We Benin Benin

Goodness; Part II


Aside from our heretofore reportage on saving the orphans of this world, serendipity kicked into our lives earlier this summer. We are in Benin participating in the 10th anniversary of a local organization that has been responsible for creating micro financed jobs for the women of Porto Novo, Benin’s capital.


There are several major actors in this story. Allow me to set the stage.

Réné Duperé grew up as a street musician in Quebec City. There he hooked up with a street performer named Guy Laliberté. Guy started up this performance troupe called Circus of the Sun, or something like that. René composed the music for several of the shows and apparently did quite well as a result. He then taught music in school for 14 years and decided that he’d done enough.

René’s partner in African development is Elyse Velle. She too, is an alumnus of Cirque de Soleil, having sung with them in Vegas. Paris is now her home; she is hoping to make it big as a chanteuse. Her presence is palpable and her looks alluring. Africa has become her second home and her interest in helping women’s groups advance takes the form of suggestions to improve products, primarily in the domain of food. Elyse adds just the right amount of glamour to PFPN but her hard work and dedication cannot be underestimated.


Sylvie Labelle has been a lifer at Montreal’s City Hall. If there is anyone to thank for anything ever done by their previous administrations, it is likely that it was she who was responsible. Sylvie developed parks and recreational facilities on behalf of the city, mostly in low income sectors. In addition to being the only functioning fonctionaire, she also filled several positions on behalf of the UN, doing development work in under developed countries.


King Augustin

Augustin Bodjrenou is the ‘king’ or tribal chief of a region in eastern Benin. He takes his leadership role very seriously and was determined to move his people forward. King August is a very large, very affable man with a smile and a laugh that starts deep down. I’m told, though, that it’s not a good idea to cross him.







So, René and Sylvie are friends from way back. Upon retiring from his teaching gig and having travelled through much of Africa, he decided to put a project together. Nobody organizes programs from the ground up like Sylvie, so it was logical that he gave her a call. She, with her UN African experience, was on board in a flash. Sylvie meets Augustin, they fall in love and get married. You now have the visionary, the implementor and the local talent to rock and roll.

The project, launched in 2002, has identified groups of women who been been in existence for a minimum of three years, who have started up small businesses. Projet Femmes de Porto-Novo will arrange for them to receive a donation of $600 plus a low interest loan of the same amount. In addition to financing, PFPN provides lessons in basic bookkeeping, literacy courses, marketing, and system operations. The average woman in Benin earns $3.50 per month (no misprint). Those who have succeeded in getting into the program earn $37.50, or ten times that amount. Over 1200 women, representing about 150 micro companies, have benefitted from this organization. There have been only 8 companies since inception who have not continued to be in business after completing the objectives of their first year. Some hobble along; most have made tremendous progress. The most amazing statistic to me, however, is the loan payback rate. Only 100%. These women should be taken out of weaving, food processing, and animal raising and sent to run Goldman-Sachs.

Sylvie, Carole, and Réné review a group’s business plan


I had the good fortune to meet Sylvie this summer at a tech conference held in Griffintown. It was called C2 MTL and featured major league speakers such as Google and IBM VP’s, Francis Ford Coppola, Arriane Huffington and, yes, Guy Laliberté. A dear friend of mine, Natalie Voland, is very friendly with Sylvie. During a break between sessions Nat and I sat with Sylvie and René. Talk turned to travel and I got the rundown as to what they were up to. At that point, Lori and I knew we were going somewhere, probably to Lori’s first choice – Africa. I mentioned that we may be in the area. Sylvie suggested we drop in. Never invite the Burnetts; they show up. As the months passed and the discussions became more serious we had dinner one summer evening at René’s home in Ste. Agathe where we learned more about the project. At that point we committed to the deal. Sylvie and René came to our house for dinner and we finalized our plans. We would attend the 10th anniversary celebration in Benin.

Today a crowd of close to one thousand women gathered at a main intersection, or roundabout, on the streets of Porto Novo. Their colourful garb, infectious attitude and musical chants left an indelible impression on all who they passed. We joined the crowd, Lori clicking wildly, and began a 4 kilometre police escorted march through the streets with banners proclaiming the spectacular success of an organization that started as a grass rooted pipe dream brought to life by hard working, dedicated, savvy and loving individuals. I have written enough negative posts about the hopelessness of all things Africa. Today’s event was the antidote. It’s not easy, it’s frustrating, bureaucracies are a nightmare, but with enough resiliance and perseverance, today demonstrated that anything can be done with effort, imagination, good will and hard work. Augustin, René, and Sylvie probably won’t win the Nobel Prize for their efforts, but they sure as hell deserve one.

The World is a Strange Place (Part 8,653,217)


Lake Ganvié was our tourist destination for the afternoon. Situated about 1 1/2 hours from our residence, our driver Appolinaire (Apo for short), set up the trip and accompanied us on our motor boat tour. Lake Ganvié is home to 37,000 residents of a human nature and countless fish and birds. All, including the aforementioned birds and fish, have their homes on the lake. Their residences (the people, not the birds and fish; pay attention!) were constructed on stilts in the middle of the lake.

Why would anybody choose to live in what amounts to little more than a swamp, one may ask? I assumed that it was because of low property tax – no land value. Wrong. In the early 1700’s, the marauders of choice at the time were the Portuguese. Realizing that the per pound return on human flesh was significantly greater than fish or birds, the colonizers trapped and kidnapped as many natives as possible to sell to the slave trade. To escape, the locals headed to the hills, figuratively speaking. They have remained to this day with few changes of life to way back then. There is electricity in limited supply, a school for children (built on land fill) and the ever present souvenir, church

and pop shop. There are also a few guest hotels built on stilts for those individuals who feel that the odds of contracting malaria needs to be increased.

As we docked on the mainland after the tour, we walked past a couple of dozen saleswomen sitting on the ground selling their still wriggling and flopping wares straight from the bucket. One of the ladies called out to me. I went back; she was laughing and giggling, saying “Mowbeto”, which Made me think, given the advanced spirituality and cogno-psychic understanding that these people have, that she was onto my allergy and was chanting the equivalent of “Want some fire, scarecrow?” Turns out that she found me to be cute and was letting me know that she loved me and wanted to marry me. Some things translate universally. Probably won’t work out though; the thought of our children having gills frightens me.


The diet of the residents at Lake Ganvié is quite diverse. You can eat fish, fish, or for something different, fish. Forget Chicago, this is my kinda town. Lori and I were on Lake Titicaca (enough!) last year. There are several islands constructed from reeds that house families who have been living there since the 1600’s. Why? To escape Pizzaro and the conquistadors who were tracking them down to use as slaves! As they say.. plus ca change….

On Sale Now. www.loriburnett.ca

We returned to our hotel and I had to make yet another choice. There are two items on the menu here which have not changed since our arrival.. chicken, or fish. I am starting to grow feathers. Let’s just say that upon our return later this weekend, our first dinner stop will not be Chalet Bar-B-Q.


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