by Cadet Adria Penatzer
“Have you checked your email?” the Human Resources Assistant for the University of Virginia’s Army ROTC battalion asked me in January of this year. I knew what that question implied. I immediately unvelcroed my ACU breast pocket, removed my iPhone, and hurriedly scanned my inbox for unread messages. I had one unread message with a subject that read “CULP Selection Results.” Euphoria.
I had been selected to participate in Army ROTC’s Cultural Understanding and Language Proficiency program which sends Cadets across the globe, immersing them in foreign cultures and provides leadership training along the way. Where would I be going? Israel? Korea? I opened the email to determine my destination: “CDT Penatzer – Benin.” Benin? Where is Benin? I logged out of my email account and immediately googled “Benin” and discovered I would be traveling to West Africa.
Over the course of the next few months, I read the scant number of webpages with information about Benin and ordered a book from Amazon to assist me in writing my research paper on the country’s political structure, but before I landed in Cotonou, the major port city of Benin, I had no idea what to expect.
The Benin CULP team’s main mission was to teach English to Beninese Cadets at the National Officer Academy in Toffo. We lived in barracks at the Academy for two weeks and provided four hours of daily English instruction Monday through Friday.
However, the English teaching mission was only a piece of the cultural exchange and understanding that took place over the course of our team’s three week stay in Benin. After the thirty-seven day deployment including pre- and post-deployment time spent at Fort Knox, I can say with confidence that I have learned invaluable lessons about myself and my biases. From interacting daily with Beninese Cadets and the locals of Benin, I have vowed to overhaul my standard method of judging people and character.
Judgment has a negative connotation, but we all do it, consciously or unconsciously. People judge everything from brand names, to social norms, to people. Living in Benin was an eye-opening experience in terms of how, if, and when judgment is appropriate.
Relative to the American lifestyle, I perceived that the Beninese live in squalor. Clean and running water is a luxury. Villages consist of huts composed of mud and palm branches. Children run around barefoot on dirt roads and through the dense palm forests with their swollen bellies, evidence of their malnutrition. The locals are perpetually at work with women carrying heavy burdens of water, food, and other merchandise on their heads and often a small child on their back.
As our team traveled along the dirt roads riddled with crater-sized potholes, I looked out the window at these passing images feeling almost guilty of voyeurism. Can I truly understand the Beninese way of life? I thought, “I am seeing their lives, but not living it.” Suddenly, I felt as though I should not be taking pictures; this was not a Disney theme park, these were people’s homes and lives.
When our team visited a village in the city of Bohicon, I confirmed my earlier contemplation that I could not pass judgment on the living conditions of the Beninese and injudiciously determine their level happiness or unhappiness. In the village, our team had the opportunity to witness how some Beninese men blacksmith their own tools. Later, we harmonized with the villagers by beating on small, metallic, hand-made instruments and we interacted with the locals as much as the French-English language barrier allowed.
One event in particular seared itself into my memory and shaped how I viewed the Beninese way of life for the remainder of the deployment. One of the blacksmiths in the village refused to sell a shovel we had just watched him craft with only heat, a hammer, and nails. According to our guide, a Captain in the Beninese Army who graciously provided our team with everything from security to transportation, the blacksmith explained that the shovel represented his livelihood. It was not for sale.
It was around this time when the same blacksmith challenged a few of the male Cadets to a weight-lifting contest using heavy concrete blocks. The blacksmith lived in a tiny hut without solid walls and was shirtless, but he was a proud and friendly man, not to mention a gracious host to allow a group of nearly twenty Americans into his home. From the outside looking in, I would never have known.
Another instance in the city of Ouidah “taught me a lesson” on passing judgment. On a group tour of various sites in the city, we stopped in a small, deserted square which according to our tour guide was frequently used as a place to practice voodoo. In response this statement, I let out an unconscious, “Oh!” betraying my shock and, to be honest, alarm. The tour guide then turned to me, smiled, and practically sighing said, “Oh? Why you say, ‘Oh?’ Westerners always think voodoo is bad thing, used to hurt people. But voodoo is just a religion and used for good. It is just a way of life.” Slightly embarrassed, I realized that I had probably offended this kind woman, who for all I knew might practice voodoo.
In hindsight, the “Oh!” was a consequence of my unfounded assumptions about voodoo which I undoubtedly have picked up from Western portrayals of the practice in movies and short stories. I was ashamed of my ignorance, but I began to recognize how socialization within Western culture was affecting how I perceived Benin and the locals’ way of life.
A second realization then followed the first. One of the precise purposes of CULP deployments is to force Cadets out of their comfort zones and into an unfamiliar environment, freeing them from judging and experiencing foreign cultures through a solely American and Western lens.
Granted, Westerners are far from the only ones to judge other people and cultures relative to the norms of their own society; however, from my conversations with the Benin locals, they openly acknowledge their perception that Americans view Africans as savages and they hope to change that offensive stereotype.
Personally, I am grateful to have participated in the CULP program which helped me to identify how my judgments and perceptions of different societies and cultures were tainted by my familiarity with the American way of life.
I would encourage all Cadets to seek opportunities for CULP deployments, which I am confident through my own experience are instrumental in preparing the U.S. Army’s future officers to function effectively in foreign countries through increasing knowledge of, and respect for, other cultures and people.
FOR MORE PHOTOS OF THE CADETS TRIP TO BENIN, VISIT: