– Fall 2003
Friends of Benin was established in 1999 by returned Peace Corps Volunteers
who have served in the Republic of Benin. Our mission is to maintain
communications between Friends of Benin (FOB) members, keep the Peace
Corps/Benin experience alive, sustain our commitment to international service,
encourage members to share their experiences with their own communities,
support the Peace Corps mission in Benin, support recently returned volunteers
as well as volunteers who are about to leave for Benin, and distribute news and
information about Benin.
Faithful FoB Officers:
President – Brian
Reublinger – email@example.com
Vice President & Deadbeat Editor - Jessica
Duke – firstname.lastname@example.org
Membership Coordinator—Your Name Here
Graphic Designer– Your Name Here
Web Master- Chris Starace-
INSIDE - COS Tours, Zemidjan Training, NPCA News,
Benin Football, King Cotton
*On January 21, 2003, Benin passed a law outlawing
all forms of female genital mutilation.
*According to the United State’s Department of
State, the Government of Benin fully complies with the minimum standards for the
elimination of trafficking in persons despite severe resource constraints.
Hello FoBers—It’s another issue of the Deadbeat
for your reading pleasure. All
kinds of snippets are inside. I
took the liberty of including a long article on cotton farmers in Benin and the
US. The subsidies issue is an
interesting one. As a PCV, I never
really thought about agricultural policies here affecting the successful
Beninois farmer. Little did I know. As our world becomes increasingly interlinked, more policies
have a global affect. It’s a
reminder to pay attention to what goes on in Washington, D.C.—regardless of
your personal political leanings. Happy
of Benin Elections This Spring!
We will be looking for new officers this spring.
Friends of Benin Biannual elections take place in May, 2004.
Won’t you consider running for an elected office?
For information on duties of each position, see our website
http://220.127.116.11 or contact anyone of the
Save the Date for the 2004 National Conference!
Mark your calendars now for the 2004 National
Conference to be held in Chicago, IL from August 5 - 8, 2004. Our local hosts,
the Chicago Area Peace Corps Association (CAPCA), and the NPCA Board of
Directors finalized the theme of the conference at the winter 2003 NPCA Board
meeting in Providence, Rhode Island:
"Peace Corps 2004: Celebrating a Legacy of
Friends of Benin will have a gathering in
conjunction with this conference. We
need some Chicago-area Benin RPCV’s to help with the planning of a FoB
gathering. If you live in or near
Chicago, please let us know if you can help.
Contact any of the current officers.
Friends of Benin financially supports this gathering.
NEVER HAD THE LUXURY OF ZEMIDJAN TRAINING!
A Recent Benin Peace Corps
Trainee submitted this blurb to Peace Corps Online.
I mentioned zemidjans earlier.
They are the principal mode of public transportation in Cotonou and many other
Beninese cities. Before we were allowed to use these pollution creating
machines, we had to receive formal lessons. The zemidjan drivers Peace Corps
hired to take us on our first taxi moto rides were quite amused as we went
through the obligatory roleplay:
"I want to go to _____________. How much is it?"
Anyway, you get the picture.
Then, we all put on our helmets, hiked up our skirts (if necessary), and climbed
onto the back of the moto trying to remember not to hold onto the driver's
shoulders as we performed this maneuver. We were certainly the neighborhood
entertainment: 20 zemidjans cruising in circles around the block and carrying
white-knuckled yovos gripping the bottoms of the seats, holding on for dear
did you go on your COS trip? Many
FoB Members replied to this inquiry. We
didn’t cover the globe but regionally, we came close.
Except for South America and the South Pacific (Bali being the exception
– the RPCV who started her journey there was a Tonga RPCV, mother of a Benin
RPCV) this small sample of RPCV’s have traveled far and wide.
To get from
here to there, people took planes, boats, trains, cars and bikes and one camel
trekker!. Most everyone traveled
around for some months, some of us to get visas for spouses, others for the
thrill of traveling, others to work or study, many visited friends along the
way. Our camel trekker
intentionally visited religious kingdoms.
Zealand, Niger, Nepal,
Portugal, Russia, Spain, Tanzania, Thailand, Togo, Turkey and USA.
Many of us traveled around our own country, seeing it through new eyes,
before heading to our “home of record”.
First Visit to the African Nations Cup
MEMBERS of Benin's national team have been rewarded by the country's leader
for qualifying for the 2004 Nations Cup finals in Tunisia.
President Mathieu Kerekou gave the team a $100,000 bonus on Monday and
promised that the team will be given the required support to perform well at the
It is the first time that the West African nation is qualifying for the
finals. Over 40,000 fans celebrated the team's qualification on Sunday,
following a 3-0 victory over Zambia in Cotonou.
Overwhelmed by emotion, a pregnant female supporter gave birth to a baby
in the national stadium and was taken to the hospital for treatment.
As reported by the BBC and The
Post, Lusaka Gambia
Benin, Rwanda and Zimbabwe could not have asked for tougher opposition at
next year's Nations Cup finals in Tunisia.
The trio of debutantes were handed formidable opponents by Caf general
secretary Mustapha Fahmy when he conducted the draw in Tunis on Saturday.
Perhaps Benin will be cursing their luck the most after being drawn with three former African champions in Group D. They will meet Nigeria, South Africa and Morocco in what has already been dubbed the tournament's 'group of death'.
But the country's sports minister Valentin Aditi Houde was defiant in the
face of predictions that the Beninoise
would do well just to score a goal in Tunisia.
"We're not going to make up the numbers. Every team has a chance to
win and I wish Benin the best. “
As reported by The Vangaurd, Lagos, Nigeria
Annual General Meeting – by Jessica Duke
In August, I attended the National Peace Corps
Association’s Annual General Meeting. I
was surrounded by very committed RPCV’s, many who served in the 1960’s and
1970’s. In fact, this “older
generation” of RPCV’s seemed to be the movers and shakers of the NPCA.
Sure, there is younger blood, folks who served in the ’80’s and
‘90’s and this century. But you could tell the old folks have been coming to these
conferences for ages. They
demonstrated their commitment to Peace Corps years after serving as a volunteer.
They care about the history and future of Peace Corps.
NPCA uses this conference as a starting point for policy development.
What will the NPCA work for in the coming years? What goals will the NPCA
strive to attain? Advocacy on
Capitol Hill was a big topic. It
seems that the NPCA is always on the Hill asking for adequate appropriations for
Peace Corps. This year is no
different. There is a big push to
increase the number of volunteers to 10,000.
NPCA works with Peace Corps and legislators to make sure this increase is
done with adequate funding.
represented Friends of Benin as our Vice President, Newsletter Editor and Acting
Treasurer/Membership Coordinator. If
any of you reading this would like to wear one of these hats, I’m happy to
pass on le chapeau (les chapeaux).
In May, on the 2,146 hectares
that Tiller farms, a vast area, he planted 1,611 hectares of cotton. The Plains
climate is harsh, bringing sandstorms, tornadoes, floods, droughts, heatwaves
and frost. There is no irrigation in this district; the water for crops comes
from the sky, or not at all. By August, after erratic rains, strong winds, hail,
unseasonal cold and a weird electrical phenomenon called a static storm, Tiller
had just 21 hectares of cotton left. Even that looked parched and straggly in
the 40C heat at the time Tiller showed us. Cotton is always a gamble round Bula.
On average, Tiller squeezes little more than a quarter of a tonne of cotton out
of every hectare. "It's like a slot machine," he said.
"You put the money in, you
pull the handle, and it may not put out. The only way to win is to keep putting
money in and keep pulling the handle. I've never pulled the handle twice and
it's put out two times in a row. Not everybody can live like that."
Idrissou's farm is much smaller,
30 hectares, but, because of Tiller's weather disasters, the Beninois farmer has
ended up with about the same amount of land under cotton as his American
counterpart, 20 hectares.
Idrissou doesn't have a rain
problem; in gentle mugginess, under a grey sky as heavy with wetness as sodden
fur, his cotton was growing green and full and healthy, and beginning to produce
the flowers beneath which the cotton bolls swell. Even in a bad year, like last
year, Idrissou gets four times as much cotton per hectare as Tiller. In a good
year, the yield in Benin can be eight times as high.
gets a subsidy cheque from the US
The American taxpayer is keeping
Tiller, and some 25,000 other US cotton farmers, in business. This is good for
US cotton farmers. But it hurts millions of African cotton farmers like Idrissou.
The price they get for their high -quality, hand-grown, competitive cotton is
driven down by the subsidised US cotton surplus. As a result, their profit
margin - the cash they need to start dragging their families and their countries
out of poverty - is disappearing.
"If I produce without
getting any money, and there's someone who is guaranteed to get money even if he
gets nothing from production, my rival will survive, and I won't," said
Idrissou. "That's the big difference. I'll stop, he'll go on. There's
something unfair about it."
Not surprisingly, Tiller is
offended at the implication that he is on some kind of welfare programme that is
doing down the poor abroad. He works 17-hour days; he isn't wealthy by American
standards; even with the subsidy cheque, he is only able to break even this year
because, when most of the cotton failed, he planted sorghum and brought in
"The world keeps making it
sound like we are growing filthy rich out of these programmes. In that case why
do I see farmers going broke?" he said. "All we are doing is trying to
equalise ourselves with the world. Their cost of production is lower than
It is a very expensive equaliser.
What it does, set out by the 2002 Farm Act, is pay US cotton farmers the
difference between the real world market price for cotton - currently around
$1.23 (78p) per kilo, but often much lower - and a fantasy, "ideal"
price of $1.59 per kilo. The payment is made not on the basis of actual
production but on a nominal yield, on 85% of a nominal number of acres. There is
supposed to be a payment ceiling of $40,000 per farmer, but in practice farmers
get around this by nominating extra "entities" - often other family
members - who can bump the ceiling up.
Overall, the sums involved are
huge. In 2001-02, according to calculations by Oxfam and the Washington-based
Environmental Working Group, US cotton farmers received subsidies of $3.9bn -
almost twice the entire GDP of Benin. In a feat that would have made a Soviet
economist blush, American cotton farmers got more in subsidies that year than
the total market value of their crop.
Tiller farms in Bailey county,
one of the 25 counties around the Plains town of Lubbock, which produce 3% of
the world's cotton. Between 1995 and 2002, the Plains area farmers received
total cotton subsidies of $1.26bn. Yet even so, they struggle, while the
taxpayers' money which keeps them going hurts Africa.
Cotton has been good to Benin, a
former French colony west of Nigeria. The country is still very poor, but income
from cotton - almost all of which is exported - has provided the extra money to
make the difference between mere subsistence and the beginnings of security.
Cotton money has built schools, roads and clinics, and it has brought into the
capital, Cotonou (nothing to do with cotton - it means "river of
death" in a local language), a hurrying, noisy, 24-hour street culture of
mopeds and mobiles. Life expectancy has risen from 44 to 51 years, infant
mortality is down from 149 per 1,000 births to 94, more than a third of adults
can read and write instead of just over a quarter, and 70% of primary-age
children now enroll in school, against fewer than half at the beginning of the
90s. The number of undernourished people has fallen and electricity consumption
has more than doubled.
All this is placed under threat
by the fall in world cotton prices - a fall largely due to exports of subsidised,
otherwise uncompetitive US cotton, according to Brazil, Benin and other poor
African cotton countries, such as Burkina Faso and Mali. They are to take their
case against US cotton subsidies to the WTO and the Cancun summit.
From 1998 to 2001, when world
prices were falling, high-cost exporters such as the US should have lost
markets, and low-cost African producers gained. Because of subsidies, the
opposite happened: US cotton exports doubled. Oxfam calculates that in 2001-02
Africa lost $301m as a result of US cotton subsidies. Benin lost 9% of its
export earnings - more than wiping out the benefit it received from western debt
We arrived at Idrissou's compound
in Tchaourou in the early morning. He had just put on his wellies. The town
smelled of charcoal cooking fires. Idrissou's extended family was out in the
yard, eating a breakfast of rice and stew. Those who had already eaten were
chewing on tooth-cleaning sticks. We drove along a red earth track, following
Idrissou on his moped to his farm. His unfenced cotton fields were dotted with
mahogany saplings and surrounded by maize that was higher than a man. There was
a dreamy hum of bees in the maize flowers.
"Three years ago, you
couldn't have come here by car," said Idrissou. "The road we came on
was built with part of the farmers' money from cotton. Apart from the road,
we've built schools, community health centres and water pumps."
The good times are already
beginning to unravel. At other farms to the north, smaller, less well-connected
farmers than Idrissou (he is treasurer of the farmers' association in Tchaourou)
have not yet been paid for their 2002 cotton crop. The effect of lower prices
has been compounded by a privatisation programme urged on Benin by the IMF and
the World Bank, who preach the virtues of the market while keeping silent about
the neo-socialist farm subsidy programmes of their rich world masters in the US,
Europe and Japan. It appears that some farmers around Parakou may have gone
bankrupt without realising it.
said BassË Bako, a farmer in the village of Sebou. "Right now, fewer and
fewer people are cultivating cotton - sometimes when the cotton money comes back
to the bank, and the bank subtracts our debts, there's nothing left.
"There's a lot of poverty in
the village now because we're not able to use the only source of money we have.
We can grow food to eat, but only growing cotton brings money. We're getting
poorer and poorer. We're losing a lot of community projects because when when we
are offered one, we're asked to contribute part of the money, and we can't give
the small amount required. We lost a health centre project because we couldn't
pay. And a project for a public water pump. Right now we only have one clear
water source in the village, and many people are obliged to go to the swamp for
In Bula, we sit in the lounge of
Tiller's 74-year-old father, Dewitt, and listen to him recall his life. Dewitt
moved to Texas from Oklahoma with his family in 1944. After leaving school he
worked in a cotton gin and saved up enough money to buy a 72-hectare farm and
get a loan for a tractor. Back then, there were no subsidies, but with hard
work, a little mechanisation, cheap Mexican labour and a friendly bank you could
still make a good living from cotton. Dewitt Tiller's first harvest was 21
tonnes; he made enough money to buy a Chevrolet. Bula was a thriving place, full
of young families. It had three churches, two grocery stores, a post office, a
blacksmith, a garage, two gins, a laundry and a restaurant. Now the services,
and almost all the people, are gone.
The days of Dewitt Tiller's
starting out half a century ago sounded a lot like the days of Mama Idrissou's
starting out in the 90s: hard-working, civic-spirited farmers raising families
in a thriving community, trying to earn the money to pay off their debts, buy
better equipment and secure their children's future. The difference is that
Dewitt never had to compete against a much larger, much richer nation overseas,
subsidising its less efficient farmers.
I put the point to Billy Tiller,
and he takes it on board.
"The guy you're talking
about in Africa - I see this is the guy my dad was. I don't know if my dad could
have competed in the same situation. It's a hard business. And I don't think
that, without subsidies, we here today could compete with the American farms of
But like most American farmers,
Tiller is convinced that US subsidies only protect him against equally unfair
practices by other countries. Africa is not on his radar: China is.
"I just can't find a way to
compare myself with that [African] guy," he said. "I see my
competition as the Chinese government and that's one I can't compete with. In
fact I may eventually lose. Farms don't see the other guy as competition. It's
One day last month Lubbock's most
influential cotton figures gathered at the local chamber of commerce, over a
lunch of meatloaf, roast potatoes, salad and iced tea, to hear an address by
Congressman Charlie Stenholm. Stenholm is the most senior Democrat on the House
Agricultural Committee, and one of the authors of the 2002 Farm Act. A member of
the Blue Dog group of conservative southern Democrats, he represents a
congressional district south-east of Lubbock which, at 80, 000 square kilometres,
isn't much smaller than Benin. A tall, elegant, courteous figure, he wore a
beige suit and black cowboy boots with a map of Texas embossed on them in gold.
In his speech, Stenholm steered a
difficult course between attacking the Bush administration's budget deficit and
supporting the use of taxpayers' dollars to prop up American cotton farms;
between damning subsidies in theory, and blessing them in practice. "I do
not know of a single farmer who would not rather have received their income from
the marketplace than in a government cheque. But the international marketplace
is not a free marketplace. It is one where all countries, including our own,
mess around," he said.
"Those who subsidise are
going to have to act in lessening that subsidy if the developing countries of
the world are going to be able to survive and prosper in the coming
They were noble words, but the
audience did not look like men who feared they were about to be ruined. Nor, for
all his charm and obvious sincerity, is Stenholm an entirely disinterested
participant in setting US agricultural policy. He has 320 hectares under cotton
on his own farm this year, and picks up subsidy cheques. His rolling campaign to
remain in office received $13,500 over the past two years from a committee run
by the main cotton lobbying organisation, the National Cotton Council, the
largest single contribution out of the $286,000 it gave senators and
Later, in the car taking Stenholm
to his next engagement in the little town of Post, the congressman defended the
US stance on subsidies. Boiled down, it amounted to a claim that foreigners
cannot be relied upon - either to play fair with US cotton exports, or to
provide the world's textile manufacturers with secure supplies of cotton if US
producers go under. Stenholm foresees an end to subsidies, but only slowly.
"I'm looking at it on a time
frame of, say, the next decade. I think you're going to see a gradual movement
towards the market. In fact I think that's the only way to do it without a
"If we can't compete in the
world, and consumers are willing to pay the price, there won't be a cotton
industry [in the US]. But I'm not at the point where I'm going to accept what
Brazil or any other country is going to say about it until we see the
A few days later, in Tchaourou,
there was another political meeting. Three members of Benin's parliament,
including the deputy president, Jerome Sacca Kina, came to town to thank local
people for their support in recent elections. Hundreds of people crowded into
the mayor's dim hall to listen, the sombre elders at the front, dressed in a
kaleidoscope of lurid colours, the rowdies at the back. Speeches were punctuated
by drumbeats, songs, dances and shouting. The official language of Benin is
French but Kina achieved the remarkable feat of making his audience laugh in two
of the local languages, Dendi and Idatcha. At the end of the meeting, in a
reverse of the up-chain movement of money in the US political process, the MPs
handed out money-stuffed envelopes the colour of the Financial Times to local
worthies, to retain their backing.
Kina moved outside towards his
car through a throng of excited townspeople. He stopped at the door for a brief
word with the Guardian.
A former agriculture minister, he
was, it turned out, going to Cancun.
"I'm going to tell the
people in Mexico that I'm a representative of Beninois farmers, to tell them
they should reject subsidies. The struggle against poverty in developing
countries is difficult because the western countries don't buy our products at a
fair price. America is the first power in the world, but if they don't listen to
us, one day, they will lose their power. We've got to tell them that we
There is little that is
"natural" or "traditional" about cotton production in either
west Texas or Benin.
The original cotton boom in
south-eastern US, facilitated by the use of African slave labour, which included
a large number of Beninois, happened long before the Lubbock area began to be
settled by Europeans at the end of the 19th century. Large-scale cultivation of
cotton as a cash crop in Benin only began under the French colonial regime.
In the US, cotton production is a
showcase of technology. A single farmer can comfortably handle thousands of
hectares with just a few hired hands. East of Bula, near Petersburg, the Hopper
family, father Ron and son RN, watched over a crop of 600 hectares of cotton,
much of it being irrigated by computer-controlled pivots, metal arms a quarter
of a mile long that slowly rotate from wellheads, dribbling water in a great
circle. All the cotton is genetically modified, to secrete an insecticide in its
leaves and to be resistant to a particular kind of weedkiller. The seed is
treated with pesticide. The crop will be sprayed at least twice with herbicides,
treated with a chemical to increase cotton yield, and given manure and nitrogen
as fertiliser. If there is no frost, the entire crop will be sprayed with
defoliant to kill it so that the mechanical harvesters known as strippers have
nothing left to gather but the white tufts of cotton. After the harvest a final
chemical will be sprayed on the fields to encourage the cotton stalks to rot
back into the soil.
The Beninois are proud of the
quality of their hand-grown, hand-picked cotton. But they also drench their
fields in chemicals, mainly against insects. If Idrissou is anything to go by,
they would also like to mechanise. But they can't afford it. Where Dewitt Tiller
used Mexican labour, Idrissou turns to child labour from neighbouring Burkina
When we visited his farm two
boys, one aged 10, the other 14, were toiling between the cotton rows, bent
double in the heat, hacking at the soil with heavy, short-handled hoes. Idrissou
would rather have a machine to do that. Indeed, the Beninois government would
like to be able to subsidise its farmers, too. It tried last year, but it
couldn't really afford even the tiny subsidy it offered, and the IMF and World
Bank warned it off.
Ultimately, the dispute over
subsidies is not about African farmers being especially virtuous, but about them
being especially poor, and being denied the chance that the rich countries once
had to use agriculture to set them on the path to prosperity. Farmers' savings
once provided the US and Europe with the money to lend to entrepreneurs and
industrialists to move their societies on to the next stage of development. It
worked: the US and Europeans now have other jobs to go to. The Africans do not,
yet. And without subsidies, arithmetic and climate would put Benin cotton
clearly ahead of west Texas. Hi-tech farming is expensive. The Hoppers spend
about $860 per hectare, and get about 825 kilos of cotton back. Idrissou spends
about $380 per hectare, and gets about 1,400 kilos.
"If cotton were not
subsidised, American cotton farmers could farm something else - cattle, for
instance. But we only have cotton," said Jocelyn NËnËhidini, a spokesman
for Benin's soon-to-be-privatised state cotton company, Sonapra. "They are
destroying our only product. We have nothing else."
Sometimes, the west Texans are
defiant. Sometimes, it is as if they sense a coming change, a life beyond
As you drive west towards Bula
from Lubbock and it becomes drier, more and more you see the waving dry
grassland of former fields turned over to the conservation reserve programme,
the CRP, which pays farmers $75 a hectare to restore the steppe that the first
Spanish explorers saw in the 16th century. When you switch the engine off, you
can hear the waving heads of lovegrass hiss in the wind. Tiller has CRP land,
and has seen deer for the first time, and porcupines, raccoons, wild hogs and
Ron Hopper, who has farmed land
near Petersburg for 35 years, reckoned that even with no change in subsidies,
falling water levels in the aquifer he relies on, as well as falling prices,
would make it harder to grow cotton, and folk would turn more to cattle
"I believe cotton will be
grown here for some years yet, but to a lesser degree than it is
presently," said Hopper. "Land always seeks its highest and best
purpose. What we've talked about today shows you can make a pretty strong
argument for the highest and best purpose of this land becoming something other
than cotton production over the next 10 years.
"If you think about the word
'yield', it means something must submit. No man stands toe to toe with mother
nature. We are not trying to beat up someone overseas here. In one sense we may
have more in common with these people in Africa than their government and our
government will ever have."
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