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The view from Mama Houndja’s

In America, cynics populate our newsstands, social media feeds, and many halls of public service, but the right way ahead still lies in the hands of the empathetic, humble, and caring.

Mama Houndja lives about a mile from me in a small cement house that welcomes the narrow northbound dirt road to her village in southern Benin. Two cement rooms are raised above the ground by a few steps and a narrow porch. The village water pump stands nearby, just outside the shadow of an ancient and crooked white tree that bestows plenty of shade and opportunities for climbing and other fun. From the porch of the house you can see beyond a short hedge and Mama Houndja’s mudbrick cooking hut the mix of tin and thatch roofs that crown the mudbrick neighborhood. A banana grove lies beyond the road to the west, punctuated by a few palm trees. To the north grows a small forest, the view to the east taken up by the ascending houses of the village and a kola nut tree.

Noah Nieting
Noah Nieting
The interior of Mama Houndja’s house exudes comfort. The walls are painted pink and blue, but are covered by an eclectic array of posters ranging from the Crucifixion of Christ to a collage of American hip-hop’s biggest stars. The furniture is hardwood with comfy cushions numbering a couch, two chairs, and a coffee table. There is a diploma hanging in the corner above a heap of unused construction wood, woven bags and miscellaneous tools. They recently installed a 21” flat screen that remains covered by a sheet because they do not have cable. It was a gift from Mama’s son Henri, who migrated to Lagos, Nigeria, where money is earned by time, effort, and wages instead of toil, patience, and soil productivity.

Mama is thin with long arms and large, active hands. She has an ever-present joy about her, for even when she’s not smiling there’s a laugh at the ready in most things she says. She works daily in her garden and fields, sells fruit, and attends church three to four times per week. Mama’s garden provides most of her family’s vegetable intake. Sometimes they eat fish, but most of the time it’s just rice or boiled dough with sauce, cooked on their little charcoal stove. Believe it or not, Mama Houndja is one of the better off villagers. Her family doesn’t have much, but they would have even less were Henri not sending some of his wages back from Lagos. Mama’s husband is retired and spends his days on the porch greeting passers-by in his grisly voice and felt hat. Their daughter in-law Fatou, a sandwich vendor and hairdresser, lives with them in the second of two rooms with two small children: Martin is 4, Noélie is 3, and both are bundles of energy and curiosity. Mama also takes care of her 6-year-old grandson Moïse, who landed his family’s joyous genes as he never refuses to tell a joke or make a silly face.

Everyone knows Mama Houndja and her family. It’s not only because she’s the trusted custodian of the village water pump, but her porch and warm welcome are available to all at all times. It doesn’t matter if I’ve been away for two weeks or two hours: Mama Houndja and her husband always greet me enthusiastically and ask me to sit a while. They often give me gifts of bananas or oranges, and I buy them sweet bread when I travel. My local language skills only support short and direct exchanges, but I have never felt more comfortable, at ease, and valued at my work site as I have the many mornings and evenings I have spent at Mama Houndja’s.

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The view from Mama Houndja’s features love, community, family, natural beauty, hard work and resiliency. It also features food insecurity, a lack of public health infrastructure, low agricultural productivity, and no discernable labor market. For many readers who have visited or studied countries with developing economies, such a nuanced image of poverty should come as no surprise. Other readers, however, may have difficulty seeing past economic statistics and the stereotypes we have of the global poor. They may not even have known before that such places as Benin exist.

The title of this piece is borrowed from an essay by David Foster Wallace on the innocence of the average American on 9/11. From his vantage point in Bloomington, Illinois, and more specifically Mrs. Thompson’s house, those who lacked cynicism about the media, politics, and international affairs and only cared for each other were the heroes of 9/11 (in and outside of New York, Pennsylvania, and Washington, respectively). The cynics and self-righteous could neither save the day nor be trusted with cleaning the emotional, physical, and political wreckage. Wallace found that the view from Mrs. Thompson’s of caring people who recognized humanity when they saw it afforded him empathy for those he would have culturally and politically maligned just days before. They also saved lives where terror struck.

Consider again the view from Mama Houndja’s. Benin is among the poorest nations in the world, and my community is certainly average to poor by the country’s standards. The cynics and self-righteous might call it an irredeemable dump (or something more vulgar) or, what is worse, take to Facebook comments sections to defend why a place they know only through stereotypes and assumptions deserves no better descriptor than an irredeemable dump. A culture they’ve never read about, let alone engaged. A history intertwined with theirs they never cared to learn. Shared values of family, hard work, and grit they overlooked. Human dignity they rejected because someone’s poverty was offensive. This is the view from Mama Houndja’s of a widening swath of America.

But cynics aren’t allowed at her house. In fact, they never come to fruition. Like Mrs. Thompson’s 17 years ago, neighbors like Mama Houndja build a world of empathy and resiliency founded in the strength of solidarity, evidenced by the warm welcome of a stranger such as me and all those who pass Mama’s porch. This cannot be a irredeemable dump by any definition.

In America, cynics populate our newsstands, social media feeds, and many halls of public service, but the right way ahead still lies in the hands of the empathetic, humble, and caring. The view from Mama Houndja’s and Mrs. Thompson’s differ insubstantially in this regard, but the distance widens only if we let it.

Cited: Wallace, David Foster. 2005. “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s,” in “Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.” Little, Brown and Co.: New York. Originally printed Oct. 25, 2001, in Rolling Stone.

Noah Nieting is a Bloomington, Minnesota, native serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Benin. The author’s views do not represent those of the Peace Corps.


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