February 2007

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by Harumi Okochi.
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Republique du Benin
Republic of Benin
Hello, friends.
Spring is early here in Kyushu, Japan. Plum blossoms, early rape flowers, violets, tiny little spring weeds are ready to bloom.

This month, I would like to introduce you my best friend Mitsuko IIjima, who lives in Nagano Prefecture in the center of Honshu Island.
I asked her to write about her recent trip to West Africa.

Please enjoy!


                                                                Mitsuko Iijima


Where is Benin?

 When I heard that our daughter Satoe was getting sent to Benin, West Africa, I had no idea where it was. So my husband and I picked up an Atlas and looked for the country. It is a long , narrow country, the southern tip of which lies on the Gulf of Guinea.   To the west is Nigeria and to the east is Togo.

The map of  Benin
Both Cotonou and Porto-Novo are near the sea, Bight of Benin

  She became a member of JOCV-Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers- in 2005.
This is called “ Seinen Kaigai Kyoryokutai” in Japan. JOCV is like the Peace Corps in the USA. I learned that the Peace Corps was founded after the speech of President Kennedy in 1961. In 1965, four years later
Japan began to send young people abroad, mainly to Asia.
One of the people of merit who started Kyoryokutai in Japan is Mr Ichiro Suetsugu, born in Saga ken.

 If you want to know more about JOCV please see <http//www.jica.go.jp>
Before going to various countries, the members have to get about 70days training; Benin was a colony of France, so the language spoken there is mainly French. Satoe had to study it very hard. She left for Benin in July 2005.

The vessel with many holes held by hands, was seen in various places.

 Twenty years ago, parents started visiting the countries where their sons and daughters work, and every year about 200 people go abroad to see how they get along. And this is why my husband and I decided to go to Africa.

 We left home at 8 a.m., took the high way bus for Shinjuku. At Tokyo City Air Terminal, all the families going to West Africa, Senegal, Benin, and Burkina Faso, gathered together and studied about the countries we were going to visit. We left Narita Airport for Paris by Air France and arrived at Charles de Gaulle at about four in the morning. As our plane for Benin left in the afternoon, we chartered a bus and a very short sightseeing trip in Paris. At two in the afternoon, four of us got on the plane for Cotonou, Benin.

 The above left is a map of Benin. Both Cotonou and Porto-Novo are near the sea and Bight of Benin. The land is very flat except for the northern part of the country. One of the symbols of Benin is a vessel with many holes held by hands. I think the holes represent the problems the country has today.


  We took a taxi and visited the office to say hello to the coordinators who were taking care of the young people from Japan. Mr.Watanabe, who was the first JICA coordinator to come to Benin, said to us, “Please tell to many people in Japan, that in this country, and other countries too, members of Kyoryokutai are working very well in a difficult environment.”

’education Enseignment Secondaire

With the Director of Deducation Enseignement Secondaire and the Yamazaki Family

After an hour’s drive from Cotonou, we arrived at Porto-Novo, where Satoe lived. We brought two big suitcases with us . They were filled with Japanese foods: miso, soysauce, udon, green tea, senbei, nori and so on.  We visited the office where she worked , and got a hearty welcome from the staff there.
We have never shaken hands with so many people in our lives. The Director of DES spoke English, so we could talk with him about our impressions of this country.


This monument means, from this point they (slaves) never got away like fish caught by big birds.

 In Ouidah, Europeans built 5 fortresses to centralize the slave trade .One of them which belonged to Portugal is used as the Museum of Ouidah. I didn’t know much about the trade of slaves till I visited the museum and read a book about it. It was sad to know that not only the Europeans but also the Kings of Abomey made a great profit from the trade of slaves. The kings needed guns to fight against neighboring countries and the people of Europe wanted quite a few laborers to work in the new countries they had conquered.


On the coast of Ouidah, there is a gate called ‘the gate of no return’. It was built by President Soglo in 1994.

The Gate of No Return

From the sixteenth century countless slaves went through the gate, hoping to come back only in spirit, never to return alive. The road leading to the gate is left unpaved, because whenever they see the road covered with red sand, they remember the blood their ancestors shed.. 

The beach of a resort hotel in Ouidah

There is a nice resort hotel near the beach. We stayed there for two days. There was no bathtub in our
bathroom, but we had a hot water shower for the first time in Benin!


The Botanical Garden in Port-Novo

In Porto-Novo, we went to a botanical garden.
 This is a holy tree. Kings used to rest under it when they were mentally exhausted . There were a lot of trees we could not see in Japan. A lady curator explained to us about many plants and herbs used as cures for sickness or injury.


Voodoo temple

 In Benin, Voodoo, Islam, Christianity and other religions are followed and there are not big problems or conflicts among them. We visited one of the Voodoo temples. Luckily we were allowed to take pictures. A priest of Voodoo entered into a dark room and brought a big snake in his hands. The snakes are worshipped as holy animals in Voodoo. He said to Satoe to put it around her neck. She said “Yes” without hesitation and let him do it. He said to me, “How about you?” I answered politely, “ No, thank you”, of course!!


Catholic church

We could see some Catholic churches in Benin. This is the church where pilgrims visiting Dassa Zoume, a sacred place, stop to attend Mass. In DassaZoume, there is a sacred place where the Holy Mother appeared.


Satoe teaching in her classroom

Next to her apartment house, there is a boys’ high school, Lycee Behanzin. She gave extra classes there.
It was after six in the evening and we went to the school to see how she taught the students.
She was teaching physics in French; I could not understand neither physics nor French at all.


The Japanese school Zomahoun founded

 Zomahoun was born in Dassa Zoume, the northern part of Benin. He appeared on TV in Japan. He published two books. With the royalities from the books and with the help of Takeshi, a famous TV personality and director, he has built three elementary schools in the north, of his country and one Japanese school in Cotonou. We visited the school on the last day in Benin. Two young ladies from Japan welcomed us. They said that their students, ranging from teenagers to sixty-year-olds were eager to learn, and that they enjoyed teaching Japanese very much.


Mitsuko Iijima

We came back on December 1,safe and sound. But I was very tired and could not sleep well since then. I was greatly shocked to learn about the gap between the two countries. There was not enough electricity, so in spite of the hot climate, refrigerators and air conditioners were not used in ordinary houses. But in that country, there are a lot of children! A lot of boys and girls eager to learn!

 In Shimoina-gun, Nagano-ken, where I live, the number of students is so small that they have to close schools. We have enough clean water to drink and plenty of food to eat, but when we imagine there are no children, no young people in our villages and towns, our future is not very hopeful.

Thank you, Mitsuko-san.
I know how you feel. We Japanese are eating more than enough. We are living a spoiled life.
But young people like Satoe will save the world. We shall believe that.

Dear friends, I send you love, and hope to see you again next month.

Thank you very much for visiting this page.
I hope you will return next month.
Yours, Harumi Okochi

Proprietress of

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