In July 2019, a group of 14 Belgians, four of them with a mental disability, travelled to Benin to meet a group of young Beninese. Arturo, who accompanied them, told Glo.be about this very special journey.
Arturo, young volunteer for the non-profit association "Gratte".
Arturo went to Benin as an accompanying person during a stay organized by the non-profit association "Gratte”.
To enable young people with mental disabilities to undertake a journey that they would not have been able to undertake independently.
The inclusion of inter-cultural encounters and persons with a mental disability created a combination as unusual as it was astonishing! The ingredients: 14 Belgians, four of them with a mental disability and 20 of their Beninese counterparts. The end result was a two-fold deconstruction of prejudices and an unforgettable journey!
Jeremy is responsible for leading and promoting leisure activities for able-bodied and less able-bodied young adults at the non-profit association 'Gratte'. I was quickly won over by his suggestion of travelling to Benin as an "accompanying person" with 'Gratte Brabant Wallon' for 18 days. This was a completely new travel concept for me, as I had never had this kind of experience before. The Gratte project is about everyone being equal. So we did not travel for Yves, Sophie, Arnaud and Vanessa, but rather with them; it was a way of allowing them to make a journey they would not have been able to make independently, but to which they have as much right as anyone else.
As soon as the funds had been raised (through a shoe sale, successful yet rather controversial CAP48 crowdfunding, and a subsidy from the Bureau International Jeunesse), our faith in humanity was restored - or confirmed, depending on the point of view - we set off to the 'Carrefour Jeunesse' in Comè, Benin. This centre sets up inter-cultural exchanges between young Belgians and Beninese.
Young people in Comè are often cruelly lacking in activities and leisure. It's the reason why this centre organises many sporting and cultural activities to entertain and inform. They play music, dance, draw, sew, rap and more, but most importantly... they play football, a sport that once again demonstrated its universal values. And there was no question of the girls not joining in! It was our Belgian Red Flames who saved our nation's honour by winning their match after our crushing defeat against the Beninese Squirrels. But the scores don't really matter, as the ice was broken, so both sides were winners.
More specifically, we took part in a series of activities - unfortunately I can't mention them all - ranging from visits to full immersion, usually accompanied by our Beninese correspondents, who quickly became real friends. During the first activity, a walk in the city, we soon learnt that just a smile can get you a long way. When negotiating at the market, one of the busiest places in the city with a constant hustle and bustle coming from the hundreds of makeshift market stalls, Yves had to acknowledge that it was very different to what he had known until then, and that there were "a lot more people than at Nivelles market".
Live my Life
There were many, even innumerable, surprises, as most of the group had never set foot in Africa before. But the - cultural and other - shocks were cushioned by our Beninese friends, most of whom were used to this type of encounter. We even had the opportunity to spend a 'Live my Life' day at their homes, either alone or in groups of two; this was a very personal experience which left its mark on several people, Belgians and Beninese alike.
I myself was very surprised to discover that the summer theme of the 'Carrefour Jeunesse' was 'Zero Waste', as I had tended to consider an environmentally friendly conscience as a luxury almost exclusively reserved for Westerners. The main activities therefore focused on respect for the environment. During "Demon Bag" events, 100 CFA Francs (€0.15) were given to anyone who collected 60 plastic bags, as sadly hundreds of thousands of this rubbish is strewn across the streets. The intention is excellent and definitely praiseworthy, but it is clearly not enough to remove several decades’ worth of amassed waste. However, this type of operation at least affects children's mentalities, and we must secretly hope that attitudes will change in the future, as with any ecological action by citizens.
Obviously there was no question of leaving the region without visiting the famous Slave Route, a memorial circuit that was one of the main centres for the sale of slaves, at the end of which is a vast arch on the beach, like the gateway to hell symbolising the passage from life to an eternal Calvary. This visit, full of stories of torture, despair and total dehumanisation, sent chills up and down our spines, but we considered it essential, like any duty of remembrance.
Although all these activities were very successful, this was mainly thanks to the members of Carrefour Jeunesse, passionate young adults devoted to leading and raising the awareness of Beninese youth, and to our inter-cultural meetings. One of them told us that he loved accompanying groups of Belgian visitors to the orphanage, a recurrent activity in these programmes. It was scheduled once or twice in our programme, but some of us went back a third and even a fourth time, as our input, which seemed so small to us, seemed huge to the orphans. They live in a very isolated location which is extremely difficult to access and undoubtedly under-subsidised, and we soon realised that these children were as lacking in affection as they were in leisure activities. Painting the walls of their school, carrying them in our arms or on our shoulders or spending a few hours playing games with them seemed to give them more than we could ever have imagined before our first visit.
In just over two weeks, close links were established not only within our rather extraordinary group, but also with our Beninese friends, whether they were counterparts, organisers or just members of Carrefour Jeunesse. Most of our young counterparts, who were aged between 15 and 20, shared their dream of one day coming to visit our country in return. Who will have the opportunity to do this? I hope they all will, as inter-cultural encounters are exceptional. In my opinion, they are every bit as good as traditional tourism, which really only makes sense if we start to show a real interest in the lives of those who host us. Lastly, they allow us to challenge ourselves, to different degrees of course, in the healthiest way possible. The same applies to the inclusion of persons with disabilities. While I described our group as extraordinary earlier, we would in fact have liked our group to be ordinary and representative of a society that no longer puts aside people with disabilities, as is unfortunately still too often the case.
To conclude, I have to admit that if the aim of the Gratte project is to put everyone on an equal footing, in my opinion it failed miserably! Yves, Sophie, Arnaud and Vanessa surpassed us all by bringing a moving, energising and unforgettable dimension to this journey. And for that, I thank them.