Snapshots of Life in Benin: The Seamstress

March 7, 2017

Snapshots of Benin; My experience with local seamstress and how she blessed me; Provocative Joy; Cotonou, Benin

Finding New Adventures

Over the past few months I’ve written about why I never want to become a person who is fine with the status quo. I want to be someone who swims upstream and whose life reflects the beliefs I hold about the world around me.

But swimming upstream looks different at various stages of life. In August 2014, it looked like leaving full-time jobs behind and buying plane tickets to meet the Africa Mercy in the Canary Islands. Last year, it looked like wrapping my hair and becoming a more active part of my community. Now, it looks like beating depression and meeting new people.

I’m realizing that every new, exciting thing becomes normal after awhile.

The Latest adventure

A few weeks ago, I wrote about all the things I want to do in Benin before I leave in June. I have a bucket list to remind me to seize the day and stop being such a homebody all the time.

One of the listed items is getting a tailored African dress and I can officially cross it off!

I visited a local tailor, had measurements taken, and handed over fabric for this green and brown sheath dress I picked off Pinterest.

Snapshots of Benin: Unabashed Style

Men and women here in Benin know how to dress. They are stylish with a bright, collective personality that refuses to be toned down. They are always dressed up with matching suits and full-length patterned dresses.

Most of these colorful statement pieces are made by local tailors and seamstresses on porches and front stoops and open terraces. Our seamstress is no exception. She has several machines under the front porch and several apprentice girls helping.

We went to pick up our finished pieces. I had a dress and a top made, and they came out perfect. Nevermind that the top shows my bellybutton and wouldn’t be acceptable anywhere besides a festival or the beach (it took me a week to admit this because it’s really cute). I brought along a pair of jeans I got from Goodwill over Christmas break to have her hem them. They were great quality but were way too long.

I expected to leave them with her until next time. We were about to pay and hop back on the motorcycle taxis. That’s not what happened.

A different Kind of Experience

I’ve never had a tailor make something for me the same day. My experiences both at home and here in Benin have always involved waiting. So when I handed the jeans to Maryvonne, I expected a few questions about length, but I didn’t expect her to take scissors and immediately make a snip.

We had to get back to the ship. My friend was going to be late for a fitness class she was leading, and I had a small group soon. Do you know that feeling you get when you are starting to run late because of someone else but, for whatever reason, you feel stuck? Maybe stuck in traffic, or stuck in line, or stuck in an overdue meeting. I get anxious inside. First just a little, but it builds exponentially. Especially when you’re affecting someone else’s schedule.

Have you heard of hot climate cultures versus cold climate cultures?  The differences manifest in many different ways, but one big difference is that cold climate cultures tend to be more focused on getting things done quickly so that they can move on to the next task. Hot climate cultures tend to let certain tasks fall behind if it will benefit the relationship at hand.

If this is something that you’d like to learn more about, Sarah Lanier’s book Foreign to Familiar is easy, short, and fantastic (affiliate link).

So as she is cutting my pants, I’m thinking about how we can tell her not to worry; just keep the pants and we’ll come back for them. Or maybe my friend can just go ahead without me. We were just planning a quick visit to pick up our garments and go. Now she had already started hemming, and hadn’t accepted our payment yet. It looked like we would just need to wait.

Snapshots of Benin:My Seamstress; Provocative Joy
This dress is waiting for it’s owner; a flash of bright in an otherwise drab cement room.

It was in the waiting that I was blessed.

Whatever she was doing looked wrong. That’s not how I would hem pants. I think she’s doing it wrong, but it was too late. I’m not sure how to explain what she did. All I know is that a few moments later my jeans looked good as new. Gladys, one of her apprentices, stands off to the side fanning the old-fashioned iron filled with coals to keep it hot. Just a moment later, they look brand new, pressed flat, and I’m in awe.

Snapshots of Benin: My Seamstress; Provocative Joy
Maryvonne is getting to work on my jeans. Gladys is standing in the back fanning the iron to keep it hot.

She did that so fast and skillfully. I just had to relax and chill out.

She hands them to me and then made my day. She tells me there is no charge! Any tailor in my city would charge at least $5-$15 to hem pants, and I would definitely have to wait for them. Why did she do that? What purpose did it serve? She had already been so sweet to us, given us good prices and hemmed my jeans on the spot in the first place.

I don’t know, but it just really blessed me.

Awestruck and humbled

The experience of sitting on a hot porch on a dusty, rocky road, getting kisses by this woman with whom we can’t communicate without our friend’s help, getting my jeans hemmed on the spot with no charge, and seeing daily life pass us by from the porch was a priceless memory from Benin.

I’ve been made awestruck again and again when I experience local life off the ship. It’s these little experiences that teach me something. They show me that there is a different way of life out there. Not everyone does things the same way they do in my country. These people surprise me and break the mold I’ve put them in. I’ve met many who make me look so selfish and short-sighted.

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3 Comments
    1. I really enjoyed reading this. The way you describe your first reaction – feeling anxious, stressed and annoyed – and then your pleasant surprise and what you learnt in the process, also your take on fashion and style in Benin, everything was really interesting and well written! Thank you for a good piece!

    1. This is such a lovely story, Ivanna! I very much enjoyed reading about this woman’s act of kindness. I’ve heard about the concept of “hot climate” and “cold climate” cultures over the years, and living in a big northeastern US city, I definitely embody the cold climate culture. One of the biggest challenges for me when I travel is forcing myself to slow down and let things happen at their own pace, as you captured here so beautifully.

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