10 phrases I wish I'd known on my first trip to Benin

Mary (left) and Marcy hanging out in the dorm back in 2005. Vous etes la?

Mary (left) and Marcy hanging out in the dorm back in 2005. Vous etes la?

1) Tu est la? / Vous etes la? (Are you there?) - This phrase is generally used when you happen to see someone hanging out and you just basically want to acknowledge their presence. The anticipated response is Oui. Nothing more, nothing less.

2) Tu as fait un peu? (Have you done a little?) - The first time someone said this to me I felt kind of irritated, because I had been doing more than a little. It’s another one of those phrases used to acknowledge that someone has just come back from doing something or maybe has been working on stuff earlier in the day. The “un peu” doesn’t mean that they think you’ve not accomplished anything or that you are lazy. (They may very well believe that, but this phrase isn’t used as an insult.)

3) Bon Appetit! Means the same thing as it does in the US, but it is not only used by the person who has made food when they present it to the table. The phrase is used as a greeting for people who are eating. So if you walk into a restaurant (particularly a small one), you will greet people who are eating by saying Bon Appetit! It’s spoken in a sing-song way, with the Bon a bit lower, and the Ap-pe in a rising inflection and then ti (the last t is silent) on a downward inflection. I’ve also seen the phrase directed toward babies who are breastfeeding. Makes sense, right?

Enjoying a meal of pate noir at a funeral in Abomey in 2008. Bon appetit!

Enjoying a meal of pate noir at a funeral in Abomey in 2008. Bon appetit!

4) Bon travail! (Literally: Good Working) The phrase is used as a greeting when you encounter someone who is working hard, typically people who are doing some sort of manual labor. I’ve not really heard it used to say “Good Job” for a job well done. This is another way of acknowledging that you may be walking right by someone who is exerting some sort of effort.

5) Cho! (A Fongbe word, means something like “seriously!” or “can you believe that?”) You’ll hear this word sometimes when you listen to a conversation between two Fon speakers, one may be telling a story or relating an experience about something that irritated them. It’s almost like saying “can you believe they did that?”

You posted this photo with my crazy hair? Cho! [Photo taken in 2013 with students/alumni of the University of Abomey-Calavi. From left: Venance, Sandrine, Rose, Jocelyne, Marcy, Gratien, Nadège, Sidonie, Yves, Abed-Nego, Cedrick, Geneviève, Paul]

You posted this photo with my crazy hair? Cho! [Photo taken in 2013 with students/alumni of the University of Abomey-Calavi. From left: Venance, Sandrine, Rose, Jocelyne, Marcy, Gratien, Nadège, Sidonie, Yves, Abed-Nego, Cedrick, Geneviève, Paul]

 

6) Mawo!  You’ll hear this in conversations between Fon speakers, it’s an expression similar to “Jeez” or “Oh God”

7) Petit a petit (Little by little) This expression can be used to celebrate the little wins while acknowledging setbacks. If someone talks about how difficult something was, and that they were only able to get a little bit done, you can say “Petit a petit” so they don’t get discouraged.

We make progress in our studies  petit a petit . Yves working hard with Rachelle and Florence back in 2016.

We make progress in our studies petit a petit. Yves working hard with Rachelle and Florence back in 2016.

 

8) Chauffeur! (Driver) Ok, so I did understand this as the word in French is often used in the US. However, I didn’t realize that people will just yell “Chauffeur!” at the driver if they want to get his attention, or yell at him for his terrible driving. It’s not an insult, it’s just like a title. Well, there may be insults added on “Imbecile, fou, etc” but just calling someone Chauffeur is not super rude. You could also say Monsieur, or Fofo (the Fon word for Uncle).

9) Vous êtes une volontaire? (Are you a volunteer?) - Since Americans are pretty rare in Benin, it is likely that you will be asked if you are a volunteer if you are there for any extended period of time. This typically refers to Peace Corps Volunteers. My response was typically “Non, je suis une étudiante en anthropologie.” 

10) Maman X (X= name of their child) Most adults are referred to as Maman X or Papa X rather than by their first name in everyday conversation. You typically call them the name that relates to the child that you know; default to their eldest child if you don't really know any of their children. Family is very important in Benin, and parenthood is a respected role so it makes sense that once a person becomes a parent their title reflects that status.

Evelyn (right) and her husband Willie were wonderful hosts for our wedding in Ouidah back in 2010. They opened a little buvette called Chez Maman V and we were the first customers. 

Evelyn (right) and her husband Willie were wonderful hosts for our wedding in Ouidah back in 2010. They opened a little buvette called Chez Maman V and we were the first customers.