From Bavaria to Benin. From the very first time Marianne Dötzer visited Benin, as a young women in 1967, she was captivated by this West African country. Together with Alice Sücker, she founded the association "Wema Home" to support education, equal opportunity and environmental protection in this country. While staying at the Schulz Hotel Berlin Wall, Alice Sücker took part in seminars offered by Bengo Engagement Global, an advisory service that supports private organizations in their development cooperation. In the end, the knowledge gained here will benefit the people of Benin.
Marianne, you once said that the biggest misconception concerning development aid is that it’s about imposing our culture on others. What is the better way to go about it?
Marianne: It’s better to listen. Listen to what the people need. And then, jointly with the locals, one can deliberate and devise a plan. But involving locals is absolutely critical.
Alice: At eye level there is still a lot that can be learned. There are many wise people in Benin.
What did you personally learn from the people of Benin?
Marianne: I learned to sit down, stay calm and to accept my counterparts as they are. A saying in Benin suggests that "God has his reasons for creating individuals as they are". I actually tend to be more of a Rumpelstiltskin – always ready to erupt.
The primary focus of your Wema Home association in this West Africa country is capacity building or "helping people to help themselves".
Alice: For us, the right way going forward is to help people realize their own ideas.
Marianne: This encourages individuals to take action and responsibility themselves; they don’t depend on others to get things done.
Has it ever happened that a project you initiated failed?
Marianne: Yes, that has indeed happened. A plantation that we installed, for example, was heavily damaged – intentionally – due to envy. We kept having to touch it up but eventually we had to concede defeat.
So what became of that project?
Alice: In the end, we dismantled everything so we could reuse it for another project.
Many of you projects are geared towards girls and women. Why is support in this area so important?
Marianne: Girls growing up in Benin have very limited opportunities to go to school even though school attendance is compulsory. No one checks this. Boys are given priority and if there is enough money left over girls can also go to school. Another problem is that girls are sent to so-called "uncles" and "aunts" – or married off to old men with money.
Alice: Some of these young women flee from the "uncles" and find shelter in our educational center, where they can also apprentice as a seamstress, weaver, hairdresser, knitter or baker. Very often these are young girls of just nine or ten years of age.
Some 58.000 people in Benin, or about 0.5 percent of the population, carve out a miserable existence as modern slaves. The most often affected segment is children. Among other things, they work as housemaids, at local markets or they are forced into prostitution.
In the 16th century, the Port of Ouidah was the biggest marketplace for slave trade in all of West Africa. It was usually young men who were sold and sent to Brazil, Haiti and the America by colonial Portuguese, British and French traders.
You two have been volunteering work for your association for many years. What motivates you to keep going?
Marianne: There were many times when I thought "Why am I doing this to myself?" And then, of course, there are moments when you know exactly why you carry on.
Can you give me an example?
Marianne: I was in a parked car watching a young boy of about 12. He walked into the middle of the road to stop a bicyclist. The old man in question was transporting a live zebu cow that had been cruelly tied up. The boy said: “Please untie the animal, it’s in pain”. The old man: "That’s none of your business, and anyway, it’s on the way to the slaughterhouse. The boy: "Then at least let it walk there by itself, otherwise I’ll call the police". They argued for some time and finally the old man untied the animal. I was so proud of this boy. I ran to the village chief and to the school principal to tell them that they have a village hero and gave them the details. The principal immediately had all the school classes assemble in the schoolyard. With a loud voice, he told the pupils about what had happened. In the end, he said: "From this day onward, the excuse – "There’s nothing that I can do about it" – shall no longer apply at our elementary school. As you saw, all you need is the will. Even a single pupil can effect change. We are proud of him".
What impelled a young boy to stand up for a cow?
Alice: As part of our Jardin Sacré Project, we teach young people to respect nature, mankind and animals. The young boy in question was practically raised with this sense of responsibility.
Alice: The Jardin Sacré Project is especially close to our hearts. At times, the older generation doesn’t understand this project. That’s why educational work within the local population is so important.
Marianne: The project has been on-going for 18 years. Its beginnings weren’t particularly smooth. But now it’s individuals in their mid-20s – the ones who were first exposed to this project 18 years ago when it was launched – who approach us when they see that a forest is to be cleared. "Please help us to preserve this area". We have thus been able to save 402 hectares of protected forest in various communities of Benin.
How can your association, and thus the people of Benin, be supported?
Alice: We are desperately looking for someone who can help us with the association’s publicity – including its online presence. There are only two of us and we are not particularly Internet-savvy. We found someone to help with our Facebook account but additional support would be welcome. We can only afford to continue our work in Benin if we receive enough donations. That’s why we are grateful for every euro!
A glance into the future – what are the hopes of the people of Benin?
Marianne: People dream of having a regular income so their children can go to school and they have enough money for food and to seek medical help if needed. Benin has no national health insurance.