Gonzaga-in-Benin Arts and Sciences Course Resources

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The following resources were selected for a possible Philosophy of Culture course based on Benin.

Gonzaga-in-Benin Program Course: Philosophy 495: History, Culture and Development in Benin

Course and Program Overview

This interdisciplinary course and study abroad experience, sponsored by Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, provides an in-depth study of the people, history, and culture of Benin. The program includes a summer online course followed by group travel and service in Benin for two weeks in August of 201_. Readings and course activities will follow the history, politics and culture of Bennin. While our emphasis is on understanding contemporary Benin, we also study the history of the 17th to 19th century Kingdom of Dahomey, colonial and post-colonial history and politics of Dahomey and Benin, and some of the literature, religion, and music of Benin and West Africa.

While in-country we extend our learning and understand of these topics through cultural travel, ongoing service and development projects, and through cultural interactions with our partners in Benin, which include two non-governmental organizations, the Songhai Center and Central Africa Obatu (CAO).

To learn more about the Songhai Center visit their website or read this recent article in The Mercury .

Program and Course Objectives

The Gonzaga-in-Benin Program supports understanding, service, and relationship with the culture and people of Benin. Initially through academic study, we seek to understand contemporary Benin. Through service with our African partners in Benin (The Songhai Center and Central Africa Obatu) we hope to deepen our understanding of the challenges and possibilities of development and to promote health education and well-being in Benin.

The following specific learning objectives guide the current course and program:

1. To understand how the history of Benin, including the Kingdom of Dahomey, the Atlantic slave trade, the colonial and post-colonial experience of Dahomey/Benin, and contemporary global pressures have shaped contemporary Benin.

2. To understand some of the challenges of development in general, in Africa, and in the particular case of Benin.

3. To appreciate the expression of literary, religious, and musical culture in Benin.

4. To experience Beninese culture, society, and politics through service and relationship with our friends and partners in Benin.

Course Syllabus

The program course, "History, Culture, and Development in Benin," is an 8 week, 3 credit interdisciplinary course which is followed by two weeks of in-country service and learning. The course is organized into three parallel units: 1) History and Politics; 2) Human Ecology and Development; 3) Cultural Study. Course activities during the online portion of the course mix reading, student research and reporting, preparation for service projects, and online discussion. Course activities in-country include service, cultural experience and travel to major cultural sites, and group reflection and discussion. For more information about service projects and course structure see below.

1. History and Politics

This unit begins with a study of the Kingdom of Dahomey (Randsborg 2009; Bay 1998) and early European encounters with the Slave coast during and after the slave trade (Coates 2001). After some background on Francophone Africa (Gardiner 1997), students acquire an in-depth overview of the colonial and post-colonial political experience of Benin (Decalo 1997; Magnuson 2005). We visit major historical and culture sites in Southern Benin, including the principle Dahomean Palaces. In Summer 2012 we hope to visit the archeological site of Agongointo, where an underground "town" was discovered in 1998. Additional projects might involve further study of democratization in Africa, additional reading on period of national crisis in 1989-1990, or other topics in Benin history and politics.
  • Randsborg, Klavs, and Inga Merkyte, Editors. Chapters 1-3, "Geography, Soils, and Climate," "Ancient West Africa," "Dahomean Kingdom" Benin Archaeology: The Ancient Kingdoms. Vol. 80. Acta Archaeologica. Oxford: Wiley- Blackwell, 2009.
This excerpt from a two volume report in Acta Archeaeologica reports the work of a Danish archaeological team that did extensive work in Benin in the early 2000s. Excerpts include information about geography and climate, the recently discovered Agongointo caves, a brief history of West Africa, human trade and migration, the Dahomean Kingdom, Abomey and archaeology of the many palaces in the Abomey region.
  • Bay, Edna G. Wives of the Leopard. Charlottsville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 1998.
Edna Bay's historical and cultural anthropology of the social structure and power relationships of the Dahomey court is a standard text in Benin studies. She incorporates previous anthropology in her work, so we also get a sense of the changes and constants in this field in relation to Benin.
  • Coates, Tim. King Guezo of Dahomey 1850-52: The Abolition of the Slave Trade on the West Coast of Africa (Uncovered Editions) . London: The Stationery Office, 2001. (excerpts)
These original documents among members of the Admirality and the British Foreign Office and the Consuls assigned to persuade King Guezo to abandon the slave trade offer insights into both British attitudes and the dynamics of the slave trade and the pre-colonial European politics in West Africa.
  • Gardinier, David E. "The Historical Origins of Francophone Africa." Political Reform in Francophone Africa. editors John F. Clark and David E. Gardinier. Westview Press, 1997. 9-23.
This is a brief political history of the formation of "Francophone Africa".
  • Decalo, Samuel. "Benin: First of the New Democracies." Political Reform in Francophone Africa. editors John F. Clark and David E. Gardinier. Westview Press, 1997. 43-62.
This article focuses on the Kerekou regime and gives a detailed political history of the Benin political crisis of 1989-90.
  • Magnusson, Bruce A. " Democratic Legitimacy in Benin: Institutions and Identity." The Fate of Africa's Democratic Experiments. editors Leonardo A. Villalon and Peter VonDoepp. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2005. 75-96.
Magnusson engages more political theory than political history in this analysis of how democratization actually took place in Benin after 1990. The author gives an institutional analysis of how democratic reforms of the post 1990 constitution took hold in political society in Benin. Benin's "anomolous" experience of democratization is set in context with democratization in other West African post colonial countries.

2. Human Ecology and Development

Students will be introduced to some basic concepts in cultural anthropology (Nanda & Warms 2007; Gellner 1988) and acquainted with archaeological and bio-geographic approaches to human ecology (Reader 1999). The unit then shifts to contemporary issues on development, sampling some recent perspectives and controversies discussed by development economists (Sachs 2005; Easterly 2006; Moyo 2009) and an analysis of Benin's development environment (Biershenk 2009). We use a case study of human trafficking / human migration in Benin to illustrate the challenges of understanding development issues (Howard 2008 & 2011). We also look at recent development projects in Benin, including US AID projects. While in-country we study three ongoing development projects associated with the Gonzaga-in-Benin Program (the Water Project, Health Education at the Songhai Center, and the Zoungbomey Palm Oil Project). Additional projects in this unit could involve more in-depth reading on Benin's economy and recent economic growth, more reading on champions and critics of different forms of aid, or more reading about specific development projects and aid-funded projects underway in Benin.
  • Nanda, Serena, and Richard Warms. Chapter 3, "Doing Cultural Anthropology," Cultural Anthropology. Thompson/Wadsworth, 2007.
This chapter from a Cultural Anthropology textbook introduces students to ethnography and its core concepts, including participant-observation, consultants, and geneologies. It considers historical figures in cultural anthropology such as Franz Boas, Bronislaw Malinowski, recent postmodern and feminist approaches to ethnography. The chapter includes a discussion of an ethnographic study by Charles Brooks of Hare Krishna in India, and an inset article with examples of ethnographic studies that involve comparative work. The chapter ends with some practical considerations for students attempting to write ethnographies.
  • Gellner, Ernest. Chapter 1, "In the Beginning," Plough, Sword, and Book. Chicago: University of Chicago Press , 1988.
In this first chapter of Plough, Sword, and Book, Gellner gives a philosophical account of broad cultural changes that differentiate hunter-gatherer, agrarian, and industrial societies.
  • Reader, John. Africa: A Biography of the Continent. New York: Vintage, 1997. (selected chapters)
This excerpt of 11 chapters (100 pages) from Reader's 800 page study of Africa from physical and social anthropological perspectives covers a broad range of topics. Early chapters (1-4) discuss the formation of Africa as a continent and the effect of its unique physical geography on human survival and culture. Two chapters (24 and 25) address disease and harvests, and the remaining chapters (36-40) provide a historical introduction to the African Slave Trade.
  • Sachs, Jeffrey. Chapter 3, "Why Some Countries Fail to Thrive." The End of Poverty. New York: Penguin, 2005.
This chapter gives an overview of concepts in development economics, as well as an indication of Sach's optimist view of the possibilities of economic development. Students should probably browse other information about Jeffrey Sachs and the UN Millenium Development Goals to develop this perspective.
  • Easterly, William. Chapter 1, "Planners versus Searchers" and Chapter 8, "From Colonialism to Postmodern Imperialism," The White Man's Burden. New York: Penguin, 2006.
Easterly provides an alternative perspective to Sachs. He is critical structural development strategies. Easterly provides a historical overview of the failures of planners who had comprehensive visions of changing Africa. He favors "searchers" -- small scale social entrepreneurship that leaves development decisions in the hands of aid benefactors.
  • Moyo, Dambisa. "Chapter 3: Aid Is Not Working." Dead Aid. Dambisa Moyo. New York: Farrar, Straus and Griroux, 2009.
Another critique of Western aid to Africa. Moyo, an economist, focuses on the distorting effects of dependence on foreign aid and other counterproductive forms of aid. .
  • Bierschenk, Thomas. " Democratization Without Development: Benin 1989-2009." International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society 22.3 (2009): 337-57.
This article links the earlier discussion of democratization to development issues. Biershenk argues against the view that Benin's 1989/90 revolution was simply the fallout of global forces. Bierschenk gives an in-depth analysis of actors and institutions during the revolution. He agrees with others who argue that Benin's democratization has been incomplete and neopatrimonialism and other factors have frustrated its conversion from a rent-based economy to a productive one.
  • Howard, Neil. "Anti- Child Trafficking Policy in Southern Benin: Frustrated State-Making and Peasant Resistance.", 2011.
This and the following article provide a case study of a social problem in contemporary Benin that calls for methods from political science, development studies, and anthropology. This case study is intended to unify the study of these perspectives in the course so far.
  • ---. "Independent Child Migration in Southern Benin: An Ethnographic Challenge to the 'Pathological' Paradigm." Research Workshop on Independent Child and Youth Migrants, Migration DRC, University of Sussex: 2008.

3. Cultural Study

The third track of course readings samples some literature, religion, and music of Benin and West Africa. After an overview on "culture" (Nand and Warms 2007), we read some contemporary fiction and poetry that treats pervasive themes in contemporary West African literary imagination (Akpan 2008; d'Almeida 2009), but we also look at folk literature of Benin (Herskovits 1958; Mama 1998 & 2006). Our study of religion in Benin is focused on voodoun and the integration of Western and indigenous religous practice. We read some anthropology of religion (Lambek 2008) as well as some contemporary literature of voodoun in Benin and Togo (Rosenthal 1998 & 2006; Calder-Hounon 2008). The music of Benin is connected to both its history, to religion, and to contemporary West African music. We learn about the music of trance, talking drums, and contemporary Afro-pop and Jazz (Avorgbedor 2005; Legends of Benin 2009; Monomono 2011). While in-country we have opportunities to hear more about voodoun and to talk with Beninese about religion. We will also sample live and recorded music. Additional student research in this unit could involve the study of folk literature, reading British travel fiction about the bight of Benin, or more in-depth study of religious life in Benin.
  • Nanda, Serena, and Richard Warms. Chapter 4, "The Idea of Culture" Cultural Anthropology. Thompson/Wadsworth, 2007.
This textbook introduction to the idea of culture in anthropology covers a wide range of basic concepts and theories. Major figures and schools of anthropology are associated with specific definitions of culture. There is an emphasis on learned behavior and symbol use in the chapter discussion. Relatively more detailed summaries of structuralist, interpretive, feminist, and marxist approaches to culture are discussed. Case studies are provided of cultural interpretation of 9/11 and a Thai ethnography about house construction. Concepts such as cultural ecology, sociobiology, innovation and diffusion are presented.
  • Akpan, Uwem. "Luxurious Hearses," Say You'Re One of Them. Back Bay Books, 2009.
This story from Uwem Akpan presents an image of religious violence in Nigeria and conveys the importance of group affiliation and group interaction in identity and survival.
  • D'Almeida, Irene Assiba, Editor. A Rain of Words: A Bilingual Anthology of Women's Poetry in Francophone Africa. Translator Janis A. Mayes. Charlottsville: University of Virginia Press, 2009.
The Beninoise and Togolese poets from this anthology include: Berthe-Evelyne Agbo, Rufine Agbo, Dominique Aguessy, Koumealo Anate (Togo), Edwige Araba Aplogan, Thecla G. Benissan, Tanella Boni, Irene Assigba d'Almeida, Colett Houeto, and Hortense Mayaba.
  • Herskovits, Melville J. and Frances S. Dahomean Narrative. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1958.
One of the original and still authoritative ethnographic studies of Benin from the early twentieth century. This excerpt samples the introductory discussion of method and classification of tales, types of actors in tales and narrative forms. Over a dozen tales on "exploits of the gods" and "divinition" are included.
  • Mama, Raouf. Why Monkeys Live in Trees and Other Stories From Benin. Connecticut: Curbstone Press, 2006.
A selection of traditional Beninese folktales.
  • Mama, Rauf. "'The Dance of Poverty' and Beninese Folktales." Journal of Popular Culture 32.2 (1998).
  • Geertz, Clifford. "Religion As a Cultural System." A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Michael Lambek. London: Blackwell, 2008. 57-78.
This is a classic anthropological statement about the nature of relgion, which Asad will critique in the following reading.
  • Asad, Talal. "The Construction of Religion As an Anthropological Category." A Reader in the Anthropology of Religion. Michael Lambek. London: Blackwell, 2008. 110-26.
Talal Asad is a postmodern anthropologist whose critique of Geertz should prompt some good critical discussion.
  • Rosenthal, Judy. "Religious Traditions of the Togo and Benin Ewe." A Handbook of Eweland: The Ewe of Togo and Benin. Benjamin Lawrance. Accra: Woeli Publishing Services, 2005. 183-96.
This descriptive article introduces major concepts and background to understanding forms of vodou among the Ewe. Some history is provided. Orders of vodou, such as Yewe and Gorovodou are distinguished and concepts of divination and personhood discussed.
  • Lovell, Nadia. "Chapter 2: Blood and Place, Persons and Gods." Cord of Blood. Nadia Lovell. London: Pluto Press, 2002. 18-47.
Lovell's work with the Watchi of Southern Togo in the early 90s provides a more recent and in-depth account of the construction of personhood and cosmology in indigenous Watchi vodous. She traces thematic connections among concepts and objects related to "blood," "womb," and "home" in Watchi practice and belief.

  • Caulder-Hounon, Sharon. "A Tribute to Mami Wata Vodun Supreme Chief Daagob Hounon Houna." Sacred Waters: Arts for Mami Wata and Other Divinities in Africa and the Diaspora. Editor Henry John Drewal. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana Univeristy Press, 2008. 190-207.
The author gives a unique account of a specific priest, Daagbo Hounon Houna, in the vodou of Mama Wata, a water deity. The author describes her initiation as a vodou priestess.
  • Avorgbedor, Daniel K. "Musical Traditions of the Ewe and Related Peoples of Togo and Benin." A Handbook of Eweland: The Ewe of Togo and Benin. Benjamin Lawrance. Accra: Woeli Publishing Services, 2005. 197-213.
  • Bata Ensemble Of Pobè, Benin, et al. The World's Musical Traditions, Vol. 8: Yoruba Drums From Benin, West Africa. Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, 1996. CD Audio
  • Gnonnas Pedro et ses Dadjes, et al. Legends of Benin.: Analog Africa, 2009. CD audio
  • Monomono. Give the Beggar a Chance. Tummy Touch, 2011. CD audio
  • DVD on Benin

Course Structure and Service Work

The online portion of the course will be structured around reading and periodic small group online discussion. Students will be asked to research at least one topic beyond the course curriculum. An exam based on accumulated study questions will be given at the end of the online portion of the course, approximately 10 days before departure for Benin.

Along with their reading and discussion, students will also work in teams on preparation for existing and new service work. For Summer 2012, we are preparing for two service activities.

  1. Health Education Service at the Songhai Center -- The primary service of the program to the Songhai Center has been the provision of health education to interns working at the Center. Over the years students have developed original curriculum materials, interpreters, and live skits to teach this material. These events are both informative and fun, with audience participation and cultural exchange. The Songhai Center would like to teach a health curriculum based on the topics and teaching approaches we have been using. Students on the Summer 2012 Health Education teams will explore powerpoint and video, along with preparation of teaching guides to respond to the Songhai Center's service request.
  2. Documentation Work at the Songhai Center -- A new service project we are hoping to launch in Summer 2012 involves documenting some of the outcomes for farm interns who attend the Songhai Center. We are assembling a video and journalism team for this new work which we have been invited to contribute. Documentation work also includes help editing the Songhai website, editing English language documents, translation between French and English and related work.

While in-country, the group will also visit the village of Zoungbomey. The Zoungbomey Palm Oil Project, a joint effort with Central Africa Obatu (CAO) has helped the village acquire equipment related to palm oil production and maintain a village cooperative to manage the enterprise. While this is an active service project, at this point the role of the student group is primarily to express friendship with the village and observe the project.

While in-country, service teams will pursue itineraries related to their work. Our group itinerary includes visits to cultural sites (see Program Brochure, markets, and some unscheduled time. Some early evening time will occasionally be reserved for evening group reflection and discussion.


I would like to acknowledge an extraordinary group of scholars who contributed to this course by volunteering bibliographic sources and advice from their knowledge and experience. This inquiry would not have gotten to this point of development without their scholarly network and their generosity. In particular, thanks to Micah Boyer in anthropology at University of Arizona, Neil Howard in International Development at Oxford, Alice Kang in Political Science and Ethnic Studies at University of Nebraska at Lincoln, and Nathan Hedges in anthropology at University of Virginia.