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Navigating Identities in Benin

Peace Corps’ ICDEIA approach seeks to reflect and support the diversity of the United States through its staff and Volunteers, who represent a broad collection of social identities, including race, ethnicity, color, national origin, disability, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, religion, marital status, and socioeconomic status, among others.

How might a Volunteer’s social identities impact their service?

The information below provides additional context about how different social identity groups may experience service and what types of ICDEIA-related support you can expect from the Peace Corps.

Accessibility and disability considerations

There are many people in Benin with both visible and invisible disabilities, who have widely varying opportunities for education, participation in daily life, and sharing their perspectives with others.

Outside of a few schools for people with specific disabilities, special education services in public schools are generally limited to the efforts of some individual teachers who do their best with little or no training in this area, limited resources, and large classes. There is little knowledge or discussion of neurodivergence.

Volunteers with disabilities in Benin may face challenges with, among others, limited infrastructure and lack of accessible or inclusive spaces. Volunteers with disabilities will find many opportunities to model their ability to participate in daily life, as well as opportunities to educate others if they choose to do so.

All Volunteers will find opportunities to model inclusion of people with disabilities.

Gender role considerations

Volunteers in Benin find that gender is a primary social and cultural identity that impacts their service and that they explore and discuss—from polygamous relationships to literacy gaps across gender. Traditional binary gender norms are strongly defined in Benin, with girls and women having many traditional responsibilities in caring for the home as well as selling in the market and other “women’s work.” Both men and women farm, although they may grow different crops or have different roles in farming. Some Volunteers find the traditional gender roles challenging or frustrating to navigate. There are many opportunities to model behavior that challenges some of these norms, like showing that men can cook.

It is atypical for women to live independently from their families in rural communities in Benin, which is one reason Volunteers are connected to a respected family in their community as a host family—even though they do not live in the same house. This gives the Volunteers a family structure to be part of within the community.

Many workplaces, including schools, are male dominated and some Volunteers who identify or present as women are the only teacher identifying or presenting as a woman at their school. Many have found that having counterparts and colleagues that are men opens an opportunity to have them as an ally in gender awareness and equitable practices. With the Peace Corps training on gender and the Volunteer’s collaboration, the counterpart can be a sustainable agent of change regarding gender attitudes in their community. Gender equity programming, and considering projects through a gender lens, is a key aspect of service in all sectors in Benin.

Cultural norms around body image and ideal body types, and talking about bodies, can be challenging to navigate for Americans. Having a full figure is a sign of wealth and has been considered desirable for men and women in traditional Beninese culture, although perceptions are changing. Thin Volunteers (of all genders) may be told they are too skinny, while larger Volunteers may be told they are fat, which is intended as a compliment. Weight gain or loss is noticed and discussed openly, and “tu as bien grossi” (you have gained weight) is a frequent compliment, which goes unappreciated by many Volunteers.

It is unusual in rural communities to engage in friendships with members of other genders, so it is culturally inappropriate for a Volunteer identifying as a woman to entertain a Beninese man (or men) alone in her home. Her community is likely to view such a situation as a romantic or sexual relationship.

Volunteers identifying or presenting as women learn to expect questions on marital status, kids, and their sex life, as well as marriage proposals. They develop strategies to respond to this unwanted attention, usually by joking.

"Address concerns with your Aunties and Mamas in your community and try to understand the local norms and how men address women. Men might think because you're not from their culture that they can be more lenient, but you can refuse to engage with disrespectful men in a respectful way. Trust your fellow women and learn how to address this behavior in a culturally appropriate way."
"Being a woman in Benin can be incredibly frustrating at times. Catcalling and impromptu marriage proposals are the norm for Volunteers. While men’s efforts are often light-hearted, the jokes tend to get old."
"As a female Volunteer, it is very easy to connect with women in my community. They are all very welcoming and serve as great allies."
"Men may talk to you in a way that you’re not used to and that may be very off-putting. It’s okay to voice when you’re being disrespected."

LGBTQI+ considerations

While people in Benin may be generally tolerant, people in the LGBTQI+ community in Benin continue to face widespread persecution and are rarely open about their sexuality. Just as in the U.S., there will be varying degrees of tolerance and acceptance, but in general many Beninese people have negative assumptions about members of the LGBTQI+ community.

Generally speaking, in the rural towns and villages where Volunteers work and live, there is limited experience with and limited acceptance of same-sex relationships, as well as limited understanding of expressions of gender identities other than binary and cisgender.

There are laws in Benin that target certain acts with individuals of the same sex, and other laws are ambiguous and can be (and have been) interpreted as anti-LGBTQI+.

LGBTQI+ Volunteers in Benin will need to be mindful of cultural norms and laws, and are advised to consult with staff and spend time getting to know their host communities in order to understand the safety and integration implications before deciding if or how to approach discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in their communities. Staff and current Volunteers will address this topic during pre-service training and identify support mechanisms for Volunteers.

Generally speaking, Volunteers report that they are able to identify support outside of their host communities from other Volunteers and Peace Corps staff, and that serving as an LGBTQI+ Volunteer offers many opportunities for self-awareness and appreciation.

“I try to avoid any questions concerning sexuality. And if the discussion of marriage comes up it’s easiest to just play into the heteronormative sentiment. It’ll make your interactions in your community easier, especially for women.”
“I have a brother who is LGBTQI+ and I avoid discussing this because it might change my village's perception of me and could also affect my work.”
“Suppressing who you are and/or how you talk about yourself and/or others in your life can be a heavy burden to carry alone. So be sure you develop effective and positive coping strategies.”
“Be an ally by being there for the person, however they want you to be present or help.”
“I never bring this up ever especially not in any personal capacity.”
“Life in the village is very conservative, and I can’t see a way to be honest with your sexuality without affecting your work.”
“It’s something that’s difficult because, of course, it’s a part of my identity. But by joining the Peace Corps you kind of have to decide you’re not going into the village to try to change the ways of thinking, or make some drastic cultural change. When people in my village do talk about it, I’m not there to argue with them. I can only say ‘Oh in the U.S. this is something that’s normal. And if they’re like, ‘Oh that’s weird,’ or ‘That’s gross,’ or ‘I don’t like that,’ you can only be like ‘Okay, it’s just a different culture.’ And that’s difficult. You find yourself reaching out to other Volunteers or friends back home to talk about it.”

Racial and ethnic diversity considerations

In spite of Benin’s history, a fair amount of the population in Benin has a set perception that U.S. Americans are White. Volunteers who are not perceived to be White often face questions such as, “Where are you really from?” or “Are you really American?” etc. Volunteers of all races have an opportunity to teach Beninese people about the diversity of the U.S.

Asian American and Pacific Islander Volunteers in Benin: Volunteers of Asian descent may not be viewed as American in Benin. It is common for people of Asian descent to be referred to as “Chinese” and be called “Chinois/Chinoise” as well as being greeted with “Ni hao.” Micro-aggressions around martial arts abilities or language/accent may be common. Similarly, American Volunteers of South Asian descent may be assumed to be a part of the Peuhl ethnic group or assumed to be mixed race.

Black Volunteers in Benin: Some Black/African American Volunteers find they are presumed to be Beninese, while others are presumed to be from other countries in Africa. Light-skinned Black/African Americans may find that they are perceived to be White. Volunteers perceived to be Black/African American may receive less unwanted attention as compared to other Volunteers, but unwanted attention as a whole generally affects all Volunteers and their service. There also may be a greater expectation of Black/African American Volunteers to speak fluent French and local languages, and to understand complex and deep-rooted cultural norms, activities, jokes, etc., including conservative standards around dress and hair—things that may not be expected of Americans of other races. Local people may not believe that you are American or may often ask where your family is from. At the same time, Black/African American Volunteers may find it comforting to be surrounded by people who look like them, and that learning about Beninese history feels like a homecoming.

Latinx/Hispanic Volunteers: Most Beninese people are not aware of Hispanic/Latinx communities in the United States and categorize Hispanic/Latinx Volunteers by their perceived race. It can be difficult to explain the concept of being Mexican-American, for example, and community members may understand this to mean that a Volunteer is from Mexico. Volunteers who speak Spanish may find that community members are interested in Spanish, as Spanish is one of the foreign languages taught in Benin and many people follow Spanish football (soccer) leagues.

White Volunteers: White Volunteers will likely experience privilege in many ways. Navigating this and being an ally to Volunteers and local people who may not be treated in the same way will be important as a Volunteer. One such privilege may be that you are assumed to be U.S. American, while many of your fellow Volunteers of color may experience the contrary. At the same time, White Volunteers may stand out more and receive different types of unwanted attention more often because of this aspect of their identity.

“Be prepared to explain your background and the history of slavery [in the U.S.] so that people can understand that Black Americans exist. It’s a good [intercultural] opportunity and you could make the experience of a future Volunteer better.”
“White Volunteers also have an opportunity to change the perception that the U.S. is only White people. We are a diverse nation and Volunteers should feel empowered to change and not perpetuate these stereotypes.”
“If you are a person of color (POC) Volunteer, you will answer the ‘what are you?’ question countless times. Be patient and persistent! Know that your work has value and will make a long-term impact on the understanding of diversity in the U.S.”
“You might have to adjust your behavior and actions, but that doesn’t mean changing who you are.”
“There is an enormous amount of White privilege.”
“Being a person of color will bring extra attention to you, because you don’t look like a ‘typical American,’ so sometimes people won’t treat you with the same respect as a White Volunteer.”
“Be prepared to question yourself and your values, but that is part of growing. That’s how you become a better version of you to advocate for others.”

A perspective on Benin’s history

The history of Benin (formerly Dahomey) is complex and fascinating. The problematic history around the enslavement, trade, and trafficking of people of certain ethnic groups in and around Dahomey to the Americas was at its height from the second half of the 17th century to the 1840s. This, along with the complicity and active engagement of other ethnic groups with the Portuguese and other European traffickers, may be distressing and difficult to comprehend from an American perspective. The study of the slave trade from an American lens does not typically provide insight from the African perspective or examine the impact on the African port nation. While the slave trade had largely ended by the end of the 19th century, its legacy continues to impact social realities and dynamics. It may also impact Volunteers during service and hold different impacts based on the Volunteers’ visible and perceived racial identity. Among the Beninese population, there are varying degrees of awareness of this history or of the impact in the United States. The 2022 Hollywood movie, The Woman King, highlighted and glorified some aspects of Benin’s history while glossing over this issue and others; it was very popular with some audiences in Benin, and very upsetting to others. Articles like “An African Country Reckons with its History of Selling Slaves” (Washington Post, 2018) offer perspectives on the complexity of Benin’s history and the ongoing efforts of some in Benin to come to terms with that history.

Volunteers draw on their competencies in ICDEIA (intercultural competence, diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility), as well as their emotional agility as they engage in continual learning to seek to understand DEIA history, issues, and impacts within Benin’s context. Volunteers of all races have found opportunities during their service to share about the history of the United States to deepen the understanding of people in their Beninese communities, as well as sharing what they learn about Benin’s history with their communities in the United States, including sharing about the difficult history that links the two countries.

Age considerations

In Benin, elders are respected and have authority. Volunteers who are older (or are perceived to be older) are automatically given a certain level of respect. Community members and colleagues may assume that an older Volunteer is an expert in his or her field, which can have both positive and negative impacts. This can be challenging for Volunteers as they often feel like novices in their new environments. In settings such as schools, being older can be an advantage compared to Volunteers in their early twenties, who may discover that some of their students are older than them, and may find it challenging to maintain professional boundaries with, and be respected by, their older students. On the other hand, because elders are so respected in Benin, it can be harder to move past the formalities with children in the village, and it may be harder for older Volunteers to play or interact with them. Volunteers who are parents and have raised children will find that this gives them something in common with most adults around them and helps community members connect with them.

Within a Volunteer cohort, most or all other Volunteers may be significantly younger, which can make it difficult to integrate into the group initially. Some older Volunteers find that younger Volunteers initially seek parent-like emotional support from them, which may be challenging to give when they themselves are overwhelmed and feeling isolated. Close ties and support networks may develop with other older Volunteers, and with younger Volunteers as well.

It is important to be aware that living conditions in Benin are basic. Medical services are provided by Peace Corps; Peace Corps medical officers provide in-person services at the Peace Corps office in the capital and are readily available by phone to Volunteers in their communities.

“Within my cohort I initially found it isolating being a Volunteer who is older than the group. I had never thought of myself as old, and then suddenly I was in a cohort full of ‘peers’ who were 20+ years younger than me, and I was the age of their parents. But some of them were great about including me and being genuinely interested in getting to know me, and eventually I made wonderful friends.”
“I’ve been reading about ‘reverse mentoring’—having a younger person be your mentor. After developing deep friendships with people of many different ages, both in my host community and in my cohort, I really believe in that concept because I have learned so much from their perspectives.”
“Some are impressed with our stamina. I love having experience to share of having a child. I have multiple perspectives—of being young, being successful, and having a child the same age as other Volunteers.”

Religious considerations

Benin is a religiously diverse country; many different sects of Christianity, Islam, and vodoun are practiced peacefully all over Benin. Christianity is more common in the south and Islam in the north, and there is a rich culture of various animist/vodoun practices throughout the country, often practiced in conjunction with another faith. Multiple religions exist side by side in most communities; there is a strong spirit of mutual respect and co-existence, and marriage across religious differences is generally acceptable. Benin’s constitution protects freedom of religion, and community leaders tend to promote religious freedom. A prominent mural celebrating religious co-existence was commissioned by the government and was unveiled in Cotonou in 2023.

Benin’s population is estimated to be 52% Christian, 25% Muslim, 18% Animist/Vodoun, and 5% “other.” Over half of the Christians in Benin are Catholic, with other common denominations including Celestial Christians (a church founded in Benin), Baptists, Methodists, Assemblies of God, Pentecostals, Seventh-day Adventists, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Rosicrucians, Eckankar, and Unification Church. Most Muslims in Benin are Sunni.

It is often not important to Beninese people which religion you practice, just that you do practice/believe in some kind of God. Lack of religious affiliation is not common; some non-religious Volunteers find it challenging to explain their lack of belief, while others choose to say that they are practicing their spirituality in private at home. Some Volunteers, including those who are religious and who are not, end up choosing to regularly attend religious services as a way to integrate into their communities—this might be rotating to visit different religious services with different colleagues, neighbors, and friends, or choosing to accompany someone to regularly attend one denomination. Aside from attending regular weekly services, attending religious gatherings and celebrations can also be great ways to integrate into your community.

“My [community] is in the middle of the country where Christianity, Islam, and voodoo intersect. It is really incredible to watch these three cultures and faiths interact and practice with one another.”
“There isn't a strong distinction between church and state like we have in the U.S.—people are very open about their religious beliefs and will incorporate this into not only their daily lives but in the work they do and how they approach their work activities.”
“Religion is extremely important in Benin. However, it is not going to hinder your service if you do not participate or follow it. You might get some critical comments and questions as to why.”
“My strategy as an agnostic atheist who really doesn’t like going to church: ‘Yeah, I don’t go to church because religion is very personal to me and I like to explore my relationship with God in private.’”
“Attending church is a great way to integrate into your community. I am someone who doesn’t believe in church, but I go for integration purposes and it feels good.”
“There are people in the community that don’t go to church. If you don’t want to, don’t go.”
“I use church time to meditate and reflect on how I am adapting and living.”
“While people here are open and have no problem with my religious beliefs, it does get lonely at times not having a religious community to interact with.”

Considerations for Volunteer couples

The Peace Corps works to foster safe and productive assignments for same-sex couples; due to the ambiguous laws in Benin that can be interpreted to be anti-LGBTQI+, same-sex couples are not placed by Peace Corps in Benin.

Heterosexual couples who are accepted to serve together in Benin each serve in a different sector (health, agriculture, or education), and find that having this connection to two different workplaces offers unique insights into a community.

During the 12-week pre-service training, couples live and train in separate villages, each living with their own host family, seeing each other once a week for all-sector training days and on weekends. Couples have found that although this is challenging, it has facilitated their language learning as well as getting to know other Volunteers in the cohort and members of the community. Once in their permanent community, couples live in the same house and work in the same community.

Going through the Peace Corps experience as a couple poses unique opportunities and challenges, and success requires trust, confidence, and communication. It can be challenging to balance another person’s ups and downs alongside yours, which may or may not occur at the same moments in service. There will be times when you will both need each other’s support. Understand that you may need to put in an extra effort to be an ally to your partner. Although you will not be able to eliminate many of these challenges for each other, they can be coped with and overcome with time, patience, and a most importantly a good sense of humor. Having a partner and confidante with you during service can also be a privilege that single Volunteers do not have.

Beninese families tend to have traditional binary gender roles and may apply the same expectations to Volunteer couples. This can be trying for a heterosexual couple who may be used to being viewed as equals and is something to discuss before and during service. On the other hand, many Volunteer couples enjoy finding opportunities to quietly model alternate gender roles, such as men cooking. Couples without children may also be questioned heavily about why they do not have children, etc. This is another question that is best to discuss prior and decide as a couple how you will respond to questions like this.

Types of ICDEIA support available in country

Peace Corps Volunteers of diverse identities in Benin report finding support within the community of Volunteers as well as having staff that they feel comfortable talking with about ICDEIA issues. Volunteers in Benin have a Diversity and Inclusion Affinity Group, which serves as a safe space for Volunteers and Trainees of marginalized identities and their allies, in which they share their thoughts and experiences based on their diverse social identities. Peace Corps Benin has a staff-led ICDEIA Equity/Bridge Council that is working to intentionally foster a more inclusive and equitable organizational culture for Volunteers, Trainees, Beninese staff, U.S. staff, and Beninese partners. Staff also meet with Beninese human rights groups to better understand the ICDEIA climate in Benin. Trainings on ICDEIA topics are held regularly for staff, Trainees and Volunteers.