favored by the youngest girls; sport socks and ballet type slip-ons by the oldest. Only an occasional tennis shoe.

For boys, ties appear the common denominator. Although also, tucked in shirts. And belts holding up pants. Only one boy wears a belt that comes close to testing the outer limits of permissible.  


It is early Thursday morning when they arrive. I arrived Monday evening after a full day of travel. Three continents in twenty six hours, with enough time changes that my hour count could well be off.

My two days here have not yet given me a sense of the country.

The children come from nearby schools. Their travel has not been far, although road conditions may have made it long. 

They are a well behaved group as they sit on folding chairs surrounding the open air stage at the U.S. Embassy in Benin, West Africa.

They are semi-finalists in a debate contest sponsored by the Embassy--twenty-four teams of three; eight teams in each of three age groups; ages ranging from seven to sixteen. Twelve teams will move on to finals that will be held next month. Three teams will ultimately win. I hear hints that Kindles will be awarded.


I arrive as a judge. Chosen partly because I'm a native English speaker. But mainly because my daughter is one of the persons in charge of the contest. She's not quite sure what to do with me for my month long visit. The contest promises to take up a full day.

It is serious business. The sheet describing the day's events lists debates about plural marriage, the role of parents in teen pregnancy, the importance of world history versus national history, the value of co-ed schools, among others.

The topics amaze me.  

"Chosen by teachers from the competing schools," my daughter tells me. I can't imagine that these topics would be debated in American grade schools.

The debates will be conducted entirely in English.

This amazes me even more. I completed twenty years of schooling and speak only one language.

My arrival in this French speaking country found me with little more French than what you can pick up from a restaurant menu. In the two days that I've been here my conversations have been limited almost exclusively to , "Bonjour," "merci," and some awkward pointing.   

The children arrive on stage and, in proper English, thank the Embassy, the judges, and the fellow participants. They stand tall and confident with no podium to hide behind or lean on, and no French translation dictionary in their pockets. 


There are some strong accents to be sure. And a tendency to speak very fast. So that there are times when I take it on faith that English is being spoken. Until I listen more carefully, and the words begin to come through. In full and structured sentences. Without slang or short-cuts. In a language that is not their own. 

On the rare occasion of a mis-step--a forgotten word or a lost train of thought--a gentle clapping comes from the audience of participants. Not in derision, but in support. A sort of, "it's okay," type of crowd speak that is touching. It is noticed and remarked upon by each of the judges.

It is one more reason why it's hard not to score each of the participants at 100%.

My sense of the country is good. 






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west africa, benin

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So very cool. What a privilege to witness the participants.
i havent seen a man in a tucked in shirt for many moons here
in the elite east coast of the usa.
let alone a white boy who knows more than one language,
which seems to be a monstrous perversion of the English
i was taught not so long ago.

Kiddos here couldnt debate themselves out of a paper sack.
Before the 'yo, ya disrespectin me!'

Delightful reminder that there is life outside of the American Empire of
What a wonderful experience! I recently had to be a judge in an English language debate of 7th and 8th graders about human rights in Nepal. It wasn't easy! As in this situation, it was a serious competition. Luckily, my Nepali co-judge agreed to judge the technical aspects of the debate, leaving me to figure out something positive to say about the performance of each of the participants. Enjoy your time in Benin!
Americans could learn a lot if they cared to open their eyes and ears.

Take to this great post. R.
So great to hear of your first adventure! Hope more is coming.
I cannot tell you what this piece did to me, and for me....

I knew the piece would be intense when I saw the first picture and a student had hand to chin in Thinking Man repose.

My daughter was a debator. And I can tell youu the fast alking is a pre-requisite in the art. When a clear speaking American Debare efficinado starts you are not certain if they >/em>are speaking English.

I am PinInterst and FB 'ing this piece.
A little technology and a lot of peace, and these people could rule the world. The 'developed' world has gone really soft. (Was a time kids that age in England would know Latin and Greek...)
Glad you made it safely, and I guess you have internet at least some of the time. No debate here, that was a fine piece. R
Everybody wins at an event like this. I am so glad you were part of it. Enjoy Africa! How cool are you?!
Ohh, I like that they clap a child through their performance. And in the photo at the bottom, I always sit with my chin propped as well. I felt like I recognized myself for a minute there!
Excellent!! I love Benin... French, Portuguese and German... handy tools in Africa! I have still not mastered a foreign language here, only bits and pieces of many... Blessings.
[r] jl, wow. what an adventure! thanks for sharing! best, libby
Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting. Internet access is surprisingly good here. However, I didn't bring my computer and have to borrow my daughter's when she's not using it. Not a bad thing really--a little vacation from the internet too. But not completely.
Wow! Great descriptions.
Gee, that was great. I know the people of Africa love it when white people from America fly over the ocean to come a judge them. That's continuing the white man's burden alright.
Gee, that was great. I know the people of Africa love it when white people from America fly over the ocean to come a judge them. That's continuing the white man's burden alright.
What an amazing experience. I'm so glad you got there safe and sound - and that you're absorbing so much of the culture. Thank you for sharing this and all the best to you.
You must be having some amazing experiences. Thanks for letting us catch a glimpse of them. Keep posting stories and pictures of your trip.
oooh i am going to love these. love them.
Happy for you and the kids you met. Thanks, jls, on spot.