What I learned at the Afrobarometer Summer School in Benin
This past week I had the pleasure of participating in the 2013 Afrobarometer Summer School, held in Cotonou, Benin and organized by the Institut de Recerche Empirique en Economie Politique (IREEP). The summer school was directed by Leonard Wantchekon and funded by the Afrobarometer Network and the Council for International Teaching and Research at Princeton University. Students came from a number of African countries, most of which are Francophone: Benin, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Madagascar, and Senegal, to name just a few. There were also students from Princeton (and one from NYU).
I arrived on Saturday night, and on Sunday the group of students and instructors went on a tour of four cities in southern Benin. Our first stop was the city of Ouidah. The beauty of the photo notwithstanding, Ouidah is perhaps most famous for its role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade: Ouidah was a point of departure to the Americas for slaves originating from Benin, Ghana, and Nigeria.
The tour ended in the city of Agoué – not a typical tourist destination in Benin, but a place with an interesting and unique historical background. In the mid-nineteenth century, former slaves who were involved in slave revolts in Brazil left Brazil to head back to the African continent, some to the areas from which their families originally hailed. Many “returning” families settled in Benin at Agoué. They had considerable wealth when they settled in Agoué and the wealth in these families persists today but has not spilled over to neighboring populations, much less the rest of the country. A significant part of Leonard Wantchekon’s research agenda studies the long-term social impact of historical events and thus, Leonard had a number of interesting questions about the families that settled in Agoué. One such family was that of the first president of Togo, Sylvanus Olympio.
The following day, I taught a few courses at the IREEP office. There were two groups of students, one taking classes with me and the other taking a day-long intensive course on instrumental variables, taught by Leonard. My morning course focused on ethnic politics. Because the afternoon was open to “Special Topics”, I gave students the opportunity to vote on which topics we would cover; they chose “Protests in Contemporary Africa” and “Same-Sex Politics in Africa.” These options were presented selfishly on my part, as I have ongoing research on both topics and wanted to learn more from these students about experiences in their countries. Their discussion was engaging and illuminating. For example, an interesting fact I learned: in Senegal, a person who engages in same-sex sexual activity can be referred to as “double pousse”, which usually refers to a phone that can have two sim cards (each for a different telecom provider). I couldn’t understand the term’s relevance – so the students explained that it makes no sense to have two of the same company’s sim cards, just like it is puzzling [to them] that people of the same gender would be in a relationship. I mentioned that it was a sign of wealth/importance to have a phone that could use two sim cards, but they insisted that the term was not one of reverence.
When we had half a day to ourselves, a group of us decided to venture into Cotonou to experience the Grand Marché. I haven’t been to a market like it on the African continent (probably a function of my limited travel), but I’d compare it to Namdaemun Market in Seoul. A friend at the summer school who was from Mexico said it was similar to Tepito in Mexico City.
The summer school concluded with a conference on democracy and governance in Africa, during which students presented new research ideas employing analysis of Afrobarometer data. It was particularly exciting to see presentations about data from countries that are new to the Afrobarometer, having been introduced in Round 5. For example, Dr. Emmanuel Esso presented work co-authored with Mpelikan Gerson and Silwé Kaphalo Ségorbah that explored the determinants of vote choice in Côte d’Ivoire. Likewise, Aliou Barry – a student at the Afrobarometer Summer School and a member of parliament in the transitional government in Guinea – presented on the fragile situation there. Only one of the 34 Afrobarometer surveys is still collecting data in the field for Round 5 (Nigeria), but it is expected that fieldwork will be completed soon and there is a whole-continent dissemination conference planned for September in Dakar.
I learned a lot at the summer school, met a great group of the next generation of scholars on African Political Economy, and all in an interesting and “new-to-me” country. It was challenging, however, since I cannot speak French. I had originally hoped to ask and later write about the changes in Benin’s cabinet, but given my utter lack of language ability, the only thing I could make out was from the news – and that was that the president installed a new cabinet the day after I arrived. Many of my students were also limited in their English proficiency, which meant that I relied on bilingual (actually, trilingual at the minimum) students to help translate as I taught. The challenges imposed by language and the recognition that I was missing out on a lot of what is happening on the continent have encouraged me to finally learn French. Then I might enjoy more the promised future visits to students in Senegal, Cameroon, and Guinea.